Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Santana Lopez and What Lies Beneath: Part 1


It’s difficult to argue that the character who has progressed the most, from the Pilot to “Original Song,” could be anyone other than Santana Lopez.  And I don’t necessarily mean in character arc - although you could make an argument for that - but rather, in the function and purpose of character.  Santana Lopez has successfully moved from a background player, good for an off-the-cuff laugh and a standby for villainy, to a full-fledged, three-dimensional fixture, with hopes and fears, and a very real presence on the center stage of what Glee presents to us every Tuesday night.

We first met Santana Lopez in the Pilot - along with most of our merry band of characters - but she was barely an entity on our screens, a sycophant of Quinn Fabray, who existed purely to make snide remarks and antagonize Our Heroes.  Historically speaking, this has been the sole function of Santana.  She jibes and sneers, for two purposes: either for comedy, bringing snark and vinegar to contrast with the schmaltz of the underdogs on their journey, or for villainy, providing obstacles in bitchiness for the underdogs to overcome.

In short: Santana’s function on Glee has largely been two-dimensional - effective, but two-dimensional.  She was a background character, riding two-by-two with Brittany in a little side car to the show itself, acting as the jesters who are meant to entertain us while we’re occupied with the problems of the Royal Court. 

But there are two seminal moments in Glee’s history where the showrunners chose to make Santana a main character - or at least, a developed character with more than just one dimension.  And it’s because of these two moments that I refuse to accept Santana’s role on the show as simply a supporting character and nothing more.

The first of these moments is in “Sectionals.”  As the first 13 episodes came to a close, Santana shed her identity as a villain, admitting to her peers that Glee Club is the best part of her day.  It’s a lovely little confession, and an intelligent choice for the writers to make - because it does move Santana out of Unlikeable Territory and into someone the audience wants to relate to, and understand.  It’s this moment that presents us with the notion that Santana belongs in the Glee Club, just like any of the other kids - that she is not a snake amongst underdogs, but also an underdog herself. 

If the show had been canceled after the first 13, you could argue that Santana’s arc would have been complete - she became an embedded part of the Glee Club, and admitted it.  Mission accomplished.  But of course, the show continued after that moment, and there was more on the horizon for Ms. Lopez.

The Back 9 did little to develop Santana as a character, although we were treated to more screentime in general, and her first turns as a soloist.  But she still functioned primarily in scheming and bitchery, with Brittany by her side, as she meddled in others’ storylines. 

But then Season 2 began.  And the second moment, the key moment, where the writers chose to make Santana Lopez more happened in “Audition.”  And that, ladies and gentleman, is Santana’s Summer Surgery.  Now, what’s unfortunate is that this event has only paid off in a league of tasteless barbs from Sue, but the root of the situation is a choice that the writers made, and need to follow through on.  Because Santana Lopez, in “Audition,” became a 17-year-old girl who got breast implants. 

The crux of the issue is that prior to that moment, Santana was not a character who seemed like she would spring for that kind of surgery.  In fact, when “Audition” aired, I cried foul.  Based on what the show presented us about Santana Lopez, she had far too much self-confidence - swagger, even, to make a boob job even remotely believable.  But the writers went there, and backed it up with the idea that Santana just wanted people to notice her.

And this was the final brick laid to make Santana a very real, very three-dimensional character to be taken seriously on this show.  Because what does it say when the (seemingly) most self-confident character gets breast implants so that people will notice her more?  This isn’t rhetorical - it says that Santana Lopez, again, is just like anybody else in that Glee Club.  Buried deep underneath all that snark is someone who looks at herself and doesn’t always like what she sees.  Who just wants people to appreciate her.  Who doesn’t know if she’s good enough.

Santana Lopez not only belongs in Glee Club, but she belongs on Glee, the show, as a character who is sometimes insecure and sometimes misguided, but who isn’t as much of a Top Dog as she lets on.  The true strengths of Santana as a three-dimensional character lie in her insecurities, in her vulnerabilities - in the things that therefore make her a part of the Glee message as a whole.

Since “Audition,” the writers have tried to bring Santana’s journey to the forefront, with varying amounts of success and failure.  There was an inherent problem, though, in the wake of Santana’s shift to a character with onscreen depth: the writers were still wielding her in the same way she always had been wielded.  Santana’s Season 2 function, barring “Duets” and “Sexy,” has still manifested itself in accessory to others’ storylines.  She is brought down by Quinn in her pursuit of Head Cheerio.  She is used to meddle in Finn and Rachel’s complicated romance.  She quits the Cheerios not because we really know she wants to, but because Finn swoops in and convinces her.  She interferes with the Finn and Quinn romance and uses her immunity to mono in order to break up Sam and Quinn.

Santana, while having the hallmarks of a fully-fledged character, has not been treated as such in Season 2.  And yet, the writers kept dancing around development through random reaction shots and a few scenes here and there that made us all tilt our heads at the television and say, “What’s going on with Santana?”  We had no idea.  Was she in love with Finn?  Was she in love with Brittany?  Was she just lonely?  Was she in some sort of gay panic?  Was she jealous of Quinn, or Rachel?  Evidence pointed in all directions, because her purpose was always secondary in favor of other characters.

Consider as well that we’ve seen Santana cry more in Season 2 than ever before - but until “Sexy,” every single instance was used in favor of comedy.  We were not allowed to feel sympathetic for Santana until “Sexy” - because we weren’t let inside Santana’s head until “Sexy.”  Sure, we got Santana narration in “Silly Love Songs,” but all she did was put on a nurse’s outfit (why, again?) and swipe a wrecking ball through Sam and Quinn’s relationship with a few well-placed kisses.  Santana was, as usual, a device.

But for the drought of understanding that has plagued Santana’s character since Day 1, we were inundated with a flood of insight in “Sexy,” for better or for worse.  It seems, in the wake of this revelation, Santana’s role on the show can only increase as she bears the weight of a substantial and impacting storyline.  And, as a viewer, to know that this increasingly prominent character started out with only a sneer and an eyeroll is hugely rewarding. 

It is this journey from background to forefront that makes Santana Lopez’s character remarkable, regardless of developmental consistency along the way.  No matter what, Santana is now as much a part of the Glee message as any other character - perhaps more so - and is finally reaping the benefits of empathy as a fixture in the show’s pantheon of relatable teens.  Santana may still operate as a jester, but she is also now allowed, as a character, to shed her proverbial clown suit and show the world what lies beneath.  That is the true function of a three-dimensional character - and with one as fascinating as Santana, can be, and should be, developed compellingly in rewarding storylines.




  1. It seems like Santana's going to be the latest entrant in the joust for "second-most-important girl in Glee"; whereas Kurt has been #2 among the guys fairly consistently, the position of #2 girl has never consistently settled on anyone.

    In the F13, it was clearly Quinn. In the B9, I think Mercedes would probably be the best candidate, though nobody was really dominant. In the first part of season 2, I think it was probably Brittany. Now in the second half Santana's getting a major push, coinciding with Quinn's return to prominence as part of the Triangle from Hell.

  2. Thank you thank you for making sense of that boob job.

  3. I figured from the start that was part of the boob job, and I found the way that the characters reacted to it hilarious. The one thing you have to remember about Glee: things will make a lot more sense 5 to 10 episodes from now.

  4. Thanks for writing this. Santana is undoubtedly my favorite character although it's really her relationship with Brittany that interests me the most. The start of this relationship was when she really came into her own as character, as a fleshed out human being.

    Although there are still ways to go (Finn fouled up her coming out) things are different now. The writers are thinking about her differently. In a story with so many holes, Santana is their greatest, most accidental achievement.

    Season 1 and most of Season 2 were Santana's dark ages where she (and Brittany) did not really exist except for laughs or as "slutty" villains. To me Santana hasn't really existed until this new era of coming to terms with her sexuality.

    The real challenge now is going forward fleshing out her backstory, since the Santana we know now seems nothing like the old Santana. What was going on in her head back then? Do we ever meet her parents?


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