When Friday Night Lights ended, it did something remarkable. In the make-or-break throw of its version of Nationals, the episode cut to another throw, in the future, during an everyday practice. We don’t find out whether the East Directions won or lost. It was the perseverance that mattered. (Okay, sticklers, we do find out a little later, but the point stands. That cut exemplifies the spirit of Friday Night Lights.) Glee goes so far in the opposite direction it plays like bad fanfic. Everyone gets their happy endings. Rachel wins a Tony and thanks her husband, the director, Jesse St. James, who has himself already won a Tony at this point. She’s also pregnant with Kurt and Blaine’s little squirt. Tina and Artie are together now, and their movie just got into Slamdance. Becky, get this, apologizes to Sue, as if she were the one in the wrong, and Sue becomes Vice President to two-termer Jeb Bush. Perseverance matters, Glee says, but it’s only justified by the payoff.

Given the misanthropy of Ryan Murphy’s career, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop on this fantasy of McKinley becoming an arts school with four glee clubs where Will is principal. It’s so ridiculous, I thought, it has to be setup for a Roseanne finale. At some point we’ll flashback to the beginning, where the “current” New Directions, by which I mean Roderick and Head Warbler and company, win Nationals, only this time they won’t win Nationals. After all it’s the hope that’s important.

The dream of success, however each character defines it, is what Glee’s about. That’s what gave Kurt his will to live according to “2009,” and that’s what gave everyone in Glee’s version of Lima the strength to make it through the day. Sue gives a speech at the end about idealism as an act of bravery. Imagine if the episodes dramatized that argument instead of giving it several awards and a husband. But Sue’s right about that. Idealism is hope’s surrogate mother who is pregnant during her Tony win. The speech is a nice bow. Dreaming, yearning, hoping—that stomach-knotting hunger for something more is what has sustained Glee, whether it takes the shape of a show about a failed Broadway actor coming back to a miserable life or an after-school special about diversity or even a post-high-school teen soap in the big city.

But then Mercedes gives a speech that justifies the hyperhappy ending so definitively that the writers would have to have been clueless to renege on it the end. Glee club is what gave her the confidence to accept the life she thinks she deserves, opening for Beyoncé on a world tour. According to that logic, the characters earned these endings. By being in glee club. Or something.

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Suddenly my own hopes farted away, and I realized that tension was the only thing animating the episode. Without the sword of Murphy hanging over the finale, it’s just a parade of outrageous fortune. Nothing matters, because it’s all so easy. In a way it makes sense. It’s Cassandra July or Sue Sylvester writ large. According to Glee, it’s okay to put someone through hell because they’re going to be well off at the end.

It’s difficult even to consider “Dreams Come True” as an episode. It doesn’t have coherent plotting. It’s just a bunch of events. For example, out of the blue Kurt and Blaine thank Sue for getting them back together. Like Figgins giving us one last, “My hands are tied,” I, too, thank Glee for the opportunity to say one last time: Emma needs to get these kids a pamphlet about self-respect.

But Glee has never been a factory for great individual episodes. I could rattle off a list of the top 50 musical numbers. Someone more diligent than I could come up with a hilarious list of the top 50 Sue Sylvester lines. But episodes require a bit more unity, if not consistency, than Glee is capable of. For every scene where Rachel pines for Finn, there’s a scene where Terri’s faking a pregnancy. Characters on Glee are so amorphous they’re subject to Heisenberg uncertainty. We think of electrons as being little balls orbiting a nucleus, but really they’re all in some nebulous cloud, and they’re hard to pin down. Same with Glee characters. We can only know where they are or how fast they’re going at any given time.

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That might make them weak characters in a serial, but it makes them pretty good vessels for projection. I couldn’t tell you three characteristics of Rory (he’s Irish, and he sang a mean “Take Care Of Yourself”), but as I scanned the crowd at the end I kept hoping to find him. That final number is a nice encapsulation of Glee. It’s vaguely inspirational, it’s shot and edited for energy rather than coherence, and it tries to turn whichever cast members happened to show up into a portrait of equality. It’s costumed beautifully at least, with everyone in different garments but all in red and white. I was thrilled to see Lauren Zizes. I think I saw Marley Rose. I was disappointed that Santana and Brittany don’t show up, outside of footage from the pilot, until the final number. I even smiled at Sugar Motta rocking one last fur shrug.

That shrug took me somewhere. I don’t know who Sugar is, where she’s been, or what she wants in life, but I’m happy she got to come back in her traditional costume. That’s what the Glee finale is all about: nostalgia. The first half, “2009,” takes us back to what was happening off-screen during the pilot. We already know Rachel was a budding Tracy Flick, Finn was reluctant to slum, and Will—remember this?—manufactured blackmail to get Finn to join glee club. This time we find out what everyone else is up to, which at first means 13 minutes dedicated to Kurt feeling suicidal, which has the advantage of being the only real subplot in the entire two hours, and then, mercifully, a vibrant variety of characters and tones. As I’ve said time and again, Glee’s greatest subject, other than how time is meaningless (consider the cut to the “present,” which is at the very least a few months later than we left off), is itself. It makes sense that the finale would get nostalgic so quick. I couldn’t stop thinking about what Glee was like, what Glee meant to me, what our hopes for Glee were in 2009.

Withholding Finn is the greatest technical choice in the whole two hours, although the choices that led to the final shot (a sincere dedication to Cory Monteith next to a comically dramatic picture of the deceased old coach under canned applause from the producers to the producers) deserve an entire essay. I hadn’t even realized Finn was missing until the New Directions started complaining about him. It makes it that much more powerful when we do see him, when “2009” gets to the end of the pilot and shows us that first performance of “Don’t Stop Believin.’” There’s no build-up, either. Our first cut into the auditorium is to Finn stepping out of the line to begin the song. It’s overwhelming. And, like a lot of Glee, the power doesn’t come from what it is so much as what it means. Sue and Becky rom-com running toward each other while shoving students into lockers is thematically pretty anti-Glee, or anti-what-Glee-considers-itself anyway. What’s animating the scene is Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter getting one last scene together after six years on this show that’s gone from runaway train to abandoned boxcar.

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The Becky scene is outrageous, but it’s an example of the finale’s buoyancy. There’s an energy to this last hurrah, in the acting and the writing. Lea Michele’s flashback Rachel is magnificent. She invests all of Rachel’s insecurity into the hilarious way she finger-circles at Mercedes telling her she wouldn’t dream to play Black Dorothy. Jenna Ushkowitz’s commitment to Tina’s inner monologue had me in stitches. “My name is Tina Cohen-Chang, but you don’t care…Not even Meryl Streep herself could fake a stutter for three and a half years….Oh, shut up, Tina. Everybody talks to themselves.” Artie auditions with “Pony!”

“Dreams Come True” is a bumper sticker, not an episode, and I’m looking forward to never seeing it again. But I’ll be Youtubing “I Live” every now and then. And I’ll smile about Sue singing, “The Winner Takes It All” to Will as her goodbye. Mostly I’ll miss the excitement of Glee, the enormous cast, the formal experiments, the too-fearless ambition. The bigger Glee’s ideas, the less articulate it became. But every now and then, the show would realize a moment of profound potency. Even at the end Glee could be great for two to three minutes at a time.

Stray observations:

  • One of Emma’s worst ideas for a pamphlet: “Ending It All: Pros And Cons.”
  • Matt is that rare forgotten cast member who shows up in both parts of the finale! He sure got his!
  • Tina justifies bullying Rachel to her wannabe werewolf friend. “She shouldn’t have dissed your otherkin identity.”
  • Rachel rattles off her list of clubs: “Black Student Union…It’s important for me to be immersed in all cultures. I’m an actress.”
  • When Will says art (glee club) is more important than cheerleading, Sue’s so shocked she can only whisper, “How dare you?” Excellent choice.
  • Was Myspace really still big in 2009? Is that part of the joke?
  • Sue tells Becky, “I’ve been treating you like an unpaid intern when I should have been treating you like a paid intern.”
  • Another nostalgic touch: During “Daydream Believer,” Kurt’s dance moves crib from two of his past performances, both greats, “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” and “Bad Romance.”
  • One last meta joke as Rachel explains why she agreed to be Kurt and Blaine’s surrogate: “Obviously there’s a full circle story based on the way I was raised.”
  • Rachel’s competition at the 2020 Tonys: Maggie Smith in Miss Jean Brodie’s Second Prime, Willow Smith in Cabaret, and Anne Hathaway in her one-woman show Anne!

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