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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Amber Riley, Naya Rivera, Heather Morris on Glee

Why Naya Rivera’s Glee journey is still important

Amber Riley, Naya Rivera, Heather Morris on Glee
Image: FOX Image Collection (Getty Images)

Glee never had a shortage of characters, and when Naya Rivera made her first appearance in the pilot, she was basically a featured extra. But even when she was simply dancing backup to Dianna Agron, there was something undeniably magnetic about her performance as brutally honest sophomore Santana Lopez. And when the Fox musical series returned for the second half of its first season, suddenly Santana had a lot more to say and do. Over the next five seasons, Santana found her voice even as she struggled with her sexuality. She became a role model for young LGBTQ and Latinx kids, and Rivera established herself as a standout among the vocally talented cast. (For just a sampling of Rivera’s impressive body of work, here’s a compilation a fan put together of snippets from 85 different songs she performed on Glee.)

Since the story of Rivera’s disappearance first broke on July 8—followed by the news that the 33-year-old’s body had been recovered from Southern California’s Lake Piru Monday morning—a reel of Rivera’s Glee highlights has been running through my mind, with one clip feeling particularly poignant now: In a powerful season three moment, Rivera belts out part of Adele’s “Someone Like You.” “Don’t forget me, I beg,” Rivera pleads. And there’s no way we could.

When reflecting on her Glee audition years later, Rivera said she’d been a fan of creator Ryan Murphy’s FX series Nip/Tuck, but she really “didn’t know anything” about the role she was reading for aside from the fact she would have to sing and dance. As she told Out Magazine in 2015, Rivera auditioned with dialogue meant for another character: “Santana didn’t have any lines in the pilot, so I had to read Mercedes lines.” And it indeed would be a few episodes before we got much more than Santana’s bitchy one-liners and backing vocals.

Rivera had been acting on camera since the age of 4, when she appeared as Hillary Winston in the CBS Sitcom The Royal Family. Though she’d had roles on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, Smart Guy, and The Bernie Mac Show, she wasn’t a household name, nor was she known for her singing. Among the Cheerios, Heather Morris was the more notable name, given her time as one of Beyoncé’s back-up dancers. It was assumed by many that Rivera was hired as a dancer not a singer, but any doubters were soon proven wrong. We got a tease of Rivera’s potential during episode 15’s “Like A Virgin.” But our first real taste of her abilities as a soloist came in episode 18, when Santana and Mercedes work out their rivalry over Puck (Mark Salling) by singing Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine.” There’s no American Idol high-note moment in the performance (that would come a few episodes later when she belts out the climatic solo during a performance of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”), but Rivera more than held her own against vocal powerhouse Riley—and it was instantly noticeable that Rivera was more adept at acting while singing than most of her castmates.

Rivera’s integration into the main cast was solidified in the season one finale, where the glee club reprises their performance of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” It was a bold move, to attempt to recreate the magic of the pilot’s final moments, but the 6-minute medley of Journey songs succeeds by infusing the performance with solos for the newer club members. Santana is given the traditionally quiet lyric “smell of wine and cheap perfume,” but Rivera found a way to turn that mid-verse line into a high-water mark of the season, cementing her—at least in my mind—as one of the series’ best voices.

Over the 2010 hiatus between seasons one and two, Rivera was promoted to a series regular. She did interviews praising Santana’s strength, but expressed a desire for her character to evolve beyond “the mean girl.” Apparently the show’s writers agreed, as they began pulling back the layers of Santana to get at what had made her so hard-edged; first using her character as a chance to talk about body image before fully embracing her romantic feelings for Morris’ Brittany. Kurt (Chris Colfer) struggled with his sexuality in season one, but it wasn’t until the introduction of Darren Criss’ Blaine in season two’s sixth episode that he was given a serious love interest. In Santana and Brittany, LGBTQ fans found a couple to root for, and Rivera played Santana’s conflicted feelings about being queer—and her jealousy over Brittany’s male suitors—with impressive nuance.

Santana’s coming out story comes to a head in season three’s sixth episode, “Mash Off,” when Finn (Corey Monteith) is overheard telling Santana she is too scared to come out. Someone decides to use the information in an attack ad against Sue (Jane Lynch), who is running for Congress (because Glee is gonna Glee). Devastated she’s been being outed before she could tell her parents, Santana channels her anger and grief into the episode-ending mashup of Adele’s “Rumor Has It” and “Someone Like You.” Rivera’s vocals are strong, but the most impressive moments of the scene come in the silences, when she allows a peek into Santana’s vulnerability before letting her emotions fuel her impassioned performance.

In the next episode, “I Kissed A Girl,” Santana comes out to her grandmother: “Abuelita, I love girls—the way I’m supposed to feel about boys.” That “supposed to” falls with all the weight that was intended, Santana’s seasons-long internal struggle manifesting in one phrase as she opens up to her beloved abuela (Jane The Virgin’s Ivonne Coll). Glee could be ridiculously campy, even in moments intended to be serious, but its early seasons were never more heartbreaking than when Santana weeps following her grandmother’s rejection.

“[The fans] should take credit for that,” Rivera said in 2011 of Brittany and Santana becoming such a focal point on Glee. “Who knows if the writers would have taken that relationship so seriously if there hadn’t been such an outpouring for them to get together.” But Rivera was a pivotal piece of that TV-relationship chemistry, crafting Santana as the grounding element opposite Morris’ flighty Brittany. The couple broke up in season four as Santana set up her life in New York City and Brittany went off to MIT, but their season-six wedding seemed almost inevitable given the fervent “Brittana” fanbase. Brittany and Santana’s double wedding with Kurt and Blaine ended with the couples performing Ruby & The Romantics’ “Our Day Will Come,” the song’s title perfectly fitting what those two couples represented to so many young LGBTQ viewers.

Glee has been off the air for five years already. Since the May 2015 finale, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about the series beyond going down a YouTube rabbit hole of performances every so often. So it surprised me how much Rivera’s disappearance and now death hit me. But in writing this piece, it became clear to me how much I needed to see a character like Santana growing up. I was long out of Glee’s target demo even before it premiered, but watching a queer person of color blossom as Santana did over six seasons was cathartic. Just 10 years since its premiere, I’m happy to see the number of diverse queer characters has exploded—but I’ll always be grateful for Santana, and in turn, Rivera. To paraphrase the show’s fast-talking narrator, that’s what I’ll miss from Glee.

A.V. Club Editor in Chief...but really just a She-Ra, Schitt’s Creek, Grey’s Anatomy, Survivor, Big Brother, Top Chef, The Good Place superfan.