This week’s episode of Heels is absolutely packed, so let’s skip the warm-up (as this show often does) and get right to it. As the title suggests, “Swerve” is the episode in which everything goes sideways, maybe too much.
The Dark Crystal
“Swerve” opens with Crystal cutting a killer heel promo in the DWL ring. This turns out to be just a rehearsal, with the sound of a jeering crowd piped in through the house PA, but it’s clear that she’s nailed it, that she’s totally ready for the real thing. Jack is impressed, giving Crystal some sincere, unreserved praise for a change. Ace, however, decides that too much talk is taking away from the match, and Jack honors his agreement to give Ace creative input into his story and cuts it with barely a moment’s hesitation. Jack assures Crystal that she’s passed her audition and that she’ll get another opportunity, but Crystal understands what’s going on even if Jack doesn’t (or doesn’t want to). Ace has just punished her for taking an interest in Bobby Pin, and Jack has let him do it. What reason did she have to believe this won’t just keep happening?
The afternoon of the show, Ace arrives at the arena and introduces his new girlfriend Tricia Bell (who I mistakenly referred to as “Tracie” in last week’s recap), and insists that she become his new valet immediately. He pitches Jack on a last-minute storyline change in which he reveals that Crystal has been cheating on him with Bobby Pin, and Jack agrees to it despite it being a plainly bad idea. Ace is a heel, and Crystal turning against him by doing something dishonest draws sympathy to the wrong character. Bobby’s character is to have fallen in love with Crystal, but Ace wants to paint her as a jezebel who’s only using Bobby, which will probably only make him look foolish. If Ace and Crystal are going to break up in the ring, the right move is to have Ace break her heart and have Bobby be there to comfort her, but Ace’s main goal is to embarrass Crystal, not to tell a good story. The other problem is that Jack cares way more about keeping the peace with Ace than he does about Crystal, who he sees as a prop, or even Bobby, who’s a stepping stone in the Ace vs. Jack feud.
This storyline on Heels feels a little sloppy, too, in part because this is an odd-numbered episode and therefore Ace is a cruel, petty dipshit rather than a real human being. I understand last week’s episode represented his effort to be a more thoughtful person and quickly getting discouraged, but “Swerve” continues the trend of writing him like an adult on “workweek” episodes and a big muscly child on “weekend” episodes. This pattern has become one of the most frustrating elements of the show. This week his stupid feels like it’s become contagious, though there is another common element motivating everyone’s worst decisions…
If the Snakeskin Fits
Wild Bill Hancock holds a press conference to address his recently exposing himself on an airplane and getting fired from the world’s largest wrestling federation. An adept bullshitter, Bill manages to answer each question with a more baffling soundbyte, assuring that the press will be too distracted unpacking his position against infant circumcision to comment any further on his actual infraction. We are apparently meant to believe that this press conference and the announcement that he’ll be doing “a stint in rehab” will be the end of any consequences for Bill’s waving his dick around and I suppose that’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. (See: Ric Flair).
Reinvigorated, Bill heads directly to the DWL Dome to ask Jack for a role in his company. Of course, he doesn’t “ask,” he simply presumes that Jack will see his value and accept his input. Jack will have none of this. He’s never been fond of Bill in the first place, and he also knows about the nasty things Bill said to Willie last week (including the accusation that Jack is the reason his father killed himself). Bill attempting to blame this on the alcohol and weasel his way out of any backlash is typical for him, on account of it usually works. Jack recognizes Bill for the toxic influence he is and bans him from the Dome, but Bill uses his celebrity and his familiarity with veteran DWL staff to charm his way into the event anyway.
Denied a legitimate role in the company, Bill resumes LARPing as the snake from the Book of Genesis, this time getting into Crystal’s ear. Noticing her disappointment and vulnerability, Bill takes the opportunity to boost her ego and convince her that she needs to be willing to improvise in the ring and seize her moment like they did in “the old days.” Of course, sabotaging the planned storyline in front of an audience without communicating with your partners has never been okay to do in pro wrestling, but it serves Bill to tell her otherwise. Crystal has a pretty good head on her shoulders, but she’s also proven to be impressionable — she receives so little positive reinforcement in her life that she tends to latch onto it, to try and validate it as soon as possible. No one shares her investment in her career and everyone she meets (besides Bobby) seems to actively work against her. The final straw comes when Tricia tears Crystal’s brand new costume, which she gambled her entire meager paycheck in order to afford. She puts everything she has into this, and gets nothing back — if she doesn’t go into business for herself, no one is going to.
We catch pieces of only two matches from this week’s DWL show, the first being an over-the-top-rope battle royal that features Apocalypse, Diego Cottonmouth, Rooster Robbins, and a bunch of unnamed local talent. This is a great showcase for Apocalypse, as former NFL linebacker James Harrison Jr. comes across as a complete natural at playing the Big Show role in a multi-man match. We also see a cool-looking half-moonsault from Rooster (he’s caught upside-down by Apocalypse) but don’t get to see him show off all that much as we get only about 90 seconds of the match. Heels still demonstrates the ability to capture the fun of a wrestling match very quickly, but once again relies too much on cutting to audience members explaining the experience to each other. We truly do not need smiling marks to say, out loud, “this is so much fun!”
While Apocalypse gets the best spots in the ring, the story of this match belongs to Rooster and Diego, who ahead of the show decide to reverse Jack’s scripted ending for the match. Diego is meant to eliminate Rooster at the finish, but seeing Rooster’s frustration, Diego offers to “accidentally” slip off the top turnbuckle and give Rooster the win. (The kayfabe stakes of the battle royal are unclear.) Rooster is tired of waiting and waiting for his push and knows he only has so many years to make his mark in the business. Diego, on the other hand, has no such ambition and just wants to enjoy wrestling. The backstage drama is cramping his good time and he doesn’t see any reason why he should get the win when someone else wants it much more. “You’re my friend,” says Diego, “I want you happy, not [Jack].” The opportunity to help Rooster get closer to his dream clearly excites Diego, and the scene rightly frames his offer as an applause-worthy display of solidarity. As much as we’ve seen Bobby verbally encourage Crystal’s wrestling career, Diego is the only person in the locker room we’ve seen so far who’s willing to sacrifice something for his comrade.
Rooster initially accepts Diego’s offer, but just before the finish, Rooster takes a moment to absorb the audience’s praise and chants, which seems to help him realize that the crowd will love him whether or not he wins tonight. Going off book might cost him more than losing the match, so he reverts back to the original plan and lets Diego throw him over the top rope. Backstage, Rooster challenges Jack to say his real name, assuming that he pays him so little mind that he won’t be able to recall it off the top of his head. Jack passes Rooster’s pop quiz, and assures him that he hasn’t forgotten about him and that his push is forthcoming.
Jack comes across a little condescending in this scene, at least to me, and I can’t fully get a bead on which character we’re meant to sympathize with more. It seems the intent is to show that there’s no clear bad guy in this situation, but it still feels like Rooster is owed more than a vague promise of an eventual promotion. If Jack truly has some grand scheme for the DWL’s story going forward, shouldn’t he know what Rooster’s place is in it, and at least let him know what to expect? Does Rooster even have a storyline right now? This is the problem with Heels only showing snippets of the in-ring action — as far as we can tell, there’s only one plot going on in DWL and everyone else is just wrestling each other over and over with no sense of stakes. There’s no way to measure whether Rooster is getting any closer to his goal, and no indication that Jack has any interest in him at all.
All is War in Love and State Fairs
While Heels may not be great at establishing the importance of its kayfabe storylines, it always provides clear stakes for the success or failure of each weekend’s event for Jack and the DWL. This week, Jack learns that the South Georgia State Fair Commission is interested in adding pro wrestling to their events, and that three of their representatives will be attending this weekend’s show. If they’re impressed, DWL talent will wrestle for 10,000 people next month. This is the biggest opportunity Jack has had to surpass his father’s success and he’s determined not to blow it. With Staci working at the grocery store, Little Thomas accompanies Jack on show day and the two get some bonding time. Thomas makes for a cute sidekick for Jack both in the locker room and at a pre-show dinner with the State Fair people. They bring the best out in each other and they both have a great time, which begs the question as to why Jack doesn’t bring Thomas around more often.
Once Wild Bill learns about the State Fair situation, he immediately begins scheming to turn the it to his own advantage. His manipulation of Crystal pays off more than he could have imagined, as the main event opens with her stealing the mic from Ace and hijacking the story, burying her former partner and publicly humiliating Tricia. The result of the storyline is unchanged, but she reverses the power dynamic and comes across as the coolest character in the ring. Jack is the match’s guest referee and can only stand behind her and seethe. Ace does much worse and starts shooting on Bobby (wrestling parlance for delivering real blows instead of pulled ones). Ace calls for moves that are spectacular but outside of either his or Bobby’s experience but they pay off, with the crowd clearly into the match by the time Ace gets Bobby into a leglock for the finish. Bobby taps, but Ace pulls tighter on Bobby’s leg until he snaps bone, creating a visible compound fracture that immediately hushes the crowd.
Bobby is rushed out of the ring on a stretcher, and while Jack and the rest of the locker room tend to him, Wild Bill Hancock gets his hands on a microphone and addresses the crowd. Bill slams the Spade brothers’ running of the DWL and challenges the two of them to a three-way ladder match for the championship belt. The crowd goes nuts and, with no choice but to pretend this is part of the storyline, Jack rushes back into the arena to accept his challenge. Bill’s antics may have actually saved the promotion — the crowd goes home happy and Jack is able to convince the State Fair representatives that it had all been part of the show. DWL gets the gig, but just about everything else is ruined.
Bobby is in the hospital, and it’s unknown whether he’ll ever walk or wrestle again. Crystal catches some of the blame for the incident, while the man who orchestrated the disaster has just booked himself a main event storyline as a babyface. Worst of all, when Ace tries to pass his actions off as an accident, Jack attacks him in front of Thomas, who can no longer tell whether either of his male role models is a “good guy.” Everybody is pissed at everybody, and now they have one month to plan the show of their lives.
We’ve Got a Real Vegeta and Goku Problem Here
We come to Heels for high drama and “Swerve” delivers, but just like last week I’m left reeling from the dramatic difference in tone between episodes. My suspension of disbelief is also reaching its breaking point regarding just how out of control each DWL show has become. Let’s set aside that, even if the clueless State Fair people were fooled, there’s no way a seasoned wrestling crowd sees someone’s femur pop through their skin and doesn’t know that was not supposed to happen. That would be the only thing the Wrestling Internet talks about for the next two weeks, and Ace would never, ever get his WWE tryout. No one’s going to want to get in the ring with him, and they’d be right not to. Redeeming Ace in the text of Heels should be next to impossible now, but next week they’ll probably throw the switch that makes him a different guy again in order to try and win us back over. Those “workweek” episodes take place in a much less heightened world in which it’s harder to get past such extreme violence. The world of Heels is just not cartoony enough to quickly get over someone doing awful stuff all the time.
Obviously, Heels depends on the production of the show-within-a-show being fraught and dramatic, but this is the third of their events that we’ve seen and all of them have gone completely awry. We’re supposed to want Jack and his company to thrive, but he’s beginning to come across as the worst wrestling booker on Earth. He can only manage one story at a time, he’s barely thinking ahead, and most of his scripts get tossed out during the show. If nothing ever goes to plan, how are we supposed to see him as some master storyteller who deserves his big break? Right now he mostly seems like an obstacle to the success of the more likable characters, the person granted the most power but who is too stupid to use it effectively.
This is rock bottom for Jack, Ace, and Crystal, and the remaining three episodes will have to be about climbing back out. The storytellers have dug a deep, deep pit for their characters. If they can pull themselves out of it in a convincing way, the returns will be tremendous. If their redemption rings as false at any point, then Heels is going to become a much harder show to enjoy.