SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the third season of “GLOW,” streaming now on Netflix.
What happens in Las Vegas now may stay there, as the infamous tourism slogan claims, but what the characters of “GLOW” experience in the Nevada town during the third season of their streaming comedy will certainly reverberate greatly in their lives well beyond the city limits.
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The third season of “GLOW” kicks off in January 1986, just after the merry band of public access wrestlers have picked up and moved east to perform their show live, nightly, in the fictional Fan-Tan Hotel and Casino. More specifically, it is January 28, 1986, and part of Ruth (Alison Brie) and Debbie’s (Betty Gilpin) promotion for the show is to appear live on-air commenting in their respective wrestling personas on the Challenger liftoff. Moments into their interview, the event turns fatal for the crew aboard the ship, and the question becomes whether or not the show should go on for the women.
“This idea of how to put on a show while the outside world keeps moving and sometimes gets really dark, I think, is where we were coming from. Putting on the same show night after night means the world will continue, and sometimes the outside world will influence and sometimes it won’t,” co-creator and co-showrunner Carly Mensch tells Variety. “Only afterwards did some of our writers remark that it felt a little like we were commenting on how to tell fun stories during the Trump era. I don’t even think we were intentionally doing that, but I do see how that was percolating in our brains.”
Starting the season with such a dramatic event helped set up the deeper emotional journeys it would follow with characters, including Tamme (Kia Stevens), who hid a back injury for much of the year, performing through the pain; Cherry (Sydelle Noel), who separated from her husband after realizing she might not want to have a baby after all; Jenny (Ellen Wong), who was forced to confront different levels of racist stereotypes, both in the hodgepodge Asian hotel in which she was now living, as well as with her teammates’ performances during a one-night only role-swapping version of their wrestling show; Sheila (Gayle Rankin), who finally felt comfortable enough to take off her She-Wolf costume; and Arthie (Sunita Mani), who struggled with the intimacy of her relationship with Yolanda (Shakira Barrera), as well as whether or not to even call herself a lesbian.
Bash (Chris Lowell), too, was forced to confront his own sexuality when his marriage to Rhonda (Kate Nash) stalled in her eyes and she hired a male prostitute to hit on her in front of her husband, assuming it would make him jealous. This led to a threesome, after which Bash admitted he enjoyed sleeping with the man but didn’t want to lose the life he had.
“For Bash, we’re always trying to really honor both the time and the deep conservatism of his family, which is one of our clearest indicators that it’s 1986 and not today,” Mensch says. “We’ve had countless discussions in the writers’ room about what happened between Bash and Florian, and if it ever went anywhere, but I think for us, what felt the most honest to how he’s behaved on our show and the psychology that he’s exploring, Vegas would be maybe the first time that if he had certain impulses he would get to finally act on them.”
Just as how Mensch and co-showrunner Liz Flahive dedicated themselves to wrestling research when first developing the show, for the third season they looked just as heavily into the history of Vegas. This included taking their writers’ room on a 48-hour tour to talk with historians, visit landmarks and tour backstage areas, as well as working with Dennis McBride, who runs the queer archive at UNLV and aided in helping them understand the psychology and hypocrisy of Vegas in the 1980s.
“The sodomy laws were on the books,” says Flahive, “so as much as it was a very ‘anything goes,’ permissive place, that was still for heterosexuals.”
Although Bash was distraught over his one-night stand, the show spent much of the season positively exploring Debbie’s own conquests with the various male members of the hotel staff. Subverting the usual trope, she didn’t get emotionally attached and no one really judged her for it. Additionally, she and Ruth were able to bond again and find their way back to each other as friends because, as Mensch puts it, Vegas stood in as “almost a vacation from your life.”
“The reminders for Ruth and Debbie about what they went through aren’t in Vegas. So there are certain ways in which they were freed up a little bit to engage each other in a different way,” adds Flahive. “Debbie wasn’t handing off with Mark all the time; she wasn’t reminded [of the affair]. They were able to leave the scene of the crime, in a way. It’s more like summer stock: You do a play out of town and it’s not the same s— you’re dealing with in L.A.”
The “geography, proximity [and] intimacy that living in a room next to someone provides you when you’re living in a hotel and have nothing to do during the day” aided in deepening Ruth and Sam’s (Marc Maron) bond this season, too, per Mensch, who notes that they were “squeezed to a place where they had to deal with the chemistry that had been building all along.” But it wasn’t until Sam actually left Vegas to return to L.A. to help his daughter sell her first movie that Ruth was truly able to process her feelings for him and realize she did, in fact, want to give them a try.
After a year of performing the same show-within-the-show over and over, which Flahive calls “a constraint that also pushes us narratively in a different direction and also gets a lot of theater juice out of in terms of those stories of, ‘What does it take to be a performer on a stage, telling those stories over and over again?’,” the season was bookended with a special Christmas-themed episode in which Carmen (Britney Young) asked the team to put on a brand new wrestling show, set to the story of “A Christmas Carol.”
“There’s something so ’80s about a Christmas special,” says Flahive. “But there was also something for us about the idea of the girls being just worn-down by the amount of time they spent in Vegas, only to be picked up by a Christmas show, particularly Ruth.”
Adds Mensch: “In Vegas the joke is that there’s no windows so you almost lose track of time, and then if you turbocharge that not just to hours but to days, not just to days but to months — to a full year, it felt like it was important to have these really identifiable markers, like holidays, to let you know that time was moving.”
The “Christmas Carol” show allowed the women to display new skills both in wrestling moves and storytelling, but it also allowed “GLOW” itself a chance to show off how far it’s come in three seasons.
“We try to really be in the ring with the characters, but this year we let ourselves get a little more presentational as it matched the style of Vegas. We have so much backstage-onstage, and we really wanted the onstage to feel different,” Mensch says.
At the end of the Christmas show, the women on the team were recharged and ready to hit the ground running after their holidays — although they weren’t all going to be running in the same direction. Carmen received a bit of closure from the show, as she saw a dream realized and then felt ready to move on to work with a different team. Meanwhile, Cherry and her husband were looking into adoption; Tamme was moving forward as a manager; Sheila had designs set on a new wrestling character; Sam was attached to direct the feature film his daughter wrote; Bash and Debbie had extra producorial power under their belts after making an 11th hour purchase of a television network. And for Ruth, the show proved to her why she loved performing in general and wasn’t ready to give up on it.
“In order to honor the people we’ve created, they veer off and back and off and back,” Mensch says. “But ultimately we’re always going to be the story of this team of people; you’re never going to see a show about 50 separate people.”
Adds Flahive: “I think there’s something to when a team fractures, what does that do? It’s an interesting narrative point for us. I think that’s also the magical pull of the show, too: What does it feel like when people are breaking off? It feels scary and exciting.”