Glee: “The Quarterback” 
B-

Glee: “The Quarterback” 

Brandon Nowalk: I might need a better look at Emma’s “Wait, Am I Callous?” pamphlet, because I’m happy that’s over, and not entirely for the closure, although it’s nice to address the obvious, finally. First-time viewers several decades from now aren’t going to know why everyone’s so sad at the beginning, but Finn has died. Three weeks, prior, actually. (No word on where that leaves us, timeline-wise. Prom at my high school was two weeks before graduation, but let’s not think about it too much.) Now everyone’s back in Lima for a special memorial Mr. Schu is planning. It’s a recipe for an hour of ugly-crying, but the writers pull off something better. For Glee, “The Quarterback” is an honest-to-goodness triumph of restraint.

That’s what first strikes me looking back on “The Quarterback.” No real footage of the recently deceased Cory Monteith, which might have been too much considering the impact of those delicately bookended photos. The episode is peppered with funny jokes and light deliveries. The closest a song comes to milking the emotion is “Seasons Of Love,” and even that is so, well, produced that it doesn’t start draining until Finn’s picture appears. The producers even keep Rachel out of it, and she’s a one-woman stacked deck. In fact, Rachel doesn’t arrive until a good two-thirds of the way through the episode. That’s how calibrated “The Quarterback” is. That control helps the emotional eruptions stand out, which in turn gives weight to the catharsis. It’s always strange to see Glee governed with maturity, but here we are. Monteith’s passing resonates enough that Glee doesn’t need to go “Shooting Star” on us just to land. It’s always been obvious in Glee’s self-deprecating jokes that the producers are aware of criticism, but this is another level entirely. Glee has genuinely learned a lesson.

Sue, as always in times of crisis in this fucked-up universe, is the voice of reason. She immediately knows how to honor Finn: “By not making a self-serving spectacle of our own sadness.” Like every other line in “The Quarterback,” it’s a code that slips past the fourth wall. Glee is declaring its intentions upfront, and it’s awfully defensive. Kurt says it doesn’t matter how Finn died. “I care more about how he lived, and anyone who has a problem with that should remember that he was my brother.” Got that? No criticizing allowed. And even if you were to tease Glee a little, Kitty has already co-opted you. “This is sorta cheesy.” And that bit of cake-eating has nothing on Sue, who rejects Santana’s sage counsel that if she regrets being a bitch to Finn, she could learn a lesson for the future. “I don’t care about that. I don’t care about people,” she replies. “I care about Finn.” Forgive me, but lolwut? It took the first script by all three creators since the second episode of the series, but at last we have the Glee-est sentence that’s ever been uttered, a nonsense contradiction that’s meant to be meaningful in the moment and to justify future callousness.

Now, “The Quarterback” is explicitly about individual grief, and Sue is just one example. She refuses to see a lesson in this, whereas Puck is forced to grow from this experience. That rainbow approach is perfect, and if the individual stories sometimes see Puck and Beiste failing high-school theater together (“You don’t have to be scared to have feelings!”), the majority are in a huddle closer to the top as bench players Burt and Carole absolutely own the stage. I’ve probably gone on too long—I just really wanted to mention Burt and Carole before ceding the floor—so I’m happy to have you here, Todd, because I have a question. It’s been about 525,600 minutes since we’ve heard your thoughts on Glee, and I’m curious: Have you been keeping up? What do you make of “The Quarterback?” And most importantly, do you buy that this is a celebration of life, as Kurt (and the producers) are so insistent?

Todd VanDerWerff: Hey, Brandon. I’m glad to be back, even if it’s for such a sad occasion. I’ve mostly kept up with Glee, though not paying as close of attention as I should have because it fell into “something I have on while I do something else” territory. (That said, I still haven’t seen last week’s episode. I take it from your write-up that there’s no real build-up to Finn’s death in the show’s continuity. That’s an odd choice.) I thought “The Quarterback” was… fine. The scenes that were mostly like a memorial service, a chance for the cast and crew to memorialize Cory Monteith without pushing too far into being utterly maudlin were my favorite bits—well, favorite bits not involving Rachel, who’s used wonderfully here. But every time the show tried to shoehorn in a plot—everybody trying to get their hands on Finn’s jacket, Puck removing the tree from the memorial garden space, Sue being ballast—it felt clunky and unnecessary.

An episode about the death of a beloved cast member is never going to be great TV. The only show that really got close was Newsradio, and even that was interesting more as an examination of the cast’s raw emotions over the death of Phil Hartman than anything else. Yet doing such a thing, particularly in this media-saturated age, is absolutely necessary. A good TV show, particularly a good comedy series, invites the audience into its space every week and asks all of us to become virtual friends with the characters on the show. Thus, when an actor dies and their character must, necessarily, leave the show, too, it’s important to give the audience space to grieve alongside the characters. In my head, the ideal way for Glee to do this would have been a rolling, rotating hour of TV, where all of the characters gathered in the choir room and talked about just what Finn—and by extension, Monteith—meant to them, singing and laughing and crying. Even when it basically sucks, Glee possesses the power to tap into intense emotion via song, and I think something like that could have worked here.

But that wouldn’t have been TV so much as a musical, memorial-service version of Rachel Getting Married, and I suspect the Fox network wouldn’t have liked it. So there’s a plot, and the plot is, like most plots on Glee, pretty dumb. But the stupidity of it is just heightened by being placed up against the real, raw emotions emanating from Burt and Carole or from Rachel’s meek little cry of, “He was my person!” Plus, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan make all sorts of weird choices. I like the restraint you talked about earlier, but they make the very odd decision to turn Santana into surrogate Rachel, when Will is right there. I get that Santana and Finn have a connection, too, and I get that these characters are forever a little self-serving in their emotions (which the show excellently mocked even within this episode), but her connection to him boils down to him being a considerate lover and taking care to make sure no one sees when she’s messed up her pants with some chocolate. It doesn’t really rise to the level of her need to have that jacket at all costs. Hell, I would have even bought Puck as the figure who missed Finn so much he couldn’t go on.

Which brings me to your final question: Was this a celebration of life? Yes and no. The series’ scrupulous avoidance of how Finn died makes sense on one level—have Finn die in the same way Monteith did, and the show opens up a bunch of questions about previous storytelling; have him die in a car accident or something, and it opens a show that never met a moment it couldn’t make teachable up to accusations that it blinked at the most important teachable moment of them all—but it also made everything feel curiously weightless. (As always, the show uses Kurt as a writers’ surrogate. Finn’s life can’t be boiled down just to how he died. Which is true, but that makes it seem like he passed away under even more salacious of circumstances.) So without that ugly conversation, the bulk of the episode ends up being “Finn is dead, and we are sad.” Which is good and necessary but makes for awkward television.

But I think the last third of the episode turns this around, even as it does so many other things I dislike. Puck deciding that he’s going to go join the military because he doesn’t have Finn around to tell him what to do anymore is cheesy, but it basically works as an affirmation of a troubled character trying to use this to find a new direction. The songs are pretty good. Will’s journey toward finally being able to feel his feelings made for a much better spine than the jacket. And Rachel is a heartbreaker. Early on, Carole can’t figure out what it means to be a parent who’s lost a child, how it’s possible to keep waking up even after that happens. And yet here she is, and here Rachel is, and their loss doesn’t make their love disappear. Instead, it ends up frozen in amber.

What did you think of the various plots in the episode, Brandon? And are you as thrown as I am by the fact that Jane Lynch continues to be a cast member on this show? Seriously, I keep watching this thing, and I always expect any given episode to be the one Sue just doesn’t appear in, and then she just leaves entirely.

BN: Not only is Sue on the show and not only did she already leave and come back, but now she’s maneuvered herself into the Iron Throne. I’ll say this, though: Jane Lynch can work a scene. She’s often stuck calling Beiste “the post-op Michael Chiklis,” which is classic “I’m not touching you” Glee, but I do admire the backbone she can supply. “It’s just so pointless. All that potential . . .” I don’t imagine that was easy to say, much less think, about Cory Monteith’s sudden death, but it doesn’t make it any less true. And the fact that Lynch is the first voice in the PSA and voiced similar disappointments in the Emmys tribute only strengthens that spine.

The other performances aren’t nearly as reliable even with better material. The reaction shots, I hate to say, are distracting partly because the actors are working so hard. All that very serious emoting kind of embarrasses me, but then there are the little moments that hit you out of nowhere, like Mercedes trying to keep her whimpering quiet and Kurt staying silent while everyone around him sings.

As for the plots, like I said, I appreciate the approach, giving everyone her own response, but asking Puck to find an honest emotional breaking point and Santana to physically assault Sue, even asking Will to be the avatar of repression and finally breaking down in the final moments of the farewell episode, that’s a little much to ask of this cast in general and in this time in their lives in particular. But even then there are moments of redemption, like the closing sight of Emma holding Will. It’s the most beautiful moment in their relationship since season one, and that includes their proposal and two weddings.

You said that episodes about departing cast members aren’t likely to be great television, and that gets at something that’s been nagging me. “The Quarterback” isn’t nearly as moving, enlightening, or deft as certain episodes about characters who died without their actors. To name a relevant comparison, think of The O.C.’s cascading grief over Marissa. Her mother Julie says the same things Carole says—there’s only so much you can say—but she gets more than one scene to say them, and more importantly, Marissa’s death profoundly affects her behavior. The best friend Summer is just starting college and now everything has changed for her, and she represses her grief until it threatens what she has left. Both of those stories (and those of everyone else) play out over about four episodes in a short season. Glee has always been more standalone, but that doesn’t excuse the dulled impact of cramming all this melodrama in a tiny package.

But there is one recent TV episode where a cast member died that I find extraordinary: The Middle’s “The Map.” Granted the cast member was a supporting character and an elderly woman, but the episode opens with the Heck family driving back from the funeral of their Aunt Ginny. Mom Frankie keeps trying to find the beauty in Aunt Ginny’s life, observing that she looked peaceful in her coffin and she once met Patton. Each memory spins off some subdued banter, naturally, but the scene ends with Frankie defensively shouting everyone down. “The point is she was a nice lady who looked good and died in her sleep and lived a long life and is in a pretty place and met Patton and made a hell of a cheesecake,” she says. “And we’re gonna miss her.” Now, that’s a celebration of life.

Despite its protests to the contrary, “The Quarterback” is far more focused on death. The finality is inescapable—Finn, Rachel’s relationship to him, Puck giving what looks like a series wrap, Santana saying goodbye to Lima forever—and the grief quite potent. It hurts when Rachel talks about the complete negation of her plan. Too bad the other characters require so much narrative, but we’ll always have that shot of Burt, Carole, and Kurt huddled on the floor, picking up the pieces.

Stray observations:

  • Nice burial imagery with the tree-planting. [BN]
  • Just tell us how the songs were, VanDerWerff, God!: They were pretty okay! I thought “To Make You Feel My Love” was the highlight, but I also didn’t mind “Fire And Rain.” Santana’s song and subsequent breakdown were probably the lowpoint for me. [TV]
  • Jeez, what happened between Dianna Agron and Ryan Murphy that she wouldn’t even come back for this? [TV]
  • That’s what I’m screaming. Extra bitchy to have Kurt lay Quinn’s absence at her own feet (“We’re all going back, everyone who can”). [BN]
  • One of the just barely adulterated successes of Glee is Burt’s character development, and his explanation for the “faggy” scandal is the latest step. [BN]
  • This show has just never figured out how to integrate the new characters, has it? I get that this is an episode about the old guard, by design, but it still feels weird to me how little I care about anyone in the new New Directions. I know you feel differently, though. [TV]

More TV Club