Credit: Adam Rose/Fox

Glee will return to its roots in the upcoming series finale (Friday, March 20 at 8 p.m. ET) when the show flashes back to “2009,” also the title of the episode, and offer a new perspective on how New Directions really came together. In doing so, the series will pay tribute to the late Cory Monteith, whose presence was felt during Friday’s PaleyFest panel, moderated by EW‘s own Tim Stack.

“We always had accidental fun together,” Chris Colfer recalled, detailing times where the duo would joke around during long press days. Monteith was found dead in July 2013 from an accidental overdose. His Glee character, Finn Hudson, was subsequently revealed to have died off-screen.

Ahead of the panel, the emotional first hour of the series finale was screened for the fans. Footage of Monteith is included, though used sparingly, as the hour aims to tell the story prior to the creation of New Directions—though Finn was almost not a part of the group as the original members pondered whether he was just another bully like the rest of the football jocks. Upon the realization that he was, in fact, different just like them, the group voted unanimously to keep him—and members of the tearful audience echoed an aye vote alongside the characters.

While filming the finale, the entire cast admitted to being very emotional as well. “I cried the whole week. I was a mess,” Lea Michele told the crowd, revealing that her final solo on the series is an original piece written by Darren Criss called “This Time” that encapsulates the core character’s tenure on Glee. “That was the day I fell to my knees and cried. I literally had to call my mother to come. It was the most special day. I got to say everything to everyone here and everyone who will watch it that I wanted to say, but you can’t think of the words, and he wrote them.”

As for the last scene, Michele teased that Matt Morrison’s Will Schuester sings a very touching song to the original members of Glee club. “It was an emotional day,” Michele says, noting that once production wrapped, the group collapsed into a sobbing mess. Michele requested that they play George Michael’s “Freedom” to lighten the mood, after which they sat in the auditorium and shared their final thoughts on the journey of Glee.

Some of the fun facts that came out of the panel included Colfer revealing he had his very first drink during his time on the show (it was at Kevin McHale’s apartment with Jenna Ushkowitz and Amber Riley). Mark Salling also lied about his age, telling the casting director he was 19 when he was actually 26, while Criss said he auditioned for the role of Finn ahead of the pilot. Lynch, meanwhile, knew Glee would be a hit when she watched the “kids” perform “Don’t Stop Believing” for her. “I thought it was so beautiful,” she says. “It was absolutely touching.”

Glee’s two-hour series finale airs Friday at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.

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