“GLOW,” the fictional series based on the real lives of the “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” continues to delight with inventive character turns, exploration of cultural stereotypes and pushing at the boundaries of what humor is considered to be in good taste and when.
“GLOW” is a show-within-a-show, set in the 1980s, with a large ensemble cast. The first season featured Ruth (Alison Brie) attending the adult circumcision of a young man who had emigrated from the Soviet Union. If there were Jewy moments in Season 2, I don’t remember them. But the current season, just released on Netflix, takes one of the most celebrated Jewish rituals and uses it as a space for character exploration and conflict resolution.
In the Season 3 opener, the women are considering whether their Las Vegas show — and the opening-night party, which unfortunately is space-themed — must go on in the aftermath of the space shuttle Challenger explosion. The Vegas show becomes a hit; toward the end of its three-month run, the group members decide to shake things up by shuffling the characters they play in the ring.
Tammé (Kia Stevens), secretly suffering from a serious back injury, swaps with another wrestler who plays an old lady and uses a walker. Ruth switches her trademark Soviet caricature Zoya with Debbie Eagan’s (Betty Gilpin) hyperpatriotic Liberty Belle. Melanie Rosen (Jackie Tohn), aka Melrose, swaps her party girl persona for Fortune Cookie, originally played by Jenny (Ellen Wong), who is Cambodian American. Jenny resented the stereotypes of her character even when she was playing it herself, but when Melrose assumes the Fortune Cookie role, amping up the racism (“I fly you like lice”), Jenny gets upset, saying it’s different when a white girl is invoking the racist stereotypes.
It’s challenging with such a big cast to give so many characters their due, but co-creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch pull it off in the grand tradition established by Jenji Kohan, executive producer of the multiple-character “Orange Is the New Black.”
This season, we get deeper glimpses of “GLOW’s” more minor characters. When Jenny goes to Debbie, now a producer, and asks for a salary increase because she’s also been doing the costumes, it’s a moment that can inspire those of us who deserve more than we’re getting and those of us who make the decisions about salary raises. We also get more information about what makes Melrose tick, and spoiler alert: She’s got some Jewish baggage.
When the women go out into the desert overnight, staying at Red Rock Canyon, tensions emerge. They’re on a journey. They’re in the desert. So Melrose suggests they do a Passover seder.
One character points out a similarity between Pharaoh, “a power-hungry dictator who was terrified of losing his slaves,” and Bash, the show’s producer and the women’s boss. Melrose — as played by Tohn, who is Jewish — recites the Ten Plagues, dipping her finger into her tin cup of wine, starting at dever (often translated as pestilence), and Tohn really sells it with her pronunciation of hoshech (darkness). She tells the story of the Exodus, explains the origin of matzah and talks about the four children, or at least the first two.
Melrose says she identifies more with the wicked child and launches into a comedic monologue about her family’s belief that she’s a bad Jew; Jenny accuses Melrose of using the seder as an excuse to talk about herself. Melrose says it’s a parable about freedom, and Arthie (Sunita Mani) — an Indian American woman whose original ring persona Beirut is a terrorist bent on destroying America — says, “It’s about the immigrant experience, right? How the first generation wanders the desert and then the Promised Land is for their children.” Another says it’s about Jewish slaves “from like a bajillion years ago,” leading Melrose to snap back: “Trauma and mass oppression are still a pretty recent thing for my people. Anyone ever hear of a little thing called the Holocaust?”
In fact, Tohn has family members who were killed in the Holocaust, including her Aunt Pestel, who was written into the script. (See an interview with Tohn about her Jewish family and the seder scene at tinyurl.com/jta-tohn-glowseder.)
As things get real at the seder, another teammate, Cherry Bang, suggests they call it a night. “Oh, just jokes, huh?” Melrose says. “Not really get into the trauma that’s behind all the shit we don’t want to talk about?” She tells them about her relatives who died in Treblinka, and her dad who “won’t live in a house without a basement or an attic in case we have to hide again.”
“We hid on a boat,” Jenny says, revealing for the first time that while she and her father and uncle managed to get on one of the last flights out of Cambodia, “everyone else we knew died… So I know what it’s like to survive a genocide and not talk about it all the time.” She understands how lucky she is, but “now I’m jumping out of a fortune cookie every night pretending everything’s fine.” Melrose apologizes and hugs her, and everyone else joins the group embrace.
This scene in Season 3 positions the seder — with its themes of Exodus, slavery and redemption, of immigrants escaping persecution seeking a better life — as the inciting incident that reveals traumatic stories hidden away beneath jokes and silence.
Toward the end of the 10-episode season, post-Exodus, some characters’ paths are diverging. With so many characters, there is no one Promised Land they can wander toward together. But since the use of Jewish ritual here proves very effective at exploring the deeper moments of character backstory, can we suggest a Yom Kippur theme for Season 4? Confession would be a great motif for so many people living with so many secrets. Just a thought.