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‘GLOW’ Season 2 Is Bigger, Bolder, and One of the Year’s Best Shows

Netflix’s wrestling dramedy pumps up the storytelling and takes a leap from the top rope in an extraordinary new set of episodes

Netflix/Ringer illustration

The premise and the promise of the first season of GLOW, the Netflix series about the making of the very real 1986 women’s wrestling TV show GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, was all about the exhilarating vertigo that comes with taking a leap of faith from the top rope. Answering a casting call from washed-out horror film director Sam Sylvia (a compellingly disdainful Marc Maron) and his spendthrift golden boy financier Bash Howard (the excellent, high-energy Chris Lowell), a group of “unconventional women” transformed their career desperation and low self-esteem with a strange mixture of courage and determination into a unique piece of entertainment. GLOW’s gorgeous (if not glamorous) ladies had nothing to lose, and that made all the difference. The wrestling personae were stereotypes but the fights were unpredictable; the reversals of the season finale, depicting the show-within-the-show’s first live television taping, culminated in a satisfying if short-lived in-ring triumph for Debbie’s All-American heroine Liberty Belle (Betty Gilpin). Not everything shines in GLOW, however: The characters’ persistence was tested again and again in a first season that banked on realism to obtain something more meaningful than a round of applause. “The money’s in the chase,” Sam tells Ruth (Alison Brie) and Debbie in the last episode, justifying his last-minute call to take his organization’s title belt off the fan favorite Liberty Belle.

Penned by Liz Flahive and Orange Is the New Black producer Carly Mensch, GLOW was never going to simply tell yet another version of the American Dream. Here, the struggle is real, and the heroines are, too. Featuring 14 female characters of all colors, shapes, and backgrounds — employed by two floundering white men who are nothing without them — GLOW can’t help but be political: The difficulties faced by its ensemble play as simultaneous criticisms of patriarchy and existential interrogations. Although Ruth initially caused her best friend Debbie to break up with both her husband Mark (Rich Sommer) and Ruth herself by sleeping with said husband, these two separations — one romantic, one platonic — lead both women to rethink their identities. Working together on GLOW also presents Ruth and Debbie (and all the other characters) with an opportunity to redefine themselves on their own terms, even as they serve the interests of an exploitative and merciless television network. It is in these conflicts between past and future, regret and hope, personal ambition and crowd-pleasing compromise that GLOW located its remarkably powerful emotional core.

A second season, therefore, presented an ironic challenge for GLOW’s creators. If the women were suddenly rewarded with success after all their hard work, what would become of the absorbing dilemmas that gave the series its depth? Would eternal loser Sam still be sarcastic if, for once, a project of his came to fruition? Did Ruth and Debbie really bury the hatchet — and with it, the series’ heartbreaking and romantic look at female friendship — in the exciting match between their characters, Zoya the Destroya (a heavily accented Soviet villainess) and Liberty Belle (the American country girl who would do anything to defend the greatest country on earth against the Evil Empire)? Luckily, Flahive and Mensch don’t let success get to their heads. Now that GLOW the promotion has made a name for itself, the struggle shifts from Us vs. Them to Me vs. You All: genuine competition arises amid all the prearranged in-ring maneuvers.

This new theme of rivalry isn’t simply the logical consequence of recognition. But with common ground now established, the new season also digs deeper into the characters’ specific motivations and their origins to better grasp the complexity of the feminist struggle and the broader question of identity. Essentially, GLOW gets intersectional.

Season 2 gets even more personal — and thus political. After the first live taping, the show must go on and routine starts to set in, allowing Flahive and Mensch to turn away from group dynamics and onto the characters’ personal arcs. Ruth remains as generous and borderline insufferable as ever, but also sees her self-esteem rise slightly. A little of Zoya’s courage passes into her bloodstream, and she opens up to the possibility of no longer being “a sucker for nonthreatening, unavailable men who compliment [her].” Thanks to some realistic and clever writing, Ruth’s struggles with romantic intimacy don’t follow a straight line, and the destination remains a blurry spot in the distance. Ruth used to wallow in resentment (of herself and others), never believing she deserved to be happy; now, she doesn’t know what being happy would look like for her. Having proved she could play resilience and shame brilliantly in the first season, Alison Brie now perfectly navigates the muddy waters of Ruth’s schoolgirl shyness when men show an interest in her; her performance reveals how the character’s anxiety and independence are linked by a lonely survival instinct. Such a careful representation of a grown woman’s fear of closeness, and her awkward attempts at combating it, could only have been penned by female screenwriters. It feels quietly revolutionary.

GLOW’s other central self-hater benefits equally from Flahive and Mensch’s attentive and non-macho sensibility. Having discovered in the season finale that he was a father, Sam’s relationship with his daughter, the punky Brian De Palma fan Justine (Britt Baron), inevitably evolves. They have to decide how attached they want to be to each other, and this new set of emotions makes both of their histories appear richer. Sam’s fatherly instincts may be discreet due to his solitary and selfish past, but they are nonetheless honest and point to a change in him. His sarcasm remains intact because the world in the 1980s still sucks. But, like Ruth, he now perceives a glimmer of hope. For once, someone looks up to him and he can put his many mistakes to good use. Even though they’re far from the ideal nuclear family, Sam and Justine are good for each other.

As the show becomes more personal, it gradually begins to refine the definition — or rather the multiple, fluid definitions — of family. The dizzying mixture of security, responsibilities, support, and oppression that the traditional family unit offers was suggested in Season 1: Debbie and her divorce, of course, but also Bash and his disdainful mother, Birdie (Elizabeth Perkins), and Carmen (the incredibly talented Britney Young) and her determination to prove to her pro-wrestler father that she could wrestle just as well as her brothers. The courage that runs through the new episodes, however, makes Sam, Ruth, and even Debbie tentatively seek out their own version of a happy household. Debbie’s scorn turns to regret for the life she had built with Mark. But working on GLOW allows her to indulge her control-freakery and eventually become brutally aware of her need to move on. It’s a kind of shock therapy, but one that comes with the remedy included: The women have become a family. Sam’s efforts to reassure his team with claims that GLOW is “just a fucking show” no longer ring true — not because everyone’s training and intense costuming are starting to pay off, but because they now all know and care about one another.

Yet Flahive and Mensch never turn the GLOW family into the ultimate solution to everyone’s problems. If Season 2 sees the characters bloom when they’re away from society’s pressures, society doesn’t just go away. An episode centered on Tammé (the excellent Kia Stevens) makes for some of GLOW’s most audacious and complex political moments when her stereotypical wrestling character suddenly hits too close to home. The Welfare Queen is a parody of Tammé’s difficult life as a lower-income African American, but as a well-trained performer earning a salary, and particularly in the context of GLOW’s wrestling hierarchy, she is the one in charge: the Welfare Queen persona allows her to both repudiate a stereotype and reclaim her identity. It remains difficult to live this compromise, but her fellow wrestlers — her other family — and her fans know her strength.

If Tammé and most of the women can find in GLOW’s welcoming environment a chance to let go of society’s rules, not everyone can open up to the unknown. Ruth and Debbie struggle on the path to confidence, but the enthusiastic — if not always productive — producer Bash grows ever more mysterious and insecure. It is the mark of intelligent writing that the show’s most outwardly joyful and generous character should hide the deepest well of doubt and fear, and Lowell perfectly inhabits those two opposed but connected states: He’s a slapstick clown, but a deeply moving one masking real anguish. Bash’s torment may be specific to him and his unique upper-class upbringing and history, but it speaks to a universal fear of inadequacy. Flahive and Mensch’s scripts place traces of Bash’s self-doubt in other characters, which makes his detachment particularly heartbreaking: He relies on GLOW as a hiding place rather than a safe space.

Despite all the competition and personal dilemmas, the second season of GLOW sees the crew become not only a family, but also a brilliant troupe of artists — who are mostly women. At last, the female wrestler is consecrated through Cherry (Sydelle Noel): After some doubts and detours, she remembers the empowering physical energy she gets from wrestling and used to get as a stunt woman. “I feel like a goddamn superhero!” Debbie exclaimed in Season 1, and with their now truly impressive wrestling skills, the women fully own their bodies. In the ring, Cherry and her colleagues are gorgeous for themselves first — the men in the audience and watching at home are an afterthought.

Team spirit can’t exist without cooperation, however. With her boundless enthusiasm, Ruth is still the epitome of thwarted female ambition, and as she aims ever higher, encouraged by GLOW’s relative success, she’s met with more virulent misogyny than ever before. If some of these powerful men struggle with their old habits and learned disrespect — Sam’s old wounds as a rebuffed filmmaker won’t cauterize easily — others just don’t care. One harrowing sequence presents Ruth facing what can only be described as a Harvey Weinstein type (apparently, it was written before his downfall). The scene plays out in what feels like real time and does away with stylistic or verbal flourishes to better expose how fast that disquieting ambiguity can turn bleak. It’s surprising how the countless articles that have recently described this type of event can’t prepare you for the strange and powerful experience of watching actors portray it. After years of silence and months of painful media revelations, direct representation seems like a small victory.

The motivating utter despair that made the first season so moving hasn’t disappeared; on the contrary, it makes the team stick together and reach for new heights of creativity, while taking on a more political and resounding meaning. Determined not to submit to abusers in higher ranks, realistic about its prospects, but also bolstered by a few fans, the gang’s artistry is finally fully unbridled.

In the face of a cruel world but not to its service, the girls and boys work together to express themselves in one of the craziest episodes of GLOW yet. Their personal idiosyncrasies come together gloriously: Ruth’s passion for drama and Debbie’s soap opera literacy generate an intense narrative, Sheila (Gayle Rankin) adds her usual bizarre animalism, Arthie (dancer and actress Sunita Mani) and newcomer Yolanda (the irresistible Shakira Barrera) bring more unexpected skills, and everyone’s love for the show results in an episode as sweet as it is ludicrous. Sam, too, gets to show off his cinephilia by adopting a wide variety of styles, from De Palmaesque shower scenes to early Woody Allen absurd comedy and a modern homage to musicals.

While the Cold War parodied in the Zoya vs. Liberty Belle faceoff was a topical and mainstream reference to ground the show in the 1980s, the exuberant style of this episode is a more artistic record of what those years of disco, exaggerated makeup, and exploitation horror films looked and felt like. The underlying USA-USSR conflict in Season 1 also spoke to the current issues of xenophobia and racism (and hell, even nuclear threat), while Sam’s postmodern artistry transcends nostalgic pastiche — we’re looking at you, Stranger Things — to be appreciated on its own terms. Yet this outstanding moment of circa-1986 television is also a great episode of GLOW in 2018, and a testament to the talent and creative courage of Flahive, Mensch, and the team behind one of today’s most audacious, feminist, and galvanizing series.