‘GLOW’ Season 3 Explores Deeper Themes as It Takes the Action Outside of the Ring

When we last saw the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling at the end of the second season of “GLOW,” they were headed on a bus to Las Vegas for a residency at an off-Strip hotel and casino. Their Los Angeles-based TV show canceled, the ragtag bunch set out to try something new in season three, and with the exception of a few detours, all of this season takes place in Sin City, a location ripe for sex, intrigue, and other types of drama. What also sets this new season apart is the fact that it takes place mostly outside of the wrestling ring. With the GLOW show now on autopilot, there’s more time to get into the women’s personal lives, and showrunners Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch dive into deeper issues pertaining to feminism, race, sexuality, and even the AIDS crisis.

Set over the course of a year, January to December 1986, episode one is literally explosive, with Ruth (Alison Brie) as Russian villain Zoya making fun of the Challenger space shuttle on live TV moments before it breaks apart, killing everybody onboard. With a horrific tragedy looming over GLOW’s opening night at the Fan-Tan Hotel and Casino, it can only get better from there, and it does. Mostly.

As the Vegas show doesn’t need a full-time director, Sam (Marc Maron) finds himself mostly on the sidelines this season, enjoying hot tubs and steaks while collecting a check and working on his screenplay. This new dynamic also allows for him to have a seemingly more relaxed friendship with Ruth, whom his behavior towards oscillates between paternal and flirtatious. A few episodes in, it becomes clear that we’re being pulled towards rooting for the pair to become romantic. Sure, Sam has his charms and his rapport with Ruth is a highlight of the series, but do they really make sense as a couple? And for now, Alison still has Russell (Victor Quinaz), her age appropriate and oddly lovable boyfriend. Sam is better off continuing to build a relationship with daughter Justine (Britt Baron), who reappears halfway through the season with sellable screenplay in hand. In a subplot that illustrates Sam’s growth, the once bitter failed movie director goes to bat for the kid he didn’t know existed a year prior, showing unwavering support, and a turning point comes when he has to choose between Justine’s vision and making Ruth happy.

But the character who has experienced the most growth since the pilot is without a doubt Debbie (Betty Gilpin), whom we first met as a dissatisfied housewive and former soap star. Now a producer for GLOW, her business savviness grows immensely in season three, and by the end she’s on the verge of building an empire. Still, she feels torn about leaving her little boy for days on end to work in Vegas, and through her storyline we get a glimpse of the infamous “mommy wars” of the eighties. The motherhood theme is further explored through Cherry (Sydelle Noel), who finds herself having second thoughts about sacrificing her body for a baby, and Tammé (Kia Stevens),the oldest of the ladies (she’s in her forties) who delayed own dreams to raise her son. In one of the numerous clever musical montages that show the passage of time, we see her self-medicating with wine and pills night after night to deal with a bad back.

Debbie finds a kindred series in Sandy Devereaux St. Clair (Geena Davis), the formidable manager of the Fan-Tan. Once a celebrated showgirl, she started a whole new career after she was no longer young and firm, something that was still a novelty at the time. Another welcome addition to the cast is Kevin Cahoon as Bobby Barnes, a Barbra Streisand impersonator who encourages Sheila (Gayle Rankin) to embrace different sides of herself. As the series progresses, the more and more ridiculous and impractical her whole wolf woman persona becomes, and it’s a satisfying moment when she finally realizes this.

Much of Debbie’s frustrations center around Bash (Chris Lowell), her producing partner who flexes his muscles more this season. His green card marriage to Brit Rhonda (Kate Nash), a union he rushed into out of fear following the AIDS death of his best friend, is a surprisingly successful partnership, at least for the first seven or eight episodes. The new Mrs. Howard’s shrewd money sense comes in handy, and Bash’s new marital status means he now has full control of his 40 million dollar trust fund. There’s just that tiny issue of his being gay. For the most part, this storyline is navigated well, and there’s no cliched scene of Rhonda having a breakdown after she realizes she married a gay guy. Instead, we got a titillating threesome involving Paul the Giglio, but at the end, there’s no denying that Bash’s conflicted feelings are taking a toll on him, and he ends up unburdening himself on an unlikely person.

Paul the Giglio is also part of a fun storyline involving Melrose (Jackie Tohn) taking control of her sexuality. Debbie also gets hers, bedding a bunch of young, handsome hotel workers. Meanwhile, Arthie (Sunita Mani) and Yolanda (Shakira Barrera) are still coupled up, although they hit a roadblock after Arthie admits that she’s not sure she identifies as gay. While the modern viewer might emphasize with Arthie’s refusal to be labeled, Yolanda sees it as a rejection. 

Race and racial identity are also issues in season three, as Jenny (Ellen Wong) finds it harder and harder to play Fortune Cookie, her wrestling persona based on a slew of Asian stereotypes. Much of the humor of “GLOW” comes from how absurd and outdated these characters are, and the dedication these women put into playing roles such as “Beirut the Mad Bomber,” but it goes without saying that these are caricatures that we today would refer to as “problematic.” In a rare serious scene, we see the affect this has on Jenny when she opens up about her family’s flight from Cambodia and the Killing Fields.

All in all, this season of “GLOW” is its best yet, ending with a heartfelt holiday episode that has Carmen (Britney Young) working overtime to bring out that Christmas spirit. We see the journey concluding with our favorite women at crossroads, with Debbie forcing Ruth to face what she views as harsh realities. 

GLOW” season three begins streaming Aug. 9 on Netflix.