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GLOW season 3 loses some of its trademark fun amid all the bloat

Netflix’s joyous wrestling drama has gotten caught under its own weight.

Two women of GLOW looking up at their marquee. Ali Goldstein/Netflix

For the past two seasons, GLOW has been the most fun series on Netflix, finding joy in everything from neon spandex to clumsy wrestling. It’s an infectious, easily marathoned show — I’ve never watched fewer than five episodes at a time — that wraps you up into its world. Season three, for the most part, maintains that quality (and especially its wrestling-centric episodes), providing a breezy few hours of enjoyable entertainment. At the same time, GLOW now has three seasons’ worth of characters and plots to juggle, which ultimately weighs it down. And the show has trouble getting back up afterward.

Part of this loss of momentum can be blamed on the setting. At the end of last season, the wrestling promotion — including Bash (Chris Lowell) and Sam (Marc Maron) — packed up and moved to Las Vegas to put on a live nightly wrestling show at the fictional Fan-Tan Hotel and Casino. Throughout season three, they’re doing the same show night after night, so it’s only natural the girls begin to get bored with zombie-walking through the motions, repeating the same lines and hitting the same moves.

This season, too, feels similarly lifeless at times. Unlike in GLOW’s first two seasons, where many of the most memorable moments came from the women’s endearing wrestling attempts during rehearsals and live shows, the wrestling is largely absent here. Losing some of the zaniest, most energetic scenes that helped zip the first two seasons along is strongly felt as a result; the tone deviates from GLOW’s trademark fun as a result. But this isn’t a total loss, as it does free up the show to more deeply explore more non-wrestling storylines and themes, a valuable change of pace at this point in its run.

There’s still a lot that’s par for the course: Ruth “Zoya the Destroya” Wilder (Alison Brie) and Debbie “Liberty Belle” Eagan (Betty Gilpin) are still the central characters in this ensemble, and their relationship only grows stronger. Their dynamic — the love-hate relationship of two best friends trying to find their way back to each other after season one’s infidelity betrayal — has always been something of an anchor for the show. This year, there are nice moments of the two helping and confiding in each other, but the show also gives both women time to explore their own paths.

For much of the season, Ruth and Debbie deal with their individual problems: Ruth tries to maintain her long-distance relationship while also escalating her will-they-or-won’t-they relationship with Sam to new levels, unsure of what she wants her future in the industry, and the rest of her life, to look like. Debbie, meanwhile, longs to be with her young child, whom she left back home with his father, throwing herself into business and producing to distract her from the pain. (It helps that she’s being romanced by a businessman she calls Tex, played by Toby Huss, at the same time.)

While both Brie and Gilpin are always great performers to watch, what this season does well is allow some of the peripheral characters — especially Arthie (Sunita Mani) and Yolanda (Shakira Barrera) — to shine. One notable deviation from the Ruth-Debbie storyline this season involves their relationship, which began to bloom at the very end of season two. As a result, season three is notably queerer than the show has been before, using Arthie and Yolanda to comfortably settle into having characters explore aspects of their queerness, even if it makes them uncomfortable.

Since last season, Arthie and Yolanda have been falling in love, but they’re already dealing with a relationship crisis. This is Arthie’s first relationship with a woman (or anyone), and she feels uneasy in it. In an early episode, the two are at odds because an insecure Arthie never lets Yolanda reciprocate during sex, which leads to Yolanda feeling unwanted. But by the end of the half-hour, the two actually have an open and honest conversation about sex and insecurities.

The show goes further into their struggles: In the sixth episode, “Outward Bound,” they disagree about their differing approaches to queerness. Yolanda is both secure in her sexuality and aware of the dangers of being out, so she pretends to be straight while outside of the safety of the GLOW circle, while Arthie is so uneasy with her sexuality that she’s unable to utter it aloud, which understandably frustrates her partner.

Debbie “Liberty Bell” Eagan (left) and Ruth “Zoya the Destroya” Wilder (right) stand together in costume.
Debbie “Liberty Bell” Eagan (left) and Ruth “Zoya the Destroya” Wilder continue to anchor the show.
Ali Goldstein/Netflix

Their subsequent breakup puts a pause on this storyline until the penultimate episode, where the pair end up at the same drag ball. It’s here where Arthie finally marvels over the queer scene — “Everyone seems so free!” she declares — only for her joy to be cut short when homophobes target the bar with arson and graffitied slurs. The hate crime clearly rattles Arthie, especially when she locks eyes with Yolanda. It’s perhaps a melodramatic way to have Arthie understand Yolanda’s side and come to terms with her own sexuality, and yet it works, thanks to Arthie’s believable naiveté and discomfort. This all comes to a head in one of the season’s most triumphant moments in the finale, when Arthie officially comes out to the rest of the troupe.

Reckoning with a newfound queerness is perhaps season three’s most consistently explored theme. We also see this play out far less optimistically with Bash, who spontaneously married Rhonda “Britannica” Richardson (Kate Nash) in the previous season finale. The two are working backward: They get married and then fall in love, but Bash’s secret about his sexuality — he’s queer — means he always keeps Rhonda at arm’s length. When Rhonda becomes concerned about their dwindling sex life, she hatches a plan to make Bash jealous, which ultimately results in a threesome. It’s here where Bash is able to let go and embrace his sexuality, allowing himself to touch a man and be touched.

Later, during a drunken breakdown, he comes out to Debbie and explains that he’s worried about his parents finding out and cutting him off — not just financially but emotionally as well. There’s a poignancy to this moment, strengthened by how well we know Bash at this point. We already know that he’s struggling to live up to his parents’ expectations, and we’ve seen his inability to deal with the AIDS-related death of his long-term friend Florian. For him to again make himself vulnerable in this way is devastating, especially as Bash, who just wants “to be the son my mom wants me to be,” remains intent on repressing his true desires in favor of keeping up an unhappy facade. But based on Rhonda’s seeming disbelief when Bash declares that he wants to start a family, that’s likely not going to last.

Similar to this season’s focus on queer characters, GLOW also turns toward another marginalized experience: the wrestlers of color. The show has always toed a very fine line with how much it can depict racism within wrestling, a medium that traffics in stereotypes and xenophobia, before it becomes offensive in and of itself.

In “Freaky Tuesday,” one of the season’s standout episodes, the girls swap roles to play different characters in the ring. Cambodian-Canadian Jenny (Ellen Wong) witnesses the white Melanie (Jackie Tohn) take on her “Fortune Cookie” persona — jumping out of a fortune cookie, promoting stereotypes, and speaking in an exaggerated accent.

Jenny already had qualms with portraying “Fortune Cookie,” and the character comes off as even more offensive when it’s a white person playing it. The gimmick forces Jenny to confront how she’s acquiesced to indulging racist gimmicks, despite being the proud daughter of immigrant parents. We’ve seen GLOW previously remark on race in smaller ways before, so it’s great to see season three expanding the conversation to include more of its characters of color, even if there’s still more work to do in terms of properly tackling this endemic issue.

But an inability to fully reckon with all of its threads has always been the problem with GLOW: It has far too many characters and plots rushing around to fully give each one the attention it deserves. At times, the show resembles a real WWE Battle Royale match, where the ring can get so crowded that it takes a while to even realize someone has been casually tossed over the ropes. Take the new character, Sandy Devereaux St. Clair (Geena Davis), a former showgirl and a warning sign of what the wrestlers’ futures may hold. Davis commands the screen when she pops up, but Sandy hardly becomes more than this surface-level archetype. Same could be said for the lack of time spent on Carmen (Britney Young), a fantastic character who stands out in the scant few moments she gets onscreen. (On the other hand, Sheila (Gayle Rankin) really comes into her own this year, and her transformation from beyond just her costume-covered “She Wolf” character toward a gifted, dedicated actress is wonderful to watch.)

Much of GLOW, especially the characters and matches, is so fun that it’s hard to even notice the structural problems begat by the bloat until the season is over. Season three still hits admirable heights, is chock-full of memorable performances, and sets up the stage nicely for a fourth. As much as it loves to stuff every nook and cranny with new characters, GLOW still knows how to zero in on intimate moments to help us become invested in the characters it wants us to spend time with. It’s just a shame that the show may never be able to dedicate the time deserved by everyone we want to catch up with, too.