It was my 16-year-old cousin who texted to tell me Cory Monteith had passed away. I’d chatted to her months earlier at a family reunion. She’d been tucked away in a corner reading her Bible (no joke), too shy and self-conscious to talk to all these strangers who called themselves family. I asked her the normal things: school (fine), summer vacation (fine), getting her driver’s license (fine), hobbies (she plays multiple instruments in the band and the orchestra). And so I said: “Do you watch Glee?” Her posture relaxed, her breath escaped her body in a relieved rush of air, her face lit up like Christmas. Watch it? Watch it? She lived it.
She talked at me for two solid hours, barely pausing to breathe, telling me about artsy kids in her school getting slushied in real life, and how Glee was her refuge, her stronghold, and on TV it made her laugh and cry and swoon and it filled her up with a kind of bravery she didn’t know teenage musicians could have, and when it wasn’t on TV that was OK too, because she was in fandom. Did I know about fandom? Had I heard of it? Tumblr? Fan Fiction? AO3? She had two ships, she said (did I know what a ship was?), and one of them was Finn and Rachel (the ultimate supercouple) and one of them was Kurt and Blaine (duh, soul mates; but don’t tell her mom, OK?). And, if she was being honest, she kind of shipped herself with Finn too. She talked about Cory Monteith the way Ariel talked about Prince Eric.
It was funny listening to someone who adored Finn’s heroism, loved the way he was always swooping in to save the day. She watched TV in a way I barely even remember: eyes overbright with optimism, hands clasped in adoration, singing and swaying along with the music. She wasn’t deconstructing narrative as a feminist, examining every writing and directing choice through the lens of queer visibility, weighing every TV moment in front of her against a lifetime of damaging tropes behind her. She was sixteen. She’d never been in love. She’d never seen Superman get shot out of the sky.
That’s the main thing I was thinking leading up to “The Quarterback.” I was thinking about the day when you realize the world isn’t split into Jedis and Siths, about the day when you learn that good guys don’t always win, about the day when you finally understand that not every story has a happy ending. In fact, not everything that happens in life fits neatly into a narrative. There just aren’t stories for some things. I was thinking, “How does a show built on the promise of ‘It Gets Better’ contradict its core message with the heartbreaking truth that sometimes it doesn’t?” I was thinking, “How does a show that prides itself on Important Life Lessons tie a neat little morality bow on such an enormous tragedy?” I was thinking, “How do you write a story about death on a show that is a celebration of wide-open life?”
And shockingly (elegantly, even), Glee didn’t. “The Quarterback” didn’t pass a verdict on whether or not It Gets Better, it didn’t try to teach us anything, it wasn’t even a story. It was a showcase of the ways we grieve and a graceful, courageous invitation to mourn with a cast and crew who knew (really knew) and loved (really loved) Cory Monteith.
The episode opens with “Seasons of Love,” everyone dressed in black, newbies first and veterans later, somber faces and impossible questions about measuring the meaning of a life. Mr. Schue has invited everyone back to McKinley to celebrate Finn. When did he die? Three weeks ago. How did he die? Frankly, it’s none of our business, Kurt says. Everyone returns to Lima, except Rachel, whose grief is too big to even contemplate. (Well, and also there’s no Brittany or Quinn due to real-life babies and information we’re not privy to.) And once we’re in Ohio, we experience the loss of Finn through the eyes of the people closest to him.
There’s Finn’s family: Kurt, Burt, and Carol. Kurt wraps himself up in Finn’s letter jacket. Burt breaks down wishing he would have hugged him more, could hug him one more time right now. And Carol comes completely unraveled, saying she’ll wake up every day for the rest of her life as a parent, but she won’t have her child. It seems impossible that an episode featuring Monteith’s real-life girlfriend singing “Make You Feel My Love” would pack its most powerful emotional punch anywhere else, but Romy Rosemont‘s performance is absolutely devastating. The Hudson-Hummels wrap each other up in a giant Finn-sized hug, crying and know they’re going to miss their son and their brother forever.
There’s Finn’s friends: Puck arrives on the scene and steals the memorial tree that was planted in Finn’s honor, just to have a physical thing to hold onto. Finn was his rock and his moral compass and more than anyone else, Puck doesn’t know how he’s going to move on with his life without Finn’s guidance. He gets a drunk to deal with it until Coach Bieste finally convinces Puck that the best way to honor Finn is to become the man Finn always knew he could be. So he decides to join the Air Force. In this episode, it’s impossible to know where these characters stop and these actors start , but it’s very clear that Coach Beiste’s grief is all Dot Marie Jones.