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In "The Libertines," GLOW drags a long-simmering plot out into the open

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“The Libertines” is not just the culmination of several plot threads in this season of GLOW, it’s the culmination of things that have been in the making since the beginning of GLOW. That’s a huge undertaking for a penultimate episode of a television show, but it’s also the penultimate episode of a television show on a streaming service that keeps proving it has a thing about shows living past their third season. In a way, “The Libertines” is GLOW’s response to the idea that it needs to shit or get off the pot with regards to things like Bash’s sexuality and the Ruth/Sam relationship story. There’s still no wrestling, but there doesn’t need to be in this particular case. We get the G.L.O.W. Girls in costumes. We also get them happy, and as Arthie says, free. The Libertine Ball is queer and camp—it’s got the variety show nature and the performance aspect of professional wrestling, only without the combat twist. For that, it’s a far better alternative to a G.L.O.W. show than mud wrestling, and it also captures the spirit of what G.L.O.W. is supposed to be for these characters. The camaraderie and unity are there. The creation of something special and people responding to it are there.

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While the episode doesn’t quite telegraph how this will all end, if you think for about two seconds about the context of it all, Rachel Shukert’s script certainly sets it up as a natural progression. Despite his talent and popularity, Bobby is still pay-to-play at the Fan-Tan and can’t get a bigger room to perform, as a gay drag queen. The ball is an underground fundraiser that’s made much less so by Debbie’s very public producing and announcement of it... which would technically be a good thing, but it’s a fundraiser for AIDS, at the height of the crisis and the panic surrounding it. There’s also the more subtle aspect that, despite all outward appearances, Las Vegas is a very conservative city; there have been multiple comments and references this season about its strong Mormon population, after all. After Yolanda explained to Arthie in “Outward Bound” that she worked to keep them—an, at the time, same-sex couple in Las Vegas in 1986—“safe,” Arthie still had yet to understand what that meant. Until now, that is.

There’s definitely something to be said about the fact that the episode of GLOW all about complete expression of and openness about queerness is also the episode with a hate crime (a result of that expression and openness) and the episode where we finally see Bash in an intimate position with a man. (The “something” is “Oh boy.”) Tackling the latter first, it took nearly three full seasons, but the subtext with Bash is now officially text. Both for the audience and, honestly, even Bash too.

As we saw in the previous episode, even though Bash and Rhonda are living their best LIfestyles Of The Rich & Famous life, they’re no longer hot and heavy like they were in the beginning of the season. It’s been months since they had sex, Bash completely ignores Rhonda’s advances, and here, the only thing that seems to work (in Rhonda’s mind) to get Bash back on track is jealousy. Rhonda’s plan is honestly a good one, one that initially (and ultimately) falls in line with her mother-in-law’s orders to keep Bash interested. It’s just that Rhonda has absolutely no idea about Bash and why he wouldn’t be interested. There’s a brief misdirection when he returns home to the penthouse and sees Rhonda and Paul (Melrose’s “boyfriend,” as Joe) together; he doesn’t react because he’s just so tired from work, which is the oldest excuse in the book about why someone wouldn’t sleep with their spouse. But then the scene unfolds, as Paul continues to flirt with Rhonda, and then it’s clearly not just a matter of Bash not being into Rhonda because he’s gay. It’s a matter of Bash realizing he can’t be the husband Rhonda truly wants, he can’t consistently give her what she wants or needs, even though he absolutely know whats it is.

Bash does love Rhonda, just not enough to change the fact that she’s not what he wants. Or at least not just what he wants. But Rhonda doesn’t realize just exactly what’s going on until she sees him go for it with Paul. Kate Nash doesn’t play Rhonda’s reaction to her husband kissing another man as one of judgment but instead one of extreme surprise—and at no point does she or Bash try to stop this. We know that Bash had been able to have sex with Rhonda before and show intimacy with her… but Chris Lowell plays the way Bash reacts to Paul finally touching him completely unlike anything we’ve seen from Bash with Rhonda. Compare the Bash/Rhonda sex scene from earlier this season to this moment. That was steamy, but Bash wasn’t into it like he’s into this. This is sweet release for Bash, after at first just watching and commanding Paul with Rhonda.

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Of course, Bash is also essentially deceived into opening up this part of himself, which is the opposite of how everyone feels/is at the ball. Arthie finally starts to get “it” when she’s there, just in time to see Yolanda with another woman (it has been six months) and to experience a hate crime after what was such beautiful night. No, it probably shouldn’t have taken Arthie until that final moment to realize the realities of the world in which she lives, but at the same time, she has always been a sheltered character. She had to have an unfortunate epiphany in the first season that there would be people who would hate Beirut not even because she was a good heel but because she was brown. It wasn’t until the second season that she ever even got her nose out of a book when she wasn’t wrestling. When they were together, Yolanda was apparently actively trying to shelter Arthie from the reality of how people would treat their relationship outside of the G.L.O.W. bubble, but Arthie was too naive to get why… and then she wasn’t even sure that she could identify herself as gay like Yolanda, because she just wasn’t sure. Because of her inexperience and lack of context. But that wordless moment between Yolanda and Arthie at the end, that moment explains how this is what Yolanda was trying to keep her safe from. This is what Yolanda couldn’t get through Arthie’s head. It’s only a few seconds—and again, wordless—but the way Shakira Barrera (especially) and Sunita Mani look at each other, it speaks volumes. Even more than all of the homophobic slurs tagged on what was supposed to be a safe space to be free.

On the outside of all of this is the Ruth/Sam storyline in Los Angeles, which works better than Sam and Justine’s Hollywood adventure because it’s something that needs to finally happen. As immature as Sam not saying goodbye was (though he argues it was actually mature, as “Goodbyes are for teenagers.”), it was the aftermath of him showing a lot of progress in Las Vegas, even if Ruth refused to believe it. She continued to believe—or wanted to believe—that he was living the “hookers and blow” lifestyle, even though he’d told her that he wasn’t. And he wasn’t. And he didn’t just fall back into old habits after she rejected his declaration of love, even though it seems like there was surely some part of Ruth that wanted him to, just to be proven right about everything she’d said to him about why they’d be a bad couple. In fact, that’s exactly what happens here: Once things so south for her, she tries to turn it around to prove that she was right about Sam.

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The thing is, she’s not. It’s truly amazing to realize it in this season of GLOW, but it’s not Sam who’s the fuck-up in this relationship.

Before Ruth goes to Los Angeles—for her audition for Justine’s movie, which at least finally allows Justine to happily see Ruth before this season ends—Sheila tells her to “build a brick wall between the personal and the professional.” So, she does that… and then sledgehammers right through it. She auditions, then she gets drinks with Sam, then she tells him she in love with him… and then her tune changes completely once he tells her she didn’t get the role. Sam does the mature thing when he tells Ruth the truth before things can go any further between the two of them. Ruth tells Sam that her declaration of love (which she had planned to make six months ago) has nothing to do with this movie, but as soon as he drops the casting bomb, it’s really hard to believe that… even though we know it’s true. Sam actually makes the mature decision here, and Ruth attacks him for giving her hope. Even though he tries to explain that he also had hope, until Justine was actually able to build that brick wall between the personal and professional. And the episode covers its tracks by having Sam point out that, even though he’s the director, he’s going to do whatever his daughter wants to make her movie. It just falters somewhat in Justine really only existing now as a tool to manipulate the Ruth/Sam story, whether it’s with a screenplay that makes Sam leave for Los Angeles or with the stone-cold honesty to say Ruth just isn’t right for the role, even though Sam thinks she is.

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There’s a fine line between being a dreamer and simply being in denial, and this season, Ruth fully fits into the latter category. And it’s just so fucking sad. Alison Brie has been great all season in this position, but when I write about how real Ruth is, it also means her turn as the heel lead of the season isn’t as dynamic as Debbie’s last season. Because it’s too real, too grounded. Last season, Debbie’s decisions made you furious. This season? Ruth’s decisions are simply deflating. Ruth just can’t win, and then when comparing it to the rest of the episode, all of her problems really seem trivial don’t they? Because they’re largely of her own making. That’s both an interesting and a dangerous choice for GLOW to make, but I don’t even particularly know if it’s good.


Stray observations

  • Alison Brie and Marc Maron finally kissing after all this time is… honestly, I don’t know what I expected. It’s… not good, right? Whether you’re Team Sam/Ruth or not, that kissing was really bad, right?
  • I can’t imagine more concrete evidence that this season wanted to do a heel turn for Ruth—that I’m not quite sure is all that successful, as I don’t know how effective a heel who simply makes bad life decisions is—and a face turn for Debbie than the fact that Ruth’s selfishness prevents her from making it back to the ball at all and Debbie’s there the whole time, side-by-side with Bobby (and dazzling in a tux).
  • Here’s the thing: Because Tex is played by Toby Huss, I pretty much knew he’d be okay about the AIDS fundraiser (even though Debbie didn’t believe he’d be). Casting Toby Huss is pretty much a shortcut for actual writing at this point.
  • As great of a tool as the six-month time jump was, I can’t say it works as well as it should if characters still act like they would without it. I can buy Arthie still being awkward around Yolanda six months after they broke up but not so much Yolanda in their first scene together.
  • Yolanda: “Great. Bunch of straight girls going to an underground drag ball. Just what everybody wanted.” I can buy that zing though.
  • Rhonda: “I want to ask you a question about... your relationship.”
    Melrose: “Why are you putting ‘relationship’ in quotes?”
    Rhonda: “I didn’t.”
    Melrose: “Yeah, you did. In your mind.”
    Rhonda: “Right.” Oh how I’ve missed this dynamic duo. Also, bless Rhonda’s heart that she’s so worried Melrose wouldn’t be okay with her hiring her “boyfriend” Paul to not have sex with.
  • Justine: “She was good. I just don’t buy her as this tough-talking woman with a past.”
    Sam: “Ruth has done some shit, okay? You don’t know her like I know her.”
    Justine: “Yeah, and if you didn’t know her, would you see her that way? Would you remember her at all?” Sam can’t just say he took Ruth to go get an abortion, can he? Also, Justine’s “Would you remember her at all?” is cold, but it reminds me of season one Sam describing Ruth. “Her hair is... brown. The color of shit.”
  • GLOW put its money where its mouth was: It didn’t just keep talking about Sandy being a showgirl, it decided to show her as such. Again, I ask, where is her spin-off?
  • Sheila has been working on this Miss Julie monologue all season, since she was still a She-Wolf, and she knocks it out of the park. She finally exposes herself—and Tamme, who was there when Sheila was first made to feel embarrassed in that acting class, is in tears and so proud of her—and it’s beautiful. Ruth honestly would have brought her down.
  • I’m honestly kind of mad about the very little of “Running Up That Hill” played before it goes right into the credits.
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LaToya Ferguson

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.