In an earlier season-two GLOW episode, we discussed the nuances of being “buried” in pro wrestling. After this fourth installment, it might be time for a quick primer on heels and faces. Yes, they are parts of the body or — if you prefer — things you put on parts of your body. But in the squared circle (i.e., wrestling ring, not a geometric nonstarter), heels and faces are the twin poles of good and evil, lines increasingly blurred in both the sport and seemingly every facet of news and culture. Face is short for babyface, or fan favorite, the kind of guy or gal you can bring home to papa. A heel is, then, the fan favorite’s antagonist, not always objectively a villain but certainly a situational adversary.
It’s not uncommon, within story line boundaries, for heels or faces to “turn,” or pull off a preplanned pivot toward either darkness or the light. The coup de grâce of such gamesmanship is the “double turn,” when the slightest manipulation of character turns our allegiance to a pair of rivals upside down almost spontaneously. (Perennial straight arrow Bret Hart and historical menace Steve Austin’s WrestleMania XIII switcheroo are the standard-bearers of this.)
What goes down at the end of Welfare Queen and Liberty Belle’s title bout is nearly that, and definitely not what was scripted. But in wrestling as in life, you can’t control every variable, and Tammé and Debbie enter that match riding opposite ends of the emotional roller coaster. While visiting her son Ernest at Stanford — where he benefits from a Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship and commonly gets mistaken by white students for Tyler, who is also black but to whom Earnest otherwise bears scant resemblance — a fan recognizes Tammé as her alter ego. This is how Ernest discovers that his mom’s been masquerading on TV as what he deems a “minstrel” act, exploiting the very stereotypes he’s trying to transcend at college. He attends that night’s show and scowls as Welfare Queen struts around, antagonizing the largely white audience with self-regard. She stays composed long enough to lose her crown by predetermined pinfall, but falls apart while Liberty Belle subjects her to further humiliation and chants of “Get a job!”
Debbie doesn’t mean harm. She and Tammé have become friends. But Debbie has also had a hard day. A call from Mark’s secretary about the specs of their bedroom furniture sends her over the edge, and soon she’s sold all their home’s furniture, gotten lit, forgotten to pick Randy up from day care, and barely made it to the taping in a sober and timely fashion. Debbie had felt triumphant earlier that afternoon and seems to reclaim some of that feeling amid the adoration of her fans, but fails to sense her counterpart’s delicate state and takes the post-win victory celebration a tad too far.
Suddenly, a double turn is at hand, as the crowd scolds Liberty and betrays concern for the fallen Welfare Queen. That’s wrestling, folks. If only there was always a third party nearby to improvise an emergency character rescue. Enter Ruth, who’s been watching from the wings in her Zoya attire hatching a way to save the day for her former BFF/scene partner while further burnishing her antagonistic gimmick. With the mother’s permission, Zoya snatches one of Liberty Belle’s youngest fans from the crowd, crows about how it’s Liberty’s daughter Savannah Rose and steals off into the night, instantly recasting Liberty in a sympathetic light and setting off the new champ’s next feud. (Whether Sam will take a shine to Ruth’s latest rogue impulse is another story.)
This episode is very much Debbie and Tammé’s, and it’s rich with laugh lines (“Sometimes I’d wipe [Randy’s] balls, and I’d be like, ‘Am I wiping my balls?’”) and revelations about both of them. Kia Stevens, who plays Tammé/Welfare Queen but came to GLOW as a pedigreed wrestler known by her nom de combat, Awesome Kong, is terrific. Tammé is as grounded as Welfare Queen is outsized, and Stevens is carrying her weight both out of attire and between the ropes. (Co-directors Mark A. Burley and Hedwig himself, John Cameron Mitchell, also outdo themselves capturing the riveting choreography and psychology of a great match.)
And all respect to Alison Brie, whose efforts to secure her part as Ruth and commitment to embodying Zoya have been documented, but Betty Gilpin continues to do Emmy-worthy comedic work as one of the most real — and really frustrated — working moms on television. It’s hard to watch her take guff from Mark about their predicament when his actions placed them there, but Debbie’s not quite as self-assured as her alter ego Liberty. She is, however, refreshingly far more profane and unsparing, whether admonishing Mark’s secretary Susan (Irene got moved to a desk, it turns out) or appearing unapologetically flustered in front of Randy’s day-care teacher. When Bash — in character as the ring announcer — ad-libs the line, “What’s a mother without a child? Just a person,” Debbie’s true rebuttal might have been, “A mother with a child and no partner and a job that requires odd hours getting her ass kicked is possibly losing all sense of self.”
Everyone in GLOW is trying to find their happy medium, no small feat in the decade of excess and extremes (and Extreme). Even Ernest, while newly introduced and probably one-and-done, isn’t trying to judge Tammé. He’s merely walking that tightrope between high aspirations and humble roots. Tammé herself is balancing bold ambitions with her inherent demands for respect, as Debbie strives to reclaim her strength without weakening her leverage against two egotistical male figures in Mark and Sam. Ruth, meanwhile, knows she can’t have her best friend back and a meaningful creative role on G.L.O.W. all at once, but she’s not exactly content to let good fortune come to her. Feelings are going to continue getting hurt and standards will have a hard time being met, but there’s no better place to air that all out than inside the squared circle, because as Tammé reminds Ernest, “It’s a wrestling show … Everyone’s offensive.”
Apart From All That:
• Gilpin’s pipes!
• Patio Town closing a location can’t foreshadow good things.
• Bash really steals the scene on play-by-play.
• Why keep watching and reading? Because “the power of Christ compels you!”