In wrestling, there are “heels” and there are “faces.” Heels are the bad guy brought in to fight a face. Faces are good guys that have to defeat a heel. There’s no overlap, and if the face doesn’t win, it’s because the heel cheated, and the face will live to fight another day for JUSTICE! The demarcation line between the two is never crossed, and in the real-life professional wrestling promotion that inspired Netflix's new series, the ladies of GLOW who portrayed heels weren’t allowed to socialize with the faces, for fear fans might see them together and the illusion would be broken.
On Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch's show, it’s not so simple. We’re first introduced to Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) in the pilot as a down-on-her-luck actress with a plucky spirit who literally gives her best friend Debbie (the amazing Betty Gilpin) the shirt off her back. We learn pretty early on, however, that she’s not as pure of heart as all that. Turns out, she slept with Debbie’s husband once while drunk. Yikes, you may think. Well, she was drunk. It was a one time thing. Sure, but then she does it again. While sober and feeling sorry for herself. Does she regret it? Yes, deeply. In a speech later on in the season, Ruth explains to a whole room full of people that while she was drunk the first time, “The second time I wasn’t. I knew what I was doing. I was sober and insecure and I think I was acting out of this deep well of resentment I didn’t even know I had.”
Debbie herself doesn’t start out as a terribly sympathetic friend, to be honest. She tells Ruth that her own acting career became too unfulfilling, and when her husband told her he’d support her and they could have a kid, she jumped at the chance. She swears it was the best decision she ever made, and maybe Ruth should just do the same. But Debbie’s also the type of friend who will drive from Pasadena to L.A. to rescue Ruth when her purse is stolen, no questions asked, complete with a spare key to Ruth's apartment that Debbie's still kept for her.
Debbie finds out about the affair and confronts Ruth during her audition for GLOW. She vows that she's going to kick her ass and then “I never want to see you again.” As they fight, the director (Marc Maron) sees the vision for GLOW: bad guys fighting good guys in a constant struggle between good and evil. Thing is, he was on a bunch of coke. There's more to it, Sam! Debbie admits to Sam that it wasn’t that she didn’t want to act anymore - really, it’s that her soap opera producers didn't like that Debbie has a brain, that she asked too many questions and grew tired of all of the "small moments in close-up." She misses acting and decides that she wants to join the ladies of GLOW as the star, Liberty Belle, the ultimate face.
Does she act like a face, though? Nope. She uses her position to make Ruth miserable, refusing to talk to her, demanding luxuries and perks the other girls aren’t allowed, and generally diva-ing her way through life and the ring. She’s a rigid, unforgiving person no matter how much Ruth tries to make it up to her. But through the course of training for the show, Debbie learns to let go and trust her other performers, even Ruth by the end…mostly.
So, which one is the bad guy? Which one is the heel? That’s what makes GLOW a truly rich show about complicated women. Even my personal favorite, the sweet Carmen (Britney Young), a legacy from a wrestling dynasty of men who just wants her own chance in the ring, lies to her family about wrestling because it’s too hard to stand up and say that she’s going after what she wants, and damn the torpedoes! What makes a character at once sympathetic and “they did WHAT now?” are these layers of very human flaws. At times, every one of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling is both face and heel, just like real people are, and I for one can’t wait to see the writers continue to flesh these women out even more next season (which has yet to be announced, but come ON).