I Am Willing to Make an One (1) Exception For Sue Sylvester
You can’t stand it, you can’t stand to see a woman in a position of power…your psycho-sexual derangement would be fascinating, Will, if it weren’t so terrifying!
– Sue Sylvester, laying down the basis for my feminist arguing techniques
In the universe of Glee (and especially the first three seasons) everything functions – on an often self-aware cheerful level – on this insane optimistic frequency that manhandles everyone into learning a lesson about themselves or the world or just how musical theatre can really relate to real-life teen troubles. Part of the charm of the show comes when it manages to balance this earnestness with enough meta-commentary and jokes on that earnestness, well-meaning but not too saccharine.
And it’s this frequency that needs an antithesis, which is where Sue Sylvester comes in. I wrote a few weeks ago about Bebe Glazer being TV’s best villain, but I might have to make an exception now I’ve had some time to think about it. Played by Jane Lynch (whose turn in Best in Show is worth the entire movie, if you haven’t seen it), Sue is the dominating, ambitious, Macbeth-ian monster cheerleading coach who serves as the main antagonist for the Glee club for most of the show’s high school run. Sue plays such an important part in balancing Glee’s tone into the bearable, because she is the total opposite of everything the show’s clear-cut morals and bright-eyed lessons represent; she is utterly, unabashedly, morally insane.
And I don’t mean that to say she’s evil, though she often is. There is something so uniquely funny about people living at supervillain-levels of sheer brutal nastiness in the smallest of arenas – here, high school cheerleading – channeling their utter evil genius into something so inconsequential while seemingly completely unaware that it is so pointless (see also: Chris Fleming’s Gayle series).
Sue has an utterly unknowable moral code. Some of the choices she makes seem obviously and unusually kind and charitable; others, unnecessarily complex, dangerous, and as a means to an end for something apparently pointless. There is no way to predict, in any scenario, how she’ll react based on her previous behaviour. In the sprawling great map of clear morals of Glee, she’s a compass held up to a magnet.
But in every single choice she makes, Sue has complete confidence. She is not used to doubting herself. She has no idea if she has the skills required to pull off any of her plans, but she ploughs right on forward with them anyway. Even though it looks like she’s flying all over the place morally, she’s actually set on one very specific path that she is unwavering in following. Only nobody else can see it. In a show where almost everyone else follows a pretty predictable trajectory, Sue is utterly, convincingly unpredictable.
She’s also by far the best pairing of the show’s arguable lead and face of the endless earnest optimism, Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison). His unrelenting frustration at her non-stop reign of terror against him is pretty much the only thing that ever breaks his facade in the show, and there’s something so funny about watching the show break him down to playing at her level. Matthew Morrison is so much better than Glee often lets him be, but I’m never let down by these two together.
In the best episodes of Glee, Sue is the perfect balance to the show’s cheery optimism. Jane Lynch rightly got all the awards for this performance, and if you haven’t had a chance to watch her in a while, treat yourself to this compilation of Sue Sylvester moments from Glee’s first season to remind yourself just how bloody brilliant she is:
More writing on Glee, if you like that kind of thing:
(header image via Wikimedia)