[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Season 3 of GLOW. Read at your own risk!]
The first five minutes of GLOW's third season read like a Saturday Night Live cold open. Ruth (Alison Brie) and Debbie (Betty Gilpin), in character, offer live commentary as the Challenger shuttle launches into space. While Ruth's Russian heel Zoya disparages the astronauts on board, Debbie's Liberty Belle defends the seven scientists currently hurdling through the Earth's atmosphere. For those familiar with the tragedy that occurred live on national television in 1986, there's a foreboding sense of dread knowing what is about to come next. It's a horrifyingly funny moment when Ruth and Debbie immediately snap out of character and realize that the unthinkable has occurred — the Challenger broke apart right in the middle of their improvised skit.
For showrunners Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive, the daring opening scene illustrated the unpredictability of live performance and set the tone for a season of unexpected mishaps the ladies of G.L.O.W. would face as they embark on their first Las Vegas residency.
"There is something really delicate about live performance," Mensch explained to TV Guide. "Just starting from the things that can go wrong in live performances is a reminder to them, 'Hey, this is something different. No matter what happens, you're going to have to sustain this insane performance that you are doing for hours every night, every seven to six nights a week.'"
"Can you imagine if that was your opening night?" added Mensch. "It was somebody's opening night somewhere."
The scene, though funny, was approached very seriously and called for producers to reach back into the archives and reexamine the original news files from that tragic day. "We re-watched all that footage and it was so bad, so rough to watch," said Flahive. "Like anything, when we talk about it, we aren't like, 'This can be a really funny scene.' We're playing it very, very straight and dealing with it honestly."
"We also were surprised at the footage," added Mensch. "This is not just limited to the Challenger, but to news in general back then, this idea of watching in real time. You didn't immediately know what was happening. Once they realized it was a tragedy, it does kind of take on horror."
That memorable moment was just the first of many in an ambitious season that also featured veteran actress Geena Davis as a former showgirl-turned-entertainment director of the Fan-Tan Hotel and Casino, home to Bash's (Chris Lowell) audacious women's wrestling show. In one pivotal scene, Davis's Sandy Devereaux St. Clair closes out a drag ball in spectacular fashion by stepping out on stage in full, authentic Bob Mackie showgirl attire.
Akin to Diane Keaton's groundbreaking full-frontal nudity in the Nancy Meyers rom-com Something's Gotta Give, Davis's standout moment in GLOW's ninth episode served as affirmation for women over 60 who are expected to hide their bodies and opt for a more demure on-screen presence. It makes sense then that Davis, who has worked to improve gender representation in media through her nonprofit See Jane, was the one who pitched the idea for Sandy to don the risqué attire in the first place.
"We talked to Geena much more broadly about the emotional backstory of her character. We spent a lot of that conference explaining how our show worked, and how the ensemble worked," Mensch said of their initial meetings with Davis. "Then we asked if there was anything she wanted to tell us or if there's anything she's particularly excited about when it came to both our show and Vegas. She whispered something along the lines of, 'It would be pretty cool to wear a showgirl outfit.'"
Davis's comment set the wheels in motion, and producers were soon on a trip to Las Vegas to visit Bally's, the hotel and casino that housed Bob Mackie and Pete Menefee's long-running revue, "Jubilee." The design spectacular opened in 1981 and wrapped its 35-year run in February 2016.
"You walked in and saw hundreds of showgirl costumes just sitting in the dressing room," said Flahive, adding that they returned to Los Angeles with several vintage outfits on loaner. Davis and costume designer Beth Morgan picked out the Bob Mackie original that Davis wore in the series, which perfectly suited the actress' 6-foot frame.
"Most of our cast can't even... We tried on a headpiece as a joke and it was too heavy to carry around for a photo. These costumes were built for a sturdy body type and Geena is, she's an Amazonian. She's got the strength, the height. It was amazing," said Mensch.
Added Flahive, "Fast-forward into the Bob Mackie costume [in Episode 9], and he is one of her idols, and she was just in tears while we were filming."
Season 3 also strengthened the relationships between GLOW's core characters, who were forced to spend a majority of their time together building a show that kept them far away from home. Relationships evolved, most notably with Ruth and Sam (Marc Maron), who flirted with the idea of a romantic connection but ultimately backed down. But just because the seeds were planted, that doesn't mean the pair will turn their complicated friendship into something more.
"I think their relationship is incredibly complicated, and that's what we like about it. I don't think we are going to push it in any particular direction," said Flahive. "What was interesting to us was, people working together, people having complicated feelings that are complicated by the fact that you keep them out of their natural habitat and their reality, put them in an unreality, and let proximity be your biggest magic and do its own work. It was fun to have that overlay on top of what is a complicated, emotional professional relationship between the two of them."
Equally complicated is the prickly relationship between Bash and Debbie, who worked together closely while producing the show but didn't necessarily get along. Though they were often at odds, they came together at the end of the season following a devastating scene that saw a defeated Bash drunkenly reckon with his sexuality. Though Bash didn't say out loud that he's gay, the scene marked a major moment for a character who struggled with being intimate with his wife all season long.
"That's as honest as he can get about the situation... Bash is really grappling with his identity. We always want to honor the fact that we are building a very privileged [character], someone from a very conservative family, and that part of our '80s story feels real significant within the period," Flahive explained.
In response to Bash's semi-confession, Debbie, who witnessed a pointed attack against the LGBT community at an AIDS fundraiser in the previous episode, urged him to keep his sexuality under wraps. But for a character who has proven to be just as ambitious and cutthroat as she is caring, it's hard to determine whether Debbie acted out of concern for herself or her friend in that moment.
"I think with Debbie, it is always a really interesting mix of caring for others and looking out for herself and her ambitions," said Flahive. "For half this season, Bash and Debbie had a really tumultuous time working together. I think landing them there in a really human place where they both need things, and she still wants things and her career that are tied the him... Again, it is complicated."
The introspective moment invites uncertainty in Bash's personal life moving forward, but at least he has a clearer sense of where his career is headed. Season 3 ended on a cliffhanger as the young investor, with help from Debbie, looked into purchasing a small TV network that would allow the gang to take their wrestling show back to television. The move would force them to abandon their original characters, but despite that potential fresh start, Flahive is hesitant to call a potential Season 4 a reset.
"I don't know if reset is how we see it, but some characters end up pretty far away from where they started in a great way," she said.
"We want to end the season being, how are they all going to get back together?" added Mensch. "I think it is probably our biggest risk that we've been taking on the show since the beginning of the show."
Part of GLOW's charm was those intricate wrestling sequences that largely took a back seat to personal storylines this season. According to Flahive, more hard-hitting moves will be included should Netflix renew the dramedy for another season. "There will be more wrestling, the wrestling will be different. With each season we want to be sure we're telling the story of that team in a different way, so I think that that will continue to evolve," she revealed.
If GLOW does get renewed for another season, Mensch assured TV Guide that star Kia Stevens's contract as a wrestler for AEW won't interfere with her role on the series. "It should not at all affect her being on the show," Mensch said. "However, I'm very impressed that Kia somehow has the strength to be a superhero during her vacations. Because a lot of us are like, 'I need a break,' and she is obviously going in juggling a whole second career. We continue to be in awe of Kia and supportive and excited to continue working with her."
Seasons 1-3 of GLOW are now streaming on Netflix.
GLOW Season 3 is now streaming on Netflix.