Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Gleeks on writing: The season finale

“Nine months ago, there were five of you in here,” Will Schuester tells his twelve students on last night’s season wrap up of Glee. “And we sucked. I mean, we really sucked.” For those of us who have been privileged to follow the show from its inception this past fall, we know the truth of this as much as the characters, as images of Artie singing “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” as his co-stars do semi-cartwheels over his chair immediately spring to mind. In particular, those of us who are trained as writers, theorists, and critics have seen the plot evolve and mutate, seen the characters grow from simple stereotypes to surprising, human individuals.

The title of the episode is “Journey,” but for we writers, perhaps a better name would be “Trajectory” (and not a bad name for a rock band either). As first seasons of TV shows tend to do, Glee has taken time to try new styles and tones, mixing in guest characters as part of its ongoing stories. In fact, I’ve asked myself multiple times while watching the last nine episodes whether or not the plot was deviating too much. Why has Quinn been in the background for most of the last nine episodes? Why do Kurt and Finn’s parents have to hook up? What’s with Jesse and what does he really want? If anything, though, this finale episode proves that even though production schedules and other factors inevitably interfere with TV writing, the folks at Glee know they are creating something that is not episodic, but ongoing. From the pilot to the emotional final note of this last installment, the authors know that they need to finish what they started. And they do.

As we’ve seen before, Glee doesn’t like to go for the expected. Still, I sat down to watch the finale concerned that the occasion and the content that needed to be wrapped up would drift into the realm of predictability and sentimentality. There’s regionals and all that’s at stake, Rachel’s identity angst, and of course, the arrival of Quinn’s baby. In the hands of less capable writers, the episode would have built toward the performance at regionals and the inevitable opening of the envelope – the climatic moment would be the revelation of the winner and in the midst of all this, we’d also get a detailed scene of Quinn’s delivery, complete with lots of sobbing and tissues. Instead, all of these things are over halfway through the episode. Structurally, it shows that in fiction, be it literature or TV, time matters. When you’ve got this much to deal with in forty five minutes, choices have to be made – but the way that you as a writer make them can also clinch the reader’s satisfaction as well.

In dealing with this large amount of material, the finale also demonstrates that Glee is still not afraid to take risks with audiences. In my last few Glee reports, I’ve written about the relationship between Rachel and her birth mother Shelby, as well as the entanglement of Jesse as a pawn in Shelby’s plan to be reunited with her. In spite of how much I enjoy the theme of parental relationships, I’ve repeatedly questioned why this plotline even exists to begin with. Not anymore. Spoilers withheld, Shelby’s story and the progression of plot development from back at the beginning of the show converge in a way that, like so many other resolutions on the show, makes us realize that these writers knew what they were doing all along. In the end, the characters remind us of who they’ve become throughout the course of the episodes – how they have switched and reversed roles, and become better people. Their signature cover of "Don't Stop Believing" is even revived, performed this time by not just those five students, but the entire ensemble trading leads on the verses. Musically and plotwise, the story comes full circle, and to me, this ending felt unified, and movingly so.

Surely there are people who weren’t stunned by the outcome of the episode. Personally, I was. The conclusion leaves open tons of possibilities for the forthcoming seasons – a further potential conflict with Rachel and Shelby (should we have the pleasure of seeing Idina Menzel in future episodes), a new relationship for Emma, a possible shift in objectives for Sue. The best move made in this area, perhaps, is Vocal Adrenaline’s expected triumph over the gang in the regionals competition. While I still prefer my version of disqualification and mass sabotage proposed in my last installment, these characters still need something to work toward, just as all characters need things to work for. If they get want they want too easily, we may feel momentarily happy for them, but the story won’t be very interesting. As Will himself points out, “Life is really just a beginning and an end…and a whole lot of middle.” Isn’t that the case for our work as writers, too? It’s not what we remember most, but what’s in the middle is the most important part. Without plot – especially without an interesting, unpredictable one – there is no beginning or end.

Some final non-writing related season wrap up notes:

Best Sue Sylvester Quote: It's a tie:

1. “I’m having a hard time listening to anything you’re saying right now. Your hair reminds me of a briar patch, and I keep expecting little racist Disney animals to pop out singing songs about bein’ down on the bayou.”


Best Song: Vocal Adrenaline’s performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which provides not only an enticing song and dance number complete with symbolic choreography, but a surprisingly fitting soundtrack for a pivotal moment in the story.

Best potential theoretical essay: “‘I Don’t Menstruate.’ ‘Neither Do I.’ Sue Sylvester, Gender Roles, and Judith Butler.”

My short list of songs that should be performed on Glee:

“One Way Or Another” – Blondie (Sue)

“Let’s Groove” – Earth Wind and Fire (Will)

“Celebrate” – Three Dog Night (Finn and Rachel)

“Toucha Toucha Touch Me” (Emma) OR: A Rocky Horror Picture Show episode, starring Will and Emma as Brad and Janet and featuring Finn and Puck as Rocky and Frankenfurter respectively. Brittany and Santana as Columbia and Magenta, maybe?


  1. I'll agree that they pulled it all together nicely. And I'm willing to suspend my disbelief that Quinn somehow managed to have her baby in under 6 minutes, while Vocal Adrenaline was doing Queen. The depiction of Olivia Newton-John as an insensitive diva was absolutely hilarious, and I can never resist a good cover of "To Sir With Love."

  2. It's a musical. Suspending disbelief kind of comes with the package.

  3. I was actually pretty nervous about the season finale, but ended up wowed. Loved getting to see the full performances at Regionals! And I thought that Sue's nice turn at the end was deserved and very much in character.