Up until yesterday, it wasn’t clear if Naya Rivera and her character, Santana Lopez, would show up on the season finale of Glee. She’d previously appeared in nearly every episode of the fifth season, popping up last week as an Olivia Pope-esque publicist for the show’s star, Rachel Berry (Lea Michele). Off screen, Rivera has been in damage-control mode herself after a deluge of bad press. Last month, rumors that she was fired from Glee after an on-set altercation with co-star Lea Michele spread widely online. That report was denied, but another rumor, that she’d been written out of the show’s season finale, was confirmed, leading to more worrying that Glee will indeed drop its best character for its final season—though series creator Ryan Murphy has just said that she will be back.
She better be. Because without its pistol-whipping diva Santana Lopez, Glee becomes a parody of itself, with a cast full of one-dimensional characters. The show may revolve around Rachel, but Santana’s glaring absence in the finale proved who the real star has been all along.
In Glee’s first season, Murphy introduced Santana as a cold-hearted sidekick to Dianna Agron’s slightly nicer Quinn Fabray, who’d been pitted against Rachel. But as the seasons progressed, Santana eventually overshadowed Quinn, much like she has every other character on the show. She evolved into Rachel’s main rival, one with an edge. And Santana’s unyielding bitchiness has always come across as impressively authentic.
By contrast, Puck, the main rival to Finn Hudson (the late Cory Monteith), has always been more of a one-note bully, the sort of guy who tosses his physically weaker classmates into dumpsters for the sake of appearing tough. It’s more complicated with Santana. When she’s verbally abusive to Rachel, or impulsively slaps Finn across the face, or shoves Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) into a file cabinet in a rage, we get the sense that this destructiveness is tied to deep-seated insecurities about her own self-worth. There’s a poignant moment in “The Quarterback”—the tribute episode to Monteith and the character he played—where Kurt (Chris Colfer) reminds Santana that, despite everything, she was deserving of Finn’s love and kindness. Santana begins to cry and asks him to leave, but her reaction reveals the progress of a character who was once so guarded.
We saw hints of this in Santana’s powerful Season 3 story arc involving her sexuality. In a painfully realistic scene, she came out as gay to her abuelita, who afterward disowned her. Since then, Santana has transformed into the show’s antihero, a necessary foil for Rachel, whose prima donna attitude has only worsened since she landed the lead role in Funny Girl on Broadway. Santana’s always there to bring Rachel back down to Earth with superior performances and harsh words. And it’s been refreshing to watch a show anchored by two female stars.
Beyond her character’s emotional complexities, Glee needs Santana Lopez to help provide the racial diversity that largely disappeared after the show uprooted itself from its original Lima, Ohio setting, leaving behind a multicultural cast of characters for a quasi-reboot now unfolding in New York City. Now, aside from Santana, the only non-white main character is Mercedes Jones. (And after Mercedes—spoiler alert—embarks on a nationwide mall tour, it’s unclear whether she’ll stay on the show.)
In denying the rumors about her departure, Fox said simply that Rivera “remains under contract to Glee.” E! reports that the show’s producers have until June 30 to finalize cast contracts for Season 6. Fox recently announced Glee won’t return until mid-2015, its longest ever break between seasons, and that the show may even see its 22-episode order trimmed—possible indicators that big changes are in the works.
For what it’s worth, Mercedes mentioned in the finale that Santana will join her tour as a back-up singer when it hits Reno. But if last week’s “Old Dog New Tricks” is the last we see of Santana Lopez on Glee, it’ll be a shame that the show’s best character was given such an ambiguous send-off. For five years, she’s made a show that has frequently lost its direction—and more than once become unbearably corny—worth watching. She deserves a better farewell.