Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
Netflix has canceled a lot of shows. There’s something to be said about the streaming service’s proclivity for creating imaginative and entertaining series and canceling them too early, all while lesser shows get renewed for seemingly endless seasons. Unfortunately, GLOW fell victim to Netflix’s pattern of cancellation; and it’s an understatement to call GLOW imaginative and entertaining. The show follows the “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestlin,” a real-life wrestling team from the 1980s, as they became a niche television hit. The show takes some liberties with the characters and its adaptation of history, and turns it all into a strong piece of media that explores feminism and sexuality expertly. If this sounds like a compelling, one-of-a-kind show, that’s because it is. It’s also exactly why its renewal for a fourth season and eventual cancellation hurt so much. After greenlighting its final season in September 2019, Netflix changed course in October 2020, saying the show would no longer continue due to the COVID pandemic.
When the show opens, we see aspiring actress Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) at an audition, delivering an intense monologue. As she finishes, teary-eyed, she exclaims that she doesn’t see roles like that for women often. The casting directors reply by saying she was reading the man’s part. It’s funny, frustrating, and a bit on the nose, but the line serves its purpose. It drops us head-first into a world where the struggle women are facing in the entertainment industry isn’t going to be pushed under the rug, and won’t be sugar coated. Ruth is defeated and feeling hopeless about the state of her career, or lack thereof, a complete foil to who we meet next: her best friend Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin). Debbie is a mother, and once had a successful career on a popular soap opera before getting written off. Two completely different women ended up in the same place, desperate enough to pursue a job as insane as female wrestling, all so they could have a chance to succeed.
Created by Liz Flahive (Nurse Jackie) and Carly Mensch (Weeds, Orange Is the New Black) along with Jenji Kohan (Weeds) as executive producer, it tracks that the female characters are messy as hell. We find out in the first episode that Ruth is sleeping with Debbie’s husband, an extremely uncomfortable revelation. To drop this bomb in the middle of the pilot is a bold choice; setting up the viewers with an innate sense of distrust towards the main protagonist isn’t necessarily a mistake, but it is risky—and realistic. GLOW never tries to act like its characters are perfect. As rare as it is to get a full cast of complex female characters, GLOW gives us just that.
GLOW felt like magic at times. On paper, it was an ‘80s period comedy-drama about female wrestling. At its core, it was an unabashedly candid look at female empowerment, rage, and sexuality. What starts as a story about Ruth and her desire to be on a level playing field with men in the industry becomes a story about her need to create a female-dominated space. As she joins the wrestling world, we see that her struggles and motivations for wanting change are valid, but the women she meets present different perspectives that help widen her goals. Every single woman on the team comes from a different background, and instead of focusing on the struggles of a white woman learning to understand feminism, we get to have an ensemble cast of diverse voices to do that.
Every season that GLOW was renewed for felt like some sort of miracle gift. I cheered for its Season 2 and 3 renewals, because it’s so rare that a show so special gets a chance to shine, especially on Netflix. A show that effectively tackles topics such as race, sexism, miscarriage, and LGBTQ+ relationships set in the modern day is uncommon in and of itself; these topics being addressed in an ‘80s period piece is even rarer.
So again, the show being unceremoniously canceled really hurt. Aside from the fact that we were told there would be a fourth and final season, the previous episodes left the story at a fascinating point. After seasons of watching Debbie and Ruth fight (verbally and physically), it seemed like the Season 3 finale left them in a better place. At the start of the series, Ruth and Debbie can barely speak to each other, let alone work together at GLOW. There’s something almost romantic about the way the show frames their relationship. There’s deep heartbreak and betrayal there, and their “breakup” is given a respect that is almost exclusively given to romantic relationships. Ruth spends the entire first season working to gain Debbie’s trust back, and by the time the credits roll on the finale, progress has been made. It’s not cut and dry when it comes to who is right in their fight. Debbie is extremely harsh to Ruth, bordering on cruel in the second season (their fight in the hospital is an acting masterpiece, but hard to watch), and Ruth is desperate to “win her back.”
The third season followed the ladies as they moved to Vegas to perform a live show at a casino. What starts as exciting and invigorating for them quickly becomes dull and repetitive. In what would become the series finale, Debbie and Bash (Chris Lowell) decide to buy a television network and create a place for GLOW to exist on its own terms. Debbie feels free, finally in charge of her own fate, and the only person she can tell (or wants to tell) is Ruth. The episode ends on a cliffhanger. Ruth decides that she wants to keep trying at acting, Carmen shares that she won’t be returning to GLOW, and none of the other women even know that the network is an option. It’s an unfortunate ending for a series, and could have been the perfect set up to a final run of episodes.
Season 3 explored a lot. Arthie (Sunita Mani) came out as gay amidst a prolonged internal crisis, Bash and Rhonda (Kate Nash) struggled with their relationship and sexualities, and Ruth even explored the possibility of a relationship with GLOW director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron). The show spent time dealing with ‘80s-era homophobia and racism, never shying away from tough realities. Plotlines that had been building since the first season finally came to their boiling point, but it was hard not to feel disappointed by the lackluster conclusion these characters got.
More than anything, it’s unfair that the show is never going to be able to give us a proper ending to the relationship between Debbie and Ruth. What is by far the most compelling aspect of the show remains unfinished, leaving us like Ruth at the airport, considering a destiny that may never be fulfilled.
Miriam Handel is an entertainment writer based in Texas. When she’s not watching TV and catching up on pop culture, you can find her writing and thoughts on Twitter @m1riamh.
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