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With "Say Yes," Ruth's romantic life finally isn't the only drag on GLOW

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Alright, so here’s the thing: GLOW is a strange fucking show, where the romantic leading male is Marc Maron (no, not Chris Lowell), and the main love triangle, as a result, is Alison Brie being forced to choose between him and… some guy named Russell (Victor Quinaz), who’s nice enough or whatever. In any other show, it would be the most “I choose me.” decision of all time. But in GLOW, it’s a big part of the narrative, which is how we get this Ruth plot in “Say Yes.” There’s actually nothing wrong with Russell as a character, and season two put in a lot of work to show that he’s a good guy, work that was unfortunately not allowed to be followed up on, based on the nature of this third season’s change of setting. But because this is the central romantic dilemma of the series, it had to be addressed head-on eventually, which is what Russell’s weekend visit is all about.

Unsurprisingly, Ruth and Russell’s weekend together is the exact opposite of Ruth’s perfect day with Sam. And not just because of the reminders of that day, whether it’s Sam snarkily mentioning the steakhouse they went to or his “loaner” watch haunting Ruth by her bed (along with the pawnshop visit and watches that remind Ruth that she and Sam were supposed to go there together).

Ruth needed Russell in season two, both as proof that she could make good personal choices and as a way to break free of begging Debbie for forgiveness that was never going to come. But with this season, the long-distance relationship isn’t a good enough story replacement, as Russell now serves no function other than the boyfriend who’s away. (He wasn’t even one of Ruth’s excuses for rejecting Sam, which I’m sure is also part of Ruth’s guilt.) Good on GLOW for being able to function with a stock “boyfriend” character instead of the typical stock “girlfriend” character—a trope which they even subverted with Rhonda in season one—but while Alison Brie and Victor Quinaz do so much good work in this episode (and Quinaz’s deadpan and frustrated delivery are extremely funny), the pair itself isn’t all that interesting. That they continue to be a couple after this episode technically makes sense for the Ruth character and her denial—as she blames the long distance and the craziness of Vegas, even though Vegas gave her “the best day” with Sam—but that, again, doesn’t mean it’s all that interesting. And this lack of interest is arguably the intention, but well-executed intent doesn’t always make for a compelling story.

More compelling, though with lower stakes—as it’s mostly about the character dynamics, which has always been the part of GLOW I’m most interested in, even with all the wrestling—is the Debbie/Cherry dynamic in this episode. While I write about how Debbie isn’t taken seriously as a “lady producer,” it’s moments like these and when she’s genuinely making an effort to be one of the girls (or at least get on with them) where she actually succeeds at the whole thing, even if she doesn’t quite realize it. Especially because the Debbie character thrives (in the G.L.O.W. bubble) when she interacts with other “adult” characters like Tamme or Cherry (or even Sam). Even if it devolves into them getting wine drunk or high, letting loose. Actually, because of that. Debbie and Ruth have their own connection that was formed and broken before and outside of G.L.O.W., but in this world, Debbie has far more in common with characters like Tamme and Cherry than she does the rest of the G.L.O.W. Girls. And she has plenty to offer that they’ll actually take seriously, because, while Bash may not know what to say when she mentions missing baby Randy’s childhood, her experiences as a woman and a wife and a mother are valued by the people who have experienced these things as well. (Actually, now I’d really love to see an extended Debbie interaction with someone like Melrose or Carmen because of this.)

While the rest of the girls gossip about Keith leaving Cherry, Debbie—even in her annoyance about Cherry’s sad disco—genuinely cares enough to ask what’s going on. Of course, because it’s Debbie, it’s originally framed by her making sure Cherry isn’t going to leave G.L.O.W. high and dry, but it turns into a genuine bonding (and blazing) session. Betty Gilpin letting loose as Debbie is always a highlight on GLOW, and after last season’s writing of Debbie as the villain of the piece, surely this is an intentional choice for this season. She’s still tightly-wound and over everyone’s bullshit, but there’s also more of a true team player mentality (along with the getting laid mentality) that defines a more “relaxed” Debbie Eagan. As for Cherry, Sydelle Noel still plays her as the hardass she is throughout the episode—and should be, after Bash’s magician choice—but it only makes sense that her eventual hotel room scene with Debbie allows her to get real about how much she misses Keith and how she didn’t expect him to leave the way he did, but she has to keep moving.

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I read an article about this season of GLOW that, just as an aside, said that a drag queen story (or anything drag culture, really) wouldn’t seem like it would have a place in a series about women’s professional wrestling (and I imagine “professional wrestling, in general” was the larger point), which is something that couldn’t be further from the truth. People far more well-versed in the world of drag than I have written about the intersection and comparative nature of professional wrestling and drag. Much like Debbie had the “pro wrestling is soap operas” epiphany in season one—which is always how my mother explained pro wrestling in my youth, when she would expose me to both pro wrestling and soap operas—there is plenty of contemporary analysis that suggests professional wrestling and drag are two sides of the same coin. As someone who thinks a lot about professional wrestling and what it “is,” outside of just the machismo and the obvious surface level beliefs about it (like, for example, that every promo should sound like it’s been cut by either Hulk Hogan or “Macho Man” Randy Savage), I’ve never once thought the comparison between it and drag was out of left field. So for GLOW to use its new Las Vegas setting as a way to create that intersection, I consider it a natural progression. Even more than the “Desert Pollen” intersection between the G.L.O.W. Girls and showgirls, one that isn’t really as one-to-one outside of the realm of them both being female athletes. (The lack of improv, personality, and individuality in the showgirl world makes them the antithesis of professional wrestlers in this case, but I don’t think GLOW was actually trying to go down that route the way they’re clearly going down the drag route.)

I wrote in “Desert Pollen” that the G.L.O.W. Girls had made it, and this episode confirms that in more concrete terms, when Bash says they’re sold out for the next two weeks (and there’s only one month left in the show). But “making it” as a lady wrestling squad is still such an abstract thing, even if they’re the marquee act in a (B-list, at most) Vegas hotel and casino. They’re still a bunch of outcasts, all things considered; they just happen to be at the top right now in a world that’s full of outcasts. That provides the perfect entry point for Bobby Barnes (Kevin Cahoon) and his Icons show, especially once you learn that, despite being one of the most popular shows at the Fan-Tan (to the point they have to turn people away at the door), he’s not been given the green light on a bigger room and he’s still pay-for-play. A successful niche act in a town of niche acts, but he’s still considered the nichest of the niche. While, again, women’s wrestling is actually the success story… that’s at least also given the opportunity to succeed. Because at least they’re not a gay man in drag, right?

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Where the rest of the girls see a fun Friday night bonding experience—and I assume Debbie sees her future as a woman that all gay men love (and honestly, prime drag queen material—because Sandy is, in fact, her future), which is also the present of the GLOW watching experience when it comes to Betty Gilpin (and Geena Davis)—Sheila, however, ultimately sees something more. Something she’s afraid of at first and pushes back against, but unlike Bash—who has a similar journey in this episode that certainly diverges—she ultimately embraces it at the end. In a different way from how she embraced G.L.O.W. and vice versa, because that acceptance was as the She-Wolf, whereas this is the first real acceptance of Sheila, the actual person. She connects to this show in a way she’s connecting to acting, and it opens a whole new world she didn’t think was possible. Because she was told it was impossible. It’s in the aftermath of Sheila’s terrible acting class, where she pushed back against the acting coach for pushing back against her persona—and after Sam tells her the She-Wolf works for wrestling but maybe not acting—and she tries to do that here too… Only, Bobby (as Barbara) isn’t pushing back against the She-Wolf persona: When he’s doing crowd work with Debbie and then Russell (and Ruth), he’s all jokes, but he takes the appropriate care to just be real with Sheila and learn about who and what she is. She pushes back—and Rhonda even tells her to “be nice,” because Bobby’s not judging her—asking Bobby the same questions he asks her in the first place. Only, he actually answers them, not letting her attempt to shake him bring him down. Unlike what Bash does, that is.

(And it’s worth noting, that while that coach said “acting is about putting the self aside in service of the text,” while Bobby plays numerous icons—thus the show title—he doesn’t put himself aside. His self amplifies and informs the characters, which is apparent in his Barbara answer. But unlike Sheila, his self doesn’t include a wolf get-up.)

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Ah, the Bash of it all. The way Claire Scanlon shoots the big musical number at the end, so big and triumphant for Bobby (as Liza Minnelli), she backs it up with shots from other characters like Sam (who’s back to working on his screenplay) and Ruth (who’s sharing one last embrace with Russell before he goes). But then Russell’s gone, and Ruth is done pretending that the reason she was acting the way she did was anything other than post-“Hot Tub Club” guilt. Then Bobby hits that final glorious note… and then it cuts to Bash. The audience of one, in a seat as far a possible as he can be from the stage without having a bad view. Shrouded somewhat in darkness, despite the light and inspiration of Bobby’s “Yes” performance. And instead of saying yes, a lifeless Bash—a rare Bash, who knows he’s about to crush someone’s spirit—says no. He says he doesn’t think it’s “a Bash Howard production” and then gets up to leave immediately. But he doesn’t leave immediately: Instead, Chris Lowell does a perfect ‘80s yuppie villain heel turn (a literal one, to go with something of a wrestling one) to bring up his wife (“You remember her?”) and make Bobby feel less than, right after rejecting him and his show, by letting him know that while he’s not good enough to work for him as talent, he’s just good enough to give his wife voice lessons. There’s really nothing else Bobby can do but accept and not react until he’s back in his dressing room, where he and Sheila connect and bond.

This is the climax of an episode where Bash’s wide-eyed, childish enthusiasm is on full display, where that’s constantly taken advantage of—Bobby even notes that all the talents are approaching Bash because they know he’s heir to the Howard Foods empire—only for him to reject the one person who approaches him due to his reputation as the rare “non-loathsome” producer in Vegas. But Bobby also approaches him due to the sense that he’s a gay man with a marriage “arrangement” like him, which both is and isn’t true. Bash’s gay panic—which, in this case, is the panic of being found out as gay, that people can look at him and just know, no matter how hard he tries to be “normal”—transforms him from Good Guy Bash to rich prick as soon as you can say “Liza Minnelli.” It’s an upsettingly natural transformation for Bash, because it’s his unhealthy coping (or lack of coping) mechanism when it comes to his sexuality. And that’s why he just can’t say yes.

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Stray observations

  • Debbie: “Come on, girls. Back to your rooms.”
    Dawn: “Yes, Miss Hannigan!”
  • Bash: “Alright, look, business is good. The show’s doing great. We’re sold out for the next two weeks. And if we can keep this up, then the three of us stand to make a lot of money.”
    Debbie: “That’s good to know. Maybe I can push the money into a pile the shape of my son, whose childhood I’m missing.”
    Bash: “Okay, well, I don’t really know what to say to that.” At least Sam (who’s been working out), thinks it’s funny. Also, Rhonda ends up being part of this producer meeting, as Bash’s wife, which Debbie definitely didn’t sign up for. (She just wanted coffee that never came.)
  • Bash gives the jugglers (who were so clearly waiting for him) Debbie’s information, so her reaction to having to continue to indulge his Vegas variety shows whims for G.L.O.W. is to have sex with one of them. (She’s done so with both valets, the baccarat dealer by the elevator, and the night bartender. And word has traveled about “the wrestler divorcee,” the true icon of Vegas.) She doesn’t, because she’s so high and forgets about him. But she does play Cherry her “fake flute,” which is one of the most beautiful moments in GLOW history.
  • While we see Carmen and her brother Kurt (the returning Carlito Caribbean Cool) show off their routine in the ring, we don’t see the actual act at the show, where they use Carmen’s pitch of the magician disappearing her opponent. I don’t know if “The Invisible Man” was a gimmick happening in ‘80s wrestling, but I do know he’s gotten quite popular in the past couple of years. So Kurt is right when he says Carmen has a mind for wrestling. He also invites her to come on the road with him and wrestle, saying she’s better than most of the guys he works and pointing out how, after just a week of the repetitive Vegas show (just as a fill-in referee), he’s already bored. At this point, this show has been going on for two out of the three months, and Carmen was excited just at the opportunity to change one match, one night.
  • Less surprising than the fact that Sam is now writing a screenplay about a father/daughter relationship (where the father doesn’t know she’s his daughter… or her age) is the fact that the daughter character is barely a character. She only exists to listen and ask him questions. I can only imagine the description lines for his female characters.
  • Cherry: “I’ll pass.”
    Rhonda: “You have to come. Maybe he’ll do Diana Ross.”
    Cherry: “He better not do Diana Ross.”
  • Debbie: “How’s the visit?”
    Russell: “Great. We’re at a drag show.” And bless everyone chanting “GO FUCK” after Bobby sends Russell and Ruth away from the show.
  • Russell: “My grandfather’s not dead. I told you that.” If only Russell could still just exist on this show as a G.L.O.W. cameraman, because like I said, Victor Quinaz has some great delivery. And he and Alison Brie have good back and forth, even if the chemistry’s not there. (Because it isn’t supposed to be there, but still.)
  • Obviously, the idea is to “classically train” Rhonda—as all she knows is that she’s an alto when she raps—but the idea of Singer-Songwriter Kate Nash really wanting singing lessons…
  • “Barbra” Bobby: “How long have you been a wolf?”
    Sheila: “How long have you been Barbra Streisand”
    “Barbra” Bobby: “Longer than she has. Since I was a pup. When I was her, I could sing. As me, not so much.” Bobby opens himself up to Sheila during his show, but she’s not ready yet. But then we get the end of the episode and the intimacy of Sheila (who’s originally from Baltimore, like episode writer Isaac Oliver) allowing him to brush her wig. Such a small moment that would mean nothing out of context, and it packs an emotional punch, especially after Bobby just felt that rejection from Bash.
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About the author

LaToya Ferguson

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Despite her mother's wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB's image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya's your girl.