Last night was the moment Glee fans have been emotionally preparing for: the memorial episode for Finn Hudson. As most know, Cory Monteith, the actor who played Finn, died unexpectedly this summer from a combination of drugs and alcohol. Though the actor has already been memorialized by his friends and peers via twitter, song tributes, and a moment at this year's Emmys, Finn was portrayed as alive but off-screen in the first two episodes of Glee's fifth season, which began filming after Monteith's death. Ryan Murphy, the show's co-creator, made the difficult decision to kill off Monteith's character — although he made a point not to mention Finn's cause of death, even having Kurt address the subject in last night's episode by asserting that what matters is his life, not his death.
This episode was not in a typical format. Usually, the big group number is left until the end of the episode. This time, it kicked off the show. The New Directions (and alumni) opened by belting out the mournful mainstay, "Seasons of Love." In fact, the whole episode seemed out of order. What was perhaps the most moving scene — when Kurt, Burt, and Carole clean out Finn's room — happened near the beginning, and the second most moving scene — when Rachel speaks to Mr. Schue about their love for Finn — comes in the middle of the second act. Murphy has stated that many of these scenes were the cast's first takes. That's evident from the raw emotion visible on everyone's faces. This episode felt unnatural in how natural it was — how genuinely the characters cried and how forcefully they held each others' hands. Lea Michele particularly was devastatingly vulnerable, especially given her character's recently discovered self-assuredness.
A surprising number of characters reacted to Finn's death in a volatile manner, and these were the characters that the episode focused on. Santana, Puck, and Sue had the episode's most destructive coping mechanisms: violence, thefts, and insults, respectively. Santana loathed her inability to sincerely honor Finn's memory. Puck felt lost without Finn as the moral compass of his life. Sue was upset that Finn had died while he still thought she hated him. Mr. Schue also kept his sadness hidden from view until the final scene when he allows himself to weep over Finn's letterman jacket.
The emotion was evident in the music. Mercedes sang the episode's second song — a reprise of Finn's "I'll Stand By You" from season one. This song — originally a private moment between Finn and the sonogram of the baby he thought was his — served to remind viewers of the "old" Finn Hudson from season one, when he was directionless, hopeful, and bursting with potential. "Fire and Rain," "If I Die Young," and "No Surrender" — performed by Sam and Artie, Santana, and Puck, respectively — were all achingly mournful, but did not add much else to an episode that was clearly not about the music. Rachel's rendition of "Make You Feel My Love," on the other hand, felt earth-shattering because of the sheer pain and longing that permeated every line.
Glee is often defined by its balance of melodramatic and humorous moments. This episode had plenty of the former and a few of the latter. Some bits seemed over-the-top, such as Mercedes' and Mr. Schue's pointed glances up at the heavens when remembering Finn, or Puck's clichéd remarks on how a dash between two dates cannot encompass someone's life. True to form, though, there were moments of levity sprinkled throughout. I chuckled when Sue reminisced about catching Finn and Quinn "fondling each other's boobs," or when Santana spat a "No me gusta" at Puck when she thinks he stole Finn's letterman jacket.
For all the talk about him, any direct reminder of Finn seemed absent from this episode in a way that made it feel a little hollow. "The Quarterback" focused on Finn's effect on people, not on him as a person. Though it could be seen as incredibly schmaltzy, I was imagining a montage of Finn's best moments during one of the songs to remind the viewer of Finn as a character — of his smile, of his endearing naiveté, of his maturation from a bullying jock to a sensitive, aspiring teacher. Instead we were treated to mentions of memories (the "faggy" lamp scene from season one's "Theatricality," Finn's "specialty" of kicking over chairs as shown in season one's "Sectionals") and general statements about his goodness. The only direct memory of Finn is the inscription of his plaque for the choir room — a quote of him reading, "The show must go … all over the place … or something." That was Finn Hudson. Apparently, it was also an homage to Monteith, who was fond of the choir room's original plaque.
It is hard to mess up a memorial episode. As long as the show remains respectful, the result will be untouchable by critics and fans alike. As much as I nitpicked, the episode had me sobbing on more than one occasion and was a poignant tribute to both Finn and Cory. But the real test of how the show honors Finn's legacy will come in the upcoming episodes. This episode covered Finn's death as an event; the next will show Finn's death as a reality. And while Glee goes crazy for events, it is not always reliable in portraying reality. For many, the scars of Cory and Finn's death will never fade. Only time will tell how these three mourners — the fans, the characters, and the show itself — will move on.