'GLOW': Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin Unpack "Epiphany" of Season 3's Final Scene

Glow-wrestling match-Publicity Still 1-H 2019
Courtesy of Netflix

[This story contains spoilers from the entire third season of Netflix's GLOW.]

The third season of GLOW ended on a fractured note for the central characters, played by Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin.

The team behind the Netflix female wrestling comedy has long touted Ruth Wilder (Brie) and Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin) as the will they, won't they relationship of the series, and the finale of the third season (now streaming) continued to subvert that Hollywood trope with a rom-com-inspired run through the airport where Debbie essentially lays her heart on the line for Ruth — only to have Ruth turn her down.

Debbie's pitch was for Ruth to come on board to the TV network she will be running as president and for the embattled friends to finally grab their seat at the table. Debbie wants to bring the GLOW show-within-a-show back to Los Angeles in 1987, create new characters for their 15-woman ensemble, and have Ruth direct her vision. But Ruth, who remains an aspiring actress despite a burgeoning two-season rise as a director, isn't ready to give up on her dream just yet. 

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Brie and Gilpin about that final scene and what it means for their characters — and their friendship — should the series return (Netflix has yet to announce a fourth season renewal).

"The [ending] is not just a cliff-hanger device. That scene is so true to female friendship," says Gilpin of both female characters exploring the "vulnerability" of trying to achieve dreams that might not be possible in the late '80s. "[Debbie] realizes Ruth has had a similar epiphany, but in a completely different direction. And I think that Ruth needs to break free from Debbie in order to be truly free." Brie adds of the beloved yet "fucked-up power dynamic" between the pair: "I do think that Ruth taking a stand against Debbie — even if it means turning down a beautiful and brilliant opportunity — was a great moment for that character to stand on her own two feet, to stand by what she believes in and really take a moment to believe in herself."

After a season that delivered a collective existential crisis when the women spent a year on autopilot performing their Las Vegas show, both Brie and Gilpin praise creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch for "constantly turning tropes on their heads" and pushing boundaries in the third and potentially defining season of the Emmy-winning critical darling. Below, in a chat with THR, the actresses dig in to the finale, relish in the empowering effect of the show and share their hopes for the future: "[Liz and Carly] have sort of screwed themselves by making the model be that there is no model," says Gilpin. "That they have to reinvent the wheel every season. So I hope they are hard at work reinventing the wheel. Because this is the greatest job ever, and I want to do it again and again."

Last year's finale set up each of your characters for an identity crisis in season three. Ruth, an aspiring actress, was unsettled by the mere thought of Las Vegas and at a crossroads in her romantic life, and Debbie, an aspiring producer, was finding herself after marriage and hit bottom when she broke Ruth's ankle. How would you say the Vegas backdrop hastened their season three paths of self-discovery?

Betty Giplin: It’s very apt that the creators, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch — who started as playwrights and come from a theater background — were doing GLOW the show-within-the-show as the same show in Vegas every single night. They are writing toward the existential hysteria-mayhem that happens when you’re doing a long run of the same show, putting on the same costumes and saying the same words with the same people. There’s sort of a forced circus introspection that happens. And it allows them to depart from the show. The wrestling and the actual performance became a quiet hum in the background for them to story-wise delve into these women’s brains and the crisis that they were each having individually. It’s also very much an all-boats-rising season in terms of getting to know the ensemble and their backstories, and characters you haven’t heard from before and seeing the identity crisis they’re having as well.

Alison Brie: It’s a very claustrophobic season. The first two seasons we had the training gym and motel, but we were constantly out and about exploring parts of ‘80s Los Angeles. This season, they’re really in one location. They’re all living and working at the same hotel; they’re eating at the buffet, working out in the gym, although rarely. Doing the same show over and over is the catalyst for a lot of boredom and introspection. Ruth arrives in Vegas thinking she’s going to hate it. And at first, it’s almost a little exciting and dangerous. Her close proximity to Sam [Marc Maron] feels sexy and, even though they aren’t doing anything, illicit in a way that’s a bit titillating. But very quickly, without being able to indulge in her own creative drive, she is flung into an existential crisis. Ruth has always been a creatively driven character. She wants to perform and create, and that’s not happening this year. I think with the absence of that, she starts to really assess her life. What has she accomplished? She’s been running and running these last two seasons to try to get on the show and then make the show better, and now she’s discovering that she’s been running on a treadmill and there’s no end in sight. She hasn’t reached a destination she desires — and it’s pretty damn depressing!

Liz and Carly described the season as a collective existential crisis, but also one about female ambition. When they first spoke to you about their plan for Ruth and Debbie to each explore that roller-coaster, what were you excited to lean into, and was there anything you questioned or gave input on with your characters?

Gilpin: At first I thought quietly to myself, “Debbie’s arc is about finding empowerment in the workplace. Didn’t we sort of do that in season two?” I was worried we were going to fall into a trap that some shows do where later seasons become re-tread fan fiction. I was worried about it. But they so brilliantly created a completely different show in season three, and they look at female ambition in a very interesting way through Ruth and Debbie in two very different ways. This thing when you achieve a goal or get to level two, where there is a voice saying, "Isn’t this far enough? You’ve made enough noise, shouldn’t you settle for this?" Ruth and Debbie get to a level in their own empowerment and self-worth and then a little voice goes, “Stay here. It’s safe here.” And then another little voice goes, “I’m not done.” Debbie is realizing she is a producer but no one is really listening to her or taking her seriously. She thought she had broken through this wall, but there’s yet another one to break through. By the finale, she realizes how and rushes to Ruth to say, “I’ve broken through. I’m going to create an Eden for us, and I have the answer.” And she realizes Ruth has had a similar epiphany but in a completely different direction. I see Ruth’s epiphany as, “I have gotten to a different place and realized it’s not the place I want to be. I don’t want to keep climbing. I want a different tree.”

Brie: Ruth realizes at the end of the season that she’s woken up so far from her dream of being an actress. She’s made some big compromises that seemed exciting in season one. To pivot into a wrestling show as a last-ditch effort to live her dream felt exciting and new, but now, as she’s doing this failed Las Vegas nightclub show, she starts to really question, is this her dream? Is she living the dream? I often think she is a character who can’t get out of her own way. I would love for Ruth to lean into being a director and work with Debbie on their own series! But I also admire her gumption and her relentless commitment to her dream.

If there’s anything I had apprehension about this season it was the romantic relationship between Sam and Ruth. It always scares me when they start to tease going deeper into that relationship, and maybe part of that is a personal fear of exploring my chemistry with Marc! (Laughs) But it’s more deeply rooted in my love of the relationship between Ruth and Debbie. I never want to stray too far from their relationship being the central relationship or the central will they, won’t they of the show — and I don’t think we do. If there’s anything I’ve learned every season it's that I can trust Liz and Carly to be constantly turning tropes on their heads and pushing boundaries in ways we can all be proud. I love that with Ruth and Sam, there is a push and pull this season, but we get into it immediately with episode two. Which is sort of their response to say, "We’re going to get into it right away and address it and then take a break from it. This is not going to be this major story point." If anything, it aids Ruth’s journey. It’s a bit of a distraction in terms of her putting her energy into a new place of: Am I in love with this person or am I not? How do I feel about the guy I’m dating? She throws herself into her own relationship drama and at the end of the season realizes that even that was a bit of a dead end. Ruth has serious issues when it comes to men. I don’t know if she’ll ever figure those out, but I do think that Ruth taking a stand against Debbie — even if it means turning down a beautiful and brilliant opportunity — was a great moment for that character to stand on her own two feet, to stand by what she believes in and really take a moment to believe in herself.

Gilpin: I think in season four she should find it in her heart and her own brain to accept that opportunity. How can she not? She must.

Brie: Give us a season four!

I’m going to get to that! Ruth and Debbie are the will they, won’t they of the show. That’s what Liz and Carly said when they described your revived friendship in season three as an "affair." Is that how you two view it?

Brie: Definitely. Season three is the Ruth and Debbie affair. We’ve only gotten to see these women really enjoying each other’s company outside of the ring for two scenes in the first season. Outside of the ring, it’s been nothing but contention and high emotion for a couple seasons, so being in Las Vegas and so far away from Los Angeles and the people who know them and their history really works in their favor. It was fun to play the affair. Stealing moments in the kitchen and backstage were really special. It’s so fun to get to play the lighter, fun moments with Betty.

Gilpin: At last. We got to make eye contact. Ruth and Debbie are very different. But the thing they share is loneliness and not loving making eye contact with the mirror. So I think that being around someone who really knows you and celebrates you for exactly who you are is very comforting. Just to be known when you’re feeling like you don’t really know yourself. In different ways, they feel themselves slipping into an identity that they’re not so proud of. With Debbie, while she’s come so far in her independence and professionalism and ambition and empowerment, there’s still this nagging feeling of, “You know what would be easier? Marrying a guy who owns a ranch and putting on mauve eye shadow up to my eyebrow and sitting on a porch and letting a housekeeper named Miranda bring me cocoa.” That sounds a lot easier than the vulnerability of trying to achieve a dream that might not be possible in 1986. That sounds like a sexy, relaxing option to her. It honestly sounds like a sexy, relaxing option to me. (Laughs)

Brie: But ultimately, she doesn’t choose that option.

Gilpin: Yes, she does not choose that option. That’s what’s exciting about Debbie as a character. She then instead pulls the rug out from under [her new boyfriend Tex] and becomes president of the network he was going to own.

In the finale, their friendship fractures again, and they are both left on diverging paths. Can you talk about filming the rom-com'inspired chase through the airport? How does subverting that trope represent their central relationship?

Brie: We love that scene. Any heightened romantic moments between Ruth and Debbie are my dream! Betty and I discuss often how few opportunities we’ve had as actresses to play truly deep scenes opposite women. I think that’s why we cling so tightly to this notion of Ruth and Debbie being the will they, won’t they and why it’s so fun having two women be the central characters and relationship of the show. So often, we do those scenes with men. I feel like we’re constantly acting opposite men and doing romantic and deep, meaningful scenes with them, and then with women you’re doing funny scenes where you’re talking about the men. (Laughs) It’s been so gratifying to be able to look into Betty’s eyes and play these really deep, meaningful scenes opposite her. To get to play these nuanced scenes where it feels like theater. Betty is so fucking talented, I feel like I’m learning from her constantly and that I’m becoming a better actress just by getting to work opposite her.

That’s why the final scene is sad on two levels. It also signals fewer scenes between the two of you.

Brie: There has to continue to be tension between the two central characters, so I think it’s a very smart move on our showrunners’ behalf in hopes that we get a fourth season. But Betty and I fantasize about the different ways Debbie and Ruth will come together and have these tear-jerking, beautiful friend-lovely moments!

Gilpin: Even today I was thinking, “What is our Graduate ending to this whole thing?” But the [season three ending] is not just a cliff-hanger device. That scene is so true to female friendship, where you’re simultaneously seeing your best friend so clearly and rooting for them and knowing exactly what’s best for them, and sometimes you’re dead wrong. It’s like being in a family where your parent could describe you one way for who you truly are, but there's also a side of you they can’t see or fathom. You often have to break away from that person in order to achieve whatever buried dream that is. And I think that Ruth needs to break free from Debbie in order to be truly free.

Brie: Ruth has a lot of issues with self-worth. Which is interesting, because I do feel like she has high self-esteem. We see in the third episode when people are dealing with body issues that Ruth is free from those issues, which I really admire about her as a character — I can’t say that I’m as free as Ruth is about her body. But I do think she doesn’t value herself, and she has spent a lot of time in relationships with a fucked-up dynamic, none more so than her relationship with Debbie. She is the person who knows Ruth the most, but there’s a fucked-up power dynamic where Debbie is often the controlling party telling Ruth what to do. And especially since Ruth has been in the doghouse these last couple seasons, she really has cowered in the wake of Debbie and tried to make it up to her by doing whatever she wants. Ruth needs to start taking ownership of her own life and really making her own decisions and owning them. She still has a long way to go.

There is no season four renewal yet. But the finale demands more story to be told, and your creators have a long-term plan for the series. They said they want more wrestling and never want to go backwards when talking about a potential fourth season. Are you aware of their pan?

Brie: Not really. They’ll leave us little bread crumbs every so often.

Gilpin: Or accidentally leave us bread crumbs.

Brie: And then it piques our interest! The one thing you can count on is that it won’t be boring! It won’t be like anything you’ve seen on our show before.

Gilpin: They have sort of screwed themselves by making the model be that there is no model. That they have to reinvent the wheel every season. So I hope they are hard at work reinventing the wheel. Because this is the greatest job ever, and I want to do it again and again.

Ruth and Debbie each have challenges ahead. Ruth has an ambiguous road to discovering what she wants, and Debbie is facing a trailblazing challenge of running a TV network. What do you hope they can accomplish?

Gilpin: My hopes for Debbie as a friend and as the actress playing her remain very different. I hope that Debbie finds peace and empowerment and a calm, happy life. As the actress playing Debbie, I hope she continues to be an unstable and insane person, because that’s so fun. I never want to do the season where she’s calm and takes vitamins and long silent walks. I’m never going to be interested in that.

It does seem like there is ripe material to tackle when it comes to being the only female exec in network TV.

Gilpin: Yes — I’m sure that’s going to go totally smoothly in 1987 and that everything will be fun! Maybe this is how we all feel, but Debbie’s actions are sort of two years ahead of herself in where she is in her self-worth and empowerment. I think she says, "I’m going to be a producer” or "I’m going to be president of a network” and then goes back to her wood-paneled sedan and says to herself, “Really? Am I ready to do those things? I don’t think I am.” My dad always said to make your bed every morning until you’re a person who makes your bed every morning. You just have to keep doing things and hope that your personality catches up, and it’s fun watching Debbie's personality try to catch up with her actions.

Debbie's vision is to make a new wrestling show with new characters. Ruth doesn't want to be a part of that show. Are you ready to not only say goodbye to Zoya the Destroyer but wrestling in general?

Brie: Oh no, I’m happy — Ruth should go do her own thing and have sex with Sam and not hang out with any of the women ever again. (Laughs) It actually makes me really bummed! Season three ends with Ruth proclaiming her recommitment to herself and her dream, and I’m terrified of what that means for her. I think she has a long, hard road ahead of her. I love playing Ruth when she is proactive. I love to see Ruth making a plan and then trying to execute that plan, no matter how many people don’t want her to do that plan. In season one, she came in with a fire under her and was scheming and very ambitious. She has really lost her way, and season three was the season of her discovering that — how far she had come and how lost she was. I just want a return to that Ruth who has a lot of gumption and is really scrappy and not taking no for an answer.

You have both spoken about the empowering effect of this show. How does working on the female-dominated GLOW continue to impact you professionally? 

Gilpin: One of the most brilliant tricks that the entertainment business, and maybe the world, plays on us is that usually you’re the only girl in the room. You don’t really have the opportunity to look over and say, “How is she doing this? How does she navigate her work day?” You’re making it up as you go, and personally, I was spending my time trying to keep my job and not making too much noise or taking up not too much space, hoping they would hire me to be the one girl again. Working on GLOW and, in particular, watching the way Alison Brie is at work has been completely eye-opening. It feels like I’ve been doing an eighth of the things you’re allowed to do on set. You’re allowed to ask questions, take your time to feel comfortable in order to do your best creative work. I’ve really seen Alison bloom into and exist already as a very brave, confident, knowledgeable, helpful mind on set who makes the workday faster because she often knows more about how cameras and shots happen than anyone else on set. Watching her direct an episode this season was a real emotional experience for me and made me realize how many ways I’ve been holding myself back in my own career. All the ways in which I told myself, “Dreaming in this particular way is vanity." Or, "It’s too loud or not for you.” And I see Alison walk with her shoulders back and arms open, and the world swoons — as it should. So I have tried to carry that and have that be contagious and, like Debbie, act like that person until I become that person. Ask brave questions until I don’t have the after-panic of, “Should you have asked that question?” Maybe that won’t happen someday.

Brie: This show has been so life-changing and empowering in ways that have affected me as a woman and human being outside of the industry. The wrestling work that we do, the way we use and embrace our bodies on the show, has certainly made me more confident, more at one with my body, and more in tune when I’m thinking about my body in a healthy way and when I’m thinking about it in an unhealthy or unproductive way. But certainly what Betty said about being constantly inspired by the women around me on set. Watching Betty as an actress has reminded me about the freedom with which I used to approach work. Betty spoke about giving yourself permission to be a loud person on set, and I watch Betty in scenes give herself permission to make a million choices and then play them all in a beautiful microscopic way or in a very loud, exciting way. That reminds me to continue to play and have fun and take risks in my performance. Also, watching the women that we have behind the camera — we have first A.D.s, a lot of female directors, and Liz and Carly — it is a great reminder of how vast our options are and can be when you realize that you shouldn’t have to wait for someone to give you permission. I directed an episode this season, the seventh episode; I’m very proud of it. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and just allowing myself to remember that I have a wealth of knowledge inside me about this industry and the way things work was very powerful. I hope if we get a fourth season I’ll be able to direct again. And on the break I watched my husband write a movie and direct his first film, and then I co-wrote a movie and produced and starred in it, and I think I’m just trying to push myself to create more work for myself and to not limit my options in any way.

Alison, you once said you’d be happy if you got to do six seasons of GLOW. Is there a number you envision?

Brie: Gosh, I don’t remember that! I just want to do at least however many seasons Liz and Carly want to do, until the story is complete.

The third season of GLOW is streaming on Netflix.

This interview has been edited for clarity.