[This review was originally published July 19th]
The third season of Netflix’s GLOW kicks off with a very bizarre choice. Debbie (Betty Gilpin) and Ruth (Alison Brie) are being interviewed in character as Liberty Bell and Zoya the Destroyer by a local TV station in Las Vegas (where their now nightly show is taking place). It’s launch day for the space shuttle Challenger, and the two characters play up their U.S. vs U.S.S.R. rivalry by making encouraging and disparaging remarks about the shuttle in turn. Everything they say, positively or negatively, is exceptionally cringe-worthy because we know—as is revealed moments later—that the Challenger would explode, killing everyone on board. It’s GLOW!
This juxtaposition is a jarring way to start the season, but it does ultimately capture a theme that runs through the remaining nine episodes (all of which were available for review). GLOW can be and often is bubbly fun. But beneath that exterior is a more complicated truth, something that these women handle and fight through both inside and outside of the ring.
GLOW Season Three has moved the ladies of wrestling to a new venue, which gives the series a necessary refresh. And yet, it still has many of the hallmarks that made Season Two such a step up from its initial outing. The show is at its best when the women are forced to be clustered together, living in dorm-like conditions now within the hotel. The fact that the Vegas show is the same thing we saw in the Season Two finale over and over also gives the series room (in two particularly memorable occasions) to occasionally mix things up in a very meta way. (Like Season Two’s divisive Episode 8, which I personally adored.)
But for the most part, GLOW is focused on the women’s inner battles, since most of the tension among the troupe or with specific pairings has been resolved. In vignette-style stories, the show explores familial and romantic relationships alongside career worries, body image issues, addiction and emotional truths. Some of these it handles better than others, mostly due to the sprawling ensemble cast. Even having watched three seasons of the show, there are a handful of characters whose names or stage names I still don’t know. That’s ok, to some extent—not everyone can have their moment in a series that runs for ten half-hour episodes each year. But when GLOW does introduce a particularly interesting dynamic or story for its secondary or tertiary characters, it’s either resolved immediately or promptly forgotten.
It’s no surprise that GLOW wants to give most of its time to its star characters Ruth and Debbie, and to a lesser extent Sam (Marc Maron). Bash (Chris Lowell) also has a particularly moving arc throughout the new season as his sham marriage to Rhonda (Kate Nash) turns into something much deeper and very real. The new season also leans into queer culture much more overtly than it has in the past, again with mixed results, but that’s also because if a story is not specifically about Debbie or Ruth there isn’t enough time for it to develop. That’s true even in the case of Geena Davis’ former showgirl and now casino owner Sandy Devereaux St. Clair. Davis is exceptional, luminous, and treats us to a truly special moment late in the season. And yet, Sandy also ultimately gets the short-shrift when it comes to understanding her story, particularly in the very end.
But for the first half of the season in particular, GLOW reminds us that it’s a series we’ll watch go anywhere and do anything because of that great cast. The hotel and Vegas settings are fun, and it allows most of the women to go on journeys of self-discovery that—even if they aren’t fully explored—can lead to some truly great group hugs (and I mean that literally; I was in tears watching more than one of them). The new season is trying to balance a lot of things, including the idea that these women want to live their lives on their own terms, not defined by men. That includes men like Bash and Sam, as Debbie and Ruth struggle with being heard and discovering what they want, respectively. One character says late in the season, “I swore I would never be a man’s slave!” to great applause, while earlier Debbie tells an ailing Bash, “I wish more men would go on vocal rest.” But despite their fighting tone, those pronouncements don’t yet have enough behind them (or narrative sense, in some cases) to really carry weight. It’s something the episodes are clearly setting up for another season (and hopefully they have it, because this place setting does not making for a satisfying series finale).
However, the show continues to exalt women and their many various forms and express these truths because there are so many women involved in every level of the production. There’s a particularly telling scene where, as a joke, Ruth goes topless and dons a showgirl’s headdress to cheer up Debbie, shaking her tatas and singing, “assaulting” Debbie with her bare breasts as the two of them crack up laughing. It’s not sexualized though, it’s just silly and fun. A show with a male gaze would never, ever, have allowed that scene to happen without a more lascivious tone and result. GLOW shows women being completely frank about their bodies and each other’s both when they wrestle and when they’re just being casual together. They hang on each other, hug, kiss, cry. Some of it is sexual, some of it isn’t. The point is that GLOW understands and represents the spectrum.
Still, GLOW Season Three isn’t as joyous, overall, as its second. There’s more internal strife, more general tension and less narrative cohesion. But there’s still plenty to enjoy and revel in. Gilpin, recently nominated for a Supporting Actress Emmy, is again absolutely outstanding. And Brie really shouldn’t be overlooked as the enthusiastic encourager who holds the troupe together. She brings so much energy to the series, which is why her scenes with Marc Maron’s laconic Sam work as well as they do. Those scenes, for what it’s worth, work really, really well this season. For fans frightened of where the Sam and Ruth relationship may go (if it should go anywhere at all), Season Three does an excellent job of presenting the realities of their friendship and budding attraction in ways that feel truthfully complicated.
As for other complications, perhaps the opening scene about the Challenger is there to prepare us for a season that takes some big swings in terms of drama, with varying results. GLOW will always be a show that understands femininity in a way few others do, and is often a pop-filled good time. But Season Three seems like it also wants to dive into some deeper issues in order to stand up and fight for the rights of all women. The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling gathered for the shuttle launch looking for hope and found a disaster. We come to this series looking for comfort and find, instead, a rallying cry. Sometimes it’s messy, but that’s what GLOW is all about. The women try, and fail, and try again. They weather the sadness and the chaos. Choices are made, mistakes happen. And they try again.
GLOW Season Three premieres Friday, August 9th on Netflix.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat, and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV