In the third season of GLOW, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling take their show to Las Vegas in 1986 to stage their hammy, fake matches live, several nights a week, at the Fan-Tan Casino. Given the show’s subject matter, that place, and that time — an era when people unironically appreciated the music of Falco — GLOW could have opted to heighten everything in the show to fluorescent levels. But GLOW does the opposite. It dials down its tone a couple of notches and turns its focus inward, resulting in a terrific season that highlights the forces that can fray a career, even a career in professional performative wrestling.
Don’t get me wrong: There are still some broad comedy moments, some deliberately silly matches — there’s a wedding-themed one, and a surprisingly moving Christmas-themed one — and some very big hair. (I am convinced that a person could comfortably fit a bed, nightstand, and dresser inside Betty Gilpin’s teased-up blond ’do and live happily underneath its Aquanet roof.) But GLOW is less interested in spectacle and more interested in the mental states of its characters.
The first episode finds the GLOW troupe preparing for their Vegas debut in the wake of the Challenger explosion. The harsh reality that the show must go on despite that tragedy establishes a running theme for the season: the degree to which outside forces will demand attention and cause heartbreak for the ladies stuck within the gaudy confines of the fictional Fan-Tan, where they live as well as perform a show whose run, inevitably, gets extended.
Debbie (Gilpin) is constantly feeling the tug toward home and her infant son, Randy, whom she barely gets to see because of her Vegas commitments as both a GLOW star and producer. Ruth (Alison Brie) is caught between Las Vegas, which is defined by her focus on the show and her confusing feelings for Sam (Marc Maron), and Los Angeles, where her boyfriend Russell (Victor Quinaz) lives and the acting goals she once hoped to achieve still lay unfulfilled. Cherry (Sydelle Noel) is, on the one hand, driven by a desire to continue whipping herself and her colleagues into shape, and, on another, committed to starting a family with her husband Keith (Bashir Salahuddin). Again and again, GLOW emphasizes that life, especially for working women, is about tough choices and compromises that never feel wholly satisfying.
The beauty of this season is that these story lines only represent the tip of the iceberg. While the series has always been an ensemble piece with Brie, Gilpin, and Maron as its chief stars, this season feels like even more of a team effort that allows every member of the cast time to shine. The light shines especially brightly this season on Gayle Rankin’s Sheila the She Wolf, who finds a new outlet, and some hidden talents, when she starts taking an acting class and befriends Bobby Barnes, a gifted drag performer played by Kevin Cahoon. Sunita Mani admirably tackles emotional and delicate material this season as her character, Arthie, struggles to fully embrace her identity as a lesbian. Bash (Chris Lowell), who has the hair, wealth, and sense of entitlement that should make him a full-on ’80s villain, brings a raw honesty to the role, especially in a beautifully acted scene in the finale, that makes it impossible to fully resent him. GLOW frequently touches on sensitive issues — like characters dealing with their sexuality or pent-up resentment about the ethnic stereotypes their show perpetuates for the sake of comedy — but it always feels completely natural when it does so.
With its tonal shifts between camp, wry comedy, and serious drama, GLOW could be a total mess if it weren’t in the right hands. Fortunately, showrunners Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch know exactly what they’re doing and have full, authoritative command of this universe. One thing they understand is that, as refreshingly broad as their canvas is this season, the show must always come back to its core relationship: the one between Ruth and Debbie. And it does.
Brie and Gilpin intuitively understand that every disagreement that Ruth and Debbie have — and they have several — ultimately comes down to the fact that both women are looking to each other for validation. It’s the subtext of every argument and exchange they share, and Brie and Gilpin make you feel that truth while gracefully revealing the differences between the two women. Ruth is more timid when she’s not in character, but she’s always emotionally naked, and Brie projects that nakedness with every hurt or tentatively optimistic expression on her face. Gilpin does a superb dance between frazzled and ’80s Lady confidence, whether she’s confronting a judgmental flight attendant or making a snide comment under her breath. After Debbie has a frustrating exchange with a disengaged Bash, who is purposely saving his voice for showtime, Gilpin drops the line “I wish more men would go on vocal rest” as if she’s tossing a tiny grenade on her way out the door. Both Gilpin and Brie are great on their own, and even better together.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the greatness of one Geena Davis, who has a recurring role this season as Sandy Devereaux St. Clair, a former showgirl who now runs the Fan-Tan Casino. Davis projects a wisdom and savviness that immediately put Debbie on notice that she’s a woman from whom she could learn a few things. The Oscar winner fits in perfectly among all these strong women attempting to navigate their way toward fulfillment while wearing leotards and holding the weight of their femininity — and sometimes the weight of literal females — on their shoulders. It seems right somehow that the woman who sped off into the Grand Canyon alongside Louise is part of this third season, one in which many of GLOW’s characters are stuck in the American Southwest and trying to decide if it’s time to hit the gas and just leap.