Credit: Adam Rose/Fox

How do you grieve? Emphasis on the you, not so much the how. There is no one and right way to grieve, and any form of it is going to be messy, awkward, and painful. Glee’s tribute to Cory Monteith — who died in July at the age of 31 from a drug overdose — told a story that marked the passing of the character he played, the good-hearted, comically dim high-school jock Finn Hudson. It was an exploration of grief — and a “self-serving spectacle of our own sadness” to quote the always tactful Sue Sylvester — that was, not surprisingly, messy, awkward and painful. As catharsis for fans of Glee and Monteith, “The Quarterback” was much like Finn himself: Earnest, flawed, a little irritating, winning.

The most conspicuous and debatable choice made by Glee creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk was to deny the audience an explanation for what caused Finn’s death. Speaking through some opening narration by Finn’s glee-club cohort and stepbrother Kurt (Chris Colfer), we were told this information didn’t matter, with a tone that made it sound like it was inappropriate for us to even want to know: “Everyone wants to talk about how he died, but who cares?” It played like a passive-aggressive scold to those who only want to dote on Monteith’s death (and yeah, those people are jerks…), not — to again quote Kurt — “how he lived” (… but like we knew him?).

One of the challenges facing the producers and actors was managing the reality blur of Monteith and Finn, the characters’ grief and their own, and this was one moment where they got it wrong. I get that Kurt would believe such a thing. It’s a defendable choice, but one that needed to be earned via more artful storytelling. I sympathize with any Glee fan who has spent four years investing in this series, through thick and thin, and in Finn’s character in particular. You were not wrong to want to know his fate. You had a right to that answer. It made for a standoffish start that caused me to doubt just how inviting, vulnerable, and authentic the producers were going to allow this experience to be. For them, I prescribe one of Emma’s “Wait, Am I Callous?” pamphlets.

Set several weeks after Finn’s funeral, the episode chronicled an attempt by Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison) to allow the members of New Directions — past and present — to spend the week in his classroom memorializing Finn and more fully processing their grief through song, be it singing or listening. Mercedes (Amber Riley) soared though “I’ll Stand By You.” Artie (Kevin McHale) and Sam (Chord Overstreet) collaborated on a sweet, plaintive “Fire and Rain.” Puck (Mark Salling) rumbled through “No Surrender.” Rachel (Lea Michele, Monteith’s real-life girlfriend) showed up at the 42 minute mark and performed “Make You Feel My Love.” Every line was a heartbreaker, and Michele’s anguish felt true.

And yet the number of the night belonged to Santana (Naya Rivera), whose solid rendition of “If I Die Young” was memorable for how she broke down halfway through it, then unleashed a furious howl as Mr. Schuester and others rushed to comfort her. Later, Santana would tell Kurt that shame got the best of her; she had wanted to preface the song by saying something genuinely nice about Finn — a poignant, exposing, TMI-ish remembrance of his sweetness — but instead defaulted to her usual snark. She hated herself for that. She would shoo away Kurt, too, and I appreciated this prickly, complicated grief.

Santana was at the center of another pair of stand-out scenes. After learning that Principal Sue (Jane Lynch, in fine acerbic form) had vetoed candles for the memorial outside Finn’s locker, Santana exploded, and took advantage of not being a student anymore to rip into her old enemy, even assault her (a hard shove), and in the process, exercise her inner turmoil in a satisfying visceral way. Later, when Santana returned to apologize, Sue told her no need: she knew she deserved it. She confessed to liking Finn and respecting his heart, and it killed her that he went into death thinking she hated him. She knew he’d make a fine teacher, and looked forward to working alongside him, and sure, busting his chops for decades more. But that was as sentimental as tough-love Sue got. She insisted there was no lesson to learn from Finn’s passing, no “happy ending” catharsis. Then: “Oh, it’s just so pointless. All that wasted potential.” It’s tempting to wonder if the episode wasn’t just speaking of Finn there.

Whether or not you agree with any of Sue’s salty wisdom, what’s certain was that “The Quarterback’s” weakest arc was one that threw deep for those big lessons and happy endings. Puck’s scenes with Coach Beiste (Dot-Marie Jones) were earnest to a fault, culminating with Puck — feeling lost without his friend’s guidance — realizing he needed to become his own quarterback in life now. He hopped on his motorcycle and zoomed off into the proverbial sunset to join the military.

By contrast, the best sequence of the night had Kurt, his dad Burt (Mike O’Malley), and his stepmother Carole (Romy Rosemont) — Finn’s mom — packing up Finn’s room and talking out their loss. “I should have given him more hugs,” said Burt. (O’Malley once earned an Emmy nom in the guest actor category for playing this role, and he reminded you in his brief appearance exactly why.) And then this, from Carole: “You have to keep on being a parent even though you don’t get to have a child anymore.” It was a long scene that proceeded easily and freely from a trio of fine actors, and it was as tough to watch as it was a pleasure. Some lessons there, for sure, but no happy ending; just a painful shift in their reality that will become their new normal. The scene ended with the most earned group hug in recent memory.

“The Quarterback” gave the teacher the last scene, last word, last tears. We learned Mr. Schuester had stolen Finn’s letterman’s jacket — everyone assumed Puck swiped it — and after a week of being strong for everyone else, Will went home, took that jacket out of his satchel, and wept. I had trouble connecting with Will throughout this episode, and I wondered if Morrison did, too — which, by the way, would be understandable, given the circumstances. (How difficult this thing must have been to make for everyone!) Or maybe disconnection was exactly the emotional point: The irony of Will was that he had been denying his agony even as he was trying to create room for everyone else to enter into theirs. And so he, too, summed up an episode of good intentions and mixed success, that was less a story and more of a loosely structured narrative space to contend with the theme of grief, messy and hard.

I’m a jerk to even criticize this thing, I know.

Goodbye, Finn, and goodbye, Cory. You were loved.

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