How GLOW Uses The Drama of Wrestling To Tell a Genuine Story

A look at the subtle depiction of the messiness of female intimacy and trust in Netflix's GLOW.

A Still From Netflix's Glow

This article contains some spoilers for GLOW.

It wouldn’t be wrong to call Netflix’s GLOW a spectacle, especially when you take into account the very real show from which it draws its inspiration — and its name. “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” which aired for a total of four seasons beginning in 1986, consisted of women who were all trying to carve out a space in the entertainment industry. Whether they were actresses, dancers, or professional stunt women, they all found a home in GLOW.

The Netflix show adopts the basic template of the actual series — the glittery arena, the dramatic storylines, the larger-than-life character personas largely inspired by unpleasant stereotypes of the decade — but it uses the theatrics of the wrestling ring as a backdrop through which to tell quieter, more powerful narratives about the theme of trust between women, and what happens after that trust is broken.

The brokenness happens first. Single, struggling actress Ruth (Alison Brie) would rather try her hand at reading the meatier sides written for men in her auditions, while former soap star Debbie (Betty Gilpin) is attempting to juggle her newest role as a mother with her desire to get back into show business. GLOW establishes them as close, reliant friends, which is why the eventual revelation that Ruth has been sleeping with Debbie’s husband is so effective.

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It’s a major betrayal, a gut punch for Debbie when she discovers what’s happened — but what makes this situation unique is that GLOW doesn’t try to immediately absolve Ruth of her transgressions. True to real life, forgiveness doesn’t happen overnight. Ruth has to sit in the aftermath of what she’s done while the remainder of the first season plays out.

Of course, the situation gets more complicated when Ruth and Debbie are hired for the same gig: a new women’s wrestling show. Excited for the job opportunity, Ruth throws herself into training for GLOW with absurd enthusiasm; Debbie, on the other hand, remains wary right up until the second she recognizes the similarities between a wrestling storyline and the plot of a soap opera — and then realizes this is something she might actually be able to pull off.

Their ultimate clash in the ring is a gradual happening too. Each of the other women their director Sam (Marc Maron) tries to pair with Debbie don’t feel quite right, so eventually she agrees (albeit begrudgingly) to team up with Ruth — and that’s when things get really interesting.

Even as Debbie’s emotional trust in Ruth has been shattered, she’s still forced to trust her on a physical level as they try to choreograph their staged wrestling moves so as not to hurt themselves or one another. Their fight prep becomes a master class in coordination, but it also speaks volumes about the way physical and emotional reliance have to be so intertwined once in the ring. Shared glances become their own form of communication; wordless responses are the only language. When Debbie flies off the ropes to drive Ruth into the stage using her big power move, a quick mutual nod afterward is all that’s required as a check-in, a confirmation that everyone’s okay.

This is where GLOW largely distinguishes itself from shows that have addressed similar subjects. Big Little Lies, which aired on HBO earlier this year, revolved around unspoken communication between female characters — most significantly in its finale. However, while the main trio of Big Little Lies eventually built their friendship to the degree where an implicit look signaled explicit volumes, GLOW’s two leading women have to collaborate on a physically dependent level after breaking their emotional backbone.

Ruth and Debbie’s friendship experiences its own upheaval, but their links to the others within the working sphere of GLOW grow stronger. Characters like Carmen Wade, a nervous yet likable young woman who boasts a proud wrestling heritage, as well as Sheila, whose wolflike exterior masks deep insecurities, help to flesh out a more complex form of community as the women of GLOW train, fight and live together. When the group takes Sheila to a roller rink to celebrate her birthday, it’s not an occasion that’s struggled to be earned — and, as Sheila throws her head back to howl while skating, free in the knowledge of being who she is without judgment, every single woman out there skating with her joins in.

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Ruth and Debbie’s ability to compartmentalize their relationship in the name of professionalism adds another dimension to their story that transcends the wrestling stage — even though it’s where the majority of their interaction takes place as the season progresses. In the ring, Ruth is villainized to a ridiculous degree, but that’s the point. Her “Zoya the Destroyer” persona, a ridiculous Cold War-era caricature that she gleefully imbues with a Boris-and-Natasha-lite accent, is meant to be the heel to Debbie’s “Liberty Belle.”

Poised next to the all-American housewife, a personification of apple pie, Ruth’s jeering Zoya serves to amplify Liberty Belle’s morality. But Ruth and Debbie’s dynamic outside the ring propels their fictional wrestling narrative beyond simple satire — and makes their final match that much more compelling.

And yet, even when they stand side-by-side at the conclusion of GLOW’s last episode, riding the high of satisfaction with their dual performance in the closing match, Debbie turns down Ruth’s offer to go and get a drink afterwards. “We’re not there,” she says, the final words before the credits roll. It’s a reminder to Ruth as well as the audience that real life isn’t as simple — or wrapped up as neatly — as a scripted wrestling storyline.

There are no obvious winners in their scenario, and nothing gets easily resolved in the aftermath of a single fight. It’s true that GLOW succeeds in paying tribute to the over-the-top theatrics of its authentic predecessor, but where it really shines is in its quieter moments between female characters — and all of the genuine messiness that plays out in real life.