There's no perfect way to do this. "Glee" suffered one of the harshest blows a TV series can withstand, and had to move forward in paying both respects to a lead actor and a fundamental character. Instead of dealing with the shock-and-awe of a character death, or the Very Special Episode that deals with the whys (Kurt tells us that doesn't matter in a particularly meta way in his voiceover, and a smart choice), "Glee" jumps right into grief, something a lot of TV shows don't get a chance to deal with so upfront. "Glee," of course, frames that grief around both the interpersonal relationships of the characters, and the sharing of music.
We cold-open on the whole group, black-clad, singing "Seasons Of Love" from "Rent." This is one of those dream "Glee" songs, the kind fans have put on "must sing" lists since the show began -- ensemble piece, musical theater classic, young and emotional. The cast sounds stellar, and the staging is reminiscent enough of the iconic "Rent" staging but different enough to give it its own weight. The only sour on the whole moment is remembering why the song had to happen now.
"Seasons" is followed in short order by Mercedes' powerful vocals on "I'll Stand By You" by The Pretenders. You can't have an emotional episode of this ilk without Amber Riley because no one else can delivery the gospel-style power required like she can, and boy does she deliver on this number.
We continue on with everyone's various ways to deal with grief. Some are less sympathetic -- Tina is so emotionally removed she's only focused on her own fashion, and some are silent or only shared through sing-alongs and touches and looks (Blaine's silent but clutching Kurt's hand by the final number, the newbies are a solid support on all songs, Sam and Artie duet on James Taylor's "Fire & Rain"). Some, like Quinn or Brittney, are a gaping hole since they aren't featured in the episode. Mr. Schue is so hyper-focused on helping his students grieve that he hasn't grieved himself. Even at Emma's insistence, he only allows himself to break down when he's totally alone, clutching Finn's letterman jacket that he stole from Santana (and Kurt, who gave it to Santana).
Puck is angry. Puck is furious. Puck rips the memorial tree Sue planted out of the ground on the back of his motorcycle because it's "too small" and because without Finn he doesn't know how to be a good guy anymore. He's drinking and snarling, and only Bieste can calm him down enough to get back on track. She tells him he has to learn how to take care of himself now, and to remember Finn as a guide. His performance of Bruce Springstein's "No Surrender" is one of the most apt musical choices the show has made in a while, and Puck plays it to Finn's empty chair, singing of blood brothers and promises. In the end, he rides off into the sunset to enlist in the Army to find his way, reminiscent of Finn's choice to enlist after Season 3 and his core was shocked when he learned about the circumstances of his father's death.
Santana is a different kind of angry, and perhaps the edge of guilty. She can't handle the continuous mourning, and flees during Sam and Artie's duet only to refocus her grief on Sue's removal of the hallway memorial. Enraged, she tells Sue exactly how much she hated her over the years, and that Finn hated her too, before pushing her into a file cabinet and fleeing. Back in the choir room she gives a somewhat typical Santana speech that, while underlyingly loving, making fun of Finn before launching into The Band Perry's "If I Die Young." One of the prettiest vocals of the night, she can't finish the number, and screams and runs when the club tries to physically comfort her. Kurt finds her in the auditorium, guilty that she can't even be nice for one day and say the sweet things she wrote down about Finn -- like that he was so kind of her when they slept together in Season One, or that he once helped her avoid embarrassment at school over sitting on a slice of chocolate cake. Kurt reminds her it's okay to be kind, and leaves her wrapped in Finn's letterman jacket when she can't stand to be around people any longer. Her anger even opens up Sue, who regrets that she never got to tell Finn she did, in fact, like him.
Kurt is tasked with one of the greatest challenges of this episode -- the exposition. He voice-overs the post-"Seasons of Love" start framing the time (three weeks post the funeral) and the construct (we won't learn Finn's cause of death and the group is gathering for a glee club memorial in Lima) before having to deal with a school full of a grief, a NYC apartment full of grief and a home full of grief in Ohio. He gathers with Carol and Burt to clean out Finn's room, supporting his father who weeps that he never hugged Finn enough, and Carol who rocks on the floor over being a mother with no child. Kurt is no stranger to loss or the threat of it -- and his grief is the continuous kind, the accepted. He knows how to keep going from this, even if it hurts. He rescues Finn's letterman jacket from the trash, wrapping it around himself and remembering how it signified his own sort of superhero. Now that hero is gone, and Kurt doesn't even need to hold on to the jacket for very long before he's ready to accept and move forward, even though he shares that he'll never stop missing Finn.
Rachel doesn't appear until the final acts, and her voice comes first, a quiet strength as the club gathers around a locker memorial. She begs them not to use kid gloves on her, and sings a gut-wrenching rendition of "Make You Feel My Love," the Adele version of the Bob Dylan tune. It was the first song she sang with Finn in the car, she says, and before Finn she used to sing all alone. She's dressed not like new, New York Rachel in her moments in the episode, but a slightly more refined Lima Rachel -- Finn necklace, silks and peter-pan collars. This is Neverland, after all, and Rachel's mourning is still one of shock. She still talks to Finn, she tells Mr. Schue. She doesn't know how she's doing at all. Her plan to make it big, follow her dreams and then show up back home to Finn in the end are lost forever now. He tells her something better might come along, but she doesn't think so. He was her person. There's nothing easy about watching Rachel (and effectively Lea Michele) deal with this moment, but through her grieving and everyone's before her, we come closer to acceptance. It's not a stage of grief everyone can achieve, but at least we see everyone taking the steps.
There's no perfect way to do this sort of an episode, but "Glee" gave Cory and Finn a heartfelt send-off the way they knew best. Where "Glee" often falls shorts is continuity, and this is their greatest test. Cory and Finn were part of the great heartbeat of "Glee," and hopefully instead of letting this loss throw off their rhythm, they'll forge ahead. Let the characters grow from this, let this sit with them forever, and let "Glee" move forward as something that brings joy but doesn't forget its new foundation.