Glee season finale recap: Journey to the Center of the Birth
No one stops believin' as New Directions finally heads to Regionals
I’ve been trying to collect my feelings on the first season of Glee. It’s difficult. For one thing, the experience has been spread out over the course of a year. There was awe-inspiring debut back in May 2009. Then the unsteady episodes in early fall — forget all the fake pregnancies, remember ”Acafellas”? But the show found its footing, and turned into a cross-platform phenomenon. ”Sectionals” was just about perfect… right in time for a months-long hiatus.
The back nine episodes have been a mixed bag. That’s to be expected. Glee was the out-of-nowhere underdog when it debuted. A cast of unknowns, most of them shockingly normal-looking? And in a musical drama, a genre that hasn’t been successful since, lemme think, NEVER ONCE IN TV HISTORY? There’s bound to be whiplash when a show like that turns into a phenomenon. Look no further than the first words of the ”Previously On” narration on last night’s season finale: ”I dunno anyone who’d miss an episode of Glee.” Very cheeky, ”Previously On” Narrator. Hubris alert! Icarus: meet the Sun.
Don’t get me wrong. The back half had great episodes, and some of the show’s best performances. I could watch Rachel’s ”Run, Joey, Run” video a million times and never get tired of it. Of course, not everybody liked ”Run, Joey, Run,” and not everybody (myself included) liked the Madonna episode. Glee is practically designed to be as a mixed bag, when you consider how it tries to reflect something like the entire sweep of pop music history, from Judy Garland to Barbra Streisand to Madonna to Lady Gaga. Tell me how many times you’ve experienced this watching Glee: the kids start singing a song that you don’t recognize, but someone you’re watching it with says, ”Oh, I love this song!”
To me, though, the first season finale, ”Journey,” was just about perfect. Every essential plotline from the season reached a sense of closure (even the ones you might’ve wanted to forget: hello, Olivia Newton-John!) More than that, this was one of those high-energy episodes that narrowed its song focus (only four performances!) and found a just-right mix of cynicism and optimism, of banal reality and glam performance. Oh hell, I cried. How could you not?
The episode kicked off with Mr. Schue proudly posting a flyer for New Directions’ Regionals performance. Sue could sense his pride, and swooped in like a vulture: ”See you on Saturday,” she said, ”I’m one of the judges.” Schue complained to Figgins, but Figgins’ hands were tied: Don’t blame me, blame the Show Choir Governing Board, who went with celebrity judges this year.
Sue qualifies as a celebrity? Sue Sylvester, going way meta: ”I’m a legend. It’s happened.” Sue then created a new watershed moment in the history of jokes about Schuester’s hair: ”I’m having a really difficult time hearing anything you have to say today, because your hair looks like a briar patch. I keep expecting racist animated Disney characters to pop up and start singing songs about living on the bayou.”
NEXT: Mr. Schue’s man-tears
Unexpectedly, we jumped to a flashback to many months ago: Puck trying to convince Quinn to sleep with him. This scene was striking, and not just because of Puck’s totally bananas Flashback Mohawk. (Did it really used to look like that?) Glee can go absurd, but the show is often surprisingly direct when it deals with sex. Puck’s key line — ”You think either one of us is gonna give a damn about Finn in three years?” — was unflinchingly cynical. (When Quinn asked about protection, he actually managed to make ”I got it, trust me,” sound romantic, albeit idiotic.)
Jump cut to the modern day, with Quinn rubbing at her pregnant belly. The mood was grim at New Directions’ pre-Regionals pizza party. (Did they learn nothing from that lesson about funk last week?) Sue Sylvester was going to crush them. It was obvious. Tina cried. Schuester didn’t get all the fuss. Mercedes tried to explain. ”Do you think Puck and Santana will even look at me once we’re not in glee club anymore?” Puck: ”She has a point.”
Mr. Schue couldn’t figure out how to inspire his kids. Thank heavens for Emma Pillsbury, who spoke to Will this week for the first time since her epic bitchslap five episodes ago. I was glad to see her return in such a big way. I don’t hate Will Schuester as much as others may, but the guy’s become mighty insufferable in this second half of this season. He becomes noticeably less annoying whenever Emma’s around, if only because she’s more believable as a voice of moral reason. She reminded him of the moment in the series premiere, when she showed him a picture of himself performing as a high schooler. It was the happiest moment in his life ”because I loved what I was doing.”
Will loves it when a woman tells him about himself. He was feeling romantic. Hands off, Schuester! Emma was dating a dentist with the decidedly dentist-like name Carl Howell (they bonded over their shared love of sterilizing tools.) Mr. Schue fled to his awful car. He was feeling low. And like so many other people in American history, only one thing could rescue him: accidentally turning on a radio station playing ”Don’t Stop Believin’.” He cried, but it was a good cry, a manful cry. (I should point out that my girlfriend found this scene deeply unmoving. Maybe it’s a guy thing?)
Meanwhile, in the land of teenagers, Finn chased down Rachel in the hallway. He tried to inspire her. ”You’re a leader, Rachel! The way you’re on everyone all the time is annoying, but it’s also what keeps us going!” I was all set for this plotline to drag on (we’ve seen variations on this all season), but Shazam! Rachel just kissed him, and smiled.
NEXT: The Journey begins
At this point, Mr. Schue gave a speech. Again, minor wince: how many inspiring speeches has this guy given this season? (Since there have been 22 episodes, I’m going to ballpark it: 22?) But by gum, this one actually was inspiring! ”One day, all of you are gonna be gone, and all of this, all of us, will be nothing but a hazy memory.” I always find it interesting, and sad, when characters in fiction briefly pause to consider the possibility that everything they’ve experienced while we’ve been watching them will fade away into memory. (Not to get mega-meta, but some of what Will was talking about almost sounded like a unified theory of television: ”Life only really has one beginning and one end, and the rest is just a whole lot of middle.”)
It’s the journey, not the destination, and so, friends, there was only one way the New Directions gang could take Regionals:
Journey Medley (”Faithfully,” ”Any Way You Want It,” ”Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’,” ”Don’t Stop Believin’)
Those goons from Aural Intensity got the judge lineup ahead of time: how else to explain the Olivia Newton-John/Josh Groban mash-up? Nerves backstage ran high. Mr. Schue made a funny about Finn’s dancing, so at least someone has noticed besides us viewers. (The black-and-gold outfits: I want them.) [More on the finale’s costumes here]. Finn and Rachel prepared for their big entrance. Rachel, adorably: ”Break a leg.” Finn, adorably: ”I love you.”
It’s difficult for me to imagine when Journey was an actual famous band. I’ve only known them at various stages of their retro-resurrection: their semi-ironic rebirth as the Great American Drunk-Singing Band (as portrayed brilliantly on Family Guy), the fully ironic choice to make them into the apocalyptic chorus at the end of The Sopranos, and their ecstatic re-rebirth as the first Glee megahit. I have the vague sense that Journey are fading back into the mists of pop culture: I just attended a wedding where more people sang along to ”Bad Romance” than ”Don’t Stop Believin’.”
But man, did this medley freaking rock, or what? (I thought about grading it in three parts, but every part would have just gotten an A, except for ”Faithfully,” which would get an A+.) This episode was directed by series co-creator Brad Falchuk, and he clearly took some notes from Joss Whedon: note all the long takes, like the one which followed Finn into the auditorium, then tracked over to find Rachel awaiting him.
The little touches were great here, too. the Bearded One’s red piano. The intermingling of ”Any Way You Want It” and ”Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin”’ as a boys vs. girls song fight. Puck momentarily taking over Finn’s solo. Brittany spinning Artie. The brief cut to Quinn’s mom in the audience. (If I wasn’t already bawling, that would’ve done the trick.) The way that everyone in the audience stood up to clap along. And that key change in ”Don’t Stop Believin”’! Swoon.
NEXT: The best ”Bohemian Rhapsody” since Wayne’s World? Maybe.
The medley was so good it cured world hunger and solved Quinn’s parental problems. Quinn’s mom apologized for missing all her other performances, and said she left Quinn’s father: ”Kicked him out, actually. He was having an affair with some tattooed freak.” (I found this line incredibly funny.) The medley and confession were so powerful they made Quinn’s water break.
Now, this is interesting. The final episode of the season, and the most eye-popping performance was given over to the opposing team. The Journey Medley certainly wins for pure emotional reaction, but I think the Glee creators were forcing us to see something: the Vocal Adrenaline people genuinely were better, more clinically proficient. This was a showcase for Jonathan Groff and a whole host of incredible background dancers, and they just crushed it.
And the choice to intercut this performance with Quinn’s labor? Brilliant. Terrible. Then brilliant again. While Vocal Adrenaline danced up and down the stairs in various impressive ways, Quinn said, ”I want Mercedes to come with me, too!” While Jesse crooned ”Mother! Just killed a man!” Quinn screeched though labor. (”Puck! You suck! You suck!” she screamed.) At some points, the lyrics of the song merged with what Quinn was saying. And then there was The Moment: Vocal Adrenaline formed a circle with Jesse in the middle, right as little Baby Beth entered the world.
It was weird, your honor. If nothing else, it was definitely the most visually arresting way to represent the birthing process I’ve ever seen outside of The Miracle of Life. But I kind of liked it. Somewhere, Freddie Mercury is nodding proudly, and saying, ”World, I forgive you for We Will Rock You.”
Rachel went to see her Birth Mama Shelby. She had a proposal. ”Come and teach at McKinley. You and Mr. Schuester could be co-directors!” (Pause to imagine Ryan Murphy having roughly this same conversation in real life with Idina Menzel.) But Shelby wanted out of this crazy show-choir game. ”I need a house, and a garden, and a dog.” Shelby strolled over to the baby wing of the local hospital to chat it up with Quinn and Puck. I was worried that her appearance would send Quinn into some kind of shame spiral, leading her to end up keeping Baby Beth. But no! In an act of storytelling alchemy that makes me love television, Glee merged two so-so plotlines into one beautiful finish: Shelby ended up claiming Beth as her own daughter. (Yes, this was ridiculous, but I’ll buy that for a dollar.)
Now, though, we have to talk about the judges’ room. As despairingly cynical as the judges were in ”Sectionals,” the situation here was positively dystopian. Sue Sylvester, who has spent the entire season as the Great Anti-Glee Club Villain, was the least of New Directions’ problems. Rod Remington was lost in memory of partying with Freddie Mercury back in the ’70s, a time when people weren’t so obsessed with labels. Josh Groban liked New Directions, but really wanted to learn more about Sue’s relationship situation. (Remember when he slept with Mr. Schue’s mom, or something? Seriously, did ”Acafellas” take place in a parallel universe?)
NEXT: An unexpected overlap between Glee and The Wire
But full props here to Olivia Newton-John, who totally made up for playing herself a few episodes ago as a lame self-obsessed bore. This time, she gamely played herself as the Cruel Voice of Showbiz: ”Talk about blatant tokenism. That whole ragtag bunch of misfits thing is so 2009… are they a poor person’s school?”
This put Sue in the strange, utterly unexpected position of defending the glee club: ”Not all kids are afforded the same things as others.” Poppycock, said the real celebrities, who linked Sue to the kids’ inherent loserdom. Oooh, a nationally-recognized cheerleading coach? A local TV personality? Big deal! You’re still in Ohio, still a Lima loser. ”Some people just simply don’t have talent,” said ONJ. ”You have a lot in common with those kids: underachievers with delusions of grandeur.”
I understand if some of you viewers feel like this twist was a bit silly or over-the-top. To me, it felt a bit like those rare moments in The Wire when some of that show’s characters, who spent their whole lives struggling, would get a hint of just how meaningless their lives were to the people in power. (It was the Glee version of ”And I’m not even Greek,” a brief peek at the dispassionately cruel great powers that run the world.)
I find Glee insufferable when it suggests that music and togetherness can solve every problem. (See a couple weeks ago, when we learned a valuable lesson about bullying and friendship and Gaga, or something.) This felt a lot more complex. Music and friendship don’t necessarily turn losers into winners. But that doesn’t make those things worthless. So it was sad to see New Directions get the Bad News Bears ending: defeated by the Vocal Adrenaline automatons and the Aural Intensity goon patrol. But it felt real.
There followed a genuine Emma Pillsbury outburst: she gave Figgins a piece of her mind about handing over the choir room to the Model UN. Mr. Schue responded to her fiery passion with a patented Will Schuester Inappropriate Hallway Kiss. (That’s just where they kiss, viewers: in the school hallways.) ”Dentist or no, this thing isn’t over between us!” he proclaimed. Witness the return of Romantic Schuester, and not the guy who fake-seduces people!
”To Sir, With Love”
The kids went around the room and listed off the single character trait that defined them when the show began. Tina had a stutter, Puck tossed kids into dumpsters, Santana and Brittany were elitist cheerleaders who hated all non-popular peons. Matt and Mike were even gifted with meager personalities, here at the end of all things. Matt: ”I was just another football player!” Mike: ”I was afraid to dance outside of my room!” (I realize I’m just parsing needles in haystacks here, but whereas Matt seems kind of dull, I really want to see more of Mike. Other Asian: speak!)
NEXT: Oh, Sue
I realize that Finn is kind of a manic character who wavers regularly between submental doddering and nobility, but I lost it when he said, ”I didn’t have a father. Someone I could look up to, model myself after. Someone who could show me what it really meant to be a man.” (Message to Finn: Do as Schue says, not as he does.)
The performance that followed was the polar opposite of the Journey medley: quiet, violin-heavy, with the bare minimum of choreography. But it was heart-grabbing, especially when Sue Sylvester appeared in the shadows. (She stood up there way back in the first episode, too, under very different circumstances.) You could already kind of guess how Sue was going to hand New Directions a second chance, but that didn’t stop this requiem from being altogether moving. Glee can go intimate, too.
Sue walked into the choir practice room to chat it up with Mr. Schue. ”It’s as barren as me in here, Will.” She refused a handshake: ”I’ve seen that car you drive. I don’t want to catch poor.” It occurred to me, watching her throw great dialogue in Schue’s face, that after a whole season of loving Sue Sylvester’s every moment onscreen, I have never once really believed her as the show’s villain. When Tim Stack talked to the Glee people for EW’s cover story, Ryan Murphy noted that Sue wasn’t even in the original pilot script. Her creation was suggested very strongly by Fox Entertainment prez Kevin Reilly. (Put this decision on the shelf next to former ABC Chairman Lloyd Braun’s notion of making a fictional version of Survivor, which eventually turned into Lost. Studio execs aren’t all bad!)
The funny thing is, even though Sue was specifically added to be a villain, her villainy has always been the most nonsensical part of the show. There’s no concrete reason for her to hate the glee club. Okay, blah blah blah school budget, but that seems a pretty meager consideration for the megafunded Cheerios. Then you’re just left with more abstract reasons. Sue hates music? The Madonna episode proved that untrue. Sue hates inspiring people? Also since proven untrue: she just inspires people in her own way. Sue just hates Schuester and wants to crush him? Possible, but a weird arc to hang a show around.
Really, the only reason Sue Sylvester works as a character is because of Jane Lynch, and boy, she made this last face-off speak volumes. I found the brief flash to the judges’ voting incredibly moving. Sue said, ”I voted exactly how I felt in my heart about which team should win,” in her typically sarcastic delivery. Schuester clearly registered that as, ”I put New Directions in last place!”
NEXT: We relish the thought of next year, too
So Sue played the Benevolent Despot and told Schuester that she had convinced Figgins to give the Glee kids another year. For one moment, the veil fell: ”You’re a good teacher, Will. I admire you, and the work you’re doing with your kids.” Then it was back to Sue Sylvester, National Champion and author of the upcoming memoir, ”I am a Winner, and You’re Fat.” ”I relish the thought of another full year of constantly besting you.”
”Somewhere Over the Rainbow”
Will Schuester singing Israel Kamakawiwo’ole singing Judy Garland: did not see this one coming! Glee went out of its first season with one of its quietest performances yet. Will played the ukulele. Puck played guitar. The camera moved around the faces of the cast. Rachel put her head on Finn’s shoulder. Artie and Tina looked in each other’s eyes. Quinn smiled at Puck. Santana and Brittany held hands. Kurt wore a beret. (He also shared an unreadable glance with Finn.) Mute Mike and Mute Matt gave each other a mute high five. Somewhere, Josh Groban and Olivia Newton-John were sitting in a first-class cabin, living soulless lives and drinking soulless cocktails.
Message to Matthew Morrison: I never want to see you do hip-hop ever again. But this was beautiful.
How did you feel about ”Journey,” Glee fans? And, taking the long view for a moment, how did you feel about this madcap first season? Do you agree with Ken Tucker that the show needs to make some fixes during the summer hiatus? What was the more encouraging trend this season: the rise of Brittany, the fall of Terri, or the canonization of Kurt? What will Glee look like in season 2, and beyond? Sound off below!