Naya Rivera's best moments on Glee
Beginning as a bitchy cheerleader assigned to infiltrate the Glee club, Santana went on to become one of the most essential members of the New Directions and Glee as a whole. From primary antagonist, she evolved into an empathetic character who became a standout for LGBTQ+ representation on television as she struggled with accepting her sexuality before being outed by Finn (Cory Monteith) in season 3.
Santana even moved to New York City, alongside Rachel (Lea Michele) and Kurt (Chris Colfer), where she struggled to make it as an actress and even faced off against Rachel for the lead in a Funny Girl revival on Broadway. Ultimately, she found her bliss with on-again, off-again high school sweetheart Brittany and they were married near the conclusion of the series.
In honor of Rivera, who was found dead on Monday at age 33, here are the actress's best moments as Santana on Glee.
"I Kissed a Girl"
Rivera met one of her greatest acting challenges on the show with aplomb in season 3, episode 7, where she's forced to come out to her family after a political attack ad against Sue weaponizes her sexuality. For Santana, the greatest challenge is coming out to her biggest hero, her abuela (Ivonne Coll). "Abuelita, I love girls the way that I'm supposed to feel about boys," she confesses. "It's something that's always been inside of me and I really want to share it with you because I love you so much. I want you to know me, who I really am." When her grandmother rejects her, telling her she never wants to see her again, it nearly breaks her. Rivera plays the moment with the perfect blend of nervousness and heartbreak before ending the episode with a reaffirming rendition of "Constant Craving."
"If I Die Young"
One of the show's most heartbreaking moments was when the cast had to confront their very real grief for cast member Cory Monteith in the third episode of season 5 after the actor's death at 31. It's impossible to imagine how hard it was for the entire cast performing this episode, but Rivera managed to leave a beautiful, lasting tribute to her fallen co-star under the most difficult of circumstances. They memorialized Monteith's character Finn, and Rivera had a standout moment in the episode singing "If I Die Young" by The Band Perry. It's a beautiful cover, but it's made all the more heartbreaking by her inability to finish the song, breaking down in wrenching sobs before running from the room screaming. It's hard to know where Rivera's grief ends and Santana's begins. The performance is followed by a heart-to-heart between Kurt and Santana where she reads her memories of Finn's kindness. The scene closes with perhaps the saddest image of the episode, Kurt placing Finn's letterman jacket around her shoulders for comfort.
Santana walked away with Glee's infamous season 2 Fleetwood Mac episode, Rumours, with this stripped-down ballad. Turning the class assignment into a private moment between her and Brittany, she confesses her love for her best friend through this song. With tears in her eyes, she proves that the most powerful moments on Glee didn't need elaborate costumes or choreography, just a lot of heart.
Santana was the undisputed queen of Amy Winehouse covers on Glee (see also: "Back to Black"), but one of her most joyous, electric performances ever came in her character's first solo in competition. In the season 2 Sectionals episode "Special Education," she belts her way through this retro throwback, proving she's one of New Direction's most valuable players in the process.
"Girl on Fire"
Santana officially became part of the New Directions NYC trio in season 4 episode "Diva." The transition plays out through this Alicia Keys' cover, which follows Santana belting her heart out in the McKinley High auditorium to singing this anthem on the streets of New York. Michele and Riley often got credit for having the most impressive pipes on Glee, but on numbers like this Rivera proved she could more than hold her own.
"Rumor Has It/Someone Like You"
Adele was another Glee favorite, but this mash-up can't be beat. While Mercedes takes the lead on "Rumor Has It," Santana steals the show with lead vocals on "Someone Like You." All the while, Santana is grappling with being outed in front of the school and her fury and pain are evident throughout the number. It also includes one of her most delicious moments outside of musical numbers: Finn doesn't understand the weight of outing Santana, and she speaks for a lot of the audience when she takes him to task by slapping him in the face at the number's conclusion.
"River Deep, Mountain High"
Glee gave us plenty of memorable duets, but perhaps none more than this season 2 number in the "Duets" episode (naturally). Santana proposes the duet to Mercedes as a way to prove that they're "the undisputed top bitches at this school." And honestly, she's right. The two are joy incarnate on this song with just the right hint of something sultry. It also gives Rivera a chance to showcase her killer knack for choreography as one of the strongest dancers on the show. Plus, it's the best number featuring Santana in her cheerleader uniform, reflecting her at her haughtiest Cheerios Queen Bee best.
In season 4's "The Break-Up," Santana mastered the art of the repentant break-up with this stripped-down Taylor Swift cover. Once again alone in the choir room, she sings her heart out to Brittany simply sitting in classroom chairs, facing each other. Like the cover itself, it's spare and simple, leaving Rivera's voice to speak for itself. It's yet another instance of what a skilled actress she was, killing the song both vocally and in the emotion that's bursting through every note.
"Don't Rain on My Parade"
From season 1, this Funny Girl track belonged to Rachel. But in season 5, while fighting her for the role of Fanny Brice, Santana laid claim to the song in her own inimitable way, infusing it with pop runs and vocalizations. It's an extremely different rendition from Michele's Streisand-infused take, but it's no less powerful or impressive.
"There Are Worse Things I Could Do"
With only a single song, Rivera placed herself in the pantheon of iconic Rizzos in Grease. As Finn even points out, it's a role she's born to play and she nails this anti-slut-shaming ballad. It's such a pitch-perfect screed for the character, it's hard to believe it took 5 seasons to get her to sing it. Far from the worse thing she could do.
"A Boy Like That"
Lea Michele might not have any business playing Puerto Rican Maria, but Rivera is a perfect Anita. She's energetic on "America" earlier in the same episode, season 3's "The First Time." Glee always straddled the line between pop music and Broadway, but this was the first time Rivera really got the opportunity to prove she had Broadway chops in addition to her stellar pop vocals.