Television has centered female relationships before, often in quartet form (Girls, Sex and the City, The Golden Girls), or in ways that are riven with tension (The Handmaid’s Tale) or codependency (Broad City, Grey’s Anatomy). Insecure thrives on examining the relationship between Issa (Issa Rae) and Molly (Yvonne Orji). But GLOW does something different. It treats the relationship between Ruth and Debbie like a romantic one, elevating it above any other partnership in the series. Their breakup as friends is the core event that precipitates their casting on the show, and it’s conceived as seriously and as thoughtfully as a romantic breakup. Debbie’s final “We’re not there” affirms that they might have made progress as coworkers, but they’re a long way from fixing the damage that Ruth has done—and they might not make it.
The second season of GLOW, which was released in its entirety late last month, continues to foreground Ruth and Debbie’s relationship, culminating in a moment of violence and a furious, ugly fight in a hospital room. One of the questions for the writers in Season 2, GLOW’s co-showrunner Liz Flahive told me, was whether Ruth deserves happiness, and if she does, whether Debbie, who is going through a divorce, should have to watch Ruth be happy. It’s a question that branches out from something the show considered in its first season: Can Ruth, who’s revealed so early on to have betrayed her friend so egregiously, still be sympathetic? As a character, Ruth defies simple likability: She’s ambitious, pretentious, and frequently ridiculous. But in Brie’s hands, she’s also engaging, insecure, neurotic, and brave enough to be rooted for. “Look, people do really mess things up,” Flahive said. “And watching a character try, for better or worse, is so compelling.”
For the first half of Season 2, the dynamic between Ruth and Debbie remains unchanged. Debbie, in addition to channelling some of her anger into her bouts as Liberty Belle, redirects her energy toward her professional ambitions, negotiating a raise and a promotion to producer. Ruth, for the most part, meekly takes whatever Debbie throws at her. At work, they interact politely but struggle to make eye contact. When Ruth is asked out by a cameraman, Russell (Victor Quinaz), she accepts a ride home with Debbie instead, taking whatever crumbs she can get. “Is it going to bother you if, um, I go out on a date? Do you mind if I meet someone?” she asks Debbie. “I don’t care what you do,” Debbie replies quietly, before going on to deride Russell in a way that makes it clear how much she does care.
As the season continues, the tension between the two women comes to a head first when Debbie rails at Ruth for running away from a casting-couch situation that might have saved their show. “Feminism has principles,” Debbie spits. “Life has compromises.” Then, after a furious, despondent Debbie encounters her ex-husband’s new girlfriend, she intentionally fractures Ruth’s ankle in the ring. The event restores a degree of balance to the relationship that enables one of the most excruciatingly realistic TV fights between two friends in recent memory, in which buried resentments are dug up and toxic patterns thrown out. Gilpin, conveying Debbie’s commingled rage and guilt, is hypnotic in the scene, equally furious at Ruth and at herself. Ruth, emboldened by a growing sense of her own victimhood (and by a Valium–Klonopin cocktail), strikes back. Their relationship, she poses, is built on how Debbie savors her success against Ruth’s failure. It doesn’t justify Ruth’s infidelity to her friend, but for the first time in the series it suggests how it could have happened.