While actors Chris Colfer and Jane Lynch have won awards for their roles on the show, Cory Monteith’s beloved character Finn was the glue that held it together. The sensitive star-quarterback-turned-glee-club-singer was portrayed as a hero of sorts, agilely moving between cliques and helping to connect people. The proverbial leader of the pack. It was therefore natural that ever since 31-year-old Monteith died of a drug overdose on July 13th and it was announced that the show would go on without him by killing off Finn, Gleeks and casual viewers alike had been wondering how the character’s demise would be handled.
On Thursday night, we found out. But what we didn’t learn was how the 19-year-old quarterback died three weeks prior (before the shiny-happy, nothing-to-see-here two-part Beatles-based premiere). As a result, the episode was both heartbreaking – you had to be made of stone to not grab a tissue during real-life girlfriend Lea Michele’s tear-soaked rendition of “Make You Feel My Love” while playing on-screen love Rachel Berry – and frustrating. It lacked what every mourner seeks: closure.
“Everyone wants to talk about how he died, but who cares? It’s one moment in his whole life,” said the character’s step-brother Kurt (Colfer) in the opening scene, apparently speaking on behalf of Glee creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk and setting up an hour-long waiting game where you thought they had to, at some point, reveal the cause. But they never did.
Back in August, Murphy himself explained the omission: “At one point, we were going to have his character die [of] an accidental drug overdose, but we decided [against that]. . . . How somebody died is interesting and maybe morbid, but we say very early on in the episode, ‘This is about a celebration of that character’s life.’ That might be weird for some people, but it felt really exploitative to do it any other way.”
There wasn’t much celebrating going on in the episode, with the line between TV and reality blurred as one cast member/character after another sobbed onscreen. Instead, viewers were left waiting for hints as to how Finn died. When no overt ones were dropped, it was time for us to grasp at straws – step-dad Burt (Mike O’Malley) breaking down and saying he wished he had hugged his step-son more, does that point to suicide? – but overall it was a futile search.
The most obvious reason to gloss over the “how” is because the show didn’t want to tarnish the character’s image (or further muddle Monteith’s now-polarizing legacy). Whether it was suicide, an “accidental” overdose, a drunk driving accident or something else, there aren’t many non-controversial ways for an otherwise healthy teenager to die. But all the omission did was leave room for viewers to speculate and constantly refer back to Monteith’s real-life OD, indirectly leading viewers back to the idea that his character met the same fate.
Sadly, the ultimate goal of the episode seemed to be to wipe Finn out of existence: Aside from a few still photos, there were no flashbacks of him nor clips of songs he sang. (A similar approach was taken in the season’s first two Beatles-centric premiere episodes, in which there was zero recognition that either Finn or Monteith had ever been a part of the show.)
Did Glee miss the mark – and a golden opportunity to educate people on addiction and the dangers of drugs and alcohol? The cases for and against could be argued ad nauseam. Yet although neither drugs nor alcohol were mentioned in the episode, addiction wasn’t completely glossed over. At the very end, after a simple placard bearing Monteith’s name flashed on the screen in a moment of silence, some of the stars of the show encouraged viewers who are struggling with addiction to get help.
For a show that has prided itself on warts-and-all storylines, was that enough?