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Glee’s Sue Sylvester Problem

Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester on Glee Photo: FOX

Last night’s Glee was the show’s strongest in a long, long time, with October 4’s “Asian F” a close second and the rest of the episodes far, far behind, particularly last week’s torturously awful “Pot O’Gold.” “The First Time” and “Asian F” had all the elements that make for a strong Glee showing, which are elements that are important for just about any show: actual human emotions, characters motivated by credible wants, stakes, realizations, genuine drama. It was a total treat! But the recent good episodes are notable for what they didn’t include, too. Namely: Sue Sylvester.

Jane Lynch’s cartoonishly cruel coach was Glee’s breakout character, earning Lynch an Emmy and a Golden Globe, and marking Sue as the show’s reliable quote factory. But as the show has developed — well, “developed” — Sue’s character has stalled out. Her big soft-side secret is that she is kind (sort of) to people with Down syndrome, and that secret was revealed and revealed and revealed throughout the show’s first and second seasons. But now Sue’s profound sadism overshadows whatever humor and humanity was left in the character. How many times can a character roofie people, attempt to feed someone dog feces, shame teenagers for masturbating, and use homophobic slurs before they’ve worn out their welcome? Given the host of other obstacles already facing all the characters, Sue’s chronic antagonism isn’t so much a plot point as it is a nuisance. She’s threatened to destroy New Directions, oh, infinity times so far, and now it’s too hollow a threat around which to pivot a story.

“The First Time” resonated because losing one’s virginity is a story relevant to teenage characters, and Glee shines when it turns its kooky, histrionic gaze on actual, regular things. Glee-ifying coming out? Great! Glee-ifying adolescent crises of faith? Sure, okay. Glee-ifying bizarre schemes to kidnap the baby you placed for an open adoption? No, no, no, a thousand times no. Glee gets plenty of mileage from playing with high-school pop tropes, like the cliquey caste system or the nasty bully whose bluster is a cover-up for his self-loathing. But where does vicious coach for a team you’re not even on fit in again? Why is Sue around? Back when the Cheerios were more present, Sue’s role on the show made sense. Her foil relationship with Mr. Schue was germane to the story for awhile, but now that also seems to have run its course. She no longer has a natural place in the narrative ecosystem of McKinley High.

None of this is a knock on Jane Lynch, who deserves a ton of credit simply for maintaining a straight face while the glee kids sang that Willy Wonka song at what was supposed to be a funeral. But Sue’s role has been reduced to just zingers, and as the other characters make deep connections and forge stronger relationships with one another, Sue hasn’t done that at all. Mercedes resents her former glee compatriots because she feels she doesn’t get the recognition she deserves. Sue hates the glee kids because … well … it’s not clear anymore. Kurt’s big battle against homophobia was undercut by Sue’s casual attitude. She thwarts other characters’ development, and she herself hasn’t developed at all. And, not for nothing, she wasn’t part of the movie or the live tours, which should be a sign of just how important (or not!) she is to the central storytelling of the show. It’s time for Sue to see herself out.

Glee’s Sue Sylvester Problem