“City Of Angels” is the perfect capstone for Glee’s middle period. Everything I’ve been saying about this season is here. There’s a boring, bad subplot about the boys rescuing the girl from herself. When the characters aren’t guided by schmaltz, they’re at the mercy of the writers’ easy misanthropy. But the sense of finality brings actual weight to the drama. And the use of Glee’s history drowns out all the noise so that all you can hear is this heartfelt tribute to Cory Monteith. And they say Glee isn’t consistent.
What “The Quarterback” was for some, “City Of Angels” is for me. In my crosstalk with TV Club Editor and reformed Gleek (don’t tell him I said that) Todd VanDerWerff, I admired that episode’s relative restraint but found myself embarrassed just about every time someone tries to put her grief into words. Part of what’s so powerful about “City Of Angels” is that the tribute doesn’t have any dialogue. Yes, the episode starts by invoking Finn, it brings Finn’s parents to Los Angeles, and it even makes a subplot out of Finn’s portrait, but the centerpiece is a three-song tribute that you don’t even know is a tribute until the final number.
What powers the first two songs is finality. This is really it. After Glee’s 100th episode next week, the show is moving to New York full-time. However, that sense of finality doesn’t paper over the Marley subplot or the Throat Explosion rivalry, both of which have their moments—and I mean just moments—and then whimper away. I felt like I was getting a glimpse at an unfinished draft when the Throat Explosion subplot wrapped up with that deflated delivery about “a bully with a moral code.” On the other hand, Ryder and Jake saving Marley—instead of perhaps inspiring her to save herself or giving her a hand rather than going behind her back—is pure final-draft Glee. So is Mercedes telling her, “Don’t ever give up on your dreams, Marley Rose. You’re too good.” Still, I understand the impulses here. Both subplots are Glee staples, and there has to be something going on in competition episodes, because the musical numbers in these episodes are just plot points.
Indeed, before even getting to our heroes, first we have to sit through the competition, “Vacation” by a Latin team if I understand correctly, followed by Throat Explosion’s Mr. Hyde experiment, “Mr. Roboto / Counting Stars.” The thing about these numbers is that they tend to exist simply to eat up screen-time and sell merchandise. Nobody knows or cares about these characters. The best we can hope for is a diverting spectacle. But the last time a performance by the competition mattered, Jonathan Groff sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Quinn delivered a baby, so you never know. Except, it turns out, you do. All that happens during these numbers is Burt and Carole decide to leave early and the New Directions start shaking in their boots, which does not reflect my experience of watching the competition in high school at all, but Lima’s a pretty warped place to grow up.
But then come the first two numbers by, as the announcer is now brazenly calling them, The Nude Erections, and they thrill with the energy of the cast’s last chance. First Blaine sings “More Than A Feeling” to Tina (this after casting Carole as the “big nasty redhead” at his side in “I Love LA”—wouldn’t be Glee without Blaine straightening himself out for a song, no matter how awkward), and then Artie and Sam lead off Neil Diamond’s “America.” There isn’t a lot to these numbers, but they’re moving simply by virtue of this being it. The seniors get their time in the sun, but “America” makes time for just about everyone, excluding the three hot Cheerios Sam recruited so they would have enough members.
Someone more observant than I might be able to put two and two together—the rock songs from a certain period coupled with that significant look Burt shares with Carole when “America” starts. (Oh, yeah, Burt and Carole came back. Easy go, easy come.) It took me until “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” begins. Carole whispers to Burt that they’re singing Finn’s favorite songs. Moments later the sequence starts cutting in footage of Finn from throughout the series. My jaw dropped and my eyes watered both times I watched. In our review of “The Quarterback,” I wrote about how calibrated the episode was, and how wisely the show avoided actual video of the man. “City Of Angels” makes that decision count. And talk about calibration. The clips are short, somewhere between shock and satisfaction, and for every one, we spend time back in the present afterward. Instead of a hodgepodge slideshow, the number is a musical tribute. Nobody has to put anything in words. It’s just the New Directions, led by the seniors, singing Finn’s favorite song in his memory. It’s the best Glee number all year. And it’s the best tribute to Finn and Cory Monteith’s work on this show that I could ask for.
What comes next was always in the cards—or at least since “Here’s What You Missed On Glee” made sure to mention that if Will didn’t win, glee club would be over for real, I mean it this time. The New Directions win second place, and from what we see, the decision makes sense for once. We get no sense of what the whole New Directions group looks like on stage together through any number. “Mr. Roboto / Counting Stars” is shown largely from a distance so that we see an entire ensemble dancing together to create something bigger. “More Than A Feeling,” “America,” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’ve Looking For” are shown close so that we see precisely who is singing which part. Throat Explosion is a team where the New Directions are individual spotlights.
So this is it for the glee club, as Sue has to cancel it due to budget cuts, saying she can’t just play favorites with the teams she likes. “And I do like you, William. That’s why I’m so hard on you.” At this point she unzips her face and Cassandra July steps out, villain-laughing to herself as she crushes a skull in her hand, but Will is already gone. The final scene is an Amadeus riff where Kurt rushes to tell Rachel and Santana the bad news, presumably setting up the big reunion episode next week. That will be the actual finale for McKinley, Lima, and presumably the juniors as well as some of the seniors, but “City Of Angels,” like “Trio,” sets the stage well. If there’s one thing Glee’s good at it, it’s saying goodbye.
- Very in keeping with Glee’s values that “I Love LA,” like “I Love New York” from season two, is a song not just in praise of a city but in denigration of all other cities.
- Things sure worked out for Mercedes! Barring Finn, Glee really has trouble not giving its dreamers everything they want. Which is disappointing for many reasons, but mainly because Finn being lost after high school was the character’s most powerful story.
- Blaine with an oldie but a goodie: “Do none of you read the show choir blogs?”
- Star-studded episode! That’s Marlee Matlin as a judge, speaking of easy misanthropy, and Jackee Harris as another. Meanwhile Pitch Perfect’s Skylar Astin leads Throat Explosion. Best moment: “Give what back? Your talent, because you obviously left that in Ohio.” Then he laughs to himself, and holds up his hand for a high-five from a lackey.
- Rich banter in the hotel room with Burt, Carole, Sam and Tina. Tina apologizes for whining. “That was totally insensitive of me.” Sam asides to Burt, “Tina always does this.”
- Carole: “Every time that they laugh or smile or skip away it feels like my insides are being ripped away.” I have no personal experience with the death of a child, and I think Carole should feel however it is she’s feeling, but experiencing jealousy that other kids didn’t die strikes me as so Ryan Murphy it hurts.
- Sue: “You didn’t lose, William. Game’s just over.” Now there’s a slushie to the face. Never thought I’d say this, but if the kids are going to get everything they want, New York Glee could use someone like Will in the ensemble.