“This is not how the story was supposed to end.”
Tonight awarded Jake Puckerman the most meta of lines, as the club congregates towards the end of the episode, hopes dashed. Spoiler alert up front -- New Directions does not win Nationals this year, and that might not have been the story “Glee” was going to tell about these students, but it’s the story they got.
Cory Monteith’s passing is the marker -- everything before it was the “Glee” story in its pure form, and everything that comes after is different because it’s not how the story was supposed to end. Ryan Murphy has addressed this head on, talking about what the final scene was supposed to be of the series, and how he’s had to rework that in light of the loss of Finn. For a lot of Season 5 it’s been partially easy to forget that trajectory has changed -- the kids go about their high school issues, New York continues to explore adulthood -- and the specter of Finn Hudson is mostly left unspoken or very lightly referenced. In “City of Angels” Finn is front and center, invoked as their spirit guide and inspiration for their entire nationals set. Glee circles back to the ever-present “Be A Man” trope that was usually foisted on Finn as the episode begins, with Schue placing the weight of the team on Sam’s shoulders in lieu of Finn. Then Carol and Burt show up to support the team as chaperones and remind them how much Finn cared for them all. With all this emotional heaviness it’s about time to break the tension with a song, and so the gang starts in Lima with Schue singing Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.,” Artie and Blaine chime in and we’re magically transported to Los Angeles, double-decker-bus joyriding around the town. In the year of the Polar Vortex, it’s almost mean that “Glee” gets to gallivant around Los Angeles exposing it’s virtues, but we must remember “Glee” lives in the recent past, in the spring before anyone knew that this winter would last forever.
) Once to their hotel they reunite with Mercedes, who’s riding high on a Sony contract after Kanye West’s housekeeper picked up her CD in a parking lot. We also run into the club’s chief rival this week, Throat Explosion. Their leader, Cirque Du Soleil trained Jean Baptiste, “Bonjours” his way over and zeros in on Blaine (they know each other’s reps from the choir blogs, of course). Skylar Astin is on point in his role of “Jesse St. James Lite” and the tension between him and Blaine is great fun, although it’s a shame when “Glee” wastes such a good nemesis on a single-episode bit.
Blaine leads the club to break onto the stage the night before their competition, although everyone seems lost as to what they should do once on the stage -- sing a song? -- until Sam circles them up and starts to talk about Finn, hoisting the plaque from the choir room up. Their moment is interrupted by Throat Explosion, who want the stage to themselves. Even they address the elephant of Finn, saying that everyone knows the choir’s having a hard year, and while they have sympathy they won’t take it easy on them the next night. You can almost see McKinley shrink into their Season 1 loser selves as they back down and give up the stage.
Competition episodes, when done right, can have some of the best musical moments. Everything is bigger, the threads of a season can illuminate through music. Finn kissing Rachel on stage might have lost them their first Nationals, but the moment was important for “Glee.” Tonight, try as everyone might, the performances are flat. We dispense of the non-winner, there for LOLs Amazonians with a quickie performance of The Go-Gos “Vacation” while dressed like terrifying Vegas showgirls toting beach balls. Next up are real contenders Throat Explosion, with a complicated set of Styx "Mr. Roboto" that morphs into One Republic’s "Counting Stars” with a mid-number rip-away costume change. They’re meant to evoke the glory days of Vocal Adrenaline, but even though they sound good and have superior dance moves to McKinley, the soul isn’t there. The wow isn’t there. They’re better than New Directions technically, but emotionally it’s off.
) Unfortunately, the wow is even less present for McKinley. Carol almost left without watching the set, so overwhelmed with sadness of being around Finn’s friends and the finality of this last Nationals before his closest ones go off and leave McKinley. At the last minute she and Burt come back to cheer on the group, and Carol encourages them to win it for Finn. Blaine takes the lead on Boston’s “More Than A Feeling,” which becomes a duet with Tina. The pair are fine, but they are no Rachel and Finn, and this is the first time you really feel their absence. Neil Diamond’s “America” is more a group effort, and closer to that special something that makes New Directions stand out against the super polished supergroups they are always up against, it just never elevates from a typical episode-ending fun number to something worthy of their competition moments. As they move into U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” Carol points out the set list is all of Finn’s favorite songs. The show underlines that point with the gut punch of clips of Finn as they sing, interacting with particular singers, or in moments of glory and happiness as part of the club. The seniors take the lead, and in the final flourish Sam pulls out Finn’s drumsticks and holds them aloft. Afterwards he can’t keep it together, weeping in Schue’s arms about how he did his best. You know that the best they could do just won’t cut it.
) As a viewer, you’re crying. Finn will always be a symbol on this show, and the wound is still fresh. But what translates to emotional to a TV audience has no bearing on what it was performance-wise in the world of “Glee.” The cracks of McKinley Glee without Rachel, Finn, Kurt or even Santana and Mercedes overpower the hopefulness you have for them. This is not a national championship team. “Glee” can’t get away the easy out of a win for Finn, and watching gold confetti fall on their crestfallen faces is pure “Glee” -- they’re losers, and dreams are dangerous things that can hurt you. This is not the year they wanted, and there’s no magic wand to make it better just because they wish it so.
It’s time for Schue to face Sue and have her officially axe the club. Her decree that they must win Nationals or be disbanded still stands, and she explains that they’ll sell the band’s instruments for computers and convert the choir room into two classrooms now. A defeated Will doesn’t even put up a fight.
“Glee” tries to emphasize the point of this episode in a side story about Marley and how she needs to keep her dreams alive despite. “Glee could have junked that for Mercedes singing a song instead of just getting a scene to tell Marley that she’s a good writer. This episode doesn’t need a Marley story for us to get it, and especially in light of what we know about the future of the show.
With the upcoming transition to New York and a focus on the graduates, we’ve likely seen the last show choir competition in “Glee” history. What a weird way to say goodbye. We don’t need to be rooting for Marley’s success anymore, we’ll probably only hear of it in an offhand comment, if we ever do. As Sue tells Will, he didn’t lose, the game’s just over. “Glee” hasn’t failed per se, it just has nowhere left to go in the story of a high school. That’s underscored by the final moments, where Kurt rushes to tell a still-feuding Santana and Rachel that the club lost and the group will be disbanded, as urgent superhero-type music plays. Could our originals somehow save the day? They can’t, we know, because they don’t have power over McKinley anymore. They can only have what this episode had for Finn; nostalgia. That may be powerful, but they’ve graduated from the world of Lima and the nexus of their power lies in the future, not the past. It’s time for “Glee” to focus its power there too.