Ring theory: GLOW grapples with the arrival fallacy

In the third season of the Netflix show about female wrestlers in the 1980s, the characters throw down the American dream by getting to grips with the illusion that success brings infinite happiness.

Ella Kemp

Web exclusive

Betty Gilpin as Debbie and Alison Brie as Ruth in GLOW season 3

Betty Gilpin as Debbie and Alison Brie as Ruth in GLOW season 3

There are now 30 episodes of the high-pitched, fast-paced Netflix series fictionalising the 1980s female wrestling circuit, GLOW: the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch. Once upon a time, an eclectic group of women found themselves auditioning for an untraditional TV show. Now, after two seasons of challenging emotional labour and physical performance, the ladies and gentlemen of the GLOW family have achieved success. In the first season, they found their characters and gelled as an unconventional family unit [ Recap]. In season 2, the goal was to find an audience, to convince the world of their worth [ Recap]. And after that? A happy ending would have snuffed out the melodramatic plot twists that keep the binge-loving fans watching. But season 3 offers something much smarter than just another breakdown.

GLOW the wrestling show has been picked up and transferred to Las Vegas. Everyone gets what they wanted, but they’re still not happy. The fulfilment of so many arrival fallacies is what cements the series as much more than a sparkly bit of feelgood content, more than a gimmicky vehicle for holdall female empowerment. The concept of the arrival fallacy, coined by psychology expert Tal Ben-Shahar, relates to the myth that once we attain a goal, we will reach lasting happiness. By both establishing and dismantling sky-high expectations, GLOW tackles the tension that leans on daily dissatisfaction and long-term yearning for something better.

It all starts and ends with Ruth Wilder. Alison Brie’s character is a struggling actress who can’t seem to make her life make sense, and has to constantly readjust her ambitions. It happens again and again: when she thinks she’s auditioning for a traditional show; when her character isn’t strong enough; when her voice isn’t loud enough; when her best friend Debbie won’t forgive her for sleeping with her husband; when rejections and fears threaten to overwhelm her steadfast belief if she just works hard enough, can do a good job and find a good man then everything will work out.

Gilpin and Brie at the Fan-Tan

Gilpin and Brie at the Fan-Tan

Looking up at GLOW’s name in lights at the Fan-Tan Hotel and Casino, Ruth knows she’s staring at what her imagination always wanted. Vegas, the show, her friends – she finally has it all. Ruth even has a boyfriend waiting at home in Los Angeles, cameraman Russell, who warmed to her neurosis in season 2 and suggested that relationships don’t always have to make you feel worse than when you are alone. She looks up at the words celebrating her talent, while standing next to Debbie. But it still doesn’t feel right. It takes Ruth over six months to finally ask someone in Vegas, “I want to know if I’m wasting my life.”

Because of Ruth, but also a deeply personal sense of self-loathing, Debbie (Betty Gilpin) fights her own demons, which are framed by the same arrival fallacy but more often forced onto her than initiated by any one reckless mistake. Debbie didn’t ask for any of this. It’s her husband that Ruth slept with, her marriage that was sent into disarray, and now she is the mother of a baby with heartbroken parents, as well as an actress still building her own career and a woman warring with the way the world looks at her and expects her to look.

Gilpin and Brie

Gilpin and Brie

The animosity that dismantled her life is what reinvigorated her career as Liberty Belle, the wholesome American darling leading GLOW’s wrestling characters, opposite Ruth’s Soviet terror Zoya the Destroya. The trust and admiration Debbie earns as star of the show certainly makes her feel good, but the nagging fear of not having a perfect family, a perfect body or a perfect career doesn’t go away. She’s looking at GLOW’s name in lights next to Ruth, but she’s thinking about Randy, her son. He just began to walk, and she missed it. Her ex-husband, the hapless Mark, didn’t buy a camcorder in time to record it.

When Debbie criticises Mark for not recording this moment and punishes herself for not being there, the argument crystallises the unease that fuels her character. It previously seemed impossible to live in the present because hopes for the future contained all potential happiness, but the problem now lies in the present – the imagined future that has been reached and still isn’t unfolding the way anyone wants. In Vegas, Debbie is now a successful actress and producer on GLOW the show, but she’s missing her son’s first milestones. The goals have been reached, but the fallacy now is post-arrival, requiring its players to rearrange both their future ambitions and present actions to find happiness.

This is where wrestling offers its cathartic rewards. The sport bolsters their ambitions and strengthens them in their mental struggles. The practice is as much about illusory performance as it is about physical technique, forcing every woman who wrestles to increase her appeal to an audience – at once intimidating and attractive – while exorcising her own inner panic: in primal screams, full-body slams and slides across the ring, through the thud of an opponent’s spine against the floor or the tight hold of a chinlock, shoulder claw or camel clutch.

Every takedown in GLOW

This activity simultaneously puts on a viscerally entertaining show for a paying audience and presents a freeing and all-consuming psychological playground for its performers. Female wrestling forces its participants to take control of this exact moment and nothing else. When the world is preaching how one can or should take up space based on reputation, expectations and core values, using their physical bodies to reclaim ownership of psychological identity gives these women faith in themselves.

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The cast of GLOW

The cast of GLOW

Every woman in GLOW finds salvation in the sport, but in season 3 the problem of the post-arrival fallacy affects almost everyone – more than the largely Ruth-Debbie-focused narratives that were the focus of the first two seasons.

Rhonda ‘Britannica’ Richardson (Kate Nash) needed a green card to stay in America, so at the close of season 2 she married the show’s producer Bash Howard (Chris Lowell); but that relationship soon loses its honeymoon glow. After temporarily leaving GLOW for a more traditional acting job, the team’s head trainer Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) faces further disappointments in the new season, as her dreams of becoming a mother fall into doubt. Although prim medical student Arthie ‘Beirut’ Premkumar (Sunita Mani) seemed to come out of her shell in Los Angeles as she fell in love with sexually confident newcomer Yolanda ‘Junkchain’ Rivas (Shakira Barrera), the pair’s relationship faces its own hurdles in Vegas. Arthie has to struggle with her own identity before she can satisfy anyone else.

Chris Lowell as Bash Howard, Marc Maron as Sam and Betty Gilpin as Debbie in GLOW season 3

Chris Lowell as Bash Howard, Marc Maron as Sam and Betty Gilpin as Debbie in GLOW season 3

The generosity of GLOW’s self-examination extends to the key male characters too. Bash Howard and Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) hold the purse strings and fully orchestrate the show at first, but as the seasons unfold the two men grapple with their own secrets as well. Bash and Sam both intersect with Rhonda romantically and love brings both men pain in season 3 as well.

Bash is mourning the death of a friend (possibly from AIDS), and Sam, who was formerly misogynistic and brusque, now must navigate a reality in which he admits his feelings to himself and to the person he has fallen in love with – a reality in which she does not drop everything to love him back. Both men realise that rewarding reciprocal love relies as much on your own vulnerability as it does on the person you’re trusting to give you affection. And it’s always easier to put on a good show than to face the challenges this realisation presents.

GLOW Season 3 (2019)

GLOW Season 3 (2019)

At the Fan-Tan, the show runs like clockwork. Where the first two seasons of GLOW were spent building a credible team and practice, in the third the meta-performance of GLOW runs smoothly and time becomes a fluid, inconsequential thread. After all, why would time matter if you don’t feel in control of how you’re spending it? The 50th performance leads seamlessly into the 200th. Seasons pass and a long January quickly gives way to Christmas.

As in Vegas, so on Netflix. The framework of the Netflix production maintains excitement, the jukebox soundtrack still colouring every euphoric moment and filling sad silences with note-perfect needle drops. Every costume still fits to perfection, from the body-hugging lycra between the ropes to the iridescent cocktail dresses in the casino. Every actor maintains the dedication that established their likability, and a more sensitive, patient script shades every character with specificity.

Jackie Tohn as Melanie ‘MelRose’ Rosen and Rebekka Johnson as Dawn Rivecca

Jackie Tohn as Melanie ‘MelRose’ Rosen and Rebekka Johnson as Dawn Rivecca

As the suspense is taken away from the wrestling itself, the post-arrival fallacies rely on three main fears everyone succumbs to. Debbie, Bash and Ruth have always sought reassurance from their profession, finding happiness and seeking validation from the power entrusted in their career. For Debbie, becoming a producer allows her to steer her life in a new direction. For Ruth, every failed audition chips away at her confidence but reaffirms her determination to triumph in the end. Bash has always drawn both confidence and shame from his inherited money, but now he also reckons with another fear: compassionate romance. It’s one Ruth knows all too well since her very first and most harmful mistake. She now puts it simply: “I thought I wanted a job and a boyfriend and now I have them, and I still feel lost.”

Bash, with his sudden marriage and the ghost of his unsolved past, can’t find his way out either, and neither can Sam – the man who was always alone must now face the weight of dejection and post-confessional loneliness. Rhonda, Cherry, Arthie, Yolanda (as well as Jenny and Melrose, two other wrestlers who grapple with racism and rejection) fight the third fear, which relies on a sense of security that can only come from inner acceptance and pride – of your heritage, your sexuality. They aspire to a life that sees selfish emotional contentment as a non-debatable necessity.

Ellen Wong as Jenny Chey, Brie as Ruth and Sydelle Noel as Cherry Bang

Ellen Wong as Jenny Chey, Brie as Ruth and Sydelle Noel as Cherry Bang

But how to move past these? The fears of the arrival fallacies bring strife to everyone in GLOW, but the success of the series lies in the way they can act on and move beyond such discrepancies to fight for a better life. The girls reframe their relationship with their jobs by taking a trip away, and by finally and, for such a high-octane show, rather simply speaking their fears into the world and to each other. This season crucially voices an “I want you to stop being an idiot” as much as a “Stay and fight” and a deafening “I don’t want to die.” The way these broken and scared people finally vocalise the worries that have left their lives silent is what keeps them alive; what bridges the gap between expectations and reality is a better understanding of how happiness can be felt and not just imagined.

Season 3 is looser, toying with time and experimenting with the expectations of the Netflix audience. Nudity is explored more freely, and wrestling matches play out without needing to go wrong or be cut short for theatrics. The bodies that allow the show to exist are explored more candidly, and the viewing experience becomes rewarding because of it.

“Maybe you feel lost because you’re holding yourself back from something you want.” It takes six episodes for such a suggestion to be expressed, and yet it’s the one that pumps blood into the veins of a show with so much heart. Maybe as the GLOW family travels into the future there will be further bridges to cross, still roads to uncover to find what that ‘something’ is. But these 30 episodes have traced out a reflective, brave and hopeful emotional map for the future. Wherever they go next, no one is riding in the passenger seat any more. It’s every fighter for themselves.

 

GLOW season 3 trailer

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