When Cory Monteith died in July, the fact that it put Glee in a terrible position was certainly the least of the rotten outcomes.
But it did, in fact, put the show in a terrible position.
He was a core member of the cast, and hadn't been gradually fading from view like some of the original kids, so there was nothing to do but deal with it — and Thursday night, after starting the season with two Beatles tribute episodes, they did.
Called "The Quarterback," the episode picked up three weeks after Finn's funeral, so the cast was spared playing the news of his death. And Lea Michele, who was dating Monteith at the time he died, appeared only in the last act. The episode didn't explain how Finn died, and through Kurt, it explicitly disclaimed any interest in talking about it: "Who cares?" Kurt said to us.
As an episode of Glee, "The Quarterback" was sort of all over the place. Little plots involving Finn's jacket and a tree planted in his memory worked unevenly, and there were moments — which I think it would be profoundly uncharitable to identify — when performers seemed to be simply overmatched by the experience and seemed uncomfortable in character.
But it was, oddly enough, in the moments when the performers seemed to be peeking through that the episode did work. It was when the illusion that this was entirely a depiction of fictional characters mourning a fictional person receded that it did contain a graceful and very real sense of grief and tribute.
The show was somewhat transparent about all this; that's why the "Seasons Of Love" opener began with the newer cast members and then revealed those who'd been there since the beginning. And those older cast members looked, as you might expect, palpably more wrecked throughout. It felt real and yet not, as if they were both working behind the artifice of character and acknowledging it. It wasn't a secret that this was a remembrance for actors as well as characters — we knew, and they knew we knew, and we knew they knew we knew.
But this sense that you were watching two things at once was never more acute, of course, than when Michele appeared at the very end to sing Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love." It's probably smart, and merciful, that she sang a love song and not a song about death and grief. Despite all the things that have pulled Glee off course at times, she remains a really talented singer, and it's a really lovely rendition. And you do know that you're watching both the character and the actress, and it is a little distracting, and that's okay, I think.
It's possible that my reaction to the episode is colored by having been at a press conference with the cast at press tour in January 2010, when the show was new. While it's foolish to believe all the "we're all great friends!" business that gets thrown around at these things, there was a sense that at the very least, they were all in the same abrupt and disorienting experience together. I tend to believe this has been very hard on this cast. I tend to believe that the thing they did last night, they probably needed to do for the show but also for themselves.
I didn't think it worked all that well as an episode, but I do think it deserved respect as a document of performers trying to do a hard thing and then get going again.
But it's worth remembering, too, that Monteith did some terrific work on that show, including a really fine scene with Michele in the "Break-Up" episode last season, which concluded with a strong group performance.
And on a happier note, I'll remember Monteith in the Jimmy Fallon "Born To Run" Emmy opening. The brief shot of him jumping and fist-pumping next to Tina Fey at 5:33 in this clip literally never doesn't make me smile, even now, no matter how many times I watch it. I choose to make that my favorite image of him.
It was kind of an awkward episode on the whole, but being sad is ... awkward. People dying is — among so many other things — awkward, and the intrusion of real life on the ability to end a character's story with the fairness you'd usually give it is certainly awkward.