'GLOW': How an "Existential Crisis" Led to That Season 3 Finale Cliff-Hanger

GLOW_Publicity Still-Carly Mensch -Liz Flahive-Getty-Inset-H 2019
Netflix; Inset: Getty Images

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

Each season of GLOW has successfully closed one chapter while turning the page to another. The first-season finale launched the TV show-within-a-show and the second season ended with the female wrestling ensemble moving that show to Las Vegas. While the third season (now streaming) succeeded in closing the book on Vegas to reset the wrestling gig once again, it also steers the Netflix series into its most fractured territory yet.

Co-creators and showrunners Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch have always had a long-term plan for their Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin-led series. The wrestling comedy — which also stars Marc Maron, Chris Lowell and boasts a 15-woman ensemble — has racked up Emmys and critical acclaim since its launch. GLOW has yet to be renewed beyond season three, but that did not stop Flahive and Mensch from forging ahead with their vision and ending the season on a cliff-hanger finale. 

"We have a full story to tell and whether or not we’re idiots for not giving ourselves an ending this season remains to be seen," Flahive, in a conversation with Mensch, tells The Hollywood Reporter with a laugh when asked about the future. "We've played it this way every season, where we’ve sort of left it all on the field. This show has a big heart and a big cast and big story to tell."

Set in 1986 Vegas, the new season's time period and setting gave GLOW an opportunity to dig deeper into stories surrounding sexuality and identity, while continuing to push up against racial stereotypes, gender norms and Hollywood tropes, and still keep a sharp focus on the central relationship of Ruth (Brie) and Debbie (Gilpin). When the women find themselves running on autopilot to perform their live GLOW show at the Fan-Tan Hotel and Casino off the Vegas strip (which is run by guest star Geena Davis), their professional unrest leads to greater moments of personal self-discovery. After months in Vegas, a transformative camping trip and more than one confrontation with mortality, some characters embrace their true selves by the end of the season while others — particularly closeted producer Bash (Chris Powell) in a powerful arc — remain tortured or unsure. The season delivered a groundbreaking sex scene, solidified Sam (Maron) and Ruth as being in love with each other, and continued to put Gilpin's Betty through the wringer.

The finale then reset the future of GLOW once again. When the performers leave town to ring in 1987 with their families, Debbie reveals to Ruth that Bash has bought a TV network that she will run as president, and she wants Ruth to direct their new wrestling show with new characters. "I'm going to build us an Eden where we run the show, you and me. No more auditions, no more being at the mercy of these fucking idiots — we'll call the shots," an invigorated Debbie tells Ruth in the final scene. But Ruth sees a different vision for her future and turns her down, leaving the friends once again on a sour note and sending them down diverging paths.

Speaking to THR, Flahive and Mensch confirm that Vegas is "in the rearview mirror" as they dig into the biggest themes (female ambition, showgirl body standards and a collective "existential crisis") and transformations from the season while looking ahead to how the ending continues to move the story forward: "We have a plan and a dream for the show."

Each season feels like its own microcosm in the larger world of GLOW. If season one was the origin story and season two was the show-within-a-show coming together, this season felt like one of self-discovery and identities. What did you set out to accomplish with the season three move to Las Vegas?

Liz Flahive: We always thought of this as a "be careful what you wish for" kind of a season. In telling the larger story of the show and the wrestling, this is a season where certain worries that had played in seasons one and two — like, can they wrestle? Will there be viewers? Will there be a show at all? — those pressures aren’t part of the narrative. There are different pressures now. Ones of live performance, of your body maintaining while you have a job to do that is physically punishing and rigorous, and about what happens when you have work but you’re trapped in Vegas. And, especially as theater nerds, the idea of also using this as our live performance season where we got to tell stories in a way we weren’t able to in seasons one and two because they were making a television show. How live performance differs was exciting to play with narratively.

Carly Mensch: You said "identity." So much of season one was grappling with the gap between who these women actually were and the personas they had to put on. And at this point, it felt interesting to dig a bit more into female ambition and what these characters actually want from their lives, and how close or how far they are from that. The repetition of the show in Vegas allowed us to slow down in other ways and investigate the characters’ drives, desires and ambitions.

Flahive: Having an existential crisis in Las Vegas just felt very funny and natural to us — an emotional reckoning in Vegas.

You hinted that Vegas would not be an optimistic place and there is a pervading darkness to season three. But you also mention female ambition and these women do break gender norms, even in Sin City. How do you deliver on that empowerment while also staying true to the era? 

Mensch: We’re very much aware of the constraints and a lot of the organic conflict to the show comes from the gap of what these women want and what they actually can achieve given the circumstances. Debbie is in a singular place. She’s aware of how few women around her are on her same path. We added a new character played by Geena Davis who similarly is in a very rarefied place that she fought for and that defines her, but a lot of our other women are not in a position of power and still have to ask for things. There’s a scene where Jenny (Ellen Wong) realizes she’s not being paid as a costume designer, even while in a huge place like Vegas. The '80s of it all helps us because we’ve definitely come a little way, but we haven’t come all the way in terms of workplace equality. And we don’t want to pretend we’re in some sort of magical fairyland where the women can do whatever the hell they want and be recognized and satisfied and paid appropriately.

Flahive: We do a ton of research and we know when we're straying. Although in the '80s there were not any female entertainment directors at casinos, we made a choice with Geena’s character to make her one because we wanted it to resonate for Debbie and wanted to tell the story of a woman who was a showgirl who figured out how to transition into upper management, which actually does happen now a lot for showgirls. They’ll work in different parts of management once they transition out of the show. But in terms of the network president of it all, there was one: Kay Koplovitz was the only female network president. It’s a trailblazing move for Debbie, but there is precedent. We had a line about her at one point that we cut. But we know where we are in time and we’re very aware of where women are, specifically, when we’re making these moves.

You spent more time out of the ring this season. How did that looser format help you accomplish your goal from the start to explore more of your ensemble? And when you have 15 women, plus the male characters, how do you pick who to service?

Mensch: It’s always about following the story and, especially in Vegas, it was asking ourselves pretty rigorously, "Whose story is going to be impacted the most by this place? Who is the most uncomfortable here?” Sheila (Gayle Rankin) felt like she would be the most allergic to Vegas and, coincidentally, we brought her into the season on a path of having a hunch about what she might want to do. She wanted to take acting classes so it was a perfect place to set her on that journey in terms of thinking through performance and authenticity and how the world sees you. Similarly, Jenny was someone who — and I think she has her moment this season — once we knew we were going to an Asian-themed hotel-casino, which is essentially taking her offensive stereotype that she wears in the ring and multiplying it times 100, it felt pretty important to lean into her and examine how it felt to be living and working in this place that was such a grotesque funhouse mirror.

Flahive: The showgirl iconography in Vegas is also something we thought about a bunch, in terms of women and their bodies. How is it going to hit you? Our girls in that way were cloistered into this utopian setting where they were all so different but using their bodies differently in the ring. And then they show up to Vegas and there are showgirls on signs that greet you as you’re driving in of women who are 5-foot-8 inches tall and above, 130 pounds or less with long legs and a certain size chest and who are then on stage with a top on or not. That's the body type you’re dealing with in Vegas that our girls hadn’t really encountered before. Since we think of ourselves as a body show, it was another layer to put on top of our storytelling.

The ensemble expands this season and, while there is still comedy, the stories shift into more dramatic territory. Do you view this season as a change in tone for the series?

Mensch: We’re always trying to find that balance. As we go along, there’s so much more to each character where once you go deeper, you can’t go backwards. The more you know about each character, the more weight comes with them to every scene. This season was always going to have its own feel, both because of the change in setting and the existential feeling of where a lot of the characters are. But we always intend to maintain our tone.

Flahive: There are certain stories that inherently get a little darker and weightier, and we’re never going to be pulled under by that. The toggle is really important and it’s what we love about the show. It’s how we write. There is the moving back and forth between comedy and drama that is sort of the joy of the show.

How the season opens is a perfect example: the cringe-worthy Challenger controversy, where Ruth (Brie) and Debbie (Gilpin) are riffing in character while the world is watching the Space Shuttle tragedy of 1986 unfold live on television. How did that set the note for the entire season?

Mensch: That locates you in time in a really helpful way. Especially in a place like Vegas where you never know what time or day it is; whether it’s light or dark out outside. It’s such a vortex of a place. We were really leaning into this idea of live performance and how the show must go on, and the kind of work you have to do as a performer where you sometimes tune out what’s going on in the real world to do your job. This burst their bubble in a way because they were coming in to the Fan-Tan with so much excitement and enthusiasm, but it’s still a job. And it’s not only a job where they need to put on a good show, but in the larger world of the casino their job is to bring foot traffic and keep people staying at the hotel. It really located you in our new world and in our performance season.

You brought in a new character with Bobby (Kevin Cahoon), a gay drag performer, and his Vegas club to help several characters confront their own sexuality. After last season, you said you wanted to explore more LGBTQ storylines and you did: Bash (Lowell) has a threesome with his wife Rhonda (Kate Nash) and a man, but remains closeted by season's end; meanwhile Arthie's (Sunita Mani) same-sex relationship with Yolanda (Shakira Barrera) prompts her to eventually come out as gay. Can you talk about pushing those individual stories up against the backdrop of 1986 and what that time was like for the queer community?

Flahive: What was interesting for us as we started to lean into those stories was that we actually moved to a more conservative location. We did a bunch of research with the historian who runs the queer archives at University of Nevada, Las Vegas and just trying to dig up what it was really like, particularly in Vegas, in ’86. The sodomy laws were still on the books. The first Pride parade had happened two years before. So in a town where it feels like anything goes and it’s all very out there in terms of entertainment and sexuality, it in fact had a very conservative underbelly that we were interested in. It felt like a place particularly where Bash could hide in plain sight as a Vegas producer; his clothes could get more outlandish and his behavior could be whatever it wanted to be. But, in fact, there was a pressure to keep things even more behind closed doors.

Mensch: That’s a perfect example where it helps us to be set in the ‘80s and not in modern times, in terms of the inherent conflicts and tension of the time.

How did you figure out how much time to spend on Bash's story and what does it leave you open to explore?

Mensch: The fact that he’s now married to Rhonda, one of our ladies, helped because it tied him to one of our women in a new way. His story is as much hers. In certain ways we’re being very deliberately slow and in other ways, we don’t want to hold back too much. We didn’t want to go to Vegas and then not go all the way to him actually opening up a door that he couldn’t close. We knew we wanted to get as far as him having a sexual experience in Vegas. A type of experience that the permissiveness of the place would allow for, and then we will continue to move forward from there. We’re always moving forward.

A sex scene between two men and one woman is rare to see on TV. Something else we’re seeing more of now is male full-frontal nudity. Did you feel emboldened to include that this season [in an earlier episode with Jackie Tohn's character, Melrose, and a male prostitute]?

Flahive: We knew overall this season was going to have more nudity and I think we tried to be even-handed about it. I remember it was a conversation that we were having with Jesse Peretz, who directed that episode [and bedroom scene between Melrose and the male prostitute], and who is no stranger to directing nudity after spending a lot of time on Girls. It was one of those things where it really just felt right for the scene and would put the emphasis in the right place.

Mensch: Definitely. It didn’t start from us saying, "We should see a dick this season." Our women have to show their bodies all the time. So when the situation arises [in that scene] where you’re like, “They would be naked if they just had sex. Why would his underwear still be on when he stands up to talk to her? He would be completely naked." On a show where women are showing more of their bodies, and especially more this season, it definitely felt important to balance it out by being as honest about male bodies as we are about women’s bodies. I think Marc Maron joked in season one when there was a scene that we showed his butt: “It feels only fair. If they have to do it, I have to do it. So I knew this was coming.” (Laughs.)

Last season saw Debbie hitting rock bottom when she broke Ruth's ankle during a cocaine high, but Betty Gilpin said she wanted to see Debbie continue to spiral. You touch on her body issues and bulimia, but it’s not resolved. What were your intentions there and how does that represent larger issues Debbie is going through this season? 

Mensch: We didn’t want to be dishonest about some eating behaviors and pretend they just go away. But also, it’s the '80s and before we had a lot of language about eating disorders that we have now. So in her head, Debbie probably wasn’t even aware that she had some type of eating issue.

Flahive: It’s something she did at some point, probably more regularly, and behavior crops back up. She’s living in Vegas more like how she lived when she was in her 20s and single and sleeping with men, and just being in her body in a different way. As she’s going forward, that's an interesting thing to go back to. This is also the first time where we’ve seen her without her son Randy and not married, and trying to juggle those two identities. She left that identity in L.A. and she’s in Vegas and looking out for herself, and doing things like caring about her pleasure and what she can control. How she deals with her body or her own perception of her body has a lot to do with how she’s behaving in Vegas. So it felt interesting to us and not something that needed to be a season-long story, but something you see that helps you to understand this person more.

How much do your actors, like Gilpin, influence their storylines?

Flahive: All of them have things they say that get in our ear or in our head in a productive way. But we hold pretty tightly to these characters we've created. As much as all the women, rightfully so, feel great ownership over their characters and feel like they can embroider the edges, we listen to things that they’re interested in and that they care about, and we take that to heart when we’re thinking about the character. But beyond that, we’re not ripping stories from their lives for character arcs. In terms of certain specifics, we do like to dig in with people. With somebody like Kia [Stevens, who plays Tamme], we talked to her a lot about her experience and her body’s experience as a professional wrestler, and that definitely is connected to Tamme’s story this season. We talked to Ellen about her experience in terms of roles she’s played and she knew we were dealing with a story about the Cambodian genocide so we talked to her about that.

Mensch: We build the stories a few months before the actors come into the process, so they get to hear the story that we’ve built and then we find ways for them to hit that story and see what resonates.

You have always said Ruth and Sam are not the will-they, won't-they trope of the show, and that Ruth and Debbie are the central relationship. How do you feel about the balance you struck this season — where Ruth and Sam realize they love each other. How important is that romantic relationship?

Mensch: We’re building off story that we have been building all along — and chemistry that’s undeniable — but it’s definitely, for us, not the central drive of the show's story.

Flahive: It’s part of Ruth’s journey and also a complication. Seeing somebody who at the top of our series had a very complicated and unhealthy relationship with men, she has a lot to square there and a lot to figure out, and this is a part of that for her. I don’t think we’re writing a full romance in terms of the storyline; we’re thinking about it very particularly from Ruth’s point of view. What does it feel like to work with somebody you really connect with? Feelings come up, how do you deal with that? What does it mean when you’re finally in a relationship but it’s long-distance? We’re trying to hit her at this point in her life and in this job with all these different things she has to contend with in order to grow, and Sam is a part of that. He’s a collaborator and somebody she connects with and what that means to her remains to be seen.

The season sets up a potential move back to L.A., where the women can be a part of Debbie's new wrestling show. Though Carmen (Britney Young) seems to have quit, Sam is also already back in L.A. But the ending also brings a fissure between Debbie and Ruth. Why did you want to leave them here, and what does it say about how far they've come individually and where their friendship stands?

Flahive: They are the will-they, won’t-they for us and always will be. And using Vegas as a place where they could reestablish their friendship in a way that they wouldn’t have been able to in Los Angeles felt exciting. The arc of their reunion this season ending with another fracture felt honest.

Mensch: We sometimes talked about it like they were having an affair. They were far away from their homes — and then there's the drama and the reality of living in Vegas.

This gives you the potential for a reset for season four. Was that your intention?

Mensch: We have a plan and a dream for the show, which helps us in terms of leaving the field open. But we have a direction we want to go in and some new territory that we’ll say is a bit more heavy on wrestling and is new from where we’ve been. We don’t want to just go backwards. We’re not reverting to anything.

Heavier on the wrestling?

Flahive and Mensch: Yep.

With Debbie, there is a sense of where she goes next as she continues to grab her seat at the table. But Ruth walking away from her offer leaves her up in the air. What's next for her?

Mensch: Look, she has a long road back on some levels. She’s a character that has the most distance to travel to grow.

This season saw you move locations and jump ahead. Are multiple locations and/or time jumps all on the table for the future? 

Mensch: It is all on the table. But we will say that Vegas is in the rearview mirror.

You've always said you have a long-term plan, but there’s no season four renewal yet and Netflix tends to evaluate its originals after three seasons.  

Mensch: Yep.

Yet you leave this season in a place that demands more story.

Flahive: We would love to demand more story!

Mensch: We would love for us and the fans, as needed, to help us demand it.

How much does that uncertain future influence the story you are telling and how you ended season three? 

Flahive: You can’t [let it affect the story]. I was on Nurse Jackie for the entire run and I remember moments where it was like, "Well, if we left it here we could." Which you do sometimes. But we have a full story to tell and whether or not we’re idiots for not giving ourselves an ending this season remains to be seen (laughs). We've played it this way every season, where we’ve sort of left it all on the field. This show has a big heart and a big cast and big story to tell, and other people are not going to set that limit for us. We can’t do that, because it wouldn’t be fair to what we’re trying to do.

You couldn’t deliver a "satisfying" ending and also set up the show for more in the way you did.

Flahive: Exactly. We’d love to have the opportunity to give the show a satisfying ending.

Alison Brie said she’d be happy with at least six seasons. Do you two have a number?

Mensch: No, we don’t. But we commend Ali for being so hungry for more! And willing to contribute her body. She’s taken enough body slams over the seasons.

Flahive: The truth is that we’re so fortunate with this group of people making this show. When you have this kind of an orchestra, you want to keep playing. It’s a wonderful group of people to work with both in front [of] and behind the camera. It’s so fun and healthy and satisfying and that’s no small thing. We feel very fortunate and that’s another thing — we all really love going to work and we’d like to keep going to work.

This season took some big swings: outside of the ring, the camping episode; and inside the ring with the character swap and A Christmas Carol matches — not to mention Geena Davis in full, authentic showgirl regalia. What risks are you particularly proud of this season?

Mensch: The camping episode was a real high point for us. I think that three-way [with Bash, Rhonda and the male prostitute] was something where we were like, "Can we go there? Can we realistically do it, but also have it be sexy?"

Flahive: That showgirl dance class was on my dream list of things when we first got in the writers room.

Mensch: This is going to sound tiny and stupid, but BMX bikes were also on our dream list.

Flahive: I had been personally trying to get a BMX bike into GLOW every season!

Mensch: And, given that we’re theater nerds, for us a real risky move was having Sheila do a monologue from Miss Julie un-cut — that really checked a box. We have many dreams and I think some will be for the audience and others, like BMX bikes and uncut monologues, will probably be our private victories. (Laughs.)

Sheila (Rankin) is such a specific character who transforms this season. What are your inspirations behind that story?

Mensch: I will say that Sheila is one of the characters where drawing from real life has been extremely beneficial and productive in that Gayle is such an extraordinary performer. Sheila was such an opaque character from the beginning and Gayle has been really helpful at both locating where she is emotionally, articulating that to us and helping to shape Sheila. And then for us, responding to the fact that within this crazy wolf costume is such a talented theater and TV performer, it was exciting to honor that and to show that maybe part of Sheila’s journey is identifying that part of herself.

So, if you don’t want to go backwards — and you want more wrestling and even bigger stakes — for a potential fourth season, what are your biggest challenges ahead?

Mensch: The answer is very simple. Money!

Flahive: Money and peoples’ bodies. We don’t ever want the show to feel like it's sitting back and gratuitously abusing our women’s bodies. We want to find ways to keep the wrestling both fresh, and also have it continue to move story and character forward in new ways. We have some real hunches about that. But yeah, money and bodies — those are our major concerns!

The third season of GLOW is streaming on Netflix.