GLOW Season 3: Identity As Kayfabe

What even is the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling anymore? This question hangs over the third season of GLOW, after the TV show within the TV show got canceled but the crew moved to Vegas to do their wrestling schtick live on stage. In wrestling there’s a term, “kayfabe,” which refers to the way scripted elements are presented as real, and the levels of identity and truth implicit in that hangs over the whole season.

Each of the characters struggles in some way with questions about who they are, what defines them and what it means for them to be true to themselves. As a result we end up with a dissatisfied, questing season that maybe lacks the punchy fun of the first two seasons but more than makes up for it with deep character explorations, honest confrontations of social issues and… still some punchy fun.

The big question about what GLOW even is ends up being more subtext than the driving aspect of the season. At first the women love the Vegas stage show, but as they end up doing the same thing every single night, without any changes to storyline or continuity, it becomes a drag. What had been the motivating creative endeavour of their lives becomes a millstone, and one of the ways the show gets this across is by rarely bringing us into the ring. Where so much of the previous seasons occurred in the ring or at practice, in season three it feels as if the ring is constantly casting a shadow of obligation without actually being a part of their lives. As the season goes on Carmen “Machu Picchu” Wade (Britney Young) starts to complain that what they’re doing isn’t wrestling, and that she doesn’t want to be part of a stage show – and it really seems as if she isn’t alone.

Setting the season in Vegas was a masterstroke. Vegas isn’t a place, it’s an absence of place, an empty space made up of ringing slot machines and cigar-scented gaming tables. The characters rarely go outside this season (which makes the reverse bottle episode, where they go camping in the desert, all the more striking) but that’s just the Vegas experience. Vegas is limbo with sin, and the characters shuffle through hallways and through lightly crowded gaming floors and through backstage passages, trapped inside this thing to which they have offered their art.

As their art (and it’s art – we spent two seasons establishing wrestling as valid and emotional expression) is subsumed to commerce, the wrestlers begin to examine just who they are. Some of them, like Debbie “Liberty Belle” Eagen (Betty Gilpin), find that the emptiness of Vegas allows them the room to expand and find new identities. Debbie in particular is suited for this; from the very beginning of the series she’s been involved in what we might call ego-dissolution – everything that defined who she was, including her marriage and her career, has disappeared out from under her. Now, in season three, she’s moved away from even wanting to be an actress and finds herself drawn to the business side of things. In the end she becomes a TV network programming president, a huge shift from the soap star who lowered herself to work in lady’s wrestling. 

For Debbie this journey is freeing; she’s shed the shit that doesn’t matter and discovered new sides of herself. Would she have found out she’s a business shark without losing all the stuff that previously defined her? Probably not, and it turns out that she has a real mind for the cutthroat stuff that makes people millionaires. 

Also dissolving her identity is Sheila “the She-Wolf.”  (Gayle Rankin) Sheila’s arc has been fascinating – she started as a recurring character in season one, and she was kind of an easy joke, just a New Wave Weirdo who could be counted on to make any scene funnier. But in season two she got more serious, and now in season three she drops the whole wolf thing. This comes after a walkabout type experience brought on by dehydration in the desert, and compounded by getting to know a Vegas drag performer, Bobby Barnes (Kevin Cahoon).

What Shiela learns is that the wolf thing was armor, and that it was a way of protecting herself… but it ended up limiting her. By sticking so fiercely to one identity, by hemming herself in so tightly, Sheila didn’t allow the spectrum of herself to shine. But seeing Bobby become other people – while still maintaining himself – she is inspired. This leads her to acting, and it turns out that she’s actually phenomenal at projecting herself into others. Sheila’s arc traces the spiritual paradox that by losing ourselves we truly find ourselves.

As Sheila becomes a better and better actor we see that Ruth “Zoya the Destroyer” Wilder (Alison Brie) is actually not that great. She’s not bad, but she’s not the star of stage and screen she’s imagined herself to be from the first episode. But Ruth has defined herself as an actor, and so she clings to this identity tightly, even as it no longer suits her. This season Ruth suffers again and again – not in showy, big ways but in the small ways of niggling dissatisfaction and lack of fulfillment that is all-too common for us. Even as it becomes clear that Ruth’s greatest talents lie in directing and creating, she insists on staying true to her dream of being an actor, despite every indication being that she cannot achieve this… and that it’s just not a great fit for her. 

Watching Ruth cling to this identity makes the show’s cliffhanger ending disorienting; at the very end Debbie offers Ruth a new chance, the ability to be part of the TV network she’s building… but as a creative, not an actor. Ruth refuses, and feels betrayed by it, and watching her turn her back on Debbie and stride towards her dreams should feel triumphant. It’s in our culture to look at this as an act of heroism, to never give up, to always move towards what you want. 

But GLOW season three has a deeper understanding, and so Ruth’s stand isn’t heroic, it’s sad. This is underlined by the fact that the plane she’s getting on isn’t taking her to Hollywood – where she was recently betrayed – but rather to Colorado. And the show lets us know that Ruth’s dreams are maybe skewed by having her miss the edgy and electric gender-swapped performance of True West in favor of perhaps schtupping Sam. (PS True West is well known for the way leads swap the two roles. Identity, folks!)

This is the subplot that gave me the most pause this season. Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) is going through his own identity quest this season, trying to get fit and coming to grips with the fact that his daughter is the artist he deep down wishes he could have been. He’s long been in love with Ruth, and that made sense – she’s young and hot, which speaks to his skeevy nature, but also has a very pure love of the art that has been slowly re-awakened in Sam over the course of his GLOW experience. She represents something meaningful and renewing for him. But this season Ruth comes to return the feeling and, quite frankly, what the fuck?

I wonder if part of Ruth’s weird pivot to falling for Sam has to do with how unmoored she is; while everyone else in the group has their little adventures and lives, Ruth is alone a lot of the time, and Sam – who is trying to live a clean life – represents a stable anchor point for her. More than that, though, it might be that the director/creator side of Ruth is responding to that aspect of Sam. And as the season goes on her reasoning may be more mercenary – as Sam finds himself the unwitting director of his daughter’s brilliant slice-of-life script, Ruth may be attracted to the Hollywood of it all, the allure of getting a role. In fact she turns on Sam the moment she learns that he in fact cannot get her a role (although this scene is complicated as there are large feelings of betrayal at play, which may be aimed at the wrong person but are legitimate on their face). 

The show explores Ruth’s crisis in small ways too. In the camping episode she gets herself and Debbie lost as she pretends to be an experienced outdoorsperson, which she definitely is not. Her pretending is different from the pretending of an actor, as it’s not about a fluidity of identity but rather a fake solidity – she’s trying to be a person she isn’t, and she’s claiming expertise she doesn’t have. Ruth pretends to be in love with her boyfriend, buying him a camera she can’t afford to continue that pretence, long after the relationship has run its course. 

There are two episodes focusing on the ring; one is directly aimed at the season’s theme of identity, wherein the wrestlers swap personas for a show and find their love of the job rekindled, and the other is a Very Special Episode where they put on a wrestling version of A Christmas Carol (between this and and the camping episode, it’s fascinating the way this streaming show uses the touchstones of old episodic TV to tell its story). Both episodes feature telling things about Ruth.

In A Christmas Carol she plays Scrooge, or rather Zoya does. This makes sense from an in-universe perspective – Zoya is the bad guy, so she should be Scrooge – but it speaks to Ruth’s arc in other ways as well. We’ve seen Ruth beaten down by the sameness of the show in Vegas, and there’s a similar trajectory with young Scrooge, who was once joyful and happy but had the life drained from him. Ruth is having the life drained from her, but at least some of it comes from her own decisions.

But it’s the role swap episode that intrigues me the most. Ruth comes alive playing Liberty Belle for a night, but she plays the role her own way. Rather than ape what Debbie does, Ruth plays Liberty Belle as a cornfed Midwestern girl, a Maryann from Gilligan’s Island sort. But even as Ruth plays a new take on Liberty Belle, she’s doing her old Zoya moves. There’s a solid center to her but she’s allowing aspects of her identity to be fluid, and I find that fascinating. 

It’s doubly fascinating when contrasted with her audition for Sam’s movie. The problem isn’t that she’s bad, it’s that she doesn’t have the demeanor of someone with a complicated past. What’s wild is that she does, but she’s unable to tap into her own reality to bring the character to life. Ruth has created a front just as rigid as Sheila’s she-wolf persona, and she can’t quite get out from behind it.

Identity forms the core of Jenny “Fortune Cookie” Chey’s (Ellen Wong) journey. She’s been very background for two seasons, but her she rockets to the front when GLOW sets up shop in the FanTan Casino, an Orientalist nightmare of Asian appropriation. Between that her and nightly yellow-faced minstrel show, Jenny has to come to terms with just who she is. While on the surface she presents as a standard Valley type girl, she’s actually a boat person, part of the wave of refugees who fled Vietnam on rickety-ass boats in 1975. This is a whole layer that’s new; I had kind of assumed Jenny was a second generation kid, but she’s first generation, and spent the first few years of her life in Cambodia. 

Her story is resolved in a way that I thought was touching but that I can see being problematic for some; her friendship with Melanie “Melrose” Rosen (Jackie Tohn) is stressed when Melrose takes over Fortune Cookie for a night and really racists it up. Melrose doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand why her friend is mad, but then they find common ground in their people’s identities as refugees – Melrose walks the whole group through a Passover seder, chronicling the Jews’ escape from Egypt. These two are very different, but they find common ground in their larger group identities, and thus they speak to the ways the human experience is the same, regardless of race or point of origin. 

From group identity to sexual identity, GLOW season three has it all. A number of characters this season wrestle with their sexuality, most dramatically Bash Howard (Chris Lowell), who we’ve known is gay for some time but who may have something a little more nuanced going on. It’s hard to tell; I don’t think the show is doing bi-erasure here so much as it’s set in a time that wasn’t very bi-friendly when it came to men, but Bash is either gay or interested in pansexual experiences with all genders. Either way, what he wants isn’t what’s vanilla, and it’s eating him alive through the whole season. At the end of season two he married Rhonda “Brittanica” Richardson in a last minute effort to get her a Green Card, and while she’s fallen for him he has begun to cool off on her. But when she tries to get him jealous by hiring a gigolo he actually gets turned on, and it’s not clear to me if he’s simply turned on by the guy or turned on also by watching Rhonda be pleasured by the guy. 

Whatever the case it doesn’t really matter, as the fact that he finally gives in to his non-straight urges sends him over a cliff. He had been becoming a bit of a monster the whole season, but by the end the threesome really does a number on him and he breaks like a wave against a rocky shore. 

At the other end of things is Arthie “Beirut the Mad Bomber” Premkumar (Sunita Mani), who has fallen into a relationship with Yolanda “Junkchain” Rivas (Shakira Barrera). Yolanda is a fairly out gay woman, but Arthie – who is fairly virginal in general – isn’t comfortable assuming that identity, even as she goes down on Yolanda. But when faced with violent homophobia Arthie comes to understand the power of taking up the identity; I suspect that in 2019 terms she might be more fluid in her sexuality, but in 1987 terms standing up and announcing that she is gay is a political act in and of itself. 

As the characters explore their identities (and there are more – Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) wrestles with what motherhood means and can do to her, Tammé “The Welfare Queen” Dawson (Kia Stevens) has to grapple with what her inability to be physical means to her identity as a member of the troupe and a performer) the show itself begins to explore its identity. What is GLOW now? What is this show about, especially as the finale seems to be winding things up and sending the characters on their own separate paths? If there is a season four (and honestly, Netflix tends to not go more than three seasons with its shows, so I’m not even counting on it), is there even a wrestling concept at the heart of it, or has this show just become about women in the world, leaving behind the trappings of the ring?

I hope there is a season four, because I want to see where this all goes next. Losing the wrestling can be as transformative as Sheila losing the wolfskin, and the show is on the verge of doing that. The statement would end up being that your identity isn’t tied up in the trappings – being an actor, being a wolf, being a show with wrestling – but rather it’s tied up in what drives you, what focuses you and what you actually do. Maybe all of this breaking up is kayfabe, and the plan is to get the wrestling front and center again (the real life GLOW ended up a syndicated program after the Vegas sojourn, and the groundwork is certainly being laid for that), but whatever happens next GLOW has shown that it is willing to be fluid, to take chances and to extend itself beyond what we’ve defined it as, which is incredibly exciting for a TV show.

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