In its third season, GLOW finds itself in a rut. The show-within-a-show, Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, has relocated to Las Vegas to do a stint as a floor show at the fictional Fan-Tan Casino. Rooted in one place and doing the same show every night becomes tedious, and it forces everyone to question what it would take to get out of their own unique rut. GLOW is preoccupied with stagnation and restlessness, and the audacity to want more even as comfort and protection are being offered. This show has never been better, offering its funniest and most heartfelt season yet, all while doing its best by its large ensemble.
The heart of GLOW remains Debbie (Betty Gilpin) and Ruth (Alison Brie), who finally seem to be repairing their relationship. GLOW rebalances its ensemble this season by moving Sam (Marc Maron) into the backseat—Sam disappears for the middle portion of the season and it’s the right decision; as great as Maron is, last season Sam threatened to take over the narrative, and this season feels more even with its focus squarely on Debbie and Ruth. GLOW has an amazing ensemble, and everyone gets the spotlight at one moment or another, including Sam, who has a solid storyline. But the show tacitly acknowledges he’s not the star—Sam’s screenplay leaves Sheila (Gayle Rankin) asking the sort of questions that suggest Sam isn’t as interesting as he thinks he is. Most critical to this season is Sam’s love for Ruth. Once acknowledged, Sam forces Ruth to consider what she really wants. That feeds directly into her ennui as she grows bored with GLOW and frustrated by her long-distance relationship with Russell (Victor Quinaz).
As Ruth flounders, Debbie seems to be moving forward, only to keep running into brick walls. She got a producing credit on GLOW, but her attempts to actually produce are not taken seriously. She meets a pretty okay rich guy, “Tex” (Toby Huss), who represents a more settled and secured life. For Debbie, who wants out of the actress rat race, Tex is the perfect escape hatch. She would be more than comfortable, no longer have to suffer the whims and indignities of chauvinist show businessmen, and get to be the partner of a rising powerhouse in the media. But Tex is not quite as progressive as he seems, and Debbie hits another brick wall.
This is something GLOW does exceedingly well this season: every character is drawn with nuance and shading. Tex is surprisingly empathetic toward the LGBTQ community, and supportive of Debbie’s efforts in producing a benefit cabaret show. But when Debbie tries to act as his partner, and not just his girlfriend, he refuses her. Turns out, he’s still a bit of a chauvinist. GLOW makes the point repeatedly that people can surprise you with their compassion and understanding, only to still have blindspots. Most of the supporting cast are involved in storylines that play with understanding and blindspots, and it is effective every time. The monologue Jenny (Ellen Wong) delivers to Melrose (Jackie Tohn) is particularly poignant, contrasting their refugee experiences and revealing Mel’s blindspot regarding her own racism.
GLOW’s solution to the nasty stereotypes of some of the wrestling characters is pretty brilliant. In one episode, Tammé (Kia Stevens), too injured to wrestle, suggests switching roles so that she can stay out of the ring for a night. The other ladies quickly latch on, and just by switching roles, the real ugliness of the stereotypes is revealed and they make some permanent adjustments. Another brilliant contrast is how GLOW sets up Arthie’s coming out against Bash’s continued repression. Arthie (Sunita Mani) knows she loves Yolanda (Shakira Barrera), but she struggles to define her own sexuality. Ultimately, though, despite seeing firsthand how vitriolic the hatred truly is toward the LGBTQ community, Arthie comes out, proud and “ready to fight”. Bash (Chris Lowell), on the other hand, is still denying himself. His marriage to Rhonda (Kate Nash) isn’t a total catastrophe, but his unhappiness is infectious and inching toward self-destructive. If Netflix’s brutal algorithm results in GLOW’s cancellation, Bash’s unresolved storyline will be one of its greatest casualties.
Every single element of GLOW season three is so good, it’s impossible to do justice to each individual facet of its excellence. It’s in the running for “best show on television”, and it is definitely one of the best shows you’re not watching. It’s funny, it’s moving, and it has a bottomless well of empathy for its characters. It’s a comedy about a cheesy wrestling show that is also a drama about women making their way in an actively hostile world. GLOW reminds me of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, with its detailed period setting, showbusiness setting, and story about pioneering women trying to succeed in a “man’s job”. But unlike Maisel, GLOW actually wrangles with how hard it is to be a pioneer. This show does not shy away from the indignities and slights dealt, repeatedly, to Debbie and Ruth. But they never stop trying to get ahead on their own terms, and GLOW finds grace in their effort.