Here’s what you missed on Glee: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of diversity, it was the age of minority bashing, it was the epoch of empowerment, it was the epoch of disenfranchisement, it was the season of “Rumor Has It,” it was the season of “Blurred Lines,” it was the spring of Santana Lopez, it was the winter of Will Schuester, we had everything before us, we’d already seen everything before us a hundred times, we were all taking a midnight train going anywhere, we were all running the other way.
The double-doozy of “2009” and “Dreams Come True” was a microcosm of everything that was really wonderful and really terrible about Glee‘s six-season run, on both a storytelling level and a show-running level. I laughed some hearty laughs and cried a lot of real, earned tears — but I also physically cringed, rolled my eyeballs out of my head, and yelled at least twice, and felt mostly underwhelmed when the curtain finally closed. I’m going to briefly recap what happened on the two-parter; you’re not here for a play-by-play of the end of this show. (If you are, you’re out of luck, because there was no real story.) And then I’m going to talk about the takeaway of Glee. Okay? Okay!
“2009” takes us back to season one, when the world was a very different place for everyone, and most especially for Kurt Hummel and Rachel Berry. He hadn’t interned at Vogue, dazzled the staff and students of NYADA, married the love of his life, or even overcome his first infestation of bedbugs in Brooklyn. He was a closeted gay kid with no friends and no hope that it would ever get better than sewing his own clothes alone in his basement. She hadn’t moved to New York, landed a role on Broadway, starred in her own TV show, or felt the brutal emotional pummeling of losing the person you love the most in the world. She was an insecure over-achiever with a million dreams and absolutely no avenue for pursuing them.
Mercedes and Tina and Artie were there too, of course. Mercedes was doing just fine, thank you very much in her church choir. Tina was faking that stutter and hanging out at the “otherkin identity” lunch table. Artie was too, and he loved Tina. “2009” does what the pilot does; it brings those five and Finn together, except it digs deeper into the things we didn’t see back then.
Kurt was getting bullied on the regular, yes; but he wasn’t just crawling out of the dumpster and dusting himself off. He was seriously considering killing himself. (Ending It All: Pros & Cons has to be Emma Pillsbury’s best-worst pamphlet idea ever.) He knew he was gay and the most moving moment of maybe this whole entire season is when little flashback Kurt stands in Burt’s garage and doesn’t have the courage to say out loud the thing he says in his head: “I’m gay, dad. Please don’t stop loving me, but I’m gay.” Burt is the one who told him to join a team, or else he was going to take away his sewing machine, and so after dueting with Rachel on “Popular” from Wicked — sentimental sob! — he decides New Directions is his way forward.
Mercedes and Rachel know right away that they’re going to be competing for every solo in the glee club. When Rachel sees Mercedes signing up for New Directions auditions, she follows her down the hallway talking a zillion words a second about: “It’s like my dad’s always say, the person who’s better than you — or, in this case, the person who’s almost as good as you — should be your best friend.” Rachel goes to Mercedes’ church to watch her blow the roof off the place singing “I’m His Child” with a full choir as her backup. They argue about who gets the solo in their first performance, but here’s a twist: Turns out Will gave it to Rachel because Terri told him to reward the person who was most pathetic.
Tina and Artie only audition for New Directions on a dare. Tina does a full rendition of “I Kissed a Girl” this time, and Artie brings it home, hilariously and amazingly, with “Pony.”
The trickiest thing about “2009,” obviously, was Finn. He was almost not even invited to New Directions; in fact, the club had a meeting without him to see if he should be able to stay. Yeah, he was a jock and a bully and his tagalongs like the Unholy Trinity would surely be following him, but — in an accidentally meta Murphy metaphor — the kids all say Finn only does inexplicably jerky stuff half the time, and anyway, he always follows it up with nice guy things. He wheeled Artie home the day the football team trapped him in that port-a-potty. He did let Kurt take off his Marc Jacobs jacket before tossing him in the dumpster. They decide to let him stay.
While the kids are sorting out their stuff, Sue finds out about glee club and whispers “How dare you” at Will in the most amazing way when he says the arts are just as important as cheerleading, and so that’s the beginning of their feud, even though they were Best Friends (who knew nothing about each other and only played basketball once a week) up to that point.
And so with their six-member dream team assembled, the New Directions perform “Don’t Stop Believin.'” It’s the scene from the pilot episode, with Cory Monteith and everything. I don’t know, man, if that part didn’t make you cry, you may want to check and make sure you’ve got a heartbeat.
One random thing I loved but other people seemed to hate: Blaine was in a coffee shop with Mercedes and Kurt in 2009! He handed Mercedes a sugar packet!
“Dreams Come True”
This wasn’t an episode of television as much as it was a epilogue slideshow of outrageous fortune. It’s basically just flash-forwards into the futures of the original New Directions (plus Blaine) and also Will and Sue. Santana and Brittany and Quinn are glaringly absent except for the curtain call, and I’m going to talk about that after these bullet points.
+ McKinley High becomes a performing arts school and Will becomes the principal and there are four glee clubs and everyone honors him for being the real hero of the show. (Put a pin in this; we’re coming back to it.) And Sam becomes New Directions’ new leader.
+ Sue finds her calling as Jeb Bush’s two-term vice-president and Becky becomes her Secret Service detail. The two reunite in a slow-mo rom-com style hallway run when Sue apologizes and tells Becky, “I’ve been treating you like an unpaid intern when I should have been treating you like a paid intern!”
+ Blaine and Kurt perform at an elementary school for othered kids with the craziest suits and hair you have ever seen in a flash-forward in your life. Crazier than Ginny Weasley’s hair in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. They’s super successful Broadway guys in their future too.
+ Mercedes sells a bazillion records and so Beyonce asks her to open for her world tour.
+ Artie and Tina get back together and one of Artie’s films makes it into the Slamdance Film Festival.
+ Rachel wins a Tony award, becomes the surrogate for Kurt and Blaine’s baby (“Obviously there’s a full circle story based on the way I was raised”) and marries Jessie St. James. The main person she thanks in her Tony acceptance speech — she beat out Maggie Smith, Willow Smith, and Anne Hathaway, by the way — is Will Schuester.
+ And then everyone comes back to honor Will and to dedicate the auditorium at McKinley High to Finn Hudson. Sue gives a pretty great speech about how being idealistic is actually super brave, and that’s not a thing she thought when New Directions first came into her life, but now she knows it’s true. There’s one final musical number and it’s “I Lived” and it’s a pretty great tribute to the hopefulness this show infused in its audience when it was at its very best.
Riese and Mey and I wrote about the nine really wonderful and revolutionary things that Glee accomplished while it was in the air. Riese wrote a beautiful thing about the cultural significance of Glee in her very last recap. And I have written repeatedly this year about how Brittana fandom changed everything for everyone about advocating for authentic queer female representation on TV. But there are a couple of really important things I think we should talk about before we put Glee to bed, and this last episode gives me a reason to do it.
Do you remember on Election Night in 2012 when Fox News was realizing that President Obama had destroyed Mitt Romney and they were flipping out, and whichever blonde-haired lady was on the air at the time, she said to Bill O’Reilly, “How is this happening?” And Bill O’Reilly said these exact words: “It’s not a traditional America anymore. The white establishment is now the minority. You’re going to see a tremendous hispanic vote for President Obama, overwhelming black vote for President Obama, and women will probably break President Obama’s way.”
He said it like it was the worst thing he had ever realized in his entire life, that straight white dudes, basically, could no longer have whatever they wanted and do whatever they wanted just by nature of being straight white dudes. That the culture of oppression and exploitation of minorities that has been the modus operandi of straight white dudes in the United States for literally ever was suddenly being checked by people of color and by women and by gay people. Like it was the most colossal fucking tragedy he’d ever heard of in his life.
Weirdly, I think Glee struggled to come to terms with that reality Bill O’Reilly was freaking out about more than any show on TV. It’s not that Glee was guilty of being about white establishment culture more than other shows; it’s just that Glee‘s creators — to their tremendous credit — invited all kinds of minorities to the party, but then found themselves absolutely bamboozled and infuriated when those minorities refused to take whatever racist or sexist or transmisogynistic or homophobic wankshite was hurled their way. You can see it in the interviews the producers have given over the years, in their social media interactions with fans, in their in-show commentary about out-of-show critics.
Glee is going to be remembered as a show about gay kids, but it was conceived as a show about two straight white men: The hero teacher and the high school quarterback. And of course it was. Fox would never have picked it up otherwise. It was meant to be Troy Bolton’s episodic adventures for the broadcast network set. And so the creators and writers were very obviously floored when it became clear early on that people were either ambivalent about Will Schuester or thoroughly annoyed at his (and by extension, Finn’s) white knight shenanigans.
Glee’s viewers wanted way less Will and way more Santana and Brittany and Quinn and Mercedes; way less straight white dudes swooping in to save the day and way more women working through complicated issues on their own; way less white establishment stories and way more underutilized minority character stories.
Feminist frustration reached its tipping point when Finn outed Santana and then made her sit through an entire episode of men singing songs at her about how they were cool with her being a lesbian.
The writers could have reevaluated at that point. They could have gone, “Hmm. Maybe our viewers care more about seeing the story of the Latina lesbian working out her sexuality stuff and triumphing over adversity on her own than the story of the straight white quarterback being a hero to the gays. Maybe they care more about seeing a woman with OCD wrestle with that and learn to manage it than they do about seeing the straight white teacher ‘fix’ her. Maybe they care more about seeing the star of this show fight her own battles and emerge victorious than having the men in her life rob her of her autonomy repeatedly and set her feet on the right path, as determined by them.”
Instead, the writers antagonized viewers inside the show by having Tina say “Hashtag Glee hates women.” And Brittany call out the “Lesbian Blogger Community.” And any time they were questioned about it in real life, their answers were flippant and annoyed.
In a very strange way, it’s like Bill O’Reilly and Ryan Murphy shared a nightmare.
To be fair, I think this final season was a pretty big apology tour for Glee. Mercedes pushed Rachel back to New York, for example. It was Unique and a whole trans choir who reached out to Coach Beiste. All the gay couples got married. But it was too little, too late, and Will being such an enormous focus of the final episode — at one point, half the cast stares at him adoringly with their heads in their hands while he sings “Teach Your Children” with his ukulele — it’s pretty clear that the pleas of viewers never really sank in.
Find me one person who would rather have seen a celebration of Will Schuester over a celebration of Santana or Brittany or Quinn. Seriously, one person. You can search for a hundred years and never find such a human. They do not exist. That Quinn was never even mentioned in the context of Santana and Brittany’s wedding, and that the three of them only appeared for a nanosecond in the finale is one of the top five stupidest things Glee did over the course of six whole seasons. Will was only ever a hero to these writers.
But now here’s an amazing thing: At the end, the end didn’t even matter. I watched the final episode of Glee with two of my best friends. We laughed and we cried and we got drunk on Faberry cocktails and stayed up half the night talking about TV and true love and whether you should have as much sex as you want or get caught up on all your work deadlines first if you get your hands on a Time-Turner. I go to these two women when I need a giggle and when I need a shoulder to rest my weary head on. And I wouldn’t have met either of them if it hadn’t been for Glee.
And I know you have that too. I know it because you told me, in person and over email and on Tumblr and Twitter and in all those fan fiction questionnaires. You said Brittany and Santana and Rachel and Quinn and Rachel and Unique and Mercedes changed what you hoped for and how you felt like you deserved to be treated and you found safe online spaces to celebrate that brand new feeling.
Before the episode started, I asked if my friends remembered where they were when the pilot premiered, and they both said yes. And we all agreed that was super weird, because none of us could remember where we were when we watched the pilot of any other show. It’s like how you’re not actively trying to remember every detail of your first date with someone you’ll fall in love with, but 20 years later, you can still relay every detail. The things Glee got right, it got so right, in a way no show had gotten right before. In a twist of ultimate irony, Glee made us so brave, as individuals, and so strong, as a community, that we found the strength and courage to demand that it treat us right. Glee hated us a lot of the time, but it formed us in the fire of its own hopeful crucible!
The legacy of Glee isn’t this finale. The legacy of Glee is on our iPods; and in our richly rewarding fandom communities; and in our hearts. It’s also in the avalanche of real-life marriage equality and the end of DOMA and DADT and in the growing body of anti-discrimination legislation that’s being passed here in America. None of those things would be a reality if public opinion hadn’t shifted toward gay people, and public opinion would have never, ever shifted toward gay people if Glee hadn’t started this queer revolution on broadcast TV.
So much has changed since Glee premiered, and in so many exciting ways. And it’s just going to keep on getting better.
We don’t need anyone to tell us what happened with Santana and Brittany and Quinn and Unique. We already know. We’ve known them better than the writers all along.
Santana Lopez is one of my top five favorite things to happen on TV, and the reverberations of her remarkable relationship with Brittany will echo around the internet until Tara Maclay descends from heaven to take us all home. I’ll miss those two a whole awful lot. But I won’t miss you, because we’re in each other’s lives forever now. The best gift Glee gave us was each other.
Glee punched our ticket to the midnight train, but we’re the ones who’ll go on, and on, and on.