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When the fifth episode of Rise opens, Simon (Ted Sutherland) is off to a new school. St. Francis Prep is to Simon what Dalton Academy was to Kurt Hummel on Glee: a blazer-filled, private institution that has much to offer, but also separates him from his friends, and the musical extracurricular that he loves (in Simon’s case, Spring Awakening). Also, like Kurt, Simon is back at his old high school in no time.

This transition was never really about getting Simon to another school — Rise just started! That would make no sense. Instead, it was a diversion that nonetheless colored in much of Simon’s home life. The Saunders clan may seem family-first and together on the surface, but the tension over Simon’s potential move brings them to a boiling point. When Simon’s mother, Patricia (Stephanie J. Block), simply can’t handle it anymore, she stands up to her husband, potentially changing the family’s dynamic for good.

After a game of cards with his parents, Simon makes a simple and forceful request: “I want to go back to Stanton.” His father resists, despite his son’s protestations that he’s happier at his former school. He quickly ends the discussion, insisting that the new school is for Simon’s own good — but then Patricia interjects.

“Is this about protecting Simon, or is this about you?” she asks her husband. “Why are you so afraid of this play? What about it upsets you so much?”

As tackled in episode three, the decision to pull Simon out of Stanton HIgh is about far more than a play. This is about Simon’s sexuality, which bubbles just beneath the surface. He lives in a conservative, Catholic home, and more than that, he seems earnestly faithful. It is, of course, possible to be religious and gay, but it’s a difficult needle to thread. It necessitates an accepting parish, and requires a great deal of self-confidence as both a believer and as a gay man. That’s a ton to ask of a teenager.

To be clear, it’s entirely possible to go to a religious high school as a closeted gay boy and come out the other side relatively OK. I’m living proof of that. But when you’re living with a secret, every bit of pressure feels a hundred times its size — and having to attend theology classes in which you hear that your sexual desire is sinful is pressure indeed.

Simon’s father can’t come up with a reason why Spring Awakening is so objectionable — at least, not one that he’ll say out loud — and angrily relents. Simon returns to Stanton High just in time to join the show’s company for a rousing rendition of “My Junk.” But Simon’s journey as a young queer person battling his religious identity is far from over.

The next episode of Rise will air Tuesday, April 17, at 10 p.m. on NBC.


Kevin O'Keeffe
Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer and 'RuPaul's Drag Race' herstorian. He covers film and TV for INTO, and writes the movie review column "But How Gay Is It?" every Friday.