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A Very Special GLOW explains the dangers of “Desert Pollen” on the body and mind

Illustration for article titled A Very Special GLOW explains the dangers of “Desert Pollen” on the body and mind
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It wouldn’t seem like “The One Where Melrose Screws A Gigolo” would be the GLOW episode where body issues and physical and mental health in professional wrestling (and in general) are a major topic of discussion, but that’s exactly what “Desert Pollen” is. In fact, even that aspect of the episode ultimately speaks to this larger message of the episode. (See: Stray Observations) GLOW’s funny that way sometimes.

“Desert Pollen” brings up and handles a lot of major issues for GLOW, but somewhat like “Hot Tub Club” and plenty of other episodes before it, it has the unfortunate issue of having what it’s trying to do be condensed for time. In this case, it’s especially disappointing, because with things like Sheila and Tamme’s acting class (and how they both approach it), Tamme’s bad back, Sam’s realization about his health (or lack thereof), Debbie’s eating disorder, the way Ruth sees Debbie, Cherry and Keith’s family, and even how out of shape the G.L.O.W. Girls are, there is more than enough material for multiple episodes. (That’s not even addressing Bash’s “networking” storyline.) That’s because “Desert Pollen” is also very specifically a set-up episode with a lot of material, which is kind of disappointing considering the first two episodes of the season have also featured a lot of set-up.


But “Desert Pollen” also proof that “set-up” doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of conflict, which is exactly what we get between Cherry and Keith, as well as from Debbie, as much as this episode tells what almost seems like a story that will have a happy ending (with her and Ruth). Both of these stories could anchor their own episodes—or breathe more if the series had more time—which is, again, the same “problem” the series has had since the beginning.

GLOW is of course very concerned with its characters’ bodies, because these are characters in the world of professional wrestling, both the competitors and the producers. While the ‘80s don’t seem that far away, these characters still exist in both an unhealthy and scary period of time. “Desert Pollen” doesn’t just focus on the wrestlers, as it brings up Sam’s health, right after Ruth addresses it in their “Hot Tub Club” argument. In fact, the titular “desert pollen” is Ruth’s excuse for having moved to a new room—away from Sam’s—after that argument. It also ends up being Sam’s excuse for just how unhealthy he clearly is, even just walking onto the tennis court. GLOW never needed to explicitly say how unhealthy Sam is, considering all of the cocaine and the cigarettes and the booze, but it does here, as the kick in the ass the character needs. The combination of Sam actually being on his best behavior, having nothing else to do in Vegas, the Ruth thing, and Bash embarrassing him on the court (to the point that he actually does transform into “John McEnroe’s grandfather”) is all the motivation he needs to change his ways… and three cigarettes for the road before he tosses the rest of the pack.

There’s so much happening in “Desert Pollen,” and this one ranks pretty low on the totem pole of “importance”—with only Melrose’s “defiant” partying ranking lower—but it’s still also an unexpected turning point for Sam. And a reason for Bash to “moonwalk” in celebration.

There’s also the Tamme and Sheila part of the episode, that gets them out of mandatory dance practice and also unloads a whole lot for only being two scenes. (Again, this episode is truly all about the set-up.) The first thing is the acting class, where we see Tamme and Sheila perform monologues from A Raisin In The Sun and Miss Julie, respectively. The acting coach (Arye Gross) isn’t wrong for what he says to Sheila about acting—that “acting is about putting the self aside in service of the text,” which both Sheila and Tamme refuse to do—even if he may be wrong with how he says it. While professional wrestling is still acting, it’s very different in how drawing from yourself and personality is one of the most important things you can do, which is what Sheila and Tamme have spent the past year realizing and embracing.


This class basically tells them to unlearn what they’ve learned. Both women are apparently naturals at acting, only Tamme ruins her own hard work by improv-ing comedy at the end of an emotional scene—unable to fully live in the serious moment, as Welfare Queen is a character that’s all about making light of the serious—while Sheila proves herself to be hindered by her She-Wolf persona/very being. The first season of GLOW had the rest of the girls accept Sheila for who she is, and the second season of GLOW allowed a dedicated fanbase to grow out of who she is, but as Vegas is starting over in a lot of ways, that means starting over as Sheila the She-Wolf. Especially as she clearly wants to branch out into other interests, whether it’s gambling or acting or anything a damn feral She-Wolf should be allowed to enjoy without judgment. But outside of G.L.O.W. that lack of judgment can’t be expected.

This is also the episode where Bash continues his attempts at being a Las Vegas big shot, to the point of even putting his girls in an uncomfortable, unsafe position with a couple of creeps and focusing more on his future than the present of G.L.O.W. itself. (A wrestling locker room is for the talent and, in this case, the producers. Not for random guys the producer is “networking” with.) On top of all of this, Bash’s interactions with the Zeissman twins (the Sklar brothers) is an additional heap of comedic relief that actually does the opposite; though it certainly gets a specific point across, especially in an episode where it’s the worst possible time for men to judge women’s figures. The intent is obviously to feel the slime oozing off the Zeissmans, but the riffing about Armenians and Cher and breasts feels like it lasts an eternity, despite having minuscule screentime (that could go to others in this particular episode) compared to the rest of it all. And while Debbie likes to bring up the whole producer credit of it all, the way Bash introduces her is another reminder of how he sees this arrangement: She’s “the hardest working lady producer in showbiz.” While Bash does invite Debbie to join him and the twins, it’s with him not even realizing how much he betrayed the girls’ trust and safety—which even Sam realizes—and ignoring (but knowing) how uncomfortable the twins made them feel. So Bash continues to be a mover and shaker while Debbie has a producer credit and no power in this town. (But she at least now has Sandy in her corner, who proves to have a self-awareness and perceptiveness that Bash lacks, which allows her to make nice with Debbie and offer her help in any way she can. Ghost of Christmas Future, etc.)


As I mentioned in “Hot Tub Club,” the most important personal relationship in GLOW is Ruth and Debbie’s. The relationship is the reason for this show, it created the central conflict of the show, it’s the one relationship the show can always go back to in order to stay on course. GLOW could easily exist with just Alison Brie in the lead or just Betty Gilpin in the lead, but it is extremely fortunate to have both of them, and it is extremely fortunate for the complex relationship it’s created between Ruth and Debbie. Because they’re still not “friends” again, and even at their friendliest—like here, where Ruth bringing up “old times” gets a “five, six, seven, eight” out of Debbie, or Debbie’s laughing and calling her “Ruthie”—that doesn’t change that, no matter how much they still clearly care about each other. Debbie, especially, won’t allow that friendship to exist, and until the f-word can even be used between the two, without either (well, Debbie) pushing back against it, it doesn’t matter how close they are in episodes like this.

Though, I’m not sure how much the f-word would actually prevent Debbie from continuing to hurt herself the way she does in this episode. Because, ultimately, the eating disorder is something that—in Debbie’s mind—she can control, especially when she can’t control baby Randy growing up without her around. (Punctuated by the final scene where she gets a video from Mark of a walking, talking Randy, who says “mama” for the first time.) Ruth says and does all the right things to make Debbie realize she needs to be healthy, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to work. Of course it’s not going to work. While Tamme waiting until they’re back in Los Angeles to go see a doctor (two months from now) functions as a tale as old as time in professional wrestling, so does Debbie’s story, only in a different way.


Debbie needs to have an athlete’s body for G.L.O.W., but she also “needs” to look a certain way at the same time, because she’s a female wrestler in the ‘80s (on top of also being a “lady producer” that no one takes seriously). She has to look athletic without looking too athletic, for fear of “looking like a man;” and she needs to have a feminine figure without looking too feminine, or all anyone will notice is her butt that isn’t quite what it used to be pre-baby. “Baby Got Back” didn’t come out and solve body dysmorphia until 1992, so of course Debbie is sent into an unhealthy exercise and crash diet spiral by the fact that Denise (Breeda Wool) tells her her “ass is still out” during dance class. (Yes, I am joking about “Baby Got Back” solving body dysmorphia.) It’s actually for the best that Debbie isn’t around to learn that Denise is also the mother to a 15-month old, as that would make matters even worse for her... and that particular story is needed to make matters even worse for Cherry.

Physically training the girls has been a huge undertaking for Cherry since the first season, as the only other athletes out of the bunch are Olympic medalist Reggie (who does show up to workout), wrestler Carmen, and dancer Yolanda (who didn’t even take wrestling seriously in the first place but does nail the choreography at dance class). But with the combination of the non-stop party that is Vegas and a G.L.O.W. show that demands nothing more of them than what they already know, it makes sense that they would slack even more come gym-time. While this plot works on that level, it also stretches itself just about as far as it can go at this point in the series. Because at this point, this isn’t exactly a ragtag group of misfits who aren’t sure they can make this work: They are the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and they’ve made it work all the way to a nationally-syndicated wrestling show and now an act in Vegas. It makes sense why they would rest on their laurels and party until 7 a.m., but the Cherry whipping them into shape component of this story doesn’t really work as well as it should, and it mostly just serves as a way to push the Cherry and Debbie stories.


According to Cherry, “The show’s been sloppy as shit,” and that’s a story that would be really interesting to see. Only, that’s not what we’ve seen in these first three episodes, which hurts an otherwise good point: “Doing a show sloppy? That’s how people get hurt.” Absolutely true. But Rachel Shukert’s script doesn’t show that, and neither do the previous season three episodes. It’s another problem with G.L.O.W. not having more time to work with, as this is definitely something we should be able to see at least once, especially as it could be another thing that informs just how bored they all are doing the same show over and over.

I’ll give them this though: If there’s one thing the G.L.O.W. Girls really have down, it’s partying like the old school wrestlers that they are.


As I said, this story (and the showgirl dance class which introduces Cherry to Denise) is mostly about getting to the Debbie/Ruth plot and the Cherry/Keith conception plot. Cherry and Keith have spent the past two seasons being this show’s perfect, adorable couple, the picture of black love, so it’s heartbreaking to watch Cherry reveal to Keith that she doesn’t actually want to be pregnant again, despite their family planning for post-Vegas. When the series began, Cherry’s miscarriage was still fresh, and now that (in-story) a year has passed since then, it seems like they’re on the same page about trying again for a baby. Until they’re not. While Cherry briefly brings up the idea that Keith doesn’t take her job seriously, the audience and Keith know that’s not true, which ultimately leads down the path of Cherry telling him it’s really about not wanting to go through the process of giving up her body—which is such an integral part of her career, her livelihood—to have a child. As Debbie’s story addresses the aftermath of the way her body image issues (and body) morphed—because they were always there, especially as a working soap opera actress and the “shiny” one out of her and Ruth pre-GLOW—after having a baby, Cherry makes the decision not to go through that at all. Unfortunately, to the detriment of her marriage.

Bashir Salahuddin breaking as Keith tells Cherry he wants “a fucking family” and how much he’s been “waiting” for Cherry is so heavy, so much to handle… in an episode where the scene before was Melrose, her gigolo Paul (Nick Clifford), and their whoopsie-daisy. The scene after is Debbie/Ruth, maintaining the serious nature of this episode, but “Desert Pollen” ultimately does a disservice to GLOW with its somewhat disappointing balancing and, more importantly, plot-stuffing act. There is so much greatness in this episode, unfortunately diluted and muddied—I originally wrote a review that was mostly about a different episode because of that—by that fact.


Stray observations

  • Nudity is a rarity on GLOW, which is why it makes sense that “the body episode” features what would usually be considered gratuitous nudity on this series (sort of the way Alison Brie’s nudity in the pilot was, clearly as a hook, despite it not being the norm). Not only do we get scenes featuring Alison Brie’s and Jackie Tohn’s breasts, we get a full frontal shot of Nick Clifford. In making the conscious choice to go with female nudity, GLOW—a series run and predominantly written and directed by women—also makes includes the type of male nudity that’s still rarely seen in 2019.
  • Bonus points to Sheila for actually showing up to training and then running (after she fell) to make Cherry look good in front of Denise.
  • You can’t have Cherry saying she saw Jenny “spreading mayonnaise on a block of cheddar cheese” and not show it GLOW. You just can’t.
  • Debbie: “Oh, yeah—I’m got a, um, full body workout last night.” I don’t even know which one’s more them: how proud Debbie is of her sexual innuendo or Ruth just completely missing what she meant. Actually, the most “them” is this episode for reminding us that Ruth isn’t the only theatre geek—Debbie was always right there beside her in all of that. Which is how we get them both singing “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” from Funny Girl.
  • Stacey: “I just threw up in the parking lot. Fucking mai tais.”
    Dawn: “Puking before class, like a real ballerina.” My least favorite expression in all of pro wrestling is “it ain’t ballet,” because if there are two performance arts that actually have a lot in common—but are only really different in the masculine vs. feminine appearances of the two—it’s wrestling and ballet. Darren Aronofsky knows what I’m talking about.
  • Choose your fighter: Ruth’s theatre kid smile during the dance routine or Arthie’s wide-eyed “I’m in heaven” look as she watches the showgirls dance.
  • Melrose: “Jenny, he thinks I’m a hooker.”
    Jenny: “That’s terrible. Do you feel ashamed?” We don’t get a classic Melrose and Jenny messaround here, as Jenny is dead to the world (having to rally and party when no one else will, as is her duty as Melrose’s best friend) and Melrose (thinks she) ends up getting confused for a sex worker, but their interactions before Melrose bails are great. Especially the last one, where she hugs Jenny—who doesn’t hug back—and then quickly explains to her how a hug is supposed to work.
  • The Cherry/Keith story makes sense as a story told on GLOW, and if there’s any pairing that the show is going to tell it with, is naturally has to be them. But there is a part of me that also sees this rift as a way to write Bashir off, as his schedule has gotten fuller recently, as co-creator and star of both Sherman’s Showcase and South Side. But even if that’s the major reason for this storyline, it comes from an established place for these characters.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Despite her mother's wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB's image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya's your girl.

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