Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Never Venture Outside the Formula: An Essay on Elimination Chamber

Wyatt was booked well, but was he booked on brand?
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Elimination Chamber, the final Smackdown pay-per-view/Network event before WrestleMania, was a lackluster show up to the last two matches. Naomi and Alexa Bliss battled each other in a fun and spry if flawed Women's Championship match, which set up a raucous and violent Elimination Chamber match where all six competitors had their working shoes affixed to their feet. The result was telegraphed two weeks prior, when Randy Orton won the Royal Rumble. Wyatt's first single's title in the company and his long, slow arc (by modern WWE standards) of tension and alliance with Orton came into full eclipse for WrestleMania. I wouldn't have done it that way, but maybe adding the title stakes will ensure it has a place on a card that will otherwise be stacked with the part-timers needing their showcases and the multi-man human salads that populate the rest of the card. Everyone needs a Mania payday, but only a few get a chance to shine for real. But I digress.

Wyatt's win sparked observers commenting that WWE finally utilized him correctly. For anyone else, I might have agreed completely. He not only won the match without any objection or outside interference, but he did so with his finisher on both John Cena and AJ Styles, his predecessors as WWE World Heavyweight Champion and coincidentally, the two straws that stirred Smackdown's drink even before the brand split started. Strength and protection and pins over *extremely Dash Wilder and Scott Dawson voice* TOP GUYS are one way to give guys in any wrestling company primacy, a major way.

But Bray Wyatt, the Eater of Worlds, the Shepherd of Lost Souls isn't just someone that needs WINZ in order to meet his full potential. His lot in life should have been as WWE's great master manipulator, someone who could get other people to do his bidding. In that way, he never really needed the baubles, first the Smackdown Tag Team Championships and then the big strap for his career to have validation, as if titles validate wrestling careers. What he needed was to have the power to change people, to fundamentally alter who they were as characters, whether in taking them under his wing and into his family or by indelibly altering opponents through the act of warfare. In that element, Wyatt was failed miserably by WWE's storytellers from day one up until the doorstep of the feud with New Day. It wasn't until Xavier Woods started getting shaken to his core on sight that the Wyatt Family, Bray specifically, started to make someone act differently than normal instead of changing garb like Daniel Bryan did for two weeks or fight through SPOOKY TACTICS like Cena.

One could argue that the entire Orton arc has been an example, and devoid of that context, it has been a well-told story. Wyatt and his family preyed upon Orton in a weakened state after Brock Lesnar thrashed him at SummerSlam. The gang tactics may not have yielded many wins for Wyatt, but they allowed Orton to see the futility of resisting, and so he joined. However, Luke Harper never trusted him from the start, and the tensions between Wyatt's two acolytes flashed so hot that Wyatt was left without a family for the first time since that rogue swamp esper infected the body of Husky Harris.

But the arc itself spoke to many of WWE's deficiencies. For example, Orton's joining of the Family was incomprehensible in the grand scheme of things because he didn't need any help actually defeating them in the ring. He proved he was better on many occasions, and the fact that Wyatt and Harper, and before his injury, Erick Rowan couldn't stop beating on him after matches and between segments shouldn't have necessitated an alliance. If anything, it was a failure of management, which is funny because WWE storytelling in too many cases is based on management as a crux. Throwing so many creative resources to tell the same story, that management is awful at its job, is one of the many reasons why WWE storytelling rings so hollow in many cases.

Just look at the Dolph Ziggler vs. Apollo Crews and Kalisto feud that no one asked for and even fewer seem to enjoy. It not only ineffectively subverted the babyface/heel dynamic (because the two wrestlers ganging up on one, no matter how ineffectual they are at doing so, ALWAYS screams good guy), but again, continuance is based on Ziggler's inability to be stopped by anyone for his illegal actions after the match. That is to say, WWE's problems aren't isolated, and they're not only confined to RAW.

Furthermore, how has Orton been fundamentally changed as a character? He's talking less, sure, but is that an actual character trait? He's more or less the same wrestler he's always been, just subordinate to Wyatt instead of The Authority or Triple H in Evolution. Basically, Wyatt's power has been converted from something unique to wrestling and special in history to being just another manipulative heel that people deal with. I see no real evidence that WWE is finally utilizing his character correctly, even if the long-term story is logical and well-told free of context.

Honestly, solid booking and competent, if color-by-numbers storytelling seems to be the ceiling for WWE, even on Smackdown. Sometimes, WWE will get a moment right, like when Bryan led the YES chants atop the cage, or even last night, when Chris Jericho meekly uttered "Why does [the list Kevin Owens gave him] have my name on it" before realizing Owens was about to put him in the hospital. But the storytelling mechanisms are poisoned by the point of view of its auteur.

As long as Vince McMahon is in charge, WWE creative as a rule will hold contempt for its audience. Be grateful that the strict adherence to face/heel dynamics is being loosened, because that appears to be as spicy as McMahon wants it. All babyfaces need to be edgelord antiheroes with some exception (but even Bayley, as referenced by her participation in the Smackdown sneak attack on Team Blue in advance of Survivor Series was not immune to this poison). Heels, ironically, have some diversity in makeup. Some are shitheels, while others like Rusev are secret good guys who just happen to have been born in the wrong country. But all of them are just obstacles for the good guys to overcome. And above all, authority figures are the most important characters, especially if they're McMahons. Female managers or valets are relegated to being sexy cattle, which is an improvement over non-Stephanie McMahon women in general.

So in that light, maybe Wyatt's win on Sunday was a grand culmination of a story, setting the stage for an epic battle at WrestleMania. Maybe it was a realization for the guy who has been maligned to high heaven in storylines, overly ineffectual and popular for buzzwords instead of actions. Putting down Styles and Cena with his finisher, clean as a whistle is notable in and of itself, but it's not revolutionary. It's very much in the mold of what WWE does, and if you temper your expectations, then that's fine. WWE is never going to revolutionize storytelling. Your fantasy booking will always be more personally satisfying and in almost all cases way more complex. WWE can corner a market in competent and still provide shows that are worth watching. Just never assume that the company is going to go out on any creative risks in terms of storytelling and you'll be fine.