by Raywat Deonandan
May 25, 2002
This column is a regular feature on 411wrestling.com. It is reproduced here with the author's permission.
I saw Attack of the Clones. Despite the bad dialogue and simplistic relationships, I really enjoyed it for what it was. The same day, I saw the season finale of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Notwithstanding my completely innocent schoolboy crush on Alyson Hannigan, this Willow-heavy episode was a masterful example of transcendent storytelling. What does this have to do with professional wrestling? Well, Star Wars, Buffy and pro wrestling are all players in the world of epic conflicting tragedy. Joss Whedon and, to a lesser extent, George Lucas are apparently on top of their respective storytelling games. Why isn't Vince McMahon?
Each Star Wars trilogy is, of course, a rehash of standard mytho-epic tragedy, following Joseph Campbell's template almost step for step. The hero --the child of a king or of a god and usually a twin-- rises to influence, falls from grace and is redeemed after much chaos. Buffy is a more complex mythology with a full pantheon of heroes and an evolving story cycle, but one whose basic theme, at least with respect to this season's finale, recapitulates a classical redemption motif.
The best examples of professional wrestling feuds have also reflected this motif, though admittedly in a more anaemic fashion. The wrestling story template is a basic morality play, featuring good versus evil, with an eventual decisive victory for the former. The more unsatisfying feuds have been ones which resemble this template, but which deviate from it at key points. The original Austin-McMahon feud is a good example of such deviation, wherein the blow-off match was never truly booked, the feud having been milked well past its point of natural closure.
An element of the tragic drama template that clumsy bookers seem unable to grasp is the crucial theme of redemption. Instead, wrestling stories have focused more on comeuppance, often to the great detriment of story quality and audience satisfaction. In a story arc based on comeuppance, a "heel" torments a "face" until the latter beats the former in a decisive fair fight. For the most part, this is an acceptable model, though simplistic and linear. Its underlying theatrical assumption is that the audience is primed, through minor character development and episodic points, to anticipate and revel in the final fall of the heel.
This model often works well, but fails to consider a thing called "denouement," the brief events which occur immediately following a story's climax. Denouement is the deep sigh after an orgasm, the cue for the return of clarity and emotional steadiness. In classical terms, denouement is the return of order after the preceding chaotic events. In Hamlet, the denouement occurs as Fortinbras enters the scene of carnage and Horatio speaks his praiseful words of the dead prince. In Star Wars, the denouement is the conversation between Luke and his father after the emperor is dead (and includes the funeral pyre with those ridiculous flammable Ewoks).
Denouement allows for redemption of the heel, without which a tale of conflict is soulless and unsatisfying. Wrestling feuds are by definition tales of conflict. Like no other dramatic form, wrestling feuds require redemption, not only to tell a full story, but to allow for an easier transition into the next story. Redemption allows all the characters --the face and the heel-- to evolve and to grow more complex.
Admittedly, complex characters are difficult to achieve in a wrestling show, but are not impossible. Bret Hart's Hitman character was suitably complex, with dark unspoken motivations. Before becoming a catchphrase-spouting parody of himself, Steve Austin was also complex: a brooding anti-hero whose inner demons drove him to the fringes of honour. In some ways, Kane is the most complex of modern wrestling characters, his mask proving a great dramatic crutch, allowing him to convey nuance while paradoxically concealing intent and motivation. Such complexity allows characters to flirt with both face-dom and heel-dom, and allows them to journey down the story arc toward both comeuppance and believable redemption.
The season finale of Buffy featured a complex character (oh so sweet and sexy Willow) who was driven to heel-like behaviour by forces beyond her control. Her path of destruction inspired a desire in the audience to witness her comeuppance, but not her destruction. In the end, she was redeemed by the love of another complex character, Xander. The Star Wars saga sees a similar arc, with Anakin Skywalker driven to villainy through circumstance, and eventually redeemed through the love of his son.
Both of these examples depend strongly on the audience's emotional investment in the characters being portrayed. Luke Skywalker's concern for his father was established early in the saga, so it appeared genuine at the end. Willow's lifelong relationship with Xander (the lucky bastard) was well established in the Buffy canon, so its potency was both believable and embraced. These are also instances in which the audience was given what it expected to receive. No swerves were necessary or welcome. This is an important lesson for wrestling bookers.
The wrestling world has seen its successes with the redemption motif. When the Macho Man finally took back Miss Elizabeth, he was redeemed, and the fans cheered. When the Undertaker and heel Kane reunited after their first over-long feud, Kane was redeemed. More recently, fan reaction and The Rock conspired to redeem Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania 18, turning his heel character face through a combination of an adversary's respect and the audience's adulation.
The Hogan case would have been more finely executed had the magnitude of the fan reaction been expected, but at least Hogan was not forced by the inept writers to remain a heel in the wake of such a reaction. His turn's potency has since been diminished due to the writers' inability to transfer Hogan's new persona into a fresh and complete story arc (perhaps allowing him to eventually redeem another figure, in the process setting Hogan up for a retirement arc).
The inability of wrestling writers to recognize the vicissitudes of the emotional arc that necessarily follows a storyline is what is stifling the sport's creativity. There is more than just good versus evil at stake here. Rather, each major story must reflect a journey through conflict, and must resolve fully, climactically and believably, resulting in the redemption of a wayward figure. Yes, there is room for swerves and comedy. But the foundation of good thematic tragedy hasn't changed in millennia, a fact clearly recognized by the entertainment world's current creative leaders, Lucas and Whedon.
Until Vince McMahon and his writers accept that their product's quality depends upon sound theatrical principles, WWE ratings will continue to fall. This is fine with me, so long as I still have my many reruns of Willow... I mean Buffy.