The first season of GLOW ended in a rush of camaraderie. Inside a dingy motel room, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling huddled around a TV set to watch the pilot of their wrestling show, for which they painstakingly trained and developed a motley crew of characters. That sense of solidarity remains the thematic focus of the Netflix series throughout its second season, which begins a few weeks after the conclusion of the first—in the summer of 1985—as the women of GLOW reunite to begin production on a 20-episode season of their show. As they crowd together to take a celebratory photo, they laugh and strike poses, reveling in each other’s company. And yet, it’s telling that almost every woman makes sure to gently elbow her way into the spotlight.
It’s an apt start for a season that’s interested in the dichotomy between group and individual interests. GLOW showcases athleticism in its glitziest, bawdiest form, where wrestling matches are fixed and “winning” is a matter of preserving artifice for the sake of the group. When benevolent sleazebag director Sam (Marc Maron) notices that the show-within-the-show’s overlong performances are boring studio audiences, he kicks up the competition among his female wrestlers, shortening episodes from five fights to three and filling the remaining TV time with wrestling-adjacent skits, PSAs, and faux commercials. The threat of not wrestling on TV every week incentivizes the women to get more creative and, consequently, more than a little catty. In an attempt to ditch her caricatured terrorist persona, Arthie (Sunita Mani) comes up with a transformation gimmick, only to have her idea stolen by Dawn (Rebekka Johnson) and Stacey (Kimmy Gatewood). With 20 episodes to make, and a newfound fan base to keep interested, the women of GLOW must simultaneously consider the wellbeing of the show and their own exposure.
No one is more invested in the group working as a singular unit than bright-eyed try-hard Ruth (Alison Brie), who sees her castmates, along with Sam and the show’s producer, Bash (Chris Lowell), as a family. The unlikely friendship between Ruth and Sam was one of the more fleshed out dynamics in GLOW’s first season, with Sam developing from callous boss to collegial confidant to Ruth’s sympathetic abortion chaperone. Maron and Brie’s rapport is no less complex and hilarious in season two, with the Jimmy Dugan-esque Sam shooting down Ruth’s well-intentioned suggestions with faux contempt or downright disinterest. Ruth wants to “address the collective anxieties” and make the women “feel seen and heard.” Sam later admits, “I really don’t pay attention to all of you.” But when Ruth directs an opening title sequence without his permission, Sam’s male insecurity gets the better of him, and he coldly reminds her that the entire cast, Ruth included, is dispensable. You’re not a team, he tells Ruth, not really. “You’re all replaceable.”
Ruth and Sam’s friendship is disrupted by a shift in power dynamics, a theme that looms large over GLOW’s second season. While Ruth romanticizes an all-for-one ethos, her former bestie and in-the-ring rival, Debbie (Betty Gilpin), has her own interests at heart, drawing up a new contract for herself and finagling her way into a producer role on the wrestling show. “I have to look out for myself now,” she tells Sam in the first episode. “I know what I’m worth and I am not apologizing to anyone.” Debbie’s new title adds fuel to the wrestling show’s competitive edge. The other women joke that Debbie, with her heightened stature, is now the best-lit cast member on the stage.
Although GLOW is ostensibly an ensemble series—there are 14-plus main cast members, which now includes Shakira Barrera as Yolanda (a.k.a. Yo-Yo), a lesbian stripper and GLOW’s latest inductee—season two mostly focuses on Ruth, Sam, and Debbie. In doing so, GLOW avoids the bloat of other ensemble shows—including that of producer Jenji Kohan’s other Netflix dramedy, Orange Is the New Black. The storylines involving the secondary characters never feel out of place and are typically played for laughs, such as a scatological subplot between Jenny (Ellen Wong) and Melrose (Jackie Tohn) that ends in an at-home enema. At the same time, you may wish that some of these subplots were less hastily assembled: Cherry’s (Sydelle Noel) stint on the police drama Chambers & Gold, a program that airs on the same network as GLOW, ends as quickly as it begins. When Cherry fails at serious acting, Sam helps her to amicably leave the procedural and return to GLOW, an arc that exists only to highlight Sam’s loyalty to his wrestling show’s actors.
Luckily, we’re also afforded a few richly intimate close-ups with some of GLOW’s side players. A particularly affecting episode focuses on Debbie and Tammé (Kia Stevens) each grappling with the challenges of motherhood and, in Debbie’s case, divorce. And in one of the show’s more heartbreaking moments, Tammé’s alter ego, Welfare Queen, is met with taunting chants of “get a job” during a match with Debbie’s Liberty Belle. In attendance at the match is Tammé’s son, the Stanford scholar Ernest (Eli Goree), from whom Tammé had been hiding the demeaning nature of her new job. When Ernest learns her secret, he refers to Welfare Queen as a “minstrel character” meant to appeal to GLOW’s majority-white fans, and insists on attending a live taping of the show. He looks on teary-eyed while, to the obliviousness of the fans and even Debbie, his mother debases herself on stage before running off in shame. The Netflix series certainly takes care to confront the demons of its era, including the looming specter of the AIDS epidemic, as in season two we also see the cartoonishly optimistic Bash in a state of grief and self-reflection when his friend succumbs, it’s implied, to the disease.
Additionally, season two of GLOW gives Brie and Gilpin more space to explore their characters’ complex relationship. Debbie, stuck in a divorce-incited tailspin of resentment, barely disguises her contempt for Ruth for sleeping with her husband, Mark (Rich Sommer), while Ruth waits in the wings for her friend’s forgiveness, her eagerness bordering on cloying. The rift between the often-paired wrestlers grows when, under the guise of discussing her career, KDTV’s network head sexually harasses Ruth in a hotel room. The scene is a timely reminder that casting couches are an unfortunately timeless phenomenon, but more interestingly, it highlights the differences between Ruth and Debbie, and what happens when the “all-for-one” philosophy leads one into dangerous terrain. Unexpectedly, Debbie calls her colleague stupid and selfish for taking off and not at least feigning interest in the executive, as it could propel their wrestling show toward cancellation. She rattles off dated excuses, like “that is how this business works.” Later Ruth bluntly retorts, “You thought I should let myself be raped to save our show.”
In Debbie’s mind, not only has Ruth ruined her marriage, but also selfishly tanked their wrestling show. The emotionally fraught relationship eventually culminates in a heated, tear-filled argument, over ambition, over Mark, over failure, and over the fate of their show. The fight never really resolves itself, nor does anyone attain real closure. For the women of GLOW, it’s easy to parcel rivalry and disdain into neat, pre-packaged boxes on stage. It’s reaching resolutions outside of the ring that presents the real challenge.