Tasteful, restrained, earnest, with some excellent acting, "Glee" offered a touching send-off to both Finn Hudson, the character, played by actor Cory Monteith, who died not long ago. I admit to some teariness, particularly when Burt talked about his loss; that should have kicked any parent hard.
The music was well chosen and rendered -- even if it fell into the "Glee" habit of having its supposedly young characters reach into an old-songs catalog. And it was a welcome change from the iffy-at-best renditions of Beatles songs the last couple of weeks. More to say below.
I have gone back and forth about the show's decision not to mention Finn's cause of death. We all know that Monteith died of a drug overdose, and that there are people in the world who will judge him for dying that way. If Finn, too, had OD'ed, then it would have added another difficult experience on top of the raw grieving evident in this episode.
Mark Salling, as Puck, and Naya Rivera, as Santana, were offering a level of fury that went beyond their usual acting; Jane Lynch's Sue was obviously in pain in her first scenes with Santana, well before she had to admit regret; Lea Michele's Rachel was in a place I have never seen her before, far outside the hystrionics Rachel usually delivers because this was brutally real for the character and the actrress.
So let's say that the writers then added that Finn had OD'ed. Either the characters would be obliged to talk about that -- to argue, to judge a character played by someone they loved with all his demons, and that would pile more pain on top, especially for whoever had to speak against Finn. Not only that, but since the show had never indicated before that Finn was a drug user, the introduction of such a story line would be all the more awkward. On the other hand, if the show somehow martyred Finn -- shot dead, say, or killed in a car accident -- then it ran the risk of seeming to cheat the audience by going against Monteith's own demise.
So, in that respect, it makes sense that the cause of death was put aside in favor of dealing with loss. The absence of a cause, though, led to reasoned reservations like those of Dan Fienberg at Hitfix, who wrote at length about the overlapping of Finn and Monteith, and what that meant in Sue's speech about there being no lesson in Finn's death. Said Fienberg:
Chances are pretty good that Finn Hudson didn't die of a drug overdose, but Cory Monteith did. And that means that while there surely is no happy ending, there absolutely is a lesson that can, should and MUST be learned from his passing. I don't think it's just one lesson either. This isn't something as banal as, "Kids, don't use drugs." It's a much more complicated and sad lesson about addiction, personal demons and the reality that success doesn't lead to happiness. There are many lessons here and as long as people were intermingling sadness about Cory with sadness about Finn, it feels dangerous to pretend otherwise. It's one thing for "Glee" not to use this episode as a teachable moment -- Nobody is saying that Finn's death had to be used as a cautionary tale about drug use -- but to deny a teachable moment exists isn't good. Delete that one line -- "There's no lesson here" -- and my quibble magically vanishes.
I can see that side, too, only -- again -- in the rawness of what the characters and actors were feeling, it would take a far, far better writer than "Glee" has to make such a teachable moment not feel contrived in some way.
It may have seemed curious that the show chose not to revisit Finn himself in clips, focusing instead on how the individual characters were grieving. But that added to the the sense of an empty space that Finn filled, even if it was intermittent of late (or, in Rachel's imagining on hold until she was again ready for him). And by highlighting that emptiness the show implicitly conceded an insurmountable problem: It has never gotten over the previous loss of Finn from the center of the show.
Finn was indeed, as the episode noted, the quarterback. He was a link between dfiferent factions at McKinley -- a sometimes strained link, but still one. He was a football player and a New Directions singer, a brother to Kurt, a friend and lover to Rachel, and a leader to just about everyone.
That leadership role was harder for Finn once the graduating characters scattered, and the series has often labored to weave plot threadfs of some people in New York, others in Lima, others in and out as the scripts required. In addition to the absurdity of some stories (the whole Rachel-vying-for-Funny-Girl thing has been horrible), there was neither a physical nor an emotional center in the narrative as a whole. And the attempts to create a new Finn, or Quinn, or Rachel have been lacking.
Look again at what Rivera can do in a scene and tell me who among the newer arrivals can achieve that. And then, when you consider the lack of a physical center, ask yourself if there has ever been an emotional center like Finn. In terms of story, the show has leaned more heavily on Rachel and Kurt, but they were both characters on the periphery brought to the center -- by Finn. Consider: While Finn as a student had been a leader of New Directions, no one in the current group could take on a similar role; instead, when the group needed a new guide while Will was away, Finn came back to teach them. No one on the scene was going to be able to do the job.
And now no one ever will. And that's the pain underlying the loss not only of Monteith but of Finn. A crucial part of the show is now lost, and that made the pain of this week's episode sharper.