A few weeks back, I argued that Glee is at its best when it doesn’t really try to tell any specific story about these characters but, instead, tells an archetypal one, a story that plays big moments we’ve all lived through, then forces these characters through them as well. “Goodbye,” a messy, moving, sad, plotless, entrancing hour of the show, is this principle exemplified. Pretty much nothing happens. The kids graduate. They decide what their future will be. They sing songs. They split off to all ends of the country. Yet in the moment, this all feels momentous, because it felt momentous when we went through it. When we graduated, we felt as lost and excited as these kids, knowing that the world was in front of us but also knowing how terrifying that all was. And we also knew we could fail.
The specter of failure has always been present in the best episodes of Glee. It’s a show about kids who love to perform, but teenage performers likely have even worse “hitting it big” stats than teenage athletes. Even those who are able to make a living doing what they love—and we’re talking just a basic, middle-class living where the bills barely get paid—are few and far between. When the show has even allowed for the possibility of this, it’s been at its strongest. I get that, on one level, it’s a show about the joy of performing, but joy is rarely dramatically interesting. The show has too often turned to melodrama to goose the proceedings, but that has a poor track record here, too. As a show about tooth-rottingly saccharine teenagers, this show is awful. As a melodrama about those teenagers confronting important issues, it’s hit-and-miss. But as a show about these characters confronting the fact that they could end up never doing what they love for a living, could end up right back in Lima, working at the Shop ’n’ Save, it’s often been wonderful.
This approach works best when the show has contrasted those characters with Rachel Berry. Rachel is the girl who gets out. That hasn’t been in doubt since the pilot. She’s the girl with the big voice and the hunger for fame (I can’t quit you, Smash) who’s going to go to New York and make it if she has to hold people down and extract their teeth. She’s got the talent, sure, but more importantly, she’s got the persistence. The show has done a fairly bad job of portraying this persistence—she gets into NYADA essentially because she wants it hard enough—but it’s done a good job of portraying her essential drive. She’s driven and motivated, and she knows that from small things, mama, big things one day come. The few times we’ve spent time alone with Rachel Berry, she’s been annoying as hell, but she’s also constantly been working toward those big things.
This is one of the things that’s hard to take about her, I’ll admit. I’ve always liked Rachel a lot, even when she was being insufferable, because in its heart of hearts, Glee knows that the people who annoy you most with their big dreams and how frequently they’re working on them are often the people who achieve those big dreams. Yes, there are people out there who are completely delusional (and the series has some of those, too), but there are also people who seem destined to live out their dream lives. These people are annoying, because how many of us get to live out those dream lives? But the show is very good at reminding us—often clunkily, I’ll admit—that the successful people of the world, nine times out of 10, are the Rachel Berrys. They’re the people who thought non-stop about what it would take to become an actor or a Super Bowl-winning quarterback or the president. And while we admire that quality once they’re up there, accepting an Oscar or delivering their inauguration speech, we find it intensely irritating in real life. Many of us don’t even know what we want for breakfast in the morning. Who wants to deal with somebody who knows exactly where the next four decades will take them?
What I liked most of all about “Goodbye” was that it was remarkably clear-eyed about who these people are and what they’re capable of. They’re all capable of great things, but they’re not all capable of stardom. The moment when Kurt opens his letter from NYADA and finds he hasn’t been accepted is as good a gut-punch as I can think of for this series. We’ve been led to think that Kurt will be right there, beside his friend, making their way through the mean streets of New York. But he won’t be. Oh, sure, he might move there at some point. (In fact, I suspect he will.) But he’ll always be one step behind Rachel, and that might breed jealousy or resentment or something that wouldn’t seem possible in the Kurt we have right now. This moment of struggle is the next step in Kurt Hummel becoming the man he will be. The process that began back in the first episodes (memorably revisited tonight in a scene where Burt performs “Single Ladies” for his son) isn’t over yet. He came out, but that wasn’t the end of his journey. Now, he gets to see who he is when all his dreams are tossed into doubt.
The series gives us resolutions for the other seniors, too. Brittany will repeat her senior year—her GPA, after all, is 0.0, and she never goes to class. Santana has a nest egg her mother socked away for her over the years, one that means she can do whatever she likes and not just attend the University of Louisville because it’s her only option. Mercedes is off to L.A., to become a backup singer for an indie record label. Puck manages to graduate, and in and of itself, that’s a triumph, I suppose (though I’d call bullshit on the notion that the kiss from Quinn is enough to magically help him pass the test—or that the show really needs to revisit this relationship yet again). Quinn’s heading to Yale—we knew that—but her legs are getting stronger, and she’s going to be the other McKinley representative on the East Coast, there to drop in on Rachel (or vice versa) when needed. The underclassmen are all there to guard the legacy of what the seniors built, and the teachers say goodbye to yet another generation of kids they’ve grown close to, forever sending young people off into an uncertain world.
To some degree, this is all unmotivated. These are just scenes that are there for characters to tie off relationships. But since some of these relationships have been building since the first episode—Will finally admits to Finn what a creeper he was in the pilot!—that more or less works for the show. The series can be plotless when it’s nailing the emotional moments, and it more than nails the various goodbyes. (I didn’t expect to be affected by the scene where Quinn and Sue say farewell to each other, but I was. They’ll probably see each other again, but it will be as fellow adults, not like this.) Indeed, the stuff that doesn’t work probably consists of the scenes where the actual plot butts in on the proceedings, like Puck managing to graduate or Brittany explaining why she’s sticking around WMHS for another year. This isn’t to say that these scenes are bad, necessarily, but they definitely stick out in the midst of an episode that aims more for something like an emotional mood piece about the various sadnesses of growing up than anything like a traditional TV structure.
The show knows how to do emotion, though, so instead of feeling like a bunch of disconnected scenes, the episode feels more like a bunch of minor story points coming to an end, propelled along by the sight of these kids spending their last week in this school. Yeah, it’s cheesy to have them singing “Glory Days” up on stage while graduating. (Not to mention that the song is literally about adults gone to seed looking back on their own high school days; I’d say that’s the show suggesting failure again, but I sort of suspect Born In The U.S.A. is the only Springsteen album the show’s writers have listened to.) But it also gets at the feel of that moment, of what it’s like to have that diploma in your hand and realize one chapter is over and another is beginning, all from the simple swipe of a tassel from one end of a cap to another. You’ve worked hard to get to this moment, sure, but that doesn’t mean what comes next is any more certain.
If there’s a reason it feels a little shocking that the show only has Rachel succeed in getting into NYADA (and/or the Actors’ Studio), it’s because the series has been so hellbent on just giving the characters things they haven’t really earned this season (which might be my main complaint with a season of TV that was all over the place). When we see the kids performing, it seems like they’re the best in the world, and now they have the Nationals trophy to prove it. But the more I look at this, the more I think it’s just the show getting back to its season-one roots, when the musical numbers were more explicitly occurring in a kind of fantasy space. The kids aren’t actually performing at graduation, but that’s how they feel. Rachel isn’t actually singing about being alone as she gets off the train to New York, but that’s how she feels. The show uses pop music to capture the heightened moments of adolescence, and when it settles down and just does that, it can be transcendent, like few other shows on TV.
There’s a character I left out of my big paragraph explaining what happens to everybody above, and that’s Finn. He doesn’t get into the Actors’ Studio, which, of course, is the only outcome that makes any damn sense. But instead of going to New York with his fiancée, he decides that the open-ended parenthesis that is his father’s tragic death needs a closing parenthesis. He’s joining the Army. He’s going to try to put right what went wrong in his father’s life. After he puts Rachel on the train to New York—in her bright red outfit—he’s going to head off to Fort Benning, presumably to his own new future and new experiences (and, God help us, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.-style spinoff).
It’s a gutsy choice, not least because Finn’s mentioned this possibility exactly once—earlier in the season (so early I don’t remember which episode), when the news that his father’s death hadn’t been as noble as he’d thought first came up. Bringing it up again requires the audience to have something of a long memory (especially without the “previously on” montage), and it requires the actors to sell an idea that seems a little preposterous, at least until you start to realize that Finn has never been the guy to break out and be a star. He’s always been the guy who’s the steady support for the girl who is the star, the lummox who got to be the lead in high school because there was a need for a guy who looked like him to play the lead. But there are a million guys who look like him in the Actors’ Studio.
Cory Monteith and Lea Michele kill this scene. They kill it. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen on TV this year, and it’s so good that even if everything else had sucked, this would have been at least a B. It’s the emotional equivalent of my much-beloved “Bohemian Rhapsody” sequence, especially for how it goes on and on and on, and never seems like it’s going to come to an end, because you can see one whole set of dreams dissolving in front of these kids’ eyes, replaced by another, much more uncertain one. That’s the way the dreams you have at 18 are, though. They gradually fall apart, and then you build new ones. Or maybe you get caught up in the old ones and wish for a way to go back, to punch in the code on the time machine you don’t have. To quote Springsteen again: Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?
So that’s where we leave the characters, with Lima as the center of their universe but no longer the planet they all live on. Rachel is the final girl, all alone in New York City, and the choice to close on her figure, clad in unmistakable red, receding into the distance, drives home the uncertainty of what’s coming. But what’s great is that the uncertainty doesn’t stem from whether Rachel will be a successful Broadway actress. She will be. She’ll get there. The question is more just how much she will change to get to that point, just how much she’ll have to give away to get what she’s always wanted. The thing that makes “Goodbye” as good as it is is that if the show plays it right, this is the point where Glee stops being a diverting TV show and starts to get interesting.
Finale grade: A
Season grade: C+ (I actually averaged my grades and arrived at this point after deciding to give the season this grade. It seems appropriate. Wildly ambitious at times, not always successful, but always trying weird, new things. I’m also fairly certain this is the only time I will give a season of television two “A”s and two “F”s.)
- Like our last two season finales, this one is written and directed by Brad Falchuk, and the man knows his way around a Glee finale. He makes everything feel suitably epic, while still keeping it emotionally grounded. No easy feat, that.
- I kind of wish I had given last week (which had much larger issues than this one) the “A-,” since this one really earned the “A.” That said, I did find the whole Puck thing kind of a waste of time, though I’m glad the show at least saw that through.
- Just tell us how the songs were, VanDerWerff, God!: I really like that New Radicals song, and I thank the show for digging it up, even if it didn’t go with “We’ll kick your ass in!” in the end.
- Straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Glee: Let’s just say everybody was pretty! Except in the unflattering graduation gowns. (Then again, is there a person alive who can make a graduation gown look good?)
- The sole hint of a season-four plot that might exist came when Sue and Roz seemed like they might be teaming up to take down Figgins. I hate this plotline already!
- Just as last week worked because it foregrounded Will, I was glad this episode mostly pushed him to the background. He sings a Rod Stewart song, has a scene with Finn, and gets out of the way.
- Okay, it was weird when all of the supporting characters I do not care about were there at the station to see Rachel off. It was like the opposite of the reprise of the "Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat" number that so memorably opened the episode (and focused just on the five original glee club members).
- Some of you have asked if you can watch last week’s episode in isolation. I would say yes, and that goes doubly for this one.
- Thank you, again, for reading these reviews. I know I don’t make all of you happy all of the time, but I give my honest, unvarnished reactions in this space, and I like to think that’s why you keep coming back. I was going to dump Glee next season because I wasn’t sure I could ever find it in myself to love it again, but the closing images of this episode made me think next year could be really interesting—if not an outright train wreck. So we’ll see you when we see you. Good luck at NYADA!