Game of Thrones and A Song of Toxic Headcanon and Hyper-reaction

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Far from being a fable of heroes or villains, the finale ‘The Iron Throne’ showed what Game of Thrones has always shown – that our leaders are kinda disappointing. We shouldn’t have expected anything else. Credit: HBO

I started thinking about this article between episodes 5 and 6 of the final season of Game of Thrones, and am finishing it after the season finale. Game of Thrones won’t be the only TV show I discuss here, but it will be the main one, and is the one that best exemplifies the phenomena I will be discussing: ‘headcanon’ and hyper-reaction from fans and critics. So for the purpose of clarity, ‘headcanon’ is a term I have seen used to mean fan’s individual understanding of the show they like, and also their view of how it will, or should, end; and by ‘hyper-reaction’ I mean the largely online culture of criticism that is based around a cycle of microscopic viewing, reviewing, previewing, and theorising which manages to be fairly simplistic despite the detail they go in to. It is this recipe of influences which can be so toxic, and which we have seen recently with Game of Thrones.

I do not enjoy fantasy really. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but magical realms of elves and demons and what-have-you has never appealed to me. I think it is because I always enjoy human stories the most and fantasy seems a bit removed from that. Game of Thrones, however, has been a mighty big exception. This show featuring magic, various gods, dragons, and resurrection became one of my favourites ever as soon as Ned Stark’s head left his body. By this time, the reality that this was really a story of personal and political intrigue first, was clear, and the fact that it’s rich setting included such fantasy elements was no longer an issue for me. This slow introduction of fantasy elements is part of what has made the show such a smash hit. Perhaps if the dragons and magic were prominent from the off, I would have been less enamoured, but surely, these elements were introduced as a crucial part of the universe – more pieces on the ever-developing chess board. It was clear that expectations, as well as sentiment, could be thrown away. The game would play out as it would, not as fans expected.

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Ned’s beheading is cited by many as a quintessential Game of Thrones moment that set the scene for the rest of the show. Credit: HBO

I started watching Season 1 in early 2017, between Seasons 6 and 7 and made my way through the show fairly (and increasingly) quickly, until I caught up with the show and everyone else for Season 7. I have therefore consumed the show both as a binge-watcher, and now as an episodic watcher, and these two experiences are different in many ways. Of course watching multiple episodes back to back leaves you with a different experience to waiting a week between episodes, but one specific way I will primarily write about is the ‘quiet time’ between watching episodic shows, the time where all you have is the speculation of yourself and others. A lot has also changed from 2011 to now from the show being a cult hit and there being less of a review/’deep dive’ culture online to now when the show is perhaps the most popular show of all time with countless fans ready to make as many reaction videos, blogs, and tweets about it as possible, either out of love, or good business sense given the traffic the show inevitably brings.

Fandom has never been so intimate, and the intimacy comes in cycles. Unfortunately, the cycle itself and the online output it encourages is almost exclusively harmful to enjoyment of the show.

I am as culpable and vulnerable to it as anyone else. Here is my unofficial Game of Thrones schedule for this season:

1) Watch Episode > 2) Tweet reactions > 3) Listen to multiple reviews of episode > 4) Listen to multiple previews of the next episode > 5) Watch next episode > 6) Repeat.

Mix in to all of this conjecture, predictions, and discussions with others about the overall narrative journey of the show, and thoughts about how it will end, and it becomes all consuming. It becomes something almost apart from the show. This seems to be the case for many people too. People have their own individual view of both how they would like the show to behave and end, of how individual characters should behave and end their story, and how the show and characters will behave and end. This is all independent of the episodes already in the can and waiting to be televised. Viewers are obsessed with all facets of the show, and, like Littlefinger himself, imagined multiple different directions for the show at different times – some they like, and some they don’t. This is what is meant by ‘headcanon’: an imagined version of the show that exists only in the fans mind (and hopes). There is a degree of personal and even emotional investment involved with headcanon. Game of Thrones has done an excellent job of creating several characters we care about or are interested in, that we think we understand and can predict, but this creates expectations for fans that the show cannot possibly cater to singularly.

Most Game of Thrones characters are, and are celebrated as, morally complicated and hard to predict, but in a culture where predictions are prevalent, people will still do it. They perhaps want to believe they understand the show closely, and even know how it should, and will, end. So when it doesn’t happen in a way they like, something feels amiss, or even missing. I’m perhaps playing pop-psychologist a bit here, but they may even feel their fandom is invalidated. This is where people get defensive, and where at least part of the problem lies.

Let’s take a couple of examples which are being talked about a lot currently:

1) Daenerys becoming the ‘Mad Queen’. Daenerys has had an interesting character journey, from abused sister to powerful Queen in waiting, the ‘Breaker of Chains’, to now, where she has become a murderous tyrant. Criticism has been multiple and emotional, claiming that her turn to ‘mad queen’ has come out of nowhere and doesn’t fit the rest of her ‘arc’* given how much she spoke of breaking chains and wheels of power. It is certainly a disappointment if you admired her, that much is certain, but what it isn’t is unexpected or unearned**. If you view Dany in broad strokes, then yes, the progression seems nonsensical. But remember, the characters in this show all show what George RR Martin calls ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’ – they are morally complex, and situationally torn characters, and as such, can be powerfully human, even in their inhumanity. Look at Daenerys in more detail, and it is clear that violence and strength are always tools near to her. She has incinerated multiple people who she believes has done wrong or got in between her and the Iron Throne, she talks of burning cities to the ground and using ‘fire and blood’, has crucified scores of people, and her advisors are there explicitly to try to curb what are the more vengeful and violent aspects of her Targaryen bloodline. Throughout the eight seasons, it has been made explicit that as much as Daenerys may speak in purple poetry about being a liberator, her primary ambition is the throne, and the possibility of her using violence has always been just below the surface. My personal reading of her is that when she was conquering lands away from Westeros with relative ease, and was receiving the love of the people, she was happy to imagine herself the revolutionary, and maybe even believe it, but when challenged significantly, and when unable to inspire that same love, she was more than happy to choose fear over love if it meant reaching the throne. Even further, when the common people of Westeros didn’t immediately rally to her cause, that was all the excuse she needed to follow her father’s example and ‘burn them all’. None of this is inconsistent. How many times have we seen coups from people claiming to bring some sort of ‘change’ only for them to become tyrants? How many times do we see politicians support both humanitarian aid as well as military interventionism? Bad people rarely think they are bad, and in Dany’s case, I think she has convinced herself that getting the Throne, and the steps she has taken to do so, are absolutely necessary to her cause. The degree to which she will actually break chains or wheels is in doubt though when it’s compared to her wielding power.

Is this a pleasant direction? Absolutely not, but does it make sense? Does it fit? Absolutely. People were shocked and stunned to see the grisly images of her fire bombing of civilians, but that doesn’t make the story bad, it makes it affecting. There seems to be some confusion in this differentiation. Viewers of Game of Thrones should know now to expect a pleasant show with clear saviours or heroes, and getting upset when they don’t get it is astounding to me. Many viewers pictured Dany liberating Kings Landing either with or without Jon Snow by her side, they imagined a peaceful transition of power and a life of happiness and freedom for all. That is rarely the case in real life, let alone this universe, and if you expected that, you were watching the wrong show.

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Perhaps the defining image of the season, and the most divisive. Dany’s fall was foreshadowed, but not enough for some. Credit: HBO

2) Jamie Lannister comforting Cersei as they both died. Jamie Lannister is perhaps the most morally ambiguous character on the show. In the early seasons, he is an infuriating, incestuous golden boy and (attempted) child killer, as well as a ‘Kingslayer’. He’s about as hateful as it gets aside perhaps from his son Joffrey and, later, Ramsay Bolton. But a funny thing happens as the episodes and seasons go on. We spend more time with him as a captive. He loses his hand, explains that he killed the king to save the lives of civilians from a bloodthirsty tyrant, knights Ser Brienne of Tarth, and generally seems to have good intentions. He becomes so close to Brienne that fans started to imagine them together – something that comes to pass in season 8 before he suddenly leaves for Kings Landing to be with his sister/soulmate Cersei. It is true that the rehabilitation of Jamie is remarkable from hated to almost revered, and when Jamie chose being with Cersei over being with Brienne, some fans presumed he must be going to kill her himself. Prophecies and presumed neat narrative arcs drove this belief, but when Jamie instead held Cersei as they died, rather than killing her himself, the consternation was powerful. Fans saw it as the ‘destruction’ of one of the show’s most powerful ‘arcs’. Again, in broad strokes, this makes sense, but in finer detail, and with nuance of reflection, it seems unfair.

There are two things that are certain about Jamie: 1) is that he was indelibly linked to Cersei and had a deep love for her, even when she drove him away, and 2) He was never an uncomplicated good person. Even during his redemption ‘arc’ he was killing relatives, supporting a tyranical regime, forcing himself on his sister, and threatening great acts of violence. If he knew a person, he would generally fight for them, but otherwise, he had no qualms about his actions. I was surprised when he left Brienne in Winterfell, and disappointed in how he did it, but again, I didn’t feel it was particularly out of character. His bond to Cersei, and love for her was so strong, that she would always be a consideration for him, and I believe that once he heard Cersei was about to be in a war, whatever happened, he knew her had to be there, either to stop her from doing anything evil, to save her is needed, or yes, possibly to kill her himself depending on how the situation unfolded. When he makes it Kings Landing, his aim becomes to convince Cersei to stand down and surrender – whether he would run away with her or go back to Brienne is an open question. As events unfold though, he reaches her with the walls crumbling around them and himself mortally wounded. The time for surrender has already passed, so they try to escape, and when escape is impossible, they comfort each other. Whether he quite believes it in the same way he once did, he repeats to her an old refrain that ‘nothing else matters’ and dies as he once told Bronn he wished to – in the arms of a person he loves. None of this means he doesn’t also love Brienne (in a different, less complicated way), and there was also no reason for him to kill or confront her. These were obviously desperate moments for them, and every action and reaction of his made total sense.

*I wanted to add an aside about the term ‘arc’ because I swear I have heard it 1000 times during this season from fans and critics alike. For a show where characters can obviously develop and change, people’s tolerance for this seems to have totally disappeared. I have heard the phrase ‘destroyed their arc’ countless times, and it goes to show how people now understand the show – they have predetermined expectations for every character, and if the destination isn’t the same as they have imagined, or changes course from what they understand, they read it as the breaking of this holy structure of the ‘arc’ – not even imagining that change and development can be part of a larger journey. Maybe Jaimie’s journey isn’t so simple as arsehole golden boy to loved up honourable knight because he isn’t either. People, in fact, are rarely so simple – they can fall back in to old habits, do irrational things, and have special bonds with people even if they are bad people. Jamie’s ‘arc’ isn’t a simple redemption story but the story of a person who has been torn his whole life between honor and immorality, depending on the situation, and who, in the end, reverts not to type, but to Cersei, the one constant in his life. Is it something I was happy about? Not really, but was I surprised that Jamie was drawn to Cersei? Absolutely not. This unthinking use of the word ‘arc’ has not only started to sound like fingernails on a chalk board to me, but is used recklessly and unthinkingly. I think what people mean by it is the journey to change for a character which is gradual but definite, and which they have personally perceived. No character in this show does, or should, however, develop like that. Narrative isn’t simply about change – its how people act or change when they do, and why. It’s not always some clean A to B journey, and yet many of the most prevalent criticisms continue to treat it as such.

** The second term I have taken aside is ‘earned’. Critical fans have been saying of these plots and others that certain moments were not ‘earned’. What they mean by this, I think is, something happening which they didn’t see coming and which they think is at odds with what they understand of a character. That nothing they have seen previously has hinted at a certain action. Not only does this term scream entitlement and arrogance, but it is also incredibly simplistic, asserting that every action or twist must have the ingredients carefully laid out before it. There are times where that is satisfying, of course, but that cannot be the only way to execute drama. Again, as with humans, sometimes actions can come from nowhere obvious, we can be surprised by others or by ourselves when confronted by difficult choices or situations. I would argue that plenty of the shocking moments in this show and others weren’t ‘earned’ in the way some use it, but were still effective. What is more, perhaps such surprises aren’t going against a character, but are instead adding to it. Perhaps your pre-determined feelings for a character are actually constraining the story as well as your enjoyment of it.

Now, despite my righteous typing, I can’t help but feel a little odd about defending such a juggernaught franchise so passionately. So, even-though, on balance, I love the show, I will discuss a few recent aspects of the show I have been disappointed in.

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Arya’s interaction with this white horse seemed silly and didn’t lead to anything. No one said the season was perfect. Credit: HBO

  1. While I defended the way Jamie gravitated to Cersei and dies with her, one element I was disappointed in was how he left Ser Brienne. As easily as I believe his continuing love for Cersei, I also believe in his different kind of love for Brienne. Their scene together in an pool in an earlier season is one of the most emotive scenes in the show and that as well as the rest of their time together sells their bond well. So when they finally spent the night together post-Long Night, it made sense. Their real feelings mixed with the post-battle energy makes that completely believable. However, him leaving her the next morning felt a bit flippant, even if it wasn’t. To sleep with Brienne then leave her feels cold in a way that doesn’t fit him I think, and seemed to rob this hugely honourable character of some of her dignity. The same story without the sex would have been better I feel. While Brienne eventually found herself in a strong position as the first female head of the King’s Guard and so wasn’t defined by Jamie, it would have been nice to have seen a bit more from her rather than her dutifully updating his pages in the Book of Brothers.
  2. With regards specifically to everything up until the finale, and especially to do with the Battle of Winterfell, while I presume Bran was doing a lot more than was shown, it feels like his role until the finale was less memorable than it felt it would be before the season. He seemed like he was going to be a crucial chess piece in everything, and even if he is, that hasn’t really been shown. Some mystery is necessary, but not even knowing basically anything about his role in the grand scheme of killing the Night King is a bit much. Obviously more is revealed when he assumes the throne, and with regards to that, there is some interesting mystery – i.e. did he know/intend to be King, and will that be a good thing or the protection of a status quo?
  3. The closing scenes of episode 5, with Arya escaping King’s Landing were a little over the top for me. Her escape cut alongside The Hound’s final defining battle was a nice bit of storytelling given their connection, but once it was over, her being seemingly the only survivor of the attack, completely alone save for a white horse to help her escape felt like gilding the lily. This is especially the case now episode 6 has aired, and it became clear that not only was Arya not going anywhere, but the horse was never seen again. What, did she just go up the street? It’s really a small thing, but this may have been the most egregious moment of the season.
  4. The way The Hound spoke to Sansa about her rape bothered me. I should stipulate that I don’t share the common criticism of this scene that it wrongly attributes Sansa’s maturation to her rape at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. I think that was always a short-sighted and a simplistic reading of the scene where I saw it as a moment for Sansa to show that probably the worst thing that ever happened to her would not be something that would define her. This is also Sophie Turner’s reading of the scene according to a recent interview. Naturally, it was part of a series of tragedies, which also included her experiences with Cersei and Littlefinger, that helped shape her view of the world from innocence to experience, but it was never portrayed as something ‘beneficial’ to her. What I did find troubling, however, was the way The Hound spoke to her about it, about her being ‘blooded’ violently. I thought it was needlessly raw and harsh, even for a character like the Hound, and I don’t think it achieved anything really.
  5. Most importantly, the one thing which I think has unquestionably somewhat damaged the show, and which I think the vast majority of people agree on is that even if the events make sense and are entertaining, they seemed to happen in a rushed fashion, without much of the quiet time or breathing space which allows for extra development and contemplation. While I am still enjoying the show, I would enjoy it even more with this extra storytelling time, watching people on their journeys to their battles and making plans; and in the case of those who claim to ‘hate’ the show, that might have been enough to improve their experience. This was especially the case with Daenerys’ short reign in the final season. While the writers and actors portrayed her tunnel-vision for power and delusion that she was doing ‘good’ well, I would have liked more time to see her in the triumphal aftermath of her sacking of the city. I think this would have built more tension with regards to the fate of both her and Jon, and the lack of this did take away a little from an excellent conclusion for them.

One caveat I would add to this is that it makes sense that at a time of climactic wars that the action becomes quicker and more packed together than at times of intrigue or relative peace. A show should be able to change pace at times. Nonetheless, it is still undoubtable that this show and the last two seasons needed more episodes and more time left for contemplation. This part made a great show a little weaker.

YT Criticism

There is plenty of simple and dismissive clickbaity content on places like Youtube. Credit: Youtube and these channels.

While these aspects of the show left me cold, it is important to see them in the context of the wider show. If they lower an episode’s stature from ‘masterpiece’ to a more tempered ‘excellent’, that is fine, it’s the ability to properly critique. Unfortunately, in a world where the ‘hottest takes’ and most eye-catching thumbnails, released to the public the quickest grab the attention, and clicks, this kind of nuance is not encouraged in online criticism especially. Saying that you enjoyed Game of Thrones except for a a few moments or plot points is probably a more accurate, but less attractive read in a place where binary reactions are the most common currency. So you see videos with titles like ‘Game of Thrones rant’ or ‘Why Game of Thrones sucks now’ and so on and so on, and people watch, and these criticisms become more widespread. In some cases I believe this leads to something of a self-fulfilling prophesy that the writing will be bad or the ending unsatisfying before the final episode has even aired. If you create a framework of negativity, it’s hard to see the show in a more nuanced and truly critical light.

This is especially infuriating when criticisms feature calling the writers of the story ‘stupid’, ‘nonsensical’, or ‘lazy’, like these professional screenwriters are clueless iconoclasts while these amateurs could just write it perfectly themselves. I’m all for democratizing writing and criticism, but these criticisms rarely come with viable or interesting alternatives, and indeed, usually when they do suggest something, it’s dull, without nuance, or has similar problems to what they have complained about. Again, there’s no need to over-defend these writers, and they aren’t flawless, but I think if people consider what they would do instead of what was written, it would show them the delicate balance it entails and maybe temper some of the nonsense I have outlined.

It must be said that when there is such a groundswell of opinion, there may be something to it, and that the greatness of the writing is undermined by the fact that it couldn’t convince the fans that what it showed was better than their headcanon. That said though, I really worry that the (sometimes financial, in the case of Youtubers and other critics) encouragement of this obsessive prediction/breakdown/review culture is becoming more influential. The media we are consuming is being swarmed by multitudes of opinions that really clouds the experience. Yes, I am aware you can avoid all of this, but it can be difficult to if you’re genuinely interested. Ultimately, this is not an attempt to convince disappointed fans that they are wrong or anything like that, and even if I don’t understand it, if you don’t like the show, then fair enough.

An extra effect of this is that there are a lot of mediocre shows that end up getting lauded almost by flying under the radar of this same criticism. Rather than being adventurous or subversive, they play it down the middle, do it well, and so don’t leave themselves up to much specific criticism. In the context of hyper-reaction described above, something mildly pleasing and inoffensive can have it’s quality inflated simply by virtue of not rattling any cages. Any show that can do this consistently may be able to get enough momentum to encourage the opposite reaction from fans and critics. The other side of the negative clickbait coin is a trend towards overly-complimentary content, describing safe, decent shows as ‘masterpieces’.

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Shows like Stranger Things and Westworld play simple tunes and get lauded for it. Credit: GoldDerby, HBO, Netflix

There are many, many examples of this, but the two most prominent are other recent smash-hits which have been received far more positively than Game of Thrones: Stranger Things and Westworld.

Stranger Things is a visually entertaining show featuring talented cute child actors playing a story which is not only pretty shallow ‘monster of the week’ fayre, but even worse, effectively repeats the same story in it’s second series. It dines out on there being a big audience for 80’s nostalgia, and this mixed with the other elements has made it very appealing to a large audience. In terms of the depth or layers of story, it can’t compare with a show like Game of Thrones, for all it’s faults. In fact, nothing is special about it at all, but nevertheless, it is lauded as a great show.

If you’ve ever read a ‘philosophy for beginners’ book or taken a beginners philosophy class, or even if you haven’t, you will be familiar with the major themes of Westworld. Part of my lack of reaction to Westworld is that it is fundamentally not a human story, it is about, almost exclusively, robots and artificial intelligence. This is, admittedly, a personal bias, and even though a story featuring artificial life forms can meaningfully reflect on human life, this show does not. Again, it is interesting visually, and certainly not poorly made or acted while trying to elucidate on the nature of consciousness, self-determination, and sentience. Critics and online reactors fall over themselves to laud this aspect of the show like that’s anything, frankly speaking, original, interesting, or particularly intellectual. It relies very heavily on countless timelines and the fact that anyone could end up being revealed as a robot, or ‘host’. When you do this, no action really has impactful consequences because any action can always be overturned with a plot twist. The risks and the stakes are low. It tells the story in it’s stylised way, while still effectively playing it down the middle, and again, this can be enough to establish it as a quality show.

When anything is hyper-criticised – in this case, TV shows – and any perceived inconsistency is treated so unforgivingly as ‘bad writing’ or ‘stupid’, it limits the parameters of ‘successful’ television, and  discourages shows which genuinely experiment and explore the human condition and complicated human stories. People act like characters are algorithms who would only act in certain specific ways and would always act logically, and if they don’t behave within these parameters it ‘doesn’t make sense’, is ‘stupid’ or ‘bad writing’, or heaven forfend ‘BETRAYS THEIR ARC’. I’m not saying these people are always wrong when they raise talking points like this, but that their approach to criticism and review is fundamentally flawed. When you hold characters, and plotlines, to higher standards of consistency than you do real people and real life, you are heading for problems. Sometimes people do weird, stupid, or out of character things; sometimes they learn and change, and sometimes terrible or unexpected things happen to you. If a TV show can show this in a realistic way, that is something to be treasured, and I believe that Game of Thrones is a show that regularly does that.

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Dresden, in the aftermath of the Allied Forces. Credit: Business Insider

If you think Dany the liberator burning King’s Landing to the ground is unrealistic, look in to the history of the Dresden bombings the sequence is largely based upon. Game of Thrones is an anti-war show, and for a fantasy show featuring dragons and the un-dead, it is one of the most accurate portrayals of the evils and madness of war you will ever see on television.

Similarly, with Jon, in the context of the finale, people seem confused about why Jon needed to be revived and/or discovered to be a Targaryen and/or why he didn’t end up on the throne as the ‘rightful’ king, because they don’t feel his ending was appropriate given these plot directions. In answer to the first question, I suggest that his being the one to kill Dany was fairly significant and justifies his resurrection having meaning. As for the second question about his heritage, their contention seems to be that the tension this created with Dany didn’t come to pass because she seemed keen to rule with him during their final scene. This is another simplistic reading – even lovesick Jon Snow could see that this was her way of neutralising the threat he posed by making him complicit, and that no one could control her expansionism. It was the basis for much of the paranoia she had towards him, and what’s more, it is a good example of how the show doesn’t treat every ‘arc’ as some clean journey of destiny. Just because Jon was a Targaryan, it doesn’t mean him on the throne is the only plausible result, and in fact, given that a Stark ends up assuming the throne anyway, it probably was a hindrance to that outcome. Answering the final question is easier. Jon never wanted to be King, and what’s more, the Greyjoys, Unsullied and probably more didn’t want him as King due to what he did to Dany. What’s even more is that the different houses decided that a monarch should be chosen, not a role that should be simply inherited, so his claim by inheritance meant nothing anyway.

As Tyrion, and others in the show, have said, a good compromise is when no one is really happy. I think this is a line emblematic of the show’s message. War is terrible and corrupting and our leaders are disappointing and corrupted. Yes, Westeros progressed from a monarchy to an oligarchy, but a democracy is some way off; and yes the existential threats to life are gone, but will life be better for everyone. Time will tell. In many ways though, it’s more of the same. Again, this is disappointing, but then again, look around you. How many radical progressives hold any power? Society craves the status quo. If you expected a revolution, you’ll be disappointed, but in a world where Theresa May is about to be replaced by another flaccid Tory or an impeached Trump would be replaced by Mike Pence, can you really call that disappointment unrealistic?

Ultimately though, who cares? As I said earlier, I know I don’t need to seek out the opinion of others about the shows I like, and I’d go further to admit that it is strange to continually listen to the opinions of people online that I don’t agree with. That said, it is perhaps the curse of the invested fan. I enjoy listening to people discuss the things I like, and in this case, it has become habit. Aside from that, it worries me that the general discourse around shows is becoming increasingly influenced by hyper-reaction and is even bleeding in to mainstream criticism, and ultimately in to the consciousness of the screenwriters themselves. I just hope that writers don’t start to write shows with this kind of criticism in mind because it will just lead to more mediocrity which people will laud at the time but won’t ultimately have much of an impact. As with everything, I would rather we have art which tries to do something special, and doesn’t necessarily please everyone than art that is successful by playing it safe and relying on crowd-pleasing tropes and aesthetics.

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Pattergeddon: Scottish Exceptionalism and North Britishness

Still Game

Still Game, like other popular Scottish comedies, relies on funny words, swears, and stereotypes. Credit: BBC

February has seen the launch of the new BBC Scotland television station, and in order to send it on it’s way, some staple Scottish hits with the first episode of the new (and latest) series of Still Game, and a Burnistoun special. I have been planning an article about popular Scottish humour for a while, but these shows especially have been the catalyst for me actually starting. Now as a so far failed comedy writer, far be it for me to just criticise these shows for not being funny, though my personal opinion is that they are not; instead, this article exists to explore their comedic style and characteristics, as well as why they might be popular, and indeed, the further implications of this. The more I have thought about it, the most popular Scottish comedies carry with them a provincialism which caricatures not only Scotland, but Scotland’s poor. Even further, the packaging of ‘patter’ from comedians and its fans both contributes to a cultural North Britishness which simultaneously is aggressively Scottish as well as paper-thin in depth and style. The commercialisation of ‘patter’ is just one of many areas where Scots succumb to an exceptionalism which has some merit, but also leads to a cultural complacency, be it in our history of innovation, our progressive self-image, or our cultural output, and these are areas that this article will also explore.

It is worth laying some ground-work before getting in to the meat of this. Firstly, this article really is much less ‘op-ed’ and more just raising questions about trends I have felt. I am not super confident in my assertations here, but just confident enough to start the discussion which will follow. It is also worth explaining my own understanding of ‘North Britishness’. North Britishness as a phenomenon peaked in the lifetime of Walter Scott, with Scott very much a driver of the trend. It is the framing of Scotland as a proud, unique, and exceptional place, but one that is so within the Union of Great Britain. It is a philosophy which treads the line of both celebrating Scotland and what makes it unique, while in doing so, placing it very much as a smaller province within the greater Union. Characteristic of North Britishness is a vigorous, almost gaudy expression of ‘Scottishness’ best exemplified in the promoted aesthetics of tartan, kilts, bagpipes and the like. Proud but ‘other’ and unthreatening.

It is this gaudy packaging of Scottishness that I am interested in here. Something has always bothered me about the patter in shows like Still Game and Burnistoun, and until recently, I thought it was just that is actually isn’t that funny and that Scottish people seemed to enjoy our own humour a bit much, but in the context of North Britishness, I see another reason to feel uncomfortable about it. Shows like this are exporting a view of Scotland which actually doesn’t represent us and actually goes some way to strengthen stereotypes about ourselves.

Before I write this, I want to make it clear, that there have been, and still are, a lot of great Scottish comedians who don’t adhere to the styles I will talk about and are very creative in terms of comedy. That said, when it comes to at least the more popular Scottish comedies I will discuss, I think 90% of Scottish comedy is not joke based, but instead saying basically normal things in slang or a mad accent with swears to furnish it and people laughing because it’s familar to them.

Let’s look at some examples from the shows mentioned at the start, Still Game and Burnistoun. In the painful first episode of the new series of Still Game, Winston becomes a viral hit after he is filmed taking down a bag snatcher with his false leg and shouting ‘shut it tadger!’ As he gets less and less famous, he goes to an event where he is lambasted, the crowd getting laughs for calling him ‘shite’, calling him a ‘patter thief’ and an ‘old shagger’ before he hits back with a rhyme that culminates in him calling the crowd ‘cunts’. The premise is wafer thin, but is held up simply by the swearing and the Scottish dialects. The joke is the dialect in action. The show simply isn’t funny; it’s lazy and ill-conceived, and without the crutch of the funny talking, it would have absolutely nothing. Burnistoun also does this, and if anything, more egregiously. While Still Game has at least established characters people like over the years when it was a better show, Burnistoun is sketches, and though it as the occasional hit, it is mostly more of the same funny Scottish sweary talking. Their colour chart sketch is almost exclusively this while they have another where there are just two characters who can’t stop saying ‘up the road!’ and another one in a game show setting where they are just saying ‘tottie scone’ in a variety of ways.

These kind of jokes are everywhere and have travelled down through the lexicon. Look at any Facebook or Twitter page with a name like ‘Scottish patter’ and you’ll see reams and reams of this repetitive material. People saying stuff in a funny slang or sweary way, and followers replying with how amazing Scottish patter is. Now again, don’t get me wrong – i’m not the joke police. If people enjoy these shows and these pages, then i’m happy for them, but I think it verges on embarrassing. Probably the last thing comedy should aim to do is refrain from laughing at yourself, but I don’t think this is what these comedies do, at least not generally. Instead they display a cartoon Scottishness – a modern version of a shortbread tin. Scottish people playing Scottish for the Scottish – and the British. The dialect, the accent, the culture is played for laughs and also have a following across the UK, and in fact, when you think of crossover comedy shows, every Scottish one – Even Limmy’s Show, which was more sophisticated in places – falls in to the same patterns regularly. There’s nothing wrong, with silly, broad comedy, but when this is the vast majority of what a country produces, and pats itself on the back for, there is a trend. This is where ‘North Britishness’ comes in.

As I have previously said, these shows are aggressively Scottish, consistently mentioning Scotland or more specific place names in a way which is almost jarring at times. In this latest Still Game episode, for example, Winston is known as ‘Scotland’s Angry Grandpa’ and is told that ‘Scotland thanks you’. Scotland, and other more specific places therein are routinely listed as settings in a way that is out of the ordinary for most comedies. Scotland is at the forefront, but it is weak performance of Scotland – the equivalent of the Royal Mile draped in Saltires – almost like it is for the tourists. Scots and Brits alike holidaying in a caricature. Comedy has no obligation to display Scotland in a certain way, but to me, it has started to feel like the Scottishness is the joke. The comedy being produced for the BBC may be aggressively Scottish, but it does not go beyond being a provincial product to be added to the UK comedy lexicon.

An even more troubling characteristic of this comedy is the Scotland it lampoons. The vast majority of the premises or sketches are set in deprived areas, with ned characters playing up to those stereotypes – even if the joke doesn’t demand it. There is one sketch in the Burnistoun show which is a poorly executed version of a half-decent premise, a gameshow where someone who is drunk has to get in to bed and not get caught out as drunk. For some reason it is set in the ‘Burnistoun high flats’ eventhough that has no bearing on the joke. The sketch doesn’t need a setting so why do the writers feel compelled to link a drunk guy with high flats – a kind of housing normally associated with social housing? Throughout Still Game and Burnistoun especially, there are an inordinate amount of neddish characters. For some reason, the creators find poverty and poor people to be inherently funny. The writers are all from poorer areas of the North of Glasgow, so they can’t be accused of simple elitism, but the portrayal of caricatures of poverty is still troubling, especially as it could be interpreted as people who ‘got out’ going on to mock the communities they came from.

Scottish people understandably hold some of these shows dear. Still Game during it’s conception was a show that afforded it’s characters some dignity as well as some laughs, even if the dignity and the laughs have fallen away; Burnistoun has, among the mediocrity, some stronger sketches; Bob Servant, Independent was underappreciated genius which bucked the trend a little; and Limmy’s Show, despite displaying some of this performative Scottishness, did often contain unique and funny sketches. This, for many Scots, in enough to laud Scottish humour as something exceptional, but while we still dine out on the legacy of Billy Connolly, our current crop usually fall short, and sell an idea of Scotland which also sells the country short. The new BBC Scotland channel has an opportunity to show more diverse and frankly, more dynamic comedy rather than the regular motions the shows mentioned have been going through. I hope to see Scottish comedy where Scotland is an ingredient, not the joke itself.

Free Speech, Humanity, and Mediocre White Knights

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Don’t make these people your heroes: Count Dankula (centre) and Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars and God knows who the other guy is. Credit: twitter.com

One of the more prevalent stories making the rounds in Scotland certainly, but around the world, has been the arrest and charging of controversial Youtuber, ‘Count Dankula’. Free speech and comedy have had a bit of a tenuous relationship for centuries as comedians defend their jokes from a mixture of the prudish, and most recently, liberal progressives. I have had an interest in this intersection of comedy and free speech for at least eight years when I wrote critically of the South Park creators for playing around with depicting the Prophet Muhammad. As a self-identifying progressive as well as a more shakily self-identifying comedy writer, free speech and what is ‘acceptable’ has been a dichotomy which has shifted uneasily between a few positions regularly often depending on the latest convincing opinion I have heard. Luckily, I have come to something like a final position, in no small thanks to this latest controversy.

Shortly before Count Dankula made his unfortunate rise to relative prominence, Ricky Gervais released his latest stand up hour, Humanity, on Netflix which created it’s own free-speech-storm – not Gervais’ first. The two men aren’t the same, and they represent different approaches to their material; one being a more sincere craft, and the other being formulaic clickbait, but both somehow ending up in the same position as self-appointed white knights.

It’s at this point that I want to make a couple of things as clear as possible so that what I say is neither misunderstood or wilfully misrepresented. A refrain for the article:
1) No one should ever be arrested for mere words unless they explicitly incite violence against specific people or groups.
2) You should be able to tell jokes about whatever you like, no matter how dark, but part of freedom of speech is receiving any criticism that accompanies it.
3) Criticism is not censorship.

That said, on first to Ricky Gervais, who has a track record of writing funny, considered comedy shows with heart – his seminal sitcom The Office remaining a masterpiece on all those fronts. He is indeed a controversial figure though and despite protestations, this is an image he cultivates and as his comedy has become less consistent following The Office, his ability to write with heart has also been hit and miss. The first real mis-step I remember from Gervais was in 2011 and the public telling off he received from Richard Herring for his flippant use of the word ‘mong’ which he then doubled down on by repeating the word along with mocking faces, asserting his right to say it and that there was nothing wrong with it. To be fair to him, he would later climb down and sincerely – I believe – apologise.

Gervais Golden Globes

Gervais during one of his famous Golden Globes performances, notorious for the roasting of those in attendance. Credit: NME.com

Since then, especially as a result of his Golden Globes hosting routines, he has become associated even more with controversy, and Humanity has been no different. When reading about the show, it became clear that the main charge against him was of transphobia, but before jumping to conclusions I wanted to watch the whole show for myself because even a whole 15 minute, seemingly self-contained bit can have a different effect on the context of a whole show. So I watched Humanity and i’m sad to say, I believe the bit in question is definitely transphobic, even if it’s not intended to be. He talks about how carefully he considers the targets of his jokes, but if that’s the case, he either made an unbelievable miscalculation or considered trans people a target. The bit starts off well. He’s reflecting on an earlier controversy of his regarding a Caitlyn Jenner joke, explaining how the person, morally, was the target, and not the fact that she is trans, as well as explaining a clever joke which played against old-fashioned jokes about women drivers.

Unfortunately, his clear disdain for Jenner leads him in to a bizarre second half of the bit where he explains ‘deadnaming’ and then gleefully and repeatedly does it before describing the decision to become trans as quite flippant and as similar to him identifying as a chimp and insisting people treat him as a chimp. He seems disgusted that trans people ask simple, basic consideration of others, and in comparing it to him identifying as a chimp brings to mind the kind of nut who responds to gay marriage with the ‘humans will be able to marry animals next’ complaint. It’s not funny, it’s awkward, and it makes a marginalised group the undoubted target of the bit. He’s clearly obsessed somewhat over his controversial Jenner joke, and in an effort to defend himself, has made a joke in bad faith which has gone on to punch down to trans people.

The rest of the show gets better in the sense that it’s rarely particularly offensive after that save for some clumsy lines and is capped off with some insightful routines about rape jokes, animal cruelty, and a warmly funny story about his mother’s funeral. The rape joke bit is especially eye-opening as it makes his point about free speech in a much more coherent way, saying that there is a difference between finding rape as a concept funny, and finding certain jokes which include rape funny. He gives a good example of a funny, totally harmless joke which plays with the word ‘rape’ while making it sincerely clear that a joke that trivialised rape as an experience or it’s victims would be out of order. The trans bit is the only really deplorable part of the show, and though there are a handful of funny bits, what it is overall, is mediocre. He is bogged down in his ‘shocking’ style, including a couple of lazy clangers about cancer where he seems to expect a laugh simply for making a dark cancer joke. He is hogtied by the theme of his show, and his overarching career theme of awkward offensiveness and often forgets to be particularly funny while performing his lecture about free speech.

He says as a quick aside towards the end of the show that it’s ‘never the point’ to offend people, but I beg to differ. The idea that he isn’t trying to offend people while telling so many jokes he knows are offensive doesn’t pass the smell test, and that’s a shame, because generally speaking, I think Gervais is sincere in trying to have a positive message in his comedy – he just has some blind spots, obscured by his interpretation of free speech. He says, quite rightly, that finding humour in even the worst of situations is important as it helps us through pain and through adversity, but I would then ask him how laughing at trans people helps with adversity?

 

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How Gervais portrays himself as a literal martyr for Free Speech. A bit over-dramatic? Credit: New Humanist

I recently joked with friends that the modern ‘white man’s burden’ is constantly having to talk and be heard, and it apparent that Gervais feels his need to assert his unalienable right to do that is more important that the upset doing so may cause. That’s fine, and I defend his right to do it, but it points to the privilege he and some of the other people I will mention benefit from. He simply doesn’t know what it’s like to be joked about due to his race, religion, sexuality, disability, or  gender, and maybe that’s why it’s so easy for him to make and defend jokes about trans people.

For Gervais, his controversy/free speech double-team has become a cottage industry. After his first Golden Globes performance where he ‘roasted the elite’, he was later invited back, and like Daniel Kaluuya at the end of Fifteen Million Merits, dutifully played the role of the provocateur. It’s not quite as edgy when your targets invite you to roast them. His comedy has become more dependent on him acting, to paraphrase, as ‘police for free speech’ on outlets like Twitter, and due to the gravitas of that topic, his fairly pedestrian comedy can be propelled to the zeitgeist of some fairly prurient conversations. Humanity is an OK stand up show easily co-opted as a platform for Gervais’ imagined martyrdom.

But Ricky Gervais is not the only person who has settled in to that niche. Enter, unfortunately, Count Dankula. Dankula, real name Mark Meechan, was until recently, a very little known YouTuber known for, if anything, a back catalog of drearily unfunny videos that mixed the lazy tropes of social media sketches and the ‘lulz’ of the Daily Stormer playbook. Bland sketches and memes. One of his latest unfunny sketches, depicting him training his dog to make ‘Nazi salutes’ at jokey commands such as “gas the Jews” and “Seig Heil” has ‘gone viral’, however, due to his being convicted of a crime for making it and may face jail time. It is no surprise that several people, and especially comedians, have raced to defend Meechan from this injustice, because that’s what it is. Getting back to the refrain from earlier, no matter how distasteful someone’s speech may be – and I think Meechan’s is more hateful than he has let on (more on that in a moment) – he didn’t explicitly incite violence against anyone, and so he should be able to say it.

As a Scot, I am as angry at the Scottish court who convicted Meechan as I am at anyone involved here. Not only is it embarrassing for my country to be the home of such an action, but it is also a phenomenally stupid move that has made this no-talent idiot a voice, but it has, in making him a victim of censorship, allowed him a martyr complex he is riding towards an undeserved relevance. Meechan has my support in terms of absolutely not facing conviction or censorship, but that’s where my support for him ends, and the reason for that comes from a look at the rest of his material and the company he keeps.

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Quite the trifecta: Meechan palling up with Tommy Robinson and Alex Jones. Credit: Youtube.com

Though he denies having specific political beliefs, if you scratch the thinnest of surfaces on Meechan, it’s clear that he’s an alt-right personality. As mentioned earlier, his ‘comic’ choices, references, and explicit opinions are generally alt-right, right from the Daily Stormer style guide. Pepe the from is a prominent reference for him, using ‘autistic’ as an insult, using ‘globalist’ as a dog-whistle, memes, and flippant homophobia and Islamaphobia. He is deeply unpleasant, and uses ‘I was joking’ as a fallback, That’s fine of course, ultimately, but it is definitely dangerous. If the era of ‘Fake News’ is anything, it is one of manufactured confusion. The likes of Breitbart and the Daily Stormer may be evil, but they have their finger on the pulse of how people disseminate information online, and they know that even saying things like this as a joke has the desired effect. Here’s a quote from the oft-mentioned style guide:

“The tone should be light.

Most people are not comfortable with material that comes across as vitriolic, raging, non-ironic hatred.

The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not…

This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas kikes.”

Apologies for quoting that word at the end there, but their hateful vitriol needs to be seen I think.

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Meechan surrounded by the symbols of the alt-right. This is prevalent in his online presence. Credit: iNews.co.uk 

Consider this, and then consider that the more prominent figures he has since been cosiest to have been former EDL leader Tommy Robinson, Paul Joseph Watson, and Alex Jones. All different levels of insane and stupid, but all right wing bigots. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean anyone who defends Meechan should be tarred with the same brush, but it should give the likes of Ricky Gervais, David Baddiel, Stephen Fry and more pause when it comes to the nature of their support. Meechan has been closest to Robinson and Watson, meeting them in person and appearing with them with not even a veiled enjoyment of them and their support. I therefore think it’s credible to think that he shares their bigoted beliefs on a number of topics, and given he is unquestionably reading from the alt-right play book of lulz, he isn’t necessarily doing so ‘just as a joke’. The more of this material the indoctrinated see, the more emboldened they are, and while his joke, in a vacuum, is in bad taste but ultimately innocent, in that ‘lulz’ context, it is more serious. Indeed, after the pug video being published originally, the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities received messages of abuse which made some members feel unsafe.

The difference between Meechan and Gervais is that I believe Gervais is sincere in what he says even if I think he gets it wrong at times, while I believe strongly that Meechan is riding the ‘free speech’ wagon to relevance and prominence. He is nailing himself to a cross over the injustice done to him, but that wasn’t the case when he was promoting petitions to criminalise Antifa groups due to their beliefs. In short, he doesn’t give a shit about free speech, he gives a shit about his ability to make racist memes and videos. It’s unfortunate that this is something we should all support, and that good people will fight for it when he wouldn’t do the same for you. I don’t know how familiar Gervais and the other comedians who have defended him are aware of the alt-right playbook, but this isn’t anyone who should be being held up as a protector of anything. He is a statistic, and a serious one, but when that is taken as endorsement, it is a problem.

While David Baddiel and others have later voiced some pause regarding the kind of guy Count Dankula is and his kind of material, Gervais has yet – I believe – to do so and has followed up his original comments with a tweeted picture of his cat with its paw up joking that it had watched the pug video. Maybe he’s just moved on since then, which is fair enough, but again clumsy. Gervais is possibly the most famous comedian in the world and like many celebrities, has a very loyal and organised fanbase. His popularising and typical doubling down on Meechan goes beyond defending this guy’s right to freedom and more towards endorsing him and the bad gag generally. This association is something the likes of Dankula and the rest of the alt-right are likely to bolster as it furthers their ultimate goal of making their hateful speech socially acceptable.

At this point, I would like to go back to my refrain:

1) No one should ever be arrested for mere words unless they explicitly incite violence against specific people or groups.
2) You should be able to tell jokes about whatever you like, no matter how dark, but part of freedom of speech is receiving any criticism that accompanies it.
3) Criticism is not censorship.

Stanhope

Doug Stanhope is an excellent example of a comedian with edgy, controversial material who doesn’t care if he offends you but generally does it in good faith. Credit: Ticketfly

Despite my criticism of the comedians here, that is all it is. Make your jokes, and unless someone is genuinely censored from doing so, who cares? If it’s funny, great; if it’s not, i’ll probably not watch again. That’s how it works. The shame here is that this baseline isn’t holding true due to the niche of comedians being offensive at the altar of free speech. Probably my favourite stand up is Doug Stanhope (I doubt he’d like this article but still) because as dark or offensive as he can be, it’s never in bad faith, he’s never punching down at people. He just writes what he thinks is funny, and while it’s not always to my taste, I know he’s not doing any of it maliciously and he doesn’t really care if he gets criticism for it.

In the case of Ricky Gervais, Count Dankula, and others, I think they protest too much. They pretend to be aloof while going on to make jokes or entire routines about those critical of them, and that makes for fairly dull material more than anything else.

That got me thinking, and while I don’t want to over-generalise, I think it’s clear that the vast majority of those who wax concerned about free speech are those least vulnerable to hateful speech: straight white men. To straight white men, the worst thing you can really say to them is that they’re wrong – we’re almost invulnerable to prejudice and can never truly understand it. That’s what privilege is. Perhaps if we knew they fear and de-humanisation of hate-speech we would be a bit less eager to ‘push the envelope’ just because we can. Personally, I would argue that if something is funny, it is worthwhile and it’s as simple as that, but that things aren’t really funny if they mock marginalised people or their experiences. People get it wrong at times, but don’t be scared to apologise if you do, it’s part of a healthy society to discuss these things. As ever, as long as you’re sincere, no one can ask more.

Freedom of speech is incredibly important, and should be fought for, but in defending it, we need to be careful not to embrace and put on a pedestal that sometimes hides behind it. I would rather admire the likes of Ricky Gervais for great material rather than mediocre material which seems more meaningful because it’s tacked-on to a debate about free speech. I certainly don’t want to even think about ‘Count Dankula’ at all again after I’ve finished this article. See him and defend him for what he is, a horrible person who has suffered an injustice, and not for this imagined view of him as a white knight of liberty. He’s not even funny.

The Last Jedi: Good, Bad, but Not Much Grey

Rey

Rey was great in the TLJ but there was still someting … darker missing from her story. Credit: Inverse.com, Disney

I have a bit of a weird relationship with the Star Wars franchise. I watched the prequels first, and then watched the original trilogy. It was only with The Force Awakens when I marathon’d the whole thing that I really started to enjoy it with any passion. That leaves me in a place where I enjoy the films, but i’m not defensive about it. This Thursday was the first time I’ve wanted to see a Star Wars film the night it came out, and imagining a sort of cultural magic to seeing ‘the new Star Wars film’ on it’s first day, I decided I was going to do so. Walking out, that magic had dissipated though. This was a good, fun film, with some excellent premises, but not one that did a lot with them.

One thing that has untied all reviews, both good and bad, is that this movie has somehow taken Star Wars in a ‘bold, new direction’ is one that baffles me. It’s more light vs dark, Empire vs Resistance, and people being tempted or knocked to either the light or the dark. An eternal struggle indeed, and well-suited to a franchise knocking out a movie per year. I think what people are referring to is Luke not being a babyface hero and Kylo being conflicted in his darkness. Maybe it feels different, but I didn’t see anything materially different about the fabric of this film when compared to the others. The battle between good and evil is not something I am upset about, and is important to my favourite parts of the film, but depending on what happens in the third film, I think they pulled back from some interesting genuine development to the universe in favour of essentially keeping the whole thing ticking over til the next movie.

I don’t know how cynical I am about that. I completely understand that Disney will want to milk this cash cow for a much as it’s worth, and longevity in that sense is achieved by making the least appreciable progress possible with each film. At the same time though, it’s clear that a lot of love and attention go in to these films, and that the production of them aren’t purely mechanical. I don’t think they would be successful if they were made with that mindset.

That all said, there were aspects of this film that I loved, aspects I didn’t really like or understand, and aspects I liked but feel left some great moments on the table, depending on what happens in the next installment. Of course, i’ll talk about them now.

Rey and Kylo

The parallel journeys of Rey and Kylo was perhaps the most successful aspect of the film. Credit: Den of Geek, Disney

I’m going to first discuss, in the interest of positivity, my favourite part of the film based on a really well-realised premise, and that is the conflict and relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren. It’s so hard to create a heroic character with really well-defined motivations, and in Rey, someone who was essentially orphaned through negligent parents who has found a purpose in this intergalactic moral war though she is still at a fragile place within it. I could buy both that she would choose the light, but the film does a great job in making it believable that she could find meeting in this somehow kindred spirit of Kylo Ren and go dark. Kylo was similarly let down by a mentor figure and so it’s easy, as it always is with villains, to see how they became as they are.

One of the best established conceits in the film was this connection fostered between the two, both wanting to bring the other to ‘their side’, both predicting they would do so, and both apparently demonstrably doing it, only for the whole thing to fall apart because neither had really changed. There was a red herring of an almost clichéd heroic coming together devastatingly undermined by a logical crashing to earth. I believed Kylo was turning good, imagined how great and different it would be if Rey went dark (more on that later), and was genuinely shocked by the revelation that their intentions had mirrored each other enough to fight together for a short time, only to realise that they weren’t, indeed, on the same side, all flirtation and hope dissipated.

Spectacular. That, to me, was the crucial conceit of the film. Not the only good thing about it, but the bit that made it work at it’s best.

Another aspect of the film I liked was more thematic, and it seems a subtle theme in that I haven’t really heard anyone talk about it much, and that is nihilism in the face of this universe. The best avatar for this is a character I liked a lot – DJ. Before getting to his ‘place in all this’, I would just like to say, not that it’s important, that I was of the opinion that he was the character they were looking for and he just lost his distinctive pin in some sort of gambling caper. Regardless, they found DJ, and his approach to the whole thing interested me. From the get go, he realised how the battles of light and dark would never end and that for some people who aren’t somehow a fated protaganist/antagonist of the battle, you just have to make the best of it. For him, his approach is that he’ll risk his life to help you as long as it suits him. He isn’t two-dimensional, he’s touched enough by the meaning of Rose’s trinket to give it back to her, especially seen as he gets to loot a ship anyway, but ultimately, he puts himself first because he realises that his actions won’t really affect anything. He knows that the war is between a ‘good’ side and a ‘bad’ side, but that both weren’t as clear-cut as we may seem, as was shown through his revelation about both sides buying weapons from arms-traders. His betrayal hurt and was certainly a surprise in the moment, but at the same time, he just looked after himself. They were caught anyway and so he cut himself a deal. He’s a heel for doing it and he knows it, but he doesn’t believe that anything can change, so ultimately, he doesn’t care. Maybe it’s just me, but I completely understood and to an extent, admired what he did. I didn’t need quite such a pronounced stutter though.

Luke

The doubts and indifference shown by DJ and Luke Skywalker at points were part of an understated nihilistic theme which I enjoyed and would have liked to have seen more of. Credit: Digital Spy, Disney.

Luke Skywalker had some matching sentiments too, at least in the early going. In the original films, I basically thought Luke was a well-meaning milquetoast hero but here, with the benefit of actually experiencing the ups and downs of war, Luke wanted no part of it and realised how flawed the Jedi were. Ultimately, he will always side with light over dark, but he too has realised that the dark will never be stopped, and dejected, he took himself out of the fight. Even when he came back to fight on the side of the Resistance, it’s not that he’s changed his opinion about the Jedi, but more because he decides it’s the right thing to do based partly on his own history. There is a realism to this thematic approach which otherwise gets lost within the size and weight of the general Star Wars universe by the end of the movie, but it was one of my main takeaways coming out of it, and something I want to see more of going forward.

Another character I really enjoyed was Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo. This was perhaps one of the film’s best set-ups of a journey for the viewer. I think I was probably in the majority watching her apparently bring the whole Resistance drifting slowly to a whimpering end with frustration and wanting Poe, who was the only person with the plan it seemed, to take over. There are fair questions about why she couldn’t just tell him what they were doing, etc, but I think it was worth ironing over that for the power of the reveal that she was indeed sacrificing herself and her reputation for the ultimate safety and future of the resistance. By the time she had smashed herself at light-speed through Snoke’s ship, the most successful 180-turn of a character in such a short amount of time was complete. The quiet, slow-moving scenes of her actions were met with a palpable awe in the audience and were some of the most engaging and arresting in the whole film.

Speaking of arresting scenes, I would be remiss to not mention how beautiful some of this film was. I’ve seen a lot of people praising the battle/fight scenes. To me, if i’m honest, a lot of the battle scenes in Star Wars merge together for me. It’s all impressive, but nothing ever stands out. There were some beautiful parts in this film though, and i’ll highlight the two that stuck with me most. First, Rey in the dark side cave, reflected in a an endless time-lag. It was like a purgatory, and the sort of place that you can well imagine would make someone question themselves and their existence. A cool scene that genuinely seemed like it was happening in a unique, significant place. Secondly, the aesthetics of the planet Crait were stunning, even if it was just so other-worldly and different. Red dust shooting up over a white surface was a beautiful combination and I can say no more or less than I just loved who it looked.

The final positive point I will talk about is the Force and Luke’s explanation of it. His begrudged training of Rey was cool, but it was his expanation of what the Force actually is that appealed to me. Until now, it’s been hard to define – it seemed like something you could inherit in someway, a kind of honed skill which only few can wield. In some ways, that is true, but this film goes a long way to democratizing it. Yes it’s mainly an elite who get the chance to use it, but ultimately, it is just an element within life, keeping order, as real and invisible as gravity, but something that can be tapped in to and utilised if someone has patience and training enough, and something which really brings a balance to the universe. It is neither for good or bad, in fact, it almost ensures balance between the two. In that context, it is even more clear that no one side – the light or the dark – will ultimately ‘win’, but the explanation of it was a really satisfying one to help understand the universe. This isn’t always something Star Wars bothers with.

Flying Leia

Instantly meme-worthy, Princess Leia seemingly flies to safety in the middle of space. Credit: Disney

Now to start piling on the negative i’m afraid – speaking of the Force, that is where things also started going downhill. I don’t particularly care about the lore of the Force and certainly don’t have a problem with writers adding to that at times. There are two instances in this film that stand out as … not great though. The innocuous one is the already infamous ‘flying Leia’ scene. We know Jedis and people who are tuned in to the force can defy gravity somewhat and she’s in zero gravity anyway so who knows anyway; the problem was how ridiculous it looked. The explanation of the force as this democratic force of nature that can be tapped in to with great patience, skill, and concentration was a little undermined by the way this was shot, which reduced it to look more like a shitty Superman/Mary Poppins scene. What I felt was genuinely a bit of a leap though was the new feature of being able to see people before you through the Force. To be fair, this was central to two fairly important conceits of the film: Rey and Kylo’s Skype-like conversations, and Luke’s tricking of Kylo during the end battle. So I must admit, I don’t know how you achieve these key moments without the feature, but it doesn’t change the fact that it kinda stuck out to me as a convenient shoe in – more a fix of convenience than a tweak. I think to boil down why it stuck out so much, I thought a few times while watching: “Why has no-one ever done this before in a film?” The problem is the feature is so fundamental to the lore of the Force that it seems weird that the likes of Darth Vader or Luke (until now) or Yoda or Obi Wan (i.e. some of the real masters of the Force) wouldn’t use it if they had it. The Force is the equivalent of nano-machines in Metal Gear Solid, it can be used to fill in holes of logic or storytelling. When someone is needed to do something new, the Force can do it. That’s OK in itself, but I suppose here, this deployment of it seemed more nakedly utilitarian than other times.

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Snoke went from larger than life to cut in half with a hand motion he should have seen coming. We never knew ye. Credit: Disney

The real driver of this conceit was Snoke, and that brings me to the next point, one that seems to be shared by many. A disclaimer here: I don’t have any particular love for Snoke so i’m not sad he’s dead or anything. That said, in The Force Awakens, there is no doubt he was set up as significant to the whole universe at that point. What he turned out to be – a stepping stone for Kylo to coup détatch his top half from his bottom – was again, useful overall, but it did seem to leave something on the table. I don’t have a problem with Kylo killing Snoke, but it happened after we had seen Snoke only briefly and in a much less powerful light than in T.F.A. To use wrestling terms, even if Snoke is there to put Kylo over, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell his story. The more powerful he is, the more it adds to the perception of Kylo’s power when he kills him, and while his pre-death moments are impressive, I feel everything would have benefited from more work being shown with regards to Snoke – what did he want, where did he come from, how did he choose Kylo etc; I don’t even need loads of depth, just enough to make it a more meaningful shock than just a shock. If I had my druthers, this would happen in the next film. I know this may have been asking a lot, but just more of this and less of, say … side-quests that don’t really affect much.

Speaking of which, I cared so little about the Finn and Rose side-quest to find a hacker to open a door which neither succeeded or mattered. I don’t mind setting up expectations and then subverting them but this didn’t even really add any value to the film while taking up quite the chunk of running time. I mentioned before how I liked what DJ had to add and I like the idea of exploring Finn as more of a mercenary with himself and Rey in mind (even if that’s not the endgame) but that was lost among the weird buddy/love story between Finn and Rose. Rose wasn’t badly played and I am glad to see an Asian-American actress in such a role. I just had so little interest in the role itself that it kinda ruined it. Finn and Rey are always asking after each other but Rose is kinda inserted in to it all and not for the better. The one moment Finn is going to do anything of consequence (martyring himself to big battering canon) she stops him in a way that doesn’t make sense for her established character. She wouldn’t let him leave because her sister died for the Resistance but when he’s about to do something to help it, she stops him because she suddenly loves him. We’ll see if he even reciprocates, I guess, but after all of that, we see him and Rey just once together. I’m not necessarily ‘shipping’ them for chrissakes, characters are more than that, but they obviously care very much about each other and their reunion didn’t feel that impactful, undermined instead by a character I personally could have done without from a story I could have done without.

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Rey and Kylo were so close, but so far away from joining forces in one of the best bits of the film. Great as it was, there was potential for them, together, to form something more interesting than they did apart. Credit: Disney

I’ve talked about what I could have done without, but here’s something I could have done with. The trailer seemed to hint at Rey being truly tempted to the dark side, and to be fair, the film does play lip service to this at times, but as soon as Kylo shows his true (dark) colours and she outright rejects it, and it’s clear that there her understandable questions about her ‘place in all this’ were never the same as a true temptation to the dark side. I’d heard a lot beforehand of ‘grey Jedi’ and it sounded like a great direction for the movies to go in at some point. As I mentioned, I loved the scene where they briefly fight together only to realise they are still on different sides; and while I never believed Rey was going dark, I did like they idea that their new-found connection led to some sort of new grey faction within the overall fight. I’m not sure exactly how that would look like – perhaps an anti Empire/Jedi Council/Princess faction who reject elitist ways and take a genuinely populist stance. That is something a better writer more knowledgeable about the universe could come up with. I was extremely excited when I saw the possibility of something like that because, to be honest, the fight has gotten a bit stale. This plays in to the ultimate impression I had of the film too, but the battle between light and dark doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, quite literally at this point. It’s like a big long argument where you can’t even remember why you’re fighting – you just are. To go back to wrestling terms, it’s 50/50 booking: sometimes the Empire is dominant, sometimes the Resistance seems to be turning the tables, but I never really buy in to any jeopardy for either side. I enjoy this battle, but maybe adding some genuinely differently-motivated actors to the story/universe wouldn’t hurt at all and would more likely prolong the franchise further in a positive direction.

The franchise, but especially this film, is really lazy about defining what the fight is actually about. Don’t get me wrong, it’s obvious that the Empire and Sith are evil – we’ve seen them blowing up planets and killing innocents, but mostly the film relies on us more or less just knowing that the bad guys are bad just because. It is a battle largely between elites and we rarely see how ordinary people are affected, and in this film we didn’t even have any state atrocities or anything, it was just team red vs team blue and we like team blue because they seem nicer and we know them. Going back to the nihilism, DJ is the closest thing to a common person without bias we meet, and he ultimately supports the Resistance, but he knows the morality of it all isn’t black and white. It would be nice to see a bit more of that rather than wondering about it as a viewer. This is where the Grey Jedi could come in I suppose. Basically, I genuinely support the Resistance and it’s clear I should do so. I just don’t really know what i’m supporting. Maybe a few films down the line the Resistance could overcome the Empire, take over, and we could see what they would do with it. That could be interesting.

I have a feeling it wouldn’t be likely though. Despite the second half of this article, the first half rings true. I did enjoy much of this film, and had a good time seeing the action and the effects and the characters we like, and that is worth something. If you asked me how it moved the overall plot along though, i’d be hard pushed to take up a lot of your time. The plot of the film is almost comically spinning its’ wheels. The Resistance are ‘on a string’, running, being caught, running again, being caught again, running, being caught again, and escaping. We lost Luke (though you’re never really lost in Star Wars), Snoke died but what did he ever do anyway, and the same for Captain Phasma, Holdo died but we never really knew her anyway. If JJ Abrams so wished, he could recycle the first scenes of this film almost exactly in the next film and it would make sense. That betrays a lack of story development. It’s clear why this is the case too. Disney want to milk every drop of money out of this as possible and so they need to make as many films as possible, and so they need to progress the overall story as little as possible. That is what happened here.

This to me was good, but also just kind of another Star Wars film. It promised a bold new direction, but pulled back from most of it to give people what they like and are used to, though with some wonderful scenes in for sure. This isn’t some unforgivable sin, but it will always have a limited impact on me, personally. That is basically all I can say. Lots of people love the film and I am happy to see that, but for me, as fun as it is, it is in danger of diminishing returns.

WrestleMania 33: Looking Up at the Lights, and Going Out on Your Back

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The Undertaker salutes the end of the greatest career pro wrestling will probably ever see. Credit: WWE

As someone who attaches emotion and meaning to everything I enjoy, WrestleMania is a very intense week for me, from the floods of tears during the Hall of Fame, to the Christmas-like anticipation for the event, to the awe I have watching it that will never go away. WrestleMania’s come and go, and whether they are good or bad, they are always significant – the platitudes about it being the ‘showcase of the immortals’ and ‘WrestleMania moments’ are, incredibly, not really exaggerated. I enjoyed WrestleMania 33 which I found to be consistently enjoyable, even if it lacked a real show-stealer match. The moment I can’t shift from my head (the reason we’re here) came at the very end, when Undertaker, after struggling to his feet following a loss to Roman Reigns, started to leave his gear in the ring. If there’s one thing Taker has always excelled at, it’s exuding meaning and emotion (despite often being near emotionless outwardly), and after he removes his hat for the final time, he takes this huge breath, a sigh not quite of relief, but of rest. The ride is finally over, and he can rest. I immediately burst in to tears.

I am going to write the qualifier I have seen several people write. The Undertaker wasn’t ‘my guy’, and yet there is something about him that seems to engender total respect and reverence. He’s not the best talker, but he is the best character; he’s not the best wrestler, but he does have some of the best matches ever. He understands wrestling and performance better than anyone, and takes it seriously, and everyone respects him for it. He might not be your favourite, but whenever you hear a gong, or see him toe to toe with someone, you know, almost by definition, that something significant is happening. He’s the best of pro-wrestling, and represents 20+ years of some of the most vivid, memorable years of it.

Perhaps that is why he is loved so. He has been a legitimising backbone of this crazy travelling roadshow we love and has dedicated himself to it longer, frankly, than his body would allow. He helped build WrestleMania and created many of it’s most special moments. His passing of the torch and leaving the ring no longer a warrior may well be a crucial moment in wrestling’s future, and it was sure one of the most moving in wrestling’s history.

Taker coat

Undertaker, leaving his iconic hat and coat in the ring, symbolising the end of his storied career. Credit: WWE

Though I am more than happy to wax eulogistic about Undertaker’s career though, that beautiful end is only around half of the reason i’m writing this. Undertaker was the main reason I decided it was ‘now or never’ for attending WrestleMania 30 – I decided that I had to see him on his greatest stage before I lost the chance, I had to see that entrance. And I did. For that event though, I chose to wear a Bray Wyatt shirt. Bray has been a real darling of mine ever since I started watching him on NXT, and there are certainly similarities to Undertaker in him, mainly in his dedication to a character which bends the rules other characters play by, occasionally traipsing in to the supernatural. Wyatt, in fact, is a far better talker than Taker ever was, and with his commitment to every part of his character, I had never been so excited about the future of a wrestler and my related enjoyment of them.

The difference between him and Taker is, and remains, that it’s never really gone anywhere. At WrestleMania, I had the honour of seeing ‘The Streak’ broken, and the joy of seeing ‘Yes-tleMania’, but under that, I had the disappointment of seeing Wyatt fall to Cena when a victory could have really set him along the course of a phenom himself. The next year, Wyatt lost to Undertaker fairly handily to help Taker recover from the loss of the Streak, and then last year, Wyatt made the best of being booked alongside The Rock, but would never be able to overcome Rocky being important and easily murking him and his family. Wyatt has never won at WrestleMania, or really won a significant match on a big stage. His strength of character and performance though has seen him recover of late to the point where John Cena insisted on putting him over clean for the WWE Championship. A significant achievement for sure, but it lacks the historical significance that the real top guys have propping them up. The significance, say, of defeating The Undertaker in his final match.

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The Rock, delivering the People’s Elbow to Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania 32 after quickly dispatching the rest of the ‘Family’. Credit: WWE

Writing this isn’t intended to throw shade at anyone other than the decision makers who booked Wyatt to lose this year, not even Orton, who probably could have spoken up to lose as Cena had earlier.

Part of the respect that the Undertaker commands without demanding it, is that he will always do what’s best for the business, and rule #1 in that regard is that, when you go out, you ‘go out on your back’, giving someone else the chance to profit from it, and by extension, the business. Roman Reigns has become something almost other to wrestling. For his part, Reigns has grown quietly but enormously as a performer, especially in recent months, and he was a big part of making Taker’s final match powerful and entertaining. He clearly hasn’t been handled quite right though, to the point where, regardless of his performances, he will be booed. Fans treat him like the most boring or lazy denominator almost regardless of what he does. Usually, the honour of ‘retiring’ The Undertaker would be the biggest lay-up of all time to stardom for a persons career, but whether that happens for Roman, remains to be seen. The hope is that either he will somehow inherit Taker’s inherent respect value (after all, this was a metaphorical transferring of ‘the yard’ to Reigns), or he can build a white hot heel run from his actions.

With Wyatt though, there is a feeling of complacency on management’s part in a way that may be due to his success at portraying the character. Losing in itself has never really seemed to damage Wyatt – he can always ‘turn it on’ and be mesmerising. But after years of constant losing on big stages, it’s hard not to see diminishing returns from him, regardless of his exceptional efforts. He recovered miraculously from it when he was reduced to comic jobber to The Rock, but this slip up when he had returned to his most powerful may be even more damaging.

Everything about his match at WrestleMania 33 seemed geared to be his moment, to showcase him in a way that suited only him. The most memorable part of the match was the recurring projections of imagery of death, disease, and pestilence on to the ring. Regardless of what people say in retrospect, coloured as it is by the match result, at the time, fans were losing their minds over this, including me. It was different, and though simple, was shocking due to both the fact it had never been done before, and the nature of the imagery. Initially, Orton and everyone else involved sold these projections. That is until Orton hit a trademark unexpected RKO for the win to become a 13 time champion. Wyatt falls short again.

Wyatt cockroaches

Though later mocked by some, the various visuals of decay projected by Wyatt on to Orton and the ring were shocking, and unlike anything ever seen before in WWE history. Credit: WWE

Again, with no disrespect to Randy Orton, why does he need a 13th championship here, at a time when Wyatt could have taken a big step towards lasting significance? The disgusting projections even provided him with a ‘get out’ for the loss. What do we get from this? Orton doesn’t need a win basically ever these days and can have whatever feud management want down the line. It has been suggested to me that this was the natural ending of the story – a point I understand, but it is also important to realise that sometimes (not often) the bad guy wins, and it could have lit a fire under Orton too. Meanwhile, Wyatt seems almost goofy for trying his antics in a loss. Even if he wins his rematch, it’s on a much smaller stage. If Wyatt wins this match as it was produced, he gets a big showcase win, a championship retention, and a memorable WrestleMania moment; what happened instead was people viewed him as a loser and started mocking the projections too. Once again, he was forgotten, looking up at the brightest lights there are, with management neglecting the gift he is. What happens to him in the weeks following this year’s WrestleMania and at next year’s Mania will be very telling about how damaging this was. I hope i’m wrong.

Most losses aren’t significant gestures to the future as Undertaker’s was, and it is there that him putting Reigns over in his final match will hopefully benefit him. There is a chance though, that it will just further complicate Reign’s relationship with the fans and be wasted. Further, Reigns is already treated like a top guy, and clearly will be going forward. It’s just a shame that another veteran in Randy Orton couldn’t put over Bray in a similar spot, and so the difference between Undertaker and Wyatt remains – one is an outlaw that went out on his back, and the other is a pretender that has been left on his back for three WrestleMania’s in a row. I can’t help but wish the stars had aligned a little differently, and the best Bray Wyatt had faced Underataker this year. Not only would their characters have gelled well once again, but Taker’s final sacrifice would have had the definite result of making Bray Wyatt, overnight, one of the most significant superstars in the world.

Taker coat 2

After the fans were gone and the ring was being taken down, Undertaker’s hat and coat remained untouched in a startling and moving show of respect. Credit: @samirkh75387729 on Twitter

Thank you Undertaker.

 

 

 

 

How I Was Blindsided By The UK Championship Tournament and Fell Back in Love with UK Wrestling

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The scenes as Tyler Bate becomes ‘King of UK Wrestling’ Credit: Sky Sports

A recent article of mine considered the WWE’s UK Championship, what excited me about it, but more largely, what concerned me. I won’t rehash that here, but the result was a slight dampening of my excitement for the tournament. Nevertheless, I tuned in like a lot of interested fans from Britain and beyond, live over the weekend, and by the end of night two, I had joy in my heart, great memories, and a new top 5 favourite wrestler.

I have a lot of different interests in my life, as well as an increasing amount of obligations, and the result of that has been a real struggle to keep up with not only just indy wrestling but even WWE shows. On a weekly basis, I try to cover RAW, NXT, and Lucha Underground, and anything beyond that (usually ICW and the odd Japanese match) is a bonus. So going in to this tournament, I actually wasn’t that familiar with most of the field bar fellow Glaswegian, Wolfgang. While that is less familiarity than many of good wrestling twitter friends have with the field, I think it is probably the level of familiarity casual fans might have with the field, and it is from that perspective – among others – that I think this event was a success as many of these unfamiliar talents shone brightly and staked their claim to a future in the business. I will give do an annotated ranking of the field based on my impressions later, but first, I want to talk about the benefits of the tournament structure generally.

Watching the first night, I was enjoying the tournament. The setting of the Empress Ballroom, a place I have visited many times in my life having lived very close to Blackpool for a number of years, was perfect. Blackpool embodies the best flavours of the British style, it has a gritty glamour coming from a mix of carny magic, end-of-the-pier humour, and working-class hard work; and with William Regal overseeing it all, the setting was perfect. The wrestling was good too. Each match was fun, there were some cool, stiff spots, and there were some highlights including Jordan Devlin cheap-shotting Danny Burch for some major heat, and Pete Dunne’s end-of-show assault on Sam Gladwell which provided a nice narrative bridge over to night two. Maybe it is clear from my tone, but while I certainly enjoyed night one, I was by no means blown away. I was intrigued by Devlin and Dunne, but even then, it was still largely just a passing interest. By the end of night two, I was obsessed with Dunne. What I have since realised is that the careful booking of night one set up for a very powerful night two.

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The beautiful, historic, Empress Ballroom in Blackpool which hosted the tournament. Credit: Sky Sports

Tournaments of course build towards a final, so from a practical point of view, it makes sense for them to not blow the doors of night one and have to top it when it matters the next night, but at least in this case, night one played a very crucial role in setting the scene and defining the players. All 16 got to wrestle on night one and all 16 got to set out their stall and define their character and role in the tournament. Some who would go on to play major roles, including the eventual finalists, got to do even more between main-eventing and being the aggressor in the overnight angle, but everyone got to define their place in the tournament narrative.

As the tournament progressed to night two, the matches didn’t get any longer, but the intensity of the matches did grow, starting hot with the intensity of Sam Gladwell seeking revenge against Pete Dunne, Wolfgang and Trent Seven trading stiff shots and near-falls, Tyler Bate shocking himself against Wolfgang, and then stunning himself against the Bruiserweight. Just as the setting hearkened back to traditional British wrestling style (albeit with more contemporary move-sets), the booking was also very traditional, and that was at the heart of the joy of this event. Every match on night two was a pretty black & white face vs heel match up with the exception of Wolfgang vs Bate during which Wolfgang acted far more heelish than before in attitude if not in act; all leading to the undoubted top face taking on the undisputed top heel in the final.

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The tournament final with popular face Tyler Bate facing off against greasy heel Pete Dunne. Credit: WWE

As the tournament progressed and the pieces moved around, it became clear that the likely final would in itself also tell a very traditional story. Heel vs face, tutor vs student, and dastardly cheat vs injured hero. WWE on it’s grandest stages really struggles with this in the modern era, but this tournament and the finals exemplified how to do it perfectly. I want to talk about the individual wrestler’s later, but by the end of the show, Dunne had become a fascinating, must-see character to me. His actions were so cheap and brutal that he brought with him an electric anticipation and the promise of relished violence. Up until the semi-finals, many of the wrestlers had made an impression of me, but no one like Dunne – that was until Bate’s victory over Wolfgang with the crowd rising to their feet in unison as he hits his finish, at which point, Bate started standing out to me too as a great wrestler and determined babyface to counteract him. In the context of this tournament, they were made for each other.

I called Dunne attacking Bate from behind after the semi-finals – at this stage it would have been almost disingenuous for him not to, and that set up a traditional – almost cliche – story of the cocky heel cheating to get ahead and the injured face who is terribly injured and can’t possibly win but by God he’ll try anyway! Before the finals, I couldn’t see past Dunne winning, but as the story set itself up, it was clear it was only going one way, and despite the predictability of the result in that contextthe climax was no less satisfying. Dunne was undoubtedly the star of the show, but Bate became a star too and set up a very intriguing title picture going forward when the weekly shows start. The 19 year old incredible talent having a target on his back and a pissed off Dunne chasing him is going to make for a great challenge, especially as Dunne becomes more desperate.

I also have a more positive outlook about the upcoming UK WWE Network show now compared to when I wrote about WWE being potential cultural appropriators. I think the crucial element will be the the upcoming series will be produced in the UK rather than the US, and as a result, won’t have the same problem at least of unfavourably overlapping with the main roster. There won’t be any ham-fisted British section of RAW and Smackdown with red, white, and blue ropes or something. It will be a self-contained show from which i’m sure talent can be called up to the main roster, but otherwise, like NXT, it will be it’s own universe. It’s disappointing that the smaller home nations only had one representative each, and i’m not sure that Irish competitors should be included at all, so I hope that in future shows and tournaments that is rectified as each country certainly doesn’t have a lack of talent. There are also still issues around WWE defining British wrestling to a mainstream audience, but at the least, I am more confident that the show is going to be entertaining and successful without having to fit in with the whole other world of the main roster.

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Pete Dunne in maroon, fur, and with his mouth-guard which provides a unique look. Credit: Sky Sports

Since the end of the tournament, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, how great some of the talent is, when the regular show will start, and especially Pete Dunne, who’s understated and perfect ring music, I have been playing to myself all day. I started not knowing most of the talent and being a bit underwhelmed by the prospect, to having a new top 5 wrestler and being super excited about British wrestling and it’s place in the world. And all it took was simple storytelling and good wrestling. Fancy that.

So as promised, I will now rank (this is the world we live in) the wrestlers from the tournament, based purely on my memory of the tournament and the impression each man made. Some are at a disadvantage from losing in their first match, but that can’t be helped i’m afraid, and some still made a good impression despite that disadvantage:

16) Saxon Huxley
I don’t want to be too hard on Saxon as this was the first time I saw him, but he dropped like a lead balloon with me. His promo about believing society is an illusion and liking books seemed like a real stretch and didn’t translate to his action at all. He came out with a weird strange that just had me questioning his choices, and mixed with his wrestling not standing out much, he couldn’t get over with me. Maybe it works elsewhere, but this time, Huxley was just a joke – literally with many of my twitter pals.

15) James Drake
Drake suffered from being the second most important competitor in a pretty dull match after Cole couldn’t stop talking up his opponent Joseph Conners. Drake’s promo was by the numbers and he did nothing else to really stand out.

14) H.C. Dyer
Watching Dyer’s pre-match promo, I was quite interested in him. The calm way he described getting pleasure from striking people was interesting and gave him some intensity, though it seemed to be all he had. Though he smartly managed to translate the promo to his match with some nice striking, he got overshadowed by Trent Seven in a short match during which he didn’t do much to stand out.

13) Roy Johnson
Roy Johnson’s lack of experience told quite strongly in his appearance, both in the way he spoke and to a lesser extent, how he wrestled. He wasn’t a bad dance partner for Dunne though and he was at least offering something different to most of his contemporaries in terms of his ‘wavy’ gimmick. With some more experience he could be quite an exciting competitor, and he was a welcome change of pace in the field.

12) Dan Moloney
His high placement is almost exclusively due to his pre-match promo. Again, he was a good opponent for Mark Andrews, but that match was more about showing the high-flying Welshman. Despite that, Moloney’s intense promo about things he’d seen and how he had no regard for anyone else’s safety spoke to the sort of dark promo I generally like.

11) Joseph Conners
Conners was at an early disadvantage when Cole made him his early pick for the tournament. Though Cole gives off the impression of a respected and knowledgable veteran announcer (which he os of course), his history of nonsense and general lack of popularity makes him, for lack of a better term, an uncool person to be associated with. His opening match with James Drake wasn’t much to write home about though he elevated his game against Andrews in the second round. Some decent working, but another somehat bland character that said he was intense more than showed it.

10) Tucker
Tucker didn’t get much of a chance to showcase himself being in only one match, but he was a good part of a good match with Tyler Bate which headlined the show. Bate was the star of it, but he was helped by Tucker who made it a good match and seemed like he could go over. His Super Duper Kick looked good and he could no doubt play a good role in future outings.

9) Trent Seven
This is probably a lot lower than most would have him. Seven is clearly loved by parts of the crowd, and as a wrestler, he has a pretty cool stiff style, but from the start, he rubbed me up the wrong way. His character is that he has facial hair. It’s basically all he talks about, and it’s hardly even unique when you consider there is Tyler Bate in this tournament and Jack Gallagher elsewhere in WWE who gets how to do a full-blooded gimmick that involves that sort of aesthetic rather than the aesthetic being the gimmick. If Trent Seven shaves his facial hair, who is he? Another good wrestler.

8) Danny Burch
Danny Burch made quite a leap here. On NXT, he has had impressive moments, but is basically a jobber. Here, he was in the shape of his life, and played a gristled veteran perfectly. He wrestles very neat and powerfully and seemed a totally different prospect here. I was surprised that he went out early in fact because it seemed there were more depths to mine with him. Hopefully he can take that veteran edge to upcoming shows if he doesn’t go back to NXT.

7) Tyson T-Bone
Tyson T-Bone was totaly unlike the rest of the field, even the ones who stood out because this guy just seemed like a guy who got by with fighting. I don’t know if there are many travellers who have made it to the wrestling scene because it seems like it would go hand in hand with it traditionally, but it seems pretty unique. Tyson had a really warm rogue style character and gave us the line that he asks the Virgin Mother for forgiveness whenever he hits someone. He managed to somehow mesh well with the more traditional style of Wolfgang and had a good match.

6) Sam Gladwell
When I first saw Sam Gladwell, he was a little close to home. As I mentioned I used to live in the area of Blackpool, and he just seemed a little too earnest while seeming quite pale and even sickly. Boy though, Gladwell really got over with me, partly with thanks to others and booking. His first match wasn’t anything too incredible, but after being attacked by Dunne, he came back the next night with a great intensity. His match with Dunne was really good, and he played his character of pissed off victim looking for revenge but falling short perfectly. He went from being a bit of a local goober to being a fiery local hero.

5) Jordan Devlin
Ignoring the fact that Devlin isn’t British, he started off in a bit of hole resulting from his pre-match promo where he talked about being Finn Balor’s student – the problem being that he styled himself almost exactly after Balor. Given how he acted later, that may even have been an intentional setup to a frustrated character. His match with Burch was hard hitting and fun, and though the finish was quite confusing, it made an impression. I thunk the blood was probably a coincidence which further muddied the water, but the dusty finish was something Devlin totally took advantage of. The superkick after the match made an impact, but what I liked more was his post-match promo in which he complimented himself on a ‘convincing’ victory. Great heel stuff and part of a good match.

4) Mark Andrews
I don’t want to be too disrespectful but I found Mark Andrew’s character pretty milquetoast with his high-fivin’ antics. Saying that, Andrews sttod out in the ring. More than a high flyer, he did high-flying things that were extra impressive and crisply executed. Each of his matches were strong to very strong and he got over pretty well. He reminded me a lot of Evan Bourne, leading me to calling him Ifan Bourne (sorry), but that’s certainly no insult.

3) Wolfgang
I’m pretty biased here in that Wolfgang was the only wrestler i’d seen significantly before the tournament, and I generally enjoy ICW, and always enjoy Glasgow folk, but here, Wolfgang sure cemented himself as a big talent. There are a lot of big hairy Scottish guys, and many are talented, but Wolfgang has that and more. He showed off his entire moveset at the tournament, flipping all over the place and no matter how much you see that, it’s always amazing seeing someone with that sort of body do that. We also proved himself really easy to like, but when he went up against Bate who got more adulation, took it in his stride and acted in a more heelish manner. He certainly impressed and was one of the most memorable parts of the show.

2) Tyler Bate
Tyler Bate was a slow burner with me. Though I like the thing in his promo where he names his different fists and showed how he’s sucker punch people with his left (that’s a Stan Laurel move, by the way), the way he delivered it was kinda lame. His match with Tucker was good, but it was really his semi-final with Wolfgang where it all came together. The clash of styles was fantastic, and Bate started to show a really deep and emotional level of wrestling. I will never forget that moment, not when he gets the 3 count against Woflie, but when he gets him up for his finish because the crowd goes WILD with anticipation for him winning. That is a specific kind of magic that only wrestling can create, and it was the start of an emotional final chapter of the night. Him getting over his teacher while carrying a severe injury was, as I say, cliched, but it was the right move and it really worked. He is a great choice for champion, and for crying out loud, he’s only 19. He could be a very big deal in the future.

1) Pete Dunne
And then we have Pete Dunne. In retrospect, I noticed Dunne from the start. It’s just a small thing, but in the promotional videos before the event, there were glimpses of each guy, and with respect, about 10 of them look very similar to each other. The person who stood out to me each time was Dunne with his mouth guard. I didn’t think much of it, but now it’s clear that that’s just part of what makes him great. Dunne had my attention at the end of the first night, but even then, it just seemed like an interesting angle, but by the end of the night, he was the most intriguing, exciting talent by quite a long way. One thing that was clear even after the first night though was the magic chemistry he has with Regal. Wearing maroon, intense, dastardly, and wrestling incredibly stiff, the comparison is impossible to ignore. People come up with dream matches for Regal consistently, but this is the one that makes most sense, and if Regal does have one more match in him, this would be perfect. Dunne is like a second coming of Regal, but with his own edge on the character – he has a lot of Regal’s qualities, but adds a level of impatience and entitlement which make him all the more slimy and easy to dislike. There’s so much more, and I won’t write at too much length about it, but from not being afraid to look slimy and horrible with his hair all over the place and the effect of the mouth-guard, to following through on his character away from the promo which is something a lot of the guys here didn’t do. In his promo, he said that he wouldn’t let anyone get in his way to his title, and he showed this throughout the tournament. He beat up Gladwell to get an advantage, he attacked Bate from behind to get an advantage, and then mercilessly went after them to try and win. For all the talking each wrestler did, too, I would argue that it was only really Dunne who stood out as consistently dangerous and brutal. The short Japanese history he refers to in his promo shines through in the way he suplexes and throws people down or on to things, melding it with the traditionally British trait of using the ring as a weapon. He fell short in the tournament, but I think it could create even more of a monster. To me, this is the most exciting wrestler in my universe right now.

A Round-table On WrestleMania 32 and It’s Divisive Build

 

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The poster for this year’s WrestleMania at JerryWorld, credit: WWE

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article about Daniel Bryan, his career, and the magical but fleeting zenith of it that was WrestleMania 30. In that article, I mentioned the probability of writing about this year’s ‘Show of Shows’, though at the time, I didn’t have a handle on what to write about. Now, just days before Mania, I’m still struggling to grasp how I feel about the show, and it strikes me that – to differing extents – that is how I’ve felt about the builds to each WrestleMania for the past three years, starting at that show.

For this article, I had initially planned something snappier than the veritable essay I wrote about The Last of Us, but this being about what I warmly refer to as ‘The Real Christmas’, I’ve decided to take a page from Vince McMahon’s dog eared playbook and bring in some big names for a one-shot deal to write about this year’s WrestleMania. Of course that means this is going to be lengthy, but I think the insights of these wonderful, smart, and funny people will provide some insight on to how WrestleMania has come to be of late. Before we get to them though, I’m going to introduce my point of view to measure it against as I get the feeling that this year’s show has had a wider, though not necessarily fervent, range of feelings towards it.

I don’t know if this is a trend I have convinced myself of, but it seems like after WrestleMania 29, the ‘Road to WrestleMania’ became a bumpier and more fluid place. Before that, once the Royal Rumble was done it felt like WrestleMania matches were set in stone. Approaching WrestleMania 30, until the latter stages of the build, it seemed like we were getting Orton-Batista, only for the collective will of fans and probable reactionary nous of WWE brass to enter Daniel Bryan in to an equation which left the main event unclear until after the show was underway. Since then, the Road to WrestleMania has had the air of a negotiation period between fans and WWE bookers with WWE offering fans a main event, fans weighing up their approval of the players involved and voting with their cheers and boos regardless of the presentation before them.

This isn’t right of wrong necessarily, it just feels different, but there certainly are pitfalls of this form of build. The Royal Rumble, unfortunately, has become a referendum on Roman Reigns over and above the great, open-ended spectacle it once was, in which Reigns enters, is booed relentlessly until he is eliminated, and whoever squares up against him is instantly supported. This has led to nothing short of surreal scenes two years running at The Rumble, both associated with Reigns. Last year, the near unimaginable happened when fans drowned Reigns and a bemused looking The Rock of all people in boos after Roman won his WrestleMania shot. Conversely this year, Triple H became a hero to the people, somehow, simply for stopping Reigns from winning. I still enjoy the Rumble, but their Reigns-centricity has been an unfortunate turn for it of late. What’s worse, is i’m not sure how to even fix the trend.

On top of the effect on the Rumble generally, I think this veil of negotiation, whether or not it’s just a mirage cultivated by the WWE, has led to a climate in which WrestleMania can strike gold, as it did in New Orleans, but which I fear could also fail just as spectacularly. This year, my main feeling about WrestleMania is one of confusion. I’m confused about how to feel about Reigns and Triple H, I have no idea what is going on between Shane McMahon and The Undertaker, I’m not exactly sure what The New Day are, and I don’t understand why Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens can’t just slug it out without five others, including Zack Ryder, sharing the ring with them.

I think Reigns has a heap of potential, but it is clear that something isn’t working. His spectrum of responses go generally from mild approval to the tunnel vision hatred of the crowd from the go-home RAW. Meanwhile, the booking alterations to address this seem to be miniscule while Reigns himself still seems on auto-pilot most of the time. Meanwhile, contextually, Trips is still ‘The Authority’ heel, but when he’s intense, committed, and when he’s beating Reigns down, he is beloved. At this stage, it would seem simply tone-deaf to give us the Reigns victorious confetti ending and the program appears to be crying out for some deus ex machina similar to that of Seth Rollins closing last year’s show.

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Reigns cashing in Money In The Bank and keeping the title from Reigns turned a good, fun show, in to a great show, credit: WWE

At least contextually, the Reigns-HHH story follows rough logic; the Shane-Taker feud is perhaps the most confusing main event program WrestleMania has ever seen. Shane-O got a great response upon his return because people associate him with some cool moments, and genuinely missed him because he is kinda goofy and hasn’t been seen from in years, but by the end of the night, it was buried under a brow-furrowingly strange match-up with The Undertaker. Against most people, Shane would be a loveable fan favourite (in an alternate universe, Shane vs Triple H would be a logical barnstormer), but against The Undertaker, he is sharing the spotlight with the WrestleMania G.O.A.T. respected by all in a feud that is full of sizzle but bereft of meaning, with more equaling less. Between the high stakes that stink of contrivance, and the splitting of loyalties between the combatants, it is hard to find the hook for this. I like the idea of Shane sticking it to Vince (at least in kayfabe) and changing RAW, which is a weird thing to tease fans with if it isn’t to happen, but especially at WrestleMania, I don’t want to see Taker lose to Shane, especially with the caveat that it would trigger it being his last WrestleMania. I respect Shane and the crazy things he does, but I just wish he was doing it against someone else. To make it worse, Shane has sounded monotone and shaky throughout, his words not matching his actions, while The Undertaker just seems to be moving through it all, a pawn on a bigger board. Of course, part of that is intentional, but the effect that should have of creating intrigue hasn’t come to pass as a result of the strange ingredients surrounding it.

The fact is, WrestleMania 32 will probably be great. Intrigue for WrestleMania 31 wasn’t in a much better state than this year’s until the end of the event and Seth Rollins’ intervention. I won’t go off half-cocked on the idea that WWE may be restling on laurels in the knowledge that people will watch Mania because they are subscribed to the WWE Network or can get access to the Network for free; but I will say that I get the feeling that their successes in the last two years with standout Manias that succeeded almost in spite of their developmental build process has made WWE somewhat complacent about this year’s show. Is a great WrestleMania worth a build process that involves months of mostly bland TV focused on manipulating and alienating fans just so the big event can succeed in response? More importantly, what happens if WWE can’t replicate the magic of this recent formula and WrestleMania 32 isn’t even that good? What do we have left then?

So wrapping up my part of the article, I will go through what I care about on the show, what I want to happen, and what I think will happen before handing over to my friends and comrades. I won’t be reading what they write before me, and will only minimally edit, so similarities in opinion can be read as something of a trend (within a tiny microcosm of course).

What I Care About At WrestleMania 32
I’m currently most looking forward to Ambrose vs Lesnar. Lesnar and Heyman are Lesnar and Heyman. Heyman’s hype is always second to none at this time of year, and Lesnar is easy to hype as he retains the impression at all times that he might tear someone apart. Here, his journey from amused, condescending humouring of Ambrose to someone who he wants to tear apart because he won’t go away has frequently been the most intriguing part of the show and Lesnar has been a great adversary for Ambrose to grow against. For the first time in months, Ambrose was able to show what the ‘Lunatic Fringe’ is beyone a haircut-sounding piece of marketing and stands above all others as someone willing to throw his body in to the meat grinder because he loves it and it’s all he knows. The street fight stipulation helps the match too as it legitimately plays to Ambrose’s character against the prize-fighting Beast, gives Ambrose legitimate hope in the match, and promises a degree of grindhouse insanity.

The second match I particularly care about is the Divas title match. The build has spun it’s wheels a bit for the last few weeks, but the mixture of the history and chemistry the women have in-built from NXT mixed with Charlotte’s coming in to her own as a condescending, fathered-in heel, the clear fun that Becky Lynch is having while clearly passionate, and Sasha showing glimpses of the true ‘Boss’ while interacting with Becky has made this feel like a fulfilling feud that should culminate in an exciting match.

I’m excited about Jericho and Styles, and seeing Zayn and Owens on the big stage, but both aren’t so developed that I am especially looking forward to them as perhaps WrestleMania demands. Saying that, I think if we get the best of Jericho, his match with Styles could be an absolute show-stealer.

Also, the New Day’s entrance and potential fourth partner.

What Do I Want To Happen at WrestleMania 32
I think this Mania will live or die, believe it or not, based on the success of it’s main event. While i’m most baffled by the Shane-Taker feud, I think it is so baffling that it can almost get away with being OK as long as Shane gets in some sports, no one gets hurt, and we move on. On the other hand, while I do like Reigns, I couldn’t help but have a bit of an empty, disappointed reaction to him overcoming the odds, surrounded by confetti. Triple H seems to be in amazing shape, and I trust him implicitly to tear it up, but Reigns needs to do something new – not necessarily because he’s doing something wrong, but because the fans – rightly or wrongly – will reject it out of hand if he doesn’t.

If it was up to me, I would certainly be looking at the double-turn. Triple H’s recent promos about obsession, and striving to be the best is easily translated to a more sports-like heroic figure, fighting for the company and ‘sport’ he loves. I’d like to see Reigns give in to his petulance and not be able to take down Trips legitimately while we see Hunter give everything he has to succeed. I think Reigns has to win in these circumstances, and rob Triple H of the title. If i’m being really greedy, I would love to see this trigger a road to where Triple H becomes an authority figure more like we have at NXT – a respected veteran who genuinely wants what’s best for business, and does it with a nod to respect and fairness. Reigns’ turn can perhaps be linked to whatever the result of the Shane/Taker match is. The embittered loser of the battle between Shane and Vince could take Reigns corner as a heel, proclaiming him as the future of the company and a way to keep an investment in the company following the event. That may be a step too far, but if done well, it could give the event as a whole a cool narrative thread.

What Do I Think Will Happen at WrestleMania 32
The only thing I am particularly confident about at the event are that The New Day will beat The League of Nations given the gulf in interest and popularity between the two teams.
Beyond that, I simply don’t see Shane beating Taker, so ridiculous would that be at WrestleMania.
And for the main event, it just seems like Reigns is nailed on to win as Triple H only makes sense as champion almost as a metaphor. The question is whether Reigns wins as a face or heel, and that i’m not really sure of. WWE have done a good job in recent years of delivering great WrestleManias in spite of their own booking and build, and I do trust them to do that, so I see Reigns winning in a way that is somehow less than pristine.

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Ambrose seems primed to shine on the big stage, win or lose. Credit: WWE

Luke Healey (@pitxapillar)
More will be written about this one day, but the era of wrestling we currently find ourselves in – common wisdom has it that Grantland columnist David Shoemaker coined the term “reality era” in the aftermath of 2011’s Money in the Bank PPV, but looking back it appears Shoemaker initially favoured the phrase “worked shoot era” – is defined no matter what you call it by repeated attempts on the part of management to negotiate hostile crowd responses to the product. If the rebellion against a stale main event scene incited by CM Punk in his now-legendary “pipe bomb” promo that year set the precedent for arena crowds crossing the streams of kayfabe and vocally demanding that the “workrate” guys get a look in on the upper-card spots typically reserved for the “body” guys, it was Daniel Bryan that pushed this phenomenon to its peak in the three years that followed.

Wrestlemania XXX was not the end of the story, however: somehow, despite the clear signalling from WWE that they had taken note of the relative crowd reactions to appearances by Bryan and Batista (who was supposed to be the brightest star on that year’s mega-card) and had adjusted their plans accordingly, we are still witnessing the kind of booking that made the “pipe bomb” and the “yes movement” seem so necessary and so vital in their moment. The decisions that made Roman Reigns’ rise to the top of the company by contrast seem inorganic and ill-advised don’t need to be rehashed here; what is most significant in the build-up to this year’s Wrestlemania is that this time the WWE don’t appear to be prepared to pull out any measures to adjust course in the wake of Reigns’ increasingly calamitous audience reception as the company’s apparent top babyface.

The legacy of the previous two years’ Wrestlemania shows has been decided by thoughtful kayfabe responses to real problems with hostile crowds: in 2014 Bryan was worked into the main event via a choreographed fan “occupation” of Raw and a match of the year candidate with Triple H, and last year Seth Rollins’ deux ex machina run-in with the Money in the Bank briefcase spared WWE from either having to hand Reigns a defeat in his first Wrestlemania main-event or to find out what a smark-filled Levi’s Stadium sounds like when a man the crowd refuses to love gets the win over a competitor that had been for a year been built up as nigh-on indestructible.

The build to both these events was fraught at best and laughable at worst, but the last two Wrestlemania cards ended up delivering in a big way; it might not just be a case of recency bias when fans repeatedly proclaim these two shows to be among the best in Wrestlemania history. Which begs the question, how do the WWE pull it out the bag this time round, having passed up the opportunity to work Dean Ambrose and Brock Lesnar into the main event, and without the convenient device of a Money in the Bank cash-in? The WWE title match is one of the less promising matches on the card, but we’re not dealing here with something in the nature of The Rock and John Cena’s main events in 2012 and 2013; for all that the New Day’s first appearance on the Wrestlemania main show, the seven-man ladder match, the Ambrose-Lesnar street fight and, most notably, the triple threat match for the soon-to-be re-branded Divas’ Championship seem like the best bets for all-out pro wrestling gold, finding out what becomes of Reigns’ push is still an extremely interesting proposition. Fans, performers and bookers are still finding their way through the corridors that Punk and Bryan, to say nothing of NXT and its indie-inflected alumni, built in the first half of this decade, and this year’s Wrestlemania can’t help but go a long way towards showing us where we’re all at – assuming the company’s top brass are inclined to listen.

Team Total Divas vs Team BAD & Blonde
This match is mainly interesting because of the sudden introduction of two women – Emma and Eva Marie – that have lately been developing their character work effectively down in NXT. I sort of assume that from now on every call-up will have a proper fanfare, but I guess the two of them had already appeared on the main roster in any case. Have they explained yet what Lana’s beef is with Brie Bella?

Kalisto v Ryback
Going off what people have said about their Smackdown match last year I fully expect this to be an entertaining affair but the pre-show slot is hardly a vote of confidence for either man, especially given the pomp and circumstance with which the US title match was introduced last year.

Andre Memorial Battle Royal
It’s quite obvious that this is where Bray gets given something to do. Hopefully he, Rowan and Strowman get embroiled in some faction warfare with the Social Outcasts, leading down the line to Bo Dallas becoming the Wyatt he was born to be.

AJ Styles v Chris Jericho
It’s the sort of thing that would look careless in other circumstances, but I quite like that the build to this match is based off a number of recent in-ring encounters. There’s an effective asymmetry to the idea of a fourth match that spills out of the best-of-three series as a result of personal vendetta. On the other hand, we’ve seen these two pull out all the stops numerous times before, so I can’t see how this match ends up anything other than overshadowed.

Kevin Owens v Sami Zayn v Dolph Ziggler etc. etc.
I’m glad they’re not rushing into the Owens-Zayn blow-off in their respective first Wrestlemania appearances, but there are other aspects of this match which I seriously regret. Neville belongs here, but so does Tyler Breeze, and a match bringing together more former NXT talent (Sin Cara and Zack Ryder don’t count) would have made for a very effective use of this stipulation. Will still be fun, obviously.

New Day v League of Nations
All I want from this is for The New Day to ride out on unicorns, gradually parting to reveal their mystery fourth man, who pulls up in a golden unicorn-drawn chariot…it’s their captain, Seth Rollins.

Charlotte v Sasha v Becky
The news about the WWE’s decision to follow NXT in ditching the “Diva’s” label and bringing back the Women’s Championship is great news, as is the suggestion that this match might get a full twenty minutes. This needs to be the first example of a properly long, emotive, high-stakes NXT-style women’s match on the main roster, and I’m sure it will be. I’d love to see Sasha walk out as champion, but there’ll be plenty of time for that down the line.

Ambrose v Lesnar
Probably the most exciting match on the card. There’s a real sense of narrative purpose and momentum to this one, and the outcome is unpredictable. They’re teasing blood and gore, so I’m hoping for something that comes close to the drama of the “Grave Consequences” or “Cero Miedo” matches from the last season of Lucha Underground. I’m fairly sure this is the match that cements Ambrose as one of the company’s top stars for years to come.

Shane v Taker
You have to look through the recent booking short-cuts and think about this match in terms of its utter strangeness, a strangeness which was more palpable when Shane made his initial return last month. Shane McMahon. Wrestling the Undertaker. Inside Hell in a Cell. What!? This could go all over the place, both literally and figuratively, and is unmissable despite all the narrative mis-steps that have been made in the build.

(Editor’s note: Also check out Luke’s writing archive on tumblr, whatever that is).

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WrestleMania has a lot more to compete with these days, including bona fide dream matches under it’s nose. Credit: WWE

Adam Wilson (@gingerpimernel)
(Disclaimer: I make no pretense of being an impartial journalist. This simply predictions for each match, and what I’m looking forward to most, and who I want to win)

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Wrestlemania. The Grandaddy of Th-REDACTED: Wrestlemania is henceforth the Extremely fit and virile young man of them all looms. Biggest wrestling night of the year, easy. It’s become a thing unto itself, with independent companies from throughout the US around the world, converging on whatever city The Big Yin is running in. Even around the world, such as here in the UK, companies run shows on the night with screenings afterwards. It’s a great time to be a fan. Even if WWE isn’t your cup of hot beverage, there’ll be something on for you.

Truthfully, I feel underhyped. I’m more excited for the shows I’ll attend in person that day (Fierce Females and ICW, in that order), and definitely more so for NXT Takeover, because, y’know, SHINSUKE NAKAMURA. It’s not that I think the matches will be bad, far from it. It’s just the stories leading into it that haven’t gripped me personally (I watch shows to be INTO them, not to sit and go “Ooh, he’s selling that move well!”). Then again, people are daft about the Shane McMahon stuff and I don’t like The Rock, so what do I know anyway? That said, there is stuff in there I’m excited about, and the spectacle itself is always fun. Still no idea how they’ll top last years ‘OMG RUSEV IN A TANK’, but let’s take a look.

(note: I’ve no clue what the running order is, so I’m just going to do them in the order they’re listed on Wikipedia)

US TITLE MATCH: KALISTO VS THE RYBACK
Consensus seems to be this’ll be on the pre-show, and that’s probably fair. Not much of a build other than Ryback going “Here, you’re good and all, but I’m The Big Guy, and Big Belts For Big Guys”. Despite the slagging Ryback gets online, this’ll probably be a fun enough match. Wee flippy guys like Kalisto are usually a good foil for big guys (but for The Big Guy? Who knows?), David ‘n Goliath and all that. Anyhoo, my money’s on Kalisto to win.

THE TOTAL DIVAS VS B.A.D. AND BLONDE
Again, lifting that name off Wikipedia, and I got confused at first because I went “Here, Naomi and Tamina aren’t even remotely blonde”, until I cottoned on that it’s ‘B.A.D.’ as in Team B.A.D., AND Blonde, as in blonde lassies, because I’m a bit slow sometimes. Folk are moaning about Eva Marie making the save, as if WWE want folk to like her, even though her partners treated her arrival like a fart in a lift. Hopefully, like with NXT, they’ve realised no one likes her and play to that. Still shocking she gets a Wrestlemania payday and Bayley doesn’t though. B.A.D. & Blonde to win, probably with Lana pinning Brie Bella.

THE USOS VS THE DUDLEYS
I keep forgetting this one is happening. Which is a shame, because The Usos are fun as hell. Not really much to say about this one, other than I hope The Usos win to continue the ‘old Attitude Era duffers getting battered by the new breed’ thing they seemed to start at Wrestlemania 30.

(now I’m switching to reverse Wikipedia order, because otherwise I’ll finish on New Day v The League of Nations, and that CLEARLY isn’t main eventing)

THE NEW DAY VS THE LEAGUE OF NATIONS
The League of Nations confuse me, but then again, WWE’s historic “Multiculturalism? BOOOOO!” attitude generally does. I really like Barrett, and LOVE Rusev, and want better than this for them, but I cannot bring myself to cheer against The New Day, who’ve consistently been the most entertaining thing on WWE TV for the best part of a year now. That said, League of Nations will probably win, because there’s more of them, which I’m OK with because the titles aren’t on the line, and The New Day need to keep those FOREVER.

ANDRE THE GIANT MEMORIAL BATTLE ROYAL
So who’s all in this? From what I’ve seen/remember, The Social Outcasts, Kane, Big Show, Darren Young, The Ascension… and I can’t remember anyone else offhand. According to this handy and informative Wikipedia article, Tyler Breeze, Mark Henry, Jack Swagger, Fandango, Damien Sandow, Goldust, & R-Truth have also been announced. I know they’re building the whole Kane/Big Show “we’re huge so your efforts to hurl us out are FRUITLESS” thing, but let’s face it, they’ve lost nearly every Over The Top style match they’ve ever been in. My pick here is Curtis Axel of the Social Outcasts, because it’d be an amazing tribute to his dad, after the lovely one he did on Raw the other night.

AJ STYLES VS CHRIS JERICHO AGAIN
I find it a bit weird this is on without a stipulation, given the amount of times it’s happened already. 2/3 falls maybe? It’ll be good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s been done to death. Also, while I’m at it, their bit on Raw was weird. AJ Styles coming out like “I’m not going away and I’m going to chant obnoxiously til I get what I want” is the logic of a four year old throwing a tantrum, and should not be encouraged. Meanwhile, Jericho initially refuses the challenge, which’d mean no Wrestlemania match, because he doesn’t believe they should, so he’s actually a man getting booed for putting his principles ahead of monetary gain. Weird. Anyway, this’ll be good and AJ Styles will win.

INTERCONTINENTAL TITLE MULTIMAN MATCH
Again, thrown together and weird, but it’ll be heaps of fun. I didn’t like that Sami Zayn’s first pinfall over Kevin Owens was not only in a throwaway match on Raw, but didn’t actually get mentioned. To be honest, I can’t decide between Sami and Owens here. I can’t see any of the other guys winning it, but I’d prefer a Zayn title win over Big Kev to be one on one, so I’ll go with Owens for the victory. Also, non Shane O Mac mad bump of the night will probably go to Ziggler.

DIVAS TITLE MATCH: CHARLOTTE VS BECKY LYNCH VS SASHA BANKS
Of all the matches, this is probably the one I’m most looking forward to. I really want Becky to win this (even though my head says Sasha will), but most of all I just don’t want Charlotte to win, and nothing makes  a match more exciting than caring about the outcome. Anyway, between here and NXT, they’ve all shown they have great chemistry together, and in my opinion Sasha and Becky are two of the best wrestlers on the roster, regardless of gender, so this should be fantastic.

SHANE MCMAHON VS THE UNDERTAKER
I realise I’m overwhelmingly in the minority here, but I don’t really care about this one. As I said in the previous match, nothing draws you into a match more than caring who wins, and honestly here, I don’t. I’ve always felt a bit ’emperors new clothes’ when it comes to Shane. He’s done breathtaking dives and that, but as is so often said in wrestling, you should care about the person taking the dive, not the dive itself. The idea of Undertaker having a competitive match with him is baffling to me. That said, if Shane wins, and it puts an end to the era of the heel GM/authority figure on Raw, I’m all for it. Even more so if the prediction I saw that this is how they’ll debut Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows is actually correct. So aye. Shane to win here, probably, unless he doesn’t.

BROCK LESNAR VS DEAN AMBROSE
This is the other match I’m really looking forward to. Brock Lesnar, by virtue of being Brock Lesnar makes near enough any opponent he has an automatic underdog, and Ambrose is built for that. Taking every hit the most powerful man in wrestling can give, before laughing, thumbing his nose at Paul Heyman, and sticking his tongue out and waggling his fingers on the end of his nose at Lesnar, before being suplexed into Row Z or something. And not Row Z at the AT&T Stadium, but wherever they’re hosting Raw. And not the post-WM Raw, but one in like, three weeks. That said, Ambrose is my pick to win, so they can finally make him The Man, when he topples his BFF Roman Reigns, right? Right?

Let me dream, FFS.

TRIPLE H VS ROMAN REIGNS
I’m really trying not to be negative here, but I’m struggling to think of a Wrestlemania main event I’ve cared less about that didn’t contain The Miz or The Rock (nothing against you lads if you’re reading, but *blows massive raspberry*). Again, I’m sure it’ll be a good, physical match, I just don’t care about the outcome. I don’t hate Roman the way a lot do, but nothing about him as a solo act makes me want to get behind him. For me, watching him post-Shield is like watching Chris Cornell slum it in Audioslave after Soundgarden. And as much as I love what he’s done with NXT, I’ve still not forgiven Triple H for 2003. Roman’s obviously going to win, so hopefully if/when he feuds with Ambrose afterwards, I’ll be emotionally invested instead of watching it, knowing it’s good, but not being able to get into it. Though my dream ending for this is for Joe Hendry to make a surprise debut and beat them both. This is doubtful though, as he’s on at ICW just hours before, and thus Joe won’t be able to make it as he’s billing himself as the Local Hero again. Maybe if he still called himself the Global Hero, we’d be in with a shout.

I don’t want to end this on a down note, so I’ll note that I had similar feelings before Wrestlemania 30, and that was bloody terrific, so hopefully I’m wrong again. And as I said, there’s something for everyone this weekend, so I’ll have a splendid Wrestlemania weekend anyway. I hope you do too.

IMPARTIAL JOURNALIST VIEW OF THE REAL MAIN EVENT
Shinsuke Nakamura is going to knee Sami Zayn to pieces. This is because according to my very real journalist sources, Shinsuke Nakamura is the King of Strong Style, whereas Sami Zayn is not.

(Sami, I love you, I love you lots, but you are not the King of Strong Style. Shinsuke Nakamura is)

So there it is. If you want to win Big Cash Money, there are betting websites you can visit where you can put every penny you have on these results. I strongly recommend you do if you want to be filthy stinking rich. Put the HOUSE on them. My name is Adam Wilson. Follow me on Twitter @GingerPimpernel if you so wish. I like wrestling and if you’re reading this, chances are you do too. So let’s talk wrestling and have a laugh.

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Multi-man ladder matches have become a WrestleMania staple, but does the hidden blockbuster story therein expose WWE’s wasteful approach to the show? Credit: WWE (and Snickers, I suppose)

Jacob Kerray (Not on Twitter, but everywhere else. Look him up)
I’ve heard more and more people who haven’t previously voiced any interest mention Mania this month. It makes me think Vince’s grand plan is working. For him not for wrestling fans. I think their attention is still centred on The Rock more than it is any of their current roster, especially judging by their most ubiquitous hype video. Vince doesn’t need to impress us, he has us hooked. We are junkies.

The quality of wrestling since I came back to watching it regularly around 2011 – coincidentally when Rock returned – has in my opinion exponentially increased and the athleticism and stronger style has made for some amazing matches. I can’t, however, think of one storyline they have told properly in terms of planned build and culmination. This isnt to say there hasn’t been good storylines but the good ones have happened by accident when the fans or talent have hijacked the show. I was watching the build to Starrcade with Sting vs Hogan recently, and Sting said with no irony, that ‘It’s best to keep me mouth shut’. The build was all based on either guys reputation and the fans desire to see babyface vs heel. The storyline worked so well and was so simple it made the panto style match seem good.

Can you imagine what Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, AJ Styles, and in fact any of WWE’s current talent – given the consistent level of quality they have – would do with a well considered simply plotted out storyline? With every opportunity they have been given to tell a simple good storyline that doesn’t expose either party they have missed and over exposed someone. Top to bottom of the card I have a problem with every part, highlighted mainly by Kalisto vs Ryback. To give those two a singles match but make the Intercontinental title match with a built-in storyline a 6 man spot fest is indicative of where they are, confused and panicky.

The only hope I see is that it will come out the same as last year. Low expectations leave room to be surprised. If there is not a major storyline shift after this Mania the. I will really feel like a junky sucking at Vince’s dry tits.