by Gabriel Valdez
I finished season 3 of “GLOW” as a thunderstorm moved in. You could see strobes of lightning shimmer from cloud to cloud. Where they parted, a branching fork seared an after-image when the sky went dark again.
The storm moved in an hour later, rained and thundered and split the sky. And then it was passed, this terrifying moment. You knew you were safe, yet there’s always some primal awareness that digs in during moments like these. It can feel fun.
Before the storm came, you marveled. You watched it rage on the horizon. There’s a sense of stillness when you can see what’s coming, and yet still anticipate it.
It was fitting because a storm can build and build before unleashing that rage, or withering away, before pelting you or keeping its distance on the horizon. Yet when it hits, and you knew it was going to, it’s not the fury of it that digs into you.
It’s the calm spaces in between that make you most unsettled. It’s the apprehension of what’s to come. It’s that stillness inside you feel so rarely these days that’s most out of place, most alarming.
Season 3 of “GLOW” builds and builds until the calm spaces in between are the ones that frighten you the most, that all of what’s been managed in these beautiful people’s lives will come falling apart. It’s a masterpiece of tension, in a comedy about wrestlers.
What makes it work is the knowledge that something’s going to hit, but you don’t know when, or how, or whether it will fizzle out or rage. And after, everyone still needs to continue. Everyone still needs to take the next step forward, sometimes together, sometimes apart. The show goes on.
It can do this as a comedy, as a drama, as a wrestling match, as a satire, as a sitcom, as a music video, as an art piece, as an ensemble comedy in some scenes and in others as a one woman show that rotates whose storm it is in that moment.
When I started watching season 3, the first few episodes felt like they were a little slow. The tension of the first two seasons so often rests in whether their mess of a show will succeed or fall apart at the seams. Now it’s not a mess. Now it’s professional. It’s relatively stable. To come together, the wrestlers often have to make it a mess because it’s inside that chaos where they work best as a community. That chaos is where they trust each other most.
Yet season 3 is all about the build-up, about those storms on the horizon. Where the show they put on is stable, the chaos is now in people’s lives. The stability even bores the characters sometimes, because it’s within that chaos when they know they have each others’ backs.
The step forward that “GLOW” takes in its third season isn’t about increased stakes. It’s about setting the viewer and the characters at odds. It has countless moments where what the viewer wants is directly opposed to what a character wants. That forces you to have to listen to them. Most storytelling strives to make you identify with someone. They do the work to make characters understandable and accessible. “GLOW” did a lot of that in its first two seasons. Its third says that’s all well and good, but what happens when the viewer has to do the work?
We’re all trained with story expectations, of who ends up where and why. What if a character wants something different? What if a character has needs that those expectations can’t fulfill? Then the familiar plot points that make us satisfied with the stories we see are at odds with what a character wants. If we care about that character, and we do, then we have to work to deprogram the story expectations we have.
Is season 3 as satisfying as the first two seasons are? No. That’s the point. I’d read that season 3 ends on a cliffhanger; I’ll be vague to avoid direct spoilers here. The season hints continually that it may be a life or death situation, or it may involve violence, but it copes with these things along the way. The cliffhanger is simply about one of the leads wanting something different from the other. It’s at direct odds to what the audience wants, and yet we know it’s the right thing for that character.
Questions about who lives and whether the show will survive are already answered, at least for the foreseeable future. Instead, we’re left waiting to see whether what we want wins out, or what the character wants wins out. It defines the season as a whole, and operates as a stunning cliffhanger.
If the audience gets to see what we want, it’s a failure for one of the characters. If the character gets what they want, it means the audience doesn’t get something we want. The cliffhanger is less about what happens in the story, and more about what happens in the viewer.
You’re not left in the middle of a storm, within drama or rage, tension or action. There were plenty of opportunities for this season to do exactly that. Instead, you’re left in one of the story’s quiet moments, in the calm and still space in between.