Recap: 'Glee' Finale - 'Goodbye'
A surprising (and surprisingly strong) end to an uneven season suggests interesting possibilities next season
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Having an ensemble can be an asset for a television program. Ostensibly, the more onscreen talent you have, the more diverse a set of stories you can tell. On “Glee,” perhaps less would have been more as a general rule. The show hasn’t narrowed its scope of storytelling over the years, but rather expanded it to the point where everything has become diffuse. It’s hard to focus on any one particular aspect of the show when it keeps shining flashlights into the corner of your peripheral vision. “Goodbye” was probably one of the best episodes of this uneven third season because it turned “Glee” into what it’s always truly been: the story of Rachel Berry. One can argue the relative merits of that focus. But having that focus tonight really did make a difference.
Of course, Rachel wasn’t the sole focus of the hour, which was less about plot and more about wrapping some emotional bows around a few key relationships. I usually enjoy shows that wrap up the season’s plot in the penultimate episode, so long as the finale itself wraps up the emotional loose ends still remaining. “Goodbye” featured almost no plot for the first half hour, instead allowing a leisurely but still effective series of songs in which various members of New Directions let the others know how they felt. I only bought that a handful of these teenagers actually have the bonds displayed in tonight’s hour, but it’s fairly easy to place oneself into his or her own high school experiences and understand the emotions on display tonight. It’s crazy how infrequently “Glee” can evoke something as pervasive and deeply formative as the audience’s collective high school experience. But when it stops working so damn hard to be edgy, inventive, or iTunes-driven, it frequently succeeds in being the show it thinks it actually is.
And while the adults are historically problematic on the show, “Goodbye” wisely kept them off to the side (for the most part) except if they had a direct relationship with one of the seniors. Will broke out his guitar to say “Forever Young,” and aside from finally admitting to being a straight-up creep in the pilot episode to Finn, largely stayed out of the picture all night. Burt appeared to give his son the gift of mortification, through a performance of “Single Ladies” that still has me smiling. Beiste appeared only to help fulfill her promise to enable Puck to graduate. Santana got a chance to go somewhere besides the University of Louisville thanks to her mother’s financial foresight. Sue got a nice scene with Quinn, and it’s a testament to how much “Glee” has rehabbed her character this year that I bought Quinn’s breakdown in Sue’s office. I’ll say to “Glee” what Sue said to Quinn after the latter told the former she would miss her: “I don’t see how that’s possible, but thank you.” Sue and Ros got a short scene together that clearly sets up a Season 4 storyline involving the removal of Figgins, but other than that, the kids were on display.
When it came to emotional payoffs, most of the New Directions-centric material succeeded. But when plot started to creep back into the picture, things got more than a bit muddled. That Puck can nail a geography test only after Quinn plants a kiss on him is weird, unless her magical Yale pixie dust is chock full o’ trivia. That neither NYADA nor the Actor’s Studio wouldn’t send out admittance letters until nearly graduation time seems, quite frankly, insane. (Having New Directions sing “Glory Days,” an ode to the fact that adult life straight up sucks, is also insane but in a more manageable way.) That neither Rachel, Kurt, or Finn have any backup plans is also insane. But the scene in which those three open their acceptance letters? It was fairly devastating, and all three actors nailed that moment. One can forgive narrative contrivances if the emotion feels uncontrived. The specifics of the situation don’t matter. What played onscreen were three lives changing in an instant, and all of them realizing it.
This all sets up an interesting fourth season in which a lot of characters are split all across the country. Ryan Murphy has gone on record as saying that any cast members that wants to be on the show going forth can be on it, but we’re going to need a “Games of Thrones”-esque intro to the show in which we see where everyone is situated. (Oh God, an a capella version of that “Thrones” theme song already annoys me. And I came up with the idea! I’m so sorry, you guys.) Mercedes will be in Los Angeles, as a backup singer on an indie label while she takes extension classes at UCLA. Mike Chang will be in Chicago. Quinn will be in New Haven. Rachel will be in New York City, easily identifiable thanks to her insanely red outfit and by the fact that she’s singing like a crazy person in public. And Finn will be in Georgia, because he’s enlisted in the military as a way to honor his father.
The Finn thing threw me for a loop, although it’s classic “Glee” whiplash plotting. Cory Monteith actually did some really good work as he drove Rachel to the train to Hogwart’s Academy for Musical Theatre. But where on earth did this decision come from? As far as I can recall, we haven’t see anything in the show related to Finn’s desire to follow in his father’s footsteps since “Yes/No,” this season’s 10th episode back in January. In that episode, Will, Burt, Carole, and Emma staged an intervention in which Finn learned his father actually died of an overdose, not in combat. So there’s some narrative precedent here. I’m imagining what we’re supposed to take away is this: Teenagers do dumb, stupid, impulsive things, and if Finn didn’t so something as drastic as join the freakin’ army, Rachel would have deferred NYADA, and thus her career, indefinitely. But while “Glee” can walk back a lot of its silly decisions and pretend like they didn’t exist, I’m not sure Finn can go AWOL without some serious repercussions.
I suppose I should applaud the show for at least pushing Finn in a direction it seems unwilling to do with every other character save Rachel. Having Kurt not get into NYADA was a surprising choice, one that reflects the show’s attitude that the dreams of these characters often outstrip their reality. But is keeping Kurt around Lima post-graduation a good thing for the show? He got a lovely little send-off with Madonna’s “I’ll Remember”…but now he’s not going anywhere. Will “Glee” have him awkwardly hang around, performing jobs above and beyond all reason? In other word, will they Jesse St. James him? When news broke about a possible split in narrative focus between Lima and New York, I envisioned a situation in which Rachel and Kurt anchored a set of new characters while the juniors/teachers held down the fort in Ohio. Now? It’s “Glee,” plus “The Rachel Berry Show.”
But as I said at the outset, maybe “Glee” has always has been “The Rachel Berry Show,” and not just in the negative ways such a title connotes. If “Glee” has been about Rachel’s journey out of Lima towards bigger things, many other sidebars along the way seem like temporary distractions rather than a lack of narrative focus. That’s not to say that’s how I imagine the show has been consciously structured. But in choosing to primarily tell Rachel’s story tonight, the show achieved a sense of balance that most of its episodes have lacked over the course of…well, its entire run as a series. To make another “Game of Thrones” analogy, this show has always had the problem the HBO hit currently has in its second season: the lack of a strong central figure to serve as the sun around which others can orbit. Rachel’s self-righteousness doesn’t suddenly become palatable if the show ordains her the star in the third season finale. But it sure as hell seems more understandable as a result.
This isn’t to say that Rachel should always and ever have been the focus of the show. Lea Michele seems by all accounts to have the most musical theatre talent of anyone in the cast, but that doesn’t necessarily make Rachel the most interesting character to follow through the course of the show. Imperfection can be infinitely more interesting to observe. Her arc doesn’t really change if this show were seen through the eyes of Kurt, Mercedes, Santana, or Rick the Stick. But how we as an audience related to that arc certainly does change. A three-season arc where Tina comes to the realization she did last week–that Rachel isn’t evil, just more driven and with more natural talent–could have been amazing. But “Glee” isn’t interested in process so much as getting right to the results. That’s why New Directions can win nationals after a week’s worth of rehearsals.
Since “Glee” has never decided on a central anchor for the show, all proceedings have either floated along in the ether or come crashing down in a fit of sudden gravitational overcompensation. We get what these moments mean to these individuals in the individual moments in which they happen. But contextualizing them has always been the show’s biggest problem, whether they are a big thing like Nationals or a small thing like Artie shamefully wishing that Quinn remain in a wheelchair. The show treats both as equally important when it feels like, but it usually doesn’t feel like it for long, and thus everything eventually feels unimportant. Turning things into “The Rachel Berry Show” may not have made the show inherently better. But it did make tonight’s episode exceedingly more focused. We didn’t worry about how every single person in New Directions felt about Rachel’s acceptance. Nor should we have. It was about a short moment with Kurt and a much longer, more important, life-altering conversation with Finn.
With Rachel the only one in New York next year, there’s a chance for the show to choose someone still in Lima to be the anchor for that part of the show. [Some of you in the comments noted that Santana's mother she suggested that her daughter go to New York instead of college. Good point. Also? Terrible parenting.] It probably won’t happen, since everything I described above probably occurred as a byproduct of accidental serendipity. If they focused on anyone, I’d probably make it Sam: the guy does really good impressions, he’s seriously weird, and he has a built-in backstory that makes him an excellent candidate for an attempted rags-to-riches storyline. (After that, I’d pick Tina, then Artie…then as the 457th option, Sugar Motta.) But the last thing the show should do is focus on the Bataan Death March that is the progress from sectionals to regionals to nationals. Achieving that goal should put competition on the backburner in favor of actual human interaction. When “Glee” just has people sitting around singing their feelings to each other, it’s a consistently entertaining show. The Rachel/Finn/Kurt scenes tonight proved just how fleeting that moment of victory is compared with the rest of one’s life. The show should use that knowledge and start making some core changes in its fourth season. If it does so, those that have long abandoned the show might start to hear the music again.
What did you think about this season of "Glee" as a whole? Are you excited about the cast being spread out, or will that just cause more confusion? Should Rachel be the only current cast member in NYC next year? Sound off below!