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


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


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.


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.

Kylo reaching

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.


The Connecticut Raiders: Will WWE’s Diversification Create a Stylistic Suppression?


The unveiling of the locked-in talent for WWE’s UK tournament. Credit to Wrestlezone

The influx of diverse, international talent to WWE that has accelerated over the past year is in many ways a positive shift for wrestling from a top-down perspective. WWE being the undisputed mainstream leader in professional wrestling while making a Cruiserweight show and upcoming tournaments for women’s and British wrestling jewels in their Network crown gives those divisions arguably more significance and recognition than ever before. Something strange has happened with the Cruiserweights though – following the acclaim of the Crusierweight Classic and the excitement for the impending division on RAW, interest in the division has decreased rapidly. This could be due to lacklustre booking, but there it was perhaps the opening salvo of a more insidious trend from WWE; one of humouring, appropriating, and watering down styles to the detriment of everyone involved.

This entire article should be prefaced with a very clear determination: the introduction of the Cruiserweight Classic, 205 Live, and the Upcoming Women’s and UK tournaments provide a huge upgrade on the previous slew of secondary programming that was available in Superstars and Main Event. These were shows which featured great talent, but due to them just being extra shows full of under-carders, they felt like insignificant drains on time.

These new demographic-based platforms are certainly not the same kind of afterthought. They feature self-contained feuds, challenges, and championships which instantly gives the action more gravitas (whether you enjoy the booking, however, is another matter). The problem is that that this gravitas doesn’t carry over to their main roster appearances. The Cruiserweights are instead brought out as a sideshow act with little opportunity to establish a character to the RAW audience or even to talk to them. They get their own ropes, and their own scripted platitudes from the commentators. This setup, strange as it is, could gain momentum if the action matched the speed and unique style of the Cruiserweight Classic, but instead their appearances on RAW feel like a watered-down version of the CWC style, mixed with the classic WWE style of wrestling, and so, save for a few highspots, the action doesn’t even particularly stand out. Imagine it this way: how damaging would a WWE ‘Lucha Classic’ in which they hired the likes of Pentagon Jr, El Dragon Azteca Jr, Fenix, Drago, and King Cuerno, and then had them all wrestle like Alberto Del Rio? I loved Del Rio at times, but that being popularised as Lucha would be a troubling prospect, and I fear that something similar is happening with the cruiserweights.


The Cruiserweights have ‘arrived’ on the main roster, but they seem like outsiders. Credit: WWE

As it stands, the Cruiserweights are barely in the same ‘Universe’ as the main roster guys. Kalisto and Neville have gotten involved, but they seem to have to trade in their main roster credentials to do so. There doesn’t seem to be any prospect of Cruiserweights getting involved in another championship picture, and so it’s hard to place where they stand in the universe. With the purple ropes and the arms-length treatment of the Cruiserweights, they are simply portrayed as a less significant sideshow who can’t live up to the hype that was built for them.

What is more concerning in the case of the upcoming UK show as well as the cruiserweights is that, there is some degree of appropriation and softening of the styles involved. I’m a fan of the WWE style generally, but I also value the diverse range of styles around the world, and while even WWE could never, and probably aren’t even trying to, subsume the styles, the influx of talent to them and the incorporation of their style in to the WWE style will affect at least the perception of the different styles among audiences. I think it’s clear, so far, that the Cruiserweights haven’t been replicating some of the feats they had on the indy circuit, and while it remains to be seen with regards to the UK tournament, it will be interesting to see if they will be able to fully showcase the stiff, technical style of the UK when they start making weekly shows. WWE rightly loves to remember this fondly in the likes of William Regal and Fit Finlay, but if the UK division goes the same way as the Cruiserweight is currently going, it will amount to a sad appropriation – and conservatism – of the style.

The reality of WWE stealthily raiding talent from federations around the world is nothing new, but it seems to certainly have accelerated in the last year or two. Of course, WWE are well within their rights to source this talent, and in many ways as mentioned before, it is good for wrestling generally as it broadens WWE’s stylistic output and provides beloved indy wrestlers with well-deserved financial and career opportunities, it does simultaneously deplete the more accessible talent that local indy fans can enjoy, and as in the case of the UK tournament, not always for noble reasons. WWE reportedly only pulled the trigger on that project in response to them being unhappy with the prospect of ITV’s World of Sport reboot being shown on a more visible platform than WWE’s regular programming here in the UK. Of course that still wouldn’t make a dent in the WWE’s profits or success, but they are so predatory that they simply won’t allow it, leading them to the move of signing wrestlers to their upcoming tournament, and even – reportedly – no-compete clauses with televised competitors, regardless of whether they ever appear for WWE.


Glasgow and the UK lost the ‘Best in the Universe’ when WWE signed Nikki Storm, Credit: ICW

As a native of Glasgow, I’m lucky enough to have internationally-respected ICW on my doorstep, and while I’m excited for the futures of the likes of ICW alums Nikki Cross and Big Damo, and am excited about the opportunities new talent will get at the indy level to replace them, the sheer aggression of WWE’s recent programming moves are concerning, and it’s because of the apparent shift in motivation. It seems to be less about creating a diverse roster that will appeal to a more international audience, and increasingly about creating content and protecting their business model. I don’t get the feeling that any of the new cruiserweights can really break out beyond their division, and I feel even less confident about the upcoming UK division which seems to have been set up with an arbitrary aggression rather than a plan to make stars. WWE is already achingly overexposed, but the only shows that matter, and are really treated like they matter, are RAW, Smackdown and NXT.

In the case of the upcoming Women’s tournament, I have fewer concerns, actually, with regards to how significant the participants will feel after it’s finished. WWE is signing female talent left, right, and centre, and seems keen to take women’s wrestling more seriously, even if they don’t always succeed. Cynically however, part of the reason the participants in this event may be safer points to the very problem they are addressing: that they are being treated like a niche product in themselves compared to the other niches they are exploring, which are all subsets of male wrestling styles. My one concern is  relatively small because it represents a gigantic improvement from the days of the Attitude Era, but again, with WWE having the biggest platform, they will subconsciously redefining what women’s wrestling is to the mainstream audience. Bayley and Sasha in Brooklyn is my personal female wrestling nirvana (one of my wrestling nirvanas regardless of gender, in fact), but while, with some, it’s a controversial proposition, there are some incredible female wrestlers doing incredible work with men – thinking especially of the work of Lucha Underground. The power of that work will not be diminished and inter-gender wrestling will continue to exist around the world, but as women’s wrestling becomes more prominent and significant in WWE, and what they do or don’t becomes more impactful, it could be that those paying attention to it see the women wrestlers as elite, but then see a normalised version of them tagging out of challenges with men. That not only limits their art and the stories they can tell, but in my opinion, provides a mixed message for the young boys and girls who are watching.

I desperately want to be proven wrong in my concerns about the new shows and influx of new talent, but until these new initiatives start to feel like they really constitute part of the significant future if the company, it will continue to produce great matches by great wrestlers that feel like they are limited in the impact they can have due to their presentation. As I have said previously, the impact of this may be small as alternative wrestling seems only to be growing worldwide, but it will certainly be interesting to see whether WWE’s demographically-based broadening of their umbrella has the effect of similar conquerors: water down and incorporate.

Lucha Underground, WWE and the Importance of Quiet Time

Introductory Note: I am a very big fan of Lucha Underground, the unique presentations it’s given us, and what they are broadly trying to do. I also know that given the near universal acclaim for the federation, aspects of this article could come across as contrarian. Frankly, maybe it is, but that comes from a high standard I have held Lucha Underground to since the first season.


The explosive finish to Pentagon Jr’s central role in Lucha Underground’s first season. The quiet time between this and the start of season 2 allowed for Pentagon to become even more infamous and made his return to the Temple in season 2 even more anticipated. Credit:

As a person who has been interested in writing for a long time as well as enjoying various narrative driven forms of entertainment, I have recently been thinking about pacing, and more specifically, the importance of ‘quiet time’ after re-watching the excellent Super Bunnyhop video on the topic with regards to video games. Naturally, I soon began thinking about quiet time in relation to wrestling, and that will be the main focus of this article. WWE doesn’t – and takes a degree of pride in not – allow any real quiet time while Lucha Underground, split as it is in to seasons, does, but with mixed results.

Though i’m aware there are other federations – Chikara, for instance – who present their wrestling in series, the only one I’ve personally consumed in consecutive order is Lucha Underground. In a period where television ‘box-sets’ are probably the most revered form of visual entertainment, Lucha Undergorund has fit in with that trend by having long episodic seasons with respective ‘Ultima Luchas’ serving as season finalés; and for me as a wrestling fan, this was a new and welcome world. From a starting position of being just another new wrestling product, Lucha Underground used episodes with logical arcs within a unique, pulpy, and somewhat supernatural universe populated by a couple of handfulls of determined, fleshed-out characters to become arguably the most respected wrestling project in the world. This ride culminated in Ultima Lucha, an event where stories were paid off or evolved via fantastic, high-octane matches. Then it dis something almost unheard of in wrestling when the heat is white hot – it pressed pause:

Not only was it objectively beautiful television, but it actively invited you to rest – the phrasing of that tweet saying “Good night.” is no mistake. Series 2 of Lucha Underground didn’t appear for nearly 6 months, and in that time, there was nothing else to do but to reflect on what we had seen, and look forward to a new series. During the series, I loved the wrestling and many of the characters, but it was in the intervening months and discussions with fellow fans that the beauty of it came to it’s highest clarity. I longed for Pentagon Jr and fell in love with his theme music, playing it on endless repeat, I argued the case for LU’s unflinching inter-gender matches, and I wondered at how far LU could go with the signing of possibly the greatest Luchadors ever (and among the greatest pro wrestlers ever, period). I also realised that beyond their matches being great, Lucha Underground was actually built on marquee matches that totally reinvigorated established gimmick matches such as the casket match and the ironman match almost like a calling card, while also providing a strong structure for the first season’s arc. I rooted for the wrestlers and promotion to return, and when it did, it did so with a huge amount of good will and currency to keep trying new things.

That is the essence of the benefits of ‘quiet time’ – when you are enjoying something, it having the ability to pause or slow down provides you with the opportunity to reflect either actively or passively, on what the story is, or what you are enjoying  about it or not. The Super Bunnyhop video of course uses the excellent example of narrative video games, but it applies to any form of narrative-driven entertainment. It’s why ‘special events’ in wrestling usually have a less consequential match or two, sometimes with comic relief, between a marquee match and the main event; you can reflect on the marquee match and get it out of your system, take a breath, and be ready for the main event. It’s also why fantasy booking is so prevelent between wrestling fans (and indeed, outside of wrestling under different auspices). It’s because when you are enjoying a storyline or a wrestlers work (such as, recently, The Miz’s Talking Smack promo), you become extra engaged and become keen to join the journey being presented. On the other hand of course, it rears it’s head when fans aren’t enjoying the product. Wrestling engenders loyalty – for it’s sins it embraces fans in to a dysfunctional family, and when you love something like that, you want it to be better. So when the show fades to black, and you’re angry about Cena or Reigns winning (or whatever your preference is), many people thing ‘it would be so much better if…’, and you get to live that fantasy out, if even in your head. Outside of wrestling, quiet time is why season premieres and finales are so significant – they are preceded by or followed by it, which in itself marks it as significant, and provides fans with that crucial time for reflection.

When you’re having your mind blown by a fresh, innovative and exciting federation filled with brutal, high flying, and emotionally charged action set in a supernatural temple, the weekly episode of Monday Night RAW started to really struggle to grab your attention. I have said to many people in private that, for it’s sins, I think WWE ultimately does the best overall job of presenting high quality, compelling wrestling (WrestleMania 30, for instance); however it goes through waves of staleness, sometimes feeling like it’s spinning wheels until WrestleMania season. While some of that can be righteously blamed on lacklustre writing and a business model which clearly favours pouring resources and creativity in to it’s January – April programme, it is notable that WWE programming never stops. Less than 24 hours after the end of each year’s WrestleMania, which is one of the few places where stories are ever conclusively wrapped up, WWE and it’s fans are right back in the saddle for the annual, crazy, Post-Mania RAW. After 4 months of intense build to an insane spectacle though – post-Mania RAW aside – the WWE noticeably slows down, seemingly mailing in a month or two of wrestling.

In a sense, this period is a still a form of quiet time by virtue of how noticeably slower and less explosive it is, but there is still no real opportunity to reflect because the wrestlers you’ve just watched make history are off doing something else and there are new stories to focus on. Not only are the writers and general production notably a gear or two lower in the period, but many of the wrestler clearly are too – still working hard of course and having some cool moments, but taking a natural step back following WrestleMania. At a time when WWE seems to suffer from injury bouts with a degree of regularity, the wrestlers seem to be in need of down time physically as well as mentally, and this has been something I’ve supported for a long time, despite the fact that WWE’s business acumen means that such a move is hugely unlikely.


HHH’s return from injury in 2002 came with much emotion and fanfare, despite the fact that he was a top heel before his injury. Credit: WWE

The brand split complicates this somewhat as they work on a different calendar, but speaking broadly, I think a ‘Good night.’ moment – admittedly with a much more sports-like, explosive tone – at the end of a WrestleMania could help create a more focused and efficient product. Can you imagine how hyped pretty much everyone would be for the first Monday Night RAW following a 2-month layover? Rested wrestlers, writers who have had time to plan stories in advance and fans who have missed seeing their favourite wrestlers and have missed regular accessible wrestling while reflecting on what happened at a historic WrestleMania event; all of this points to not only ratings and a better product, but a more beloved product. A microcosm of this that does currently occur in WWE is when wrestlers return from long injury layoffs or just time away from the show. Regardless of whether wrestlers are heels or faces, their returns are nearly uniformally – though partly depending on their standing beforehand.- met with huge pops. ‘Returns’ often feature among my favourite wrestling narrative moments, and I think the reason is that it represents an instant change to the landscape (see:’Universe) and usually reinvigorates the show.

On a bigger scale, where everyone essentially returns, the ‘season premieres’ of RAW would be huge cultural events in the wrestling world and maybe beyond. To extend the concept somewhat, I think that with a ‘mid-season finale/re-premiere’ after Survivor Series, for instance, and taking one or two PPVs out of the calendar, I think the pacing of the WWE calendar would be much more effective at facilitating exciting, interesting storytelling and programming more consistently.

Now, to return to Lucha Underground’s Temple, I’m going to, on face value, contradict a lot of what I just argued.


Joey Ryan was a big coup for Lucha Underground’s second season, and while entertaining, his role on the show was part of a (so far) poorly defined sub-plot that didn’t really amount to anything. Credit: Lucha Underground

Well, not really, but I would like to take some time to critique a slow downturn in quality from Lucha Underground from that Ultima Lucha high-point and do so while cautioning that ‘quiet time’ alone isn’t an automatic benefit for storytellers. Specifically, while the period was great for the fans, the writers and showrunners got ever so slightly out of their groove. The limited roster of carefully drawn characters was populated by quite a few more characters who seemingly received slightly less attention each. Taya entered the Temple and became a well-drawn, easily established character following her match with (they call him) Cage, but compared to that, characters like Daga, PJ Black, Kobra Moon, Maripoza and more seemed directionless and – relatively – unimportant. Of course, as the number of characters grew, the share for each, and for each story’s quiet time, lessened. Matches always came thick and fast in Lucha Underground but initially there was a more manageable array of characters that meant each one could be reflected on.

While the addition of Rey Mysterio, the king of luchadors, made sense, the influx of indie talent untimately damaged the series. My impression of the second series was that it took a long time to get any sort of momentum and shortly after, it was time for Ultima Lucha Dos. The mainstay gimmick matches of Aztec Warfare and Grave(r) Consequences remained, but didn’t seem to add anything fresh like they did in series one. Finally, the impact of Ultima Lucha Dos seemed diminished as the tight booking of season 1 seemed to fade away with Black Lotus’s long awaited debut being interfered in, Pentagon’s journey to the top being spoiled, and the whole thing being spread over 3 ostensibly normal episodes to allow for it all. It felt less special and less impactful, and getting back to the concept of quiet time, I think that if there wasn’t such a long layover, the showrunners wouldn’t have added so much padding to the production and season 2 would have been executed with much more satisfaction. The quiet time could have, and maybe should have been used to help improve the show even more from season 1, but in reality i’m afraid that the devil made work for their idle hands.

Marty the Moth brandishes a missile - this was how 'WMD's were used in this great match which was spoiled by empty aesthetics.

Marty the Moth brandishes a missile – this was how ‘WMD’s were used in this great match which was spoiled by empty aesthetics.

The matches happen at the same rate as always, but you may not see some characters for a few weeks – but instead of that providing quiet time to reflect, memories of their character and purpose are almost saved over with recency bias for other people you have seen more recently. These cracks have really started to show now that season 3 has begun. Roughly the same amount of talent remains, but everything seems more rushed and less well designed. For me, a great example was the WMD match. As ever, the wrestlers ‘left it all out there’ – objectively, it was a great match with a great finish, but it seemed like much more than ever before, the story elements were skin deep. Marty the Moth had suggested he was ‘done’ with Killshot, but it seems LU bookers liked the idea of an army themed match and so we had WMD. The fantasy universe of LU means it can give it’s gimmicks more (or ‘graver’) consequences. Speaking of Grave Consequences, we know no one really died, but the incredible presentation based on the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ and Konnan never being seen again in the aftermath really gave that match mythic status. With ‘WMD’ how do you live up to that? Wrestlers use guns as melee weapons, which is insane, they use 20th C-looking weapons crates which seem at best, as dangerous as other surfaces, and at worst, flimsy. Worse was Matt Striker who just seemed to take it as an opportunity to throw in as many ill-judged war puns as possible, including some incredibly ill-thought-out comments about Syrian refugees and Melissa Santos being potential ‘spoils of war’. This was a great match spoiled – for me – by the empty aesthetics of it that couldn’t live up to the WMD moniker.  It would have been saved to a large degree by calling it something like a ‘Warzone’ match which would set the scene without clipping it’s wings. That is down to the talented by bloated roster not being able to fit in to a 1 hour-per episode season and writers rushing to fit too much in to each episode and not being able to dedicate as much effort to their marquee matches living up to their excellent track record of previous marquee matches.

That seems a lot more scathing than the show – which I still very much enjoyed at times – deserves, but as I say, the stellar work of season 1 raised it’s standards for me. Shortly after the end of Ultima Lucha Dos, it was revealed that Lucha Underground would be back after just over 1 month. Suddenly, it started to seem that Lucha Underground was maybe being rushed through, and the welcome breath that the break between season allowed before seemed to be lacking. Knowing how far Lucha Underground is now taoed in advance, and that large parts of seasons 2 and 3 were taped back to back, it’s clear that while there is still a (much shorter) break between seasons, it is no longer part of the creative process of the show. The break feels like just that, a pause, and not a deliberate point of reflection for the viewer that gives us time to miss the show; and while the diminishing return I have found with Lucha Underground is a slow one, I already personally feel that the lack of quiet time between Lucha Underground seasons has hurt the quality of season 3 which feels like it’s just picking up where the second series finished rather than creating new and interesting story arcs. That may not even be accurate, but the lack of quiet time to stop and smell the roses has masked whatever identity the third season has so far.

Lucha Underground season 1 was perhaps the most successful and noteworthy wrestling achievement, at least in terms of quality, in recent wrestling history, and seasons 2 and what has begun of 3 are certainly still loaded with great, brutal, innovative matches – I just hope it can reclaim some of the attention to detail and efficiency it once had, and continue to be a treat.


Media, Steam, and Our Vast Flat Culture


Months ago, I started a new post on mourning culture springing up from the deaths of the likes of David Bowie, Prince, Victoria Wood, et al; it was to be a somewhat self-righteous, but I think ultimately valid piece about how it symbolised the way our current culture ingests it’s media and it’s, if you will, Neon Idols. I could never move past a certain point each time a new death occurred, and I think it’s because it felt needlessly judgmental and went against my more libertarian side of live and letting live, even if it’s dumb. I like and think plenty of dumb things after all. Now though, I was thinking again about the writing blockage I have been suffering which extended to my comedy writing and art and I think it’s because I haven’t been able to put this article in to words as opposed to a sort of cotton wool disturbance in my head. I was thinking about another part of the article, and I realised that the celebrity death cottage industry is just a small part of our whole culture which, as Alan Moore says, is turning to steam.

As Alan Moore says in his psychedelic philosodoc, The Mindscape of Alan Moore:

“As I understand the theory of period information doubling, this states that if we take one period of human information as being the time between the invention of the first hand axe, say around 50,000 BC and 1 AD, then this is one period of human information and we can measure it by how many human inventions we came up with during that time. Then we see how long it takes for us to have twice as many inventions. This means that human information has doubled. As it turns out, after the first 50,000-year period, the second period is about 1500 years, say around the time of the Renaissance. By then we have twice as much information. To double again, human information took a couple of hundred years. The period speeds up—between 1960 and 1970, human information doubled. As I understand it, at the last count human information was doubling around every 18 months. Further to this, there is a point sometime around 2015 where human information is doubling every thousandth of a second. This means that in each thousandth of a second we will have accumulated more information than we have in the entire previous history of the world. At this point I believe that all bets are off. I cannot imagine the kind of culture that might exist after such a flashpoint of knowledge. I believe that our culture would probably move into a completely different state, would move past the boiling point, from a fluid culture to a culture of steam… I think the world is purely a construction of ideas, and not just the physical structures, but the mental structures, the ideologies that we’ve erected, that is what I would call the world. Our political structures, philosophical structures, ideological frameworks, economies. These are actually imaginary things, and yet that is the framework that we have built our entire world upon. It strikes me that a strong enough wave of information could completely overturn and destroy all of that. A sudden realization that would change our entire perspective upon who we are and how we exist. History is a heat, it is the heat of accumulated information and accumulated complexity. As our culture progresses, we find that we gather more and more information and that we slowly start to move almost from a fluid to a vaporous state, as we approach the ultimate complexity of a social boiling point. I believe that our culture is turning to steam.”

It’s long but it’s worth quoting in it’s entirety. The History as heat + fluid culture = steam is a bit of a laboured metaphor in some ways, but it has always struck me as disturbingly accurate. The only alteration I would make, which is important to this article is that the heat of the metaphor doesn’t just come from our history of accumulated experience, but also the sheer pervasiveness of our media outlets – ‘outlets’ not being restricted to the mainstream media, but any outlet for a person to broadcast to the world. The egalité of how people can make and produce media (as I am right now, of course) is of course a great progression for personal expression, but the consequences for our culture are serious.

Steam Pepper

Probably the most iconic album cover of all time. How many current album covers can you picture? Credit: The Beatles

The internet is perhaps out greatest invention and far from being a Luddite, I love it and the possibilities it offers. But for our culture, it is like a comfortable bed we lie in for so long that we can’t stand properly any more. I mentioned having some Libertarian views earlier, and that’s true, though the whole ‘free market’ idea has struck me as fatally flawed (I’ll see you later for the Libertarian post); saying that, while the root of it seems dreadful to me, I do have something of a longing for the way the pre-internet free market helped define our culture. As a self-proclaimed music nerd during my teens, I would sometimes think to myself that music was terrible ‘these days’ and would never produce icons like The Beatles, Rolling Stones etc again – meaning artists that were undoubtedly the biggest in the world and unavoidable in popular culture at all levels. It turns out, I believe, that I was right about that, but not for the reason I thought at the time. As a teen, I thought it was because the music of the time was just shit, but now I realise it’s something else – it’s that with the onset of the internet, there is a place for everything to thrive, and what is mainstream is easier to completely ignore. Where previously, the charts dictated what was popular, like a giant pyramid with only a few vaunted icons at it’s peak, music now exists in a much more level, near infinite plane where anything can exist or even thrive in it’s own area, but nothing will truly stand out as representing our culture. Where music used to at least loosely shift in stylistic periods, reflective of our culture, now all music exists at once – there are dozens of genres of music and countless sub-genres of each, and each with it’s own specialised realms online. Artists like Taylor Swift and One Direction are still incredibly popular, but their longevity is stilted by the fact that the music industry supports endless artists and types of music, and there are a great many people who totally ignore them in place of their own musical interest. That, again, is great, people can find what they like and an in-built community is waiting to embrace them, each little sub-genre as extensive as the entire music business at any given time in the 20th Century. The only problem is, when there is no truly dominant culture, there is nothing to define us, nothing to react to, and nothing to rebel against. Punk was a rebellion, grunge was a rebellion, but if The Sex Pistols or Nirvana were to appear these days, they would find a following on the internet, they would tour and do well, but they wouldn’t challenge anything, even if they wanted to – they would just merge with the rest of the steam.

If you imagine pre-internet culture as a pyramid, unfair but clearly definable in a roughly controlled space, then our current culture is that of a vast, flat surface – more is there, but it can’t be truly grasped at once. Everything has it’s place, but it’s impact will always be temporary and vaporous. Some things will go ‘viral’ and will catch people’s attention in a way where it will be arbitrarily related to life in various ways, fading quickly and surviving only and at most as memes, the meanings of which will ultimately be lost eventually. It is egalité to it’s a-logical end where everything has a place but the place is the same for everyone and everything. It is from this realization that I started writing about celebrity deaths. There are so many online column inches and so many hours of dead TV time that whenever anyone dies it’s always an unqualified tragedy, because that is how we talk about death and there is space to be filled. Memories are cleansed, #RIP’s are typed, and the essence of the person is lost either in simplified degradation or ill-deserved plaudits. All deaths are the same and are discussed the same way, whitewashing dark histories or recent irrelevance and overestimating importance for those that didn’t earn it in life, simultaneously, as the ever-expanding arena of the internet and 24-hour news media invites reactions. That sounds callous, but it’s true that some lives had more impact than others, and as meaningless as mourning is, I struggle with the reality that whenever a celebrity dies, they are mourned almost by protocol – a tweet, a blog, some time on the news, maybe, depending on the cycle, and then on to the next death. This new mourning is just another framework we have created, and though doubtlessly sincere in the main, it has become an evolved routine demanded by the way we consume and regurgitate information.

Steam Pray

All we have are hashtags, and why do they ask us to pray? Credit:

Never before has it been so quick and easy to access news and the fallout of news. Within hours of people’s last breaths there are reams of speculation, tributes (short, easy to read tributes) and in some cases, leaks of emergency recordings of the morbid discoveries. Imagine then, the (still well intentioned) almost necessary levels of uniformity in the aftermath of a disaster or terrorist attack, when the victim’s aren’t famous and there’s little to be said about them individually. Understandably, reactions are of shock and sorrow as well as the ever present ‘Pray for…’ hashtag. #PrayForParis, #PrayForBrussels, #PrayForNice. We pray for victims, or cities, or countries, or at least say we do, after the attacks, as if it is useful. We hashtag as if satisfying a check-mark, maybe alter profile pictures with national flags, until we update it with another cause or tragedy. People are sincere in their fear and sadness, but the prevailing ways to express that are very limiting, in terms of space, and expectations. The news is 24/7, available in all formats, and something must be said. News outlets ponder why such attacks happen, and then broadcast politicians explaining that those responsible hate x’s way of life. Prayers, sadness and fear, again and again. As with everything else, it is vast, pervasive, and without depth, millions of people doing a bare minimum. Steam is a routine of massacre and counter massacre, and the thoughtful, meaningful reactions to them just suffer from numbed diminishing returns, swept up by the gutter press for clicks and influence simply because that is what their medium, and their business, has evolved to demand.

Arguments used to happen in physical arenas – marches, stages, pubs, parliament, etc., and still do. The difference now is, for better or worse, that no argument prevails. Whether you’re point of view is moral, mainstream, radical, or dangerous, there is a place for you to have and share your opinion without true critique. If you’re a socialist, a feminist, a meninist, a fascist, a pacifist, a Eurosceptic, a racist, a libertarian, a conservative, a liberal, or a moderate, there is a selection of websites, hashtags and movements, some more taboo than others, for you to share your beliefs and have them supported with confirmation bias. Everyone is a silent majority, typing very loudly somewhere in our vast, flat culture but rarely penetrating consensus. For every action or event there is a flacid routine of action, reaction, reaction to the reaction, and ultimately a meme that will soon be forgotten in the next cycle. While this sounds critical – and I am certainly lamenting it to a degree – I reiterate that it’s neither good or bad, it’s an amoral part of human evolution that has affected our culture. While I lament how part of that affect is making our culture more of an indistinct vapour, it is absolutely great that people have more ways to express themselves.

Our culture encourages and celebrates routine and labels, but renders them near meaningless in practice by ruthlessly partitioning to the n’th degree creating more frameworks that are simply imagined constructs which represent us exhaustively; so exhaustively that the representation serves to highlight our differences as much as our variety. I preface this section by saying that I neither judge anyone or expect anything of anyone’s sexuality; it’s not my business, and frankly, I don’t care. I say that because again, this will sound like a criticism when that isn’t intended, it is merely a recognition of another way our identity has been spread as wide and thin as the spaces and opportunities for us to express ourselves have. It is generally seen, and understandably so, as progressive that people can define their sexuality however they want – people identify themselves in a multitude of ways from heterosexual, to homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, demisexual, polyamorous, and several more distinctions beyond. It is fantastic that people can identify themselves more clearly an comfortably than ever before, and as with political identities, there are more and more places to find people with similar identities, thanks to the various places people can present themselves. There is however something about all of these labels that seems strange to me. Sexuality seems to be more outwardly fluid than ever before, but it also appears that there is something of a burden for people whose sexuality is more fluid to identify themselves. It is this fluidity that has created so many more sexual labels, while trying to label something like sexuality seems increasingly to be restrictive folly. Complex sexualities are nothing new, but the labelling of them is, relatively speaking. I speak purely for myself here and certainly from a point of privilege, but my view of identity, tolerance, and harmony has always been that the labels, and the consequential expectations that come along with it, are confining, no matter how exhaustively they are tailored and created. You should be able to desire someone, and express that desire without having to justify it to a sexuality based on the other person’s various identities. That’s just my view though, and people like to – and should, if they so wish – label themselves, so it will likely never happen, and there will always be a place, in our ever vaporous culture to express yourself.

Steam news 24

The news cycle both on TV and off, is endless and all-pervasive while barely telling us anything credit:

On the surface, this expanded capacity for expression would be good for our consumption of news, but in reality, the overload of information we suffer from has led to a neutering of the news cycle. A consistent theme of 2016 has been that it’s been ‘crazy’ with the amount of celebrity deaths, disasters and tragedies, and it’s appeared as if every day brings another earth-shattering headline. Whether the stories behind them are particularly new or unusual – I imagine that at least to some extent, they are not – is an issue for another article, but what I personally believe is that the space with which to present news has actually made it less nuanced. News and current affairs has become just another cottage industry, presenting ‘content’ as quickly as it can – all news is breaking news, and all breaking news must be reacted to; if not, the other providers will win. But when the news cycle has to stay so fresh, where people expect the pundits who help shape their insight, the news becomes a limp, background propaganda which serves only those at the top of media and political empires. What’s embarrassing is that it’s probably not part of some great plan, it’s just the free marketeers and career politicians doing their job, doing very well out it, regardless of how it affects the populous.

The last month or so has brought with it huge sea-changes to British and international politics – just naming the more significant ones, the UK voted to leave the European Union, the government and opposition have held simultaneous leadership contests, there is a new Prime Minister, an official report has found that an entire war was undertaken on a false premise and the former Prime Minister behind it was at least somewhat complicit in manipulating the country to action, there have been two well reported terrorist attacks in Europe, there is a small-scale but significant race war occurring in the United States as it chooses a new President (who may turn out to be a crazy racist businessman who has starred in a marquee match at a WrestleMania), there was failed coup attempt in Turkey, and the UK committed to a multi-multi-billion pound nuclear weapons programme. Many of these have occurred on the same or consecutive days, and while they have been treated with due reverence, there is another feeling of routine to the news cycle. Report-Opinions-Counterpoints-Repeat. There’s nothing wrong with that of course except for, again, the sheer amount of space both with 24-hour news and 24-hour alternative media and social media for that cycle to take place in. Everything is examined from every possible angle, but only for a short time; dominant reactions emerge and are reported too by every mainstream news source which more or less falls in line with the other. There is no time to properly react, and endless reactions to be had, and so before the impact of one event can be digested, another event has taken place, and so on, and so on, ad nauseum. Reactions are presented from across the political spectrum, often featuring extreme minority views as strongly as any other, to the point where even the most straight-laced reporting struggles to present a cohesive story. The reaction is as important as the event, the reactions are often vastly inconsistent, and no one really knows what to make of it all.

The recent reporting of ‘Brexit’ is a good example of this. The nuts and bolts of the story are incredibly complicated and multi-faceted and neither the mainstream media with it’s attention defecit nor the social media reaction with it’s lack of credible, unbiased knowledge were equipped to consume and pull together a purposeful understanding of the story. What is easy to consume and readily available though are the opinions of specialist sects and interested parties, and so complicated an issue is it that there were near endless opinions offered related to trade, immigration, the economy, Scottish independence, the UK’s relationship with America, the downfall of  a swathe of political leaders, including the sitting Prime Minister, that no one really knew what Brexit meant – all that was left was shock. Brexit is an especially complicated issue, but it is a microcosm of the whole news cycle – complicated issues being analysed to the n’th degree but without satisfaction until the story becomes quite literally senseless. Many people say they have become numb to the news as they have been swept away with significant and often tragic news, and as the information – and opinion as information – is churned out, always with a place to be churned out to, it becomes impossible to process. Adam Curtis refers to this phenomena from a different angle as ‘oh dearism’ – we pray for Paris, we wonder what Brexit will mean, we witness a new Prime Minister with little fan fare, we say ‘oh dear’ and we move on because something else has happened and has been reported and reacted to already. There is more news, but it’s less distinct. The news cycle churns and the steam builds.

To be belligerent with the keyword, the steam we live in is not morally good or morally bad, it is just a side effect of our evolution creating and storing more information, and there is no practical way to stop or slow it. Our culture is spread thin and indistinct, and as the population and sources of information expand, it will only get worse. That sounds scary and defeatist, but remember that life can be as simple as doing what you enjoy, and there is meaning in that. Watch TV, play sports, write about wrestling – most of it will get lost in the steam once you’re gone, but who cares if it makes you happy, even just for a while? To quote George Carlin, when you’re born, you get a ticket to the freak show, but it’s up to you how much you engage with it all.

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



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.


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.


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).


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)


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)

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


The Last of Us: Playing In the Darkness and Finding the Light


The moment where The Last of Us finally grabbed me. Credit:

*Quick note about this article: I played the ‘Remastered’ edition of The Last of Us so some issues I talk about may not apply or apply to the same same degree as they do to the original PS3 edition.*

With it being nearly three years since The Last of Us was first released, writing a review-come-narrative close up of the game is not a particularly original or timely idea. There is already a lot of material written and created about the game, pretty much all of which lavish praise over the game’s story, gameplay, atmosphere, and acting; many calling it amongst the best games ever created. This article will – spoiler alert – echo a lot of that, but less than a week ago I wouldn’t have written that; in fact, up until last week, I was considering doing something I don’t believe I have ever done – give up on the game, leave it uncompleted, and trade it in. In a vain attempt to promote this article on twitter, I posted that “I’ve never quite had a relationship with a game like I have with #TheLastofUs I’ll explain more in my inevitable upcoming review.”

I think that was taken by my followers as awed preamble to another fawning review of the game, but I was actually referring to my own complex connection with and enjoyment of the game. I got The Last of Us for Christmas (2015, for posterity’s sake) after hearing plaudits from critics and more importantly from friends who enjoyed it. I played it for the first time at the start of January and was, frankly, disappointed. I hadn’t given up on it, but I didn’t pick it up again for another month when I played it for a second time after which I liked it fractionally more but was still disappointed, despite, at that point, being around a quarter of the way through the game – specifically, just after escaping the Boston capitol building and adjoining subway tunnel with Ellie but without Tess. Something about my personality makes it very difficult to leave things unfinished, but I was indeed very close to giving up on the game despite it’s reputation. However, just last weekend, I finally picked it up again, in the hope that I could push through it and write about it anyway, hoping to keep writing about video games anyway. As Joel and Ellie escaped Boston for Pittsburgh though, the game finally hooked me, and for the first time I was keen to play the next day, and the next day, and so on until I finally finished the game yesterday night, becoming more and more invested with each turn. This article will partly try to explain that journey, how this game – eventually – provides the best narrative experience I’ve ever had with a game, and one of the best from any media platform, and I’ll also, amongst all of that, provide review technical aspects of the game.

When making a narrative driven game, developers have certain choices to make about their structure, each of which has strengths and weaknesses: linear or multiple possible paths and endings; controlled levels or open world. In recent years, linearity appears to be out-of-favour and almost treated as a laughable choice, with multiple possible endings being seen as something which provides more of a unique experience and higher replayability for the player but by the time you’ve played through a few different endings, the game’s narrative muddies in to something less memorable while a linear game with a single ending allows for the game developers to concentrate and work fully on one story. Of course that comes with it’s own pressures – if the single narrative fails, the whole game fails. While there is no reason it has to follow this way, linear stories favour carefully designed levels to play through to control the experience the player has, stories with multiple endings, such as Fallout games, for instance) favour the open world, allowing the player to create and naturally direct their own experience. The Last of Us favours a linear story told through a series of controlled, carefully designed levels, and through that risk, the story ends up delivering through excellent, natural dialogue writing, some stunning settings and scenarios, natural tensions, carefully considered metaphorical subplots, and all capped off with the best voice acting and emotional facial capture I have ever seen in video games – and again, amongst the best in any entertainment form.

But I nearly didn’t experience most of that, and that is significant.

While I don’t want to dwell on the weaknesses of the game, rather than just repeating all the plaudits, I am interested in exploring the strange journey I had with the game and why it took me so long to get invested in to a game that eventually got me more invested than the vast majority of games I’ve ever played. To help with this, I watched though a YouTube ‘movie’ of the game, in part, to remember what that first quarter was like, and I do think I came up with some answers.

The opening of the game was very well scripted (both in terms of dialogue and scripted game moments) and certainly emotional as we watched Sarah die in Joel’s arms. The game’s writers managed to draw a very likable character in Sarah in just 15 minutes or so of the game’s opening, helped hugely by playing as her and getting immersed in her experience, and set the game up wonderfully. What happens next is incredibly jarring, and though there is good reasoning for this, it failed with me. We jump forward 20 years and are thrown in to an unfamiliar quest with Joel and a new character in Tess which doesn’t cash in on that opening and gave me little reason to care about what they were doing. The jolt was intentional, and served a purpose – we see Joel, reduced to a form of survival mode that relies on showing no weakness and taking what you want to keep yourself safe. He is irritable and lacks an emotional response to anything. This of course paints a picture of the ‘new normal’ setting, helped of course by glimpses of oppressive force and intimidating threats, both human and infected, but the problem is that this scene setting gives us little to invest in. If Joel doesn’t care about his journey himself beyond a sense of personal duty, we don’t know exactly what threat Robert poses and why, and the setting is well drawn but not much of a stand out from similar survival settings, then why would I get invested as a player. That was where my first play session ended. My second ended after meeting Ellie, deciding to undertake the ‘job’, and Tess dying, and while those big events are certainly significant, they hadn’t hooked me yet either; and while Tess on her own is a great character – a strong-willed, strong-minded character, I think she may have been the reason.

Tess LastofUs

Tess is a great character, but perhaps waters down the interactions between and connection to each character in the early sections of the game credit: screencap from  a Video Games Source video on Youtube.

At this stage we haven’t spent much time with Ellie, and while glimpses of her memorable personality are there, they are dulled by her own mistrust, and hidden somewhat by the adults taking charge of the situation. At this stage, though we know Ellie is significant, and even know why, the fact that this duo are consistently discussing the merits of helping her make her still feel like an item in a fetch-quest. When you get in to trouble as Joel, Tess is there to help rather than Ellie. Joel and Ellie have some time alone, but not much, so their interaction is limited otherwise. After Tess dies and Joel decides to go on, he does so more through his love for Tess and the unfortunate fact that he has nothing to go back to. Our journey has the feeling of more of an impetus, but after quite a sizable amount of game time where I found it hard to comprehend and care about what I was actually doing, I was really wondering why I should bother. It was here that my second play finished and I was considering giving up on the game. I knew Ellie’s importance in the story as the potential ‘saviour of humanity’ but she still felt more like a host than a character, and the world I had seen wasn’t really unique or interesting enough to care about saving. For me, it was after the Boston acts that the game patched these gaps for me and started reeling me in. It was there that Ellie really showed herself as a character worth saving in her own right, and not just for a cure, and that she really became part of a cohesive on-screen relationship with Joel that would only continue shifting and blossoming from there as they were plunged in to more life-changing events that they shared, and survived, together. It is only in retrospect that I can appreciate some of the subtleties and qualities of this opening quarter or so, and while it is great that they exist and they have an effect on emotional reactions to the rest of the game, it is and unfortunate failing in some otherwise near perfect storytelling that they exist and that this section of the game is so dry because of them, at least on a first play-through.

I want to stress again that I don’t have an issue with Tess as a character – she is an excellent character in fact, but to reiterate, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was at my play session after she died – in which we met Bill, escaped Boston and moved through Pittsburgh – that I was finally hooked by the game. In fact it was that Pittsburgh section of the game that was crucial to my connection with the game. What is interesting about that is that Pittsburgh is the only place Joel and Ellie visit that doesn’t serve a particular purpose. They start in Boston of course, they travel to Wyoming to find Tommy, they go to the University of Eastern Colorado in pursuit of the Fireflies and end up in the un-named settlement nearby out of need once Joel is injured and later because Ellie is held there by David’s crew, and finally they head to Salt Lake City because that’s where they are directed  to go to find the Firefly doctors they are looking for. Other than Pittsburgh being broadly on the way to Wyoming from Boston, Joel and Ellie never really say why they go there. Perhaps they are looking for supplies, and the fact that the game isn’t full of immersion-killing exposition is one of it’s strengths, but looking back, there wasn’t even a need to go to Pittsburgh. Despite that, it is the part that grabbed me and led me to complete the game with joy. We have seen a lot of spirit and genuinely funny humour (a rarity in gaming) quips from Ellie at this point, especially with Bill, so we are growing to like her and be used to her presence without Tess to share the limelight with, and it is the point of the game where Joel is given a reason to value, respect, and if not start liking, start tolerating Ellie more.

This game is light on down time, even when not surrounded by enemies, it is rare that you feel safe, but eventhough we don’t see much of it, the car journey from Boston to Pittsburgh allows Joel to wind down a bit and talk loosely about music before his time, and falling for Ellie’s gags about the porn magazine. Immediately upon arriving in the city though, it all goes to pieces. They barely survive an ambush during which Joel’s tone seems more genuinely concerned for Ellie than before and from there on, Ellie both saves Joel’s life and then covers for him against a group of hunters. Joel’s initial irritation at Ellie for not following his direction quickly turns to his own brand of quiet respect when he hands her the rifle to cover him. Until now, he has not allowed her to have a gun, but this marks the point where he sees her as more of a partner in the effort and generally values her more. I think it may be no mistake that that is (by process of elimination) the part of the game where the cover art in which she is carrying the rifle comes from – that is how crucial the section of the game is. After meeting Henry and Sam, another clear moment of bonding happens both for the characters and for the player with the characters – when Henry and Sam cut and run from Joel when his escape route from the hunters fails, Ellie jumps down and stays with him, showing faith in Joel and a recognition of the fact that their fates are now linked. After escaping the sewer section comes the only true bit of downtime in the actual gameplay which comes in the small residential street they come across after the sewers. Joel again is noticeably more tolerant and even friendly to Ellie during the many situational conversations and almost glimpses of normality in the homes. It is also helped by the mirroring of Henry and Sam – you’re not beaten around the head with it, but there are of course parallels in their relationships; it’s most clear when Joel is angry at Henry for bailing on them and Henry – plausibly – reasons that Joel would have done the same for Ellie. This helps soften Joel to Henry which in-turn shows that Joel cares for Ellie. I went through the same journey. I was furious at Henry for making Sam abandon us but totally softened after he helped save Joel and Ellie. It never seemed contrived and made the prospect of failing in the journey or losing Ellie something I cared about and quite a lot within the relatively short amount of time of it all happening. Seeing the tragic end of Henry and Sam only served to highlight, again for both characters and player, the stakes involved in the journey and by proxy, the bond Joel and Ellie had formed, mirrored in Henry and Sam.

I’m not going to go through every event of the rest of the game, but I do want to discuss what made the narrative of this game so strong from here on out. In Wyoming, the main narrative crux of the section is Joel trying to pass on the task of transporting Ellie to the Fireflies on to his brother Tommy. Though it is clear that Ellie can handle herself at a pinch, it is still hard to know she’s on her own, and so when she bolts on a horse, not only do feel guilty for upsetting her, but you want to find her as soon as you can to make sure she’s safe. Apart from the way she almost flippantly announces herself when called in the house despite supposedly being mad and upset which was a little jarring, the conversation between her and Joel when he catches up with her was the first time I teared up. It is such an emotional, difficult conversation in which Ellie explains that she is now so invested in Joel that without him, she’d be scared and that if he leaves, it will be another trauma for her, but rather than him apologising or anything, he doubles down, sternly telling her that she is not his daughter, he is not her father, and they are splitting up. It is clear though, to me at least, that this is him aware of his genuine emotional connection he had grown with Ellie scaring him given his history with his daughter, and trying to protect himself from it either because he wants to forget and not sully his past with Sarah, or because he thinks it will make him more vulnerable. You want to make tell Ellie it’s fine and you’ll protect her but can’t control this broken man in Joel, so when he, in his own obtuse way, changes his mind and decides to go on with Ellie while being able to see her visible relief, it is such a relief. Though it’s been increasingly obvious, it is here that Joel matches outwardly the solidarity that Ellie showed by jumping down in to danger to be by his side in Pittsburgh. In the time between this Wyoming section and arriving at the University of East Colorado, it is clear that the bond is more open, and the quiet time during which we explore the university before engaging enemies there, with the extra relaxation of trotting along on the horse that their bond is now clear and mutual.

That break between scenes and game sections like that are another narrative strength the game has. Especially between Fall and Winter, there appears to be a lot left to the imagination which in some ways, may seem like a kop out. In this case though, it makes wise choices with these gaps, allowing us to fill in gaps that would be less satisfying than if we saw them. They also allow time to pass in our mind which adds to a palpable sense of bonding between the characters, even if we never have to see how it occurs. We see enough of it in the game’s situational conversations and shared experiences that we can imagine countless other ways they will bond without having to necessarily see them. The game is very economical and only shows us what we need to see, letting us fill in some of the gaps ourselves.


One of the most memorable scenes of the game where we are asked to hunt a deer while Joel’s status is unclear. Credit:

The Last of Us is always playing with you, either by keeping you on your toes or freaking you out with red herrings, but also with larger narrative twists. At the end of the Fall chapter, Joel is blue, seriously injured, seemingly not breathing and falls off a horse. I was convinced that he was dead, and so cutting to playing as Ellie, with Joel nowhere to be seen, it’s only natural to assume he is dead. The Winter chapter doesn’t hold any events really crucial to the narrative arc, but the shocking events therein and the circumstances of them achieve some very important things. The scenery is so beautiful and the quiet stalking of the deer requires such focus that is juxtaposes the shock and trauma of what you’ve just seen so well that it forces you to reflect on what has happened and the implications of it. Fighting with Ellie is fascinating as she is strong, capable, but still more vulnerable. She is wily and deadly, but needs a more desperate attack to knife people and takes damage more easily. Her physical vulnerabilities are obvious, but it is clear that she is strong and able to look after herself. This section is another one that is sold narratively like the end of the game – it being winter, church bells ringing, fires burning around you, and switching between Ellie and Joel to a crescendo all rings of finale. When we leave Joel with the building Ellie is in in sight, we know he is coming and assume he will save us, but what is brilliant is that Ellie saves herself and kills David before Joel arrives. The whole scene is fantastic, but what it does is put in to sharp focus that Ellie doesn’t need Joel to survive. That isn’t to say his role in her life is undermined – he makes her feel safe, he hasn’t abandoned her, and is precious to her, but when it comes to the ending of the game, the fact that she can look after herself takes away a lot of ambiguity in the choice Joel has to make.

Then the ending finally comes, and it’s confusing, devestating, and perfect. We have the remarkable cut from Ellie bludgeoning David and seeing her bloodied face as Joel consoles her, to her standing solemnly looking at the image of the deer which is both calming but also reminiscent of that memorable Winter section. Ellie is preoccupied, not able to focus on Joel and the final push of the journey; to me, I felt she was weighing up her future and what her role in humanity’s future might be, just as Joel clearly was later when he suggested going back to Tommy’s. The environmental conversations throughout the game provide a lot of depth to the characters and universe, showing Ellie’s disappointment in the world she lives but hope for the future, marked against Joel’s gritty acceptance of it as a place in which to survive. But one here is very foreboding in retrospect, and I think reflects Ellie’s mindset. After seeing a picture of an airplane on the side of a bus, she recounts a dream in which she is on a crashing plane; she makes her way to the cockpit, wanting to save them but can’t because she can’t control the plane. I’m no analyst of dreams, but it seems a fair metaphor for her role in humanity. The lives of many depend on her, and she wants to save them – unfortunately, the control is about to be taken away from her, allowing the plane to crash, or humanity to fail. Ellie is this distant like this until one of the game’s most famous scenes. The game plays with it’s own mechanics brilliantly when you go through the animation to give Ellie a boost and she doesn’t appear, so deep in her own thoughts. This is a brilliant way to show you that something very weighty is going on with Ellie and it is followed up by what I am in the minority in thinking is one of the game’s weakest moments – the Jurassic Park style discovery of the giraffe. Don’t get me wrong, I understand, appreciate, and was moved by the meaning of the scene – that the event shows Ellie the beauty of the world and that whatever she wants, the journey must come to it’s conclusion, it must achieve something. The power, for me, comes – again – from Ashley Johnson’s remarkable performance of the scene, not the actual sight of the giraffe which I thought was a bit laughable. I can believe, of course, that giraffes could still exist, but how did a whole herd wind up in the middle of Salt Lake City? For a video game that shows incredible fidelity to it’s universe, it was a very heavy-handed metaphor which stuck in my craw a little. The meaning was clear though, especially given the way Ellie becomes more comfortable again after the sight and a serenity comes over the play – Ellie is ready to do what she has to do to save the world for humanity, and despite not knowing what that entails, she is not conflicted anymore. While it’s clear she wants to share all of that with Joel, it is also clear that doing her part is her first priority.

This is the height of their bond, and after Ellie has come to terms with her fate of going to the Fireflies, Joel is much more giving of himself, open to talking about his past, and as a player, this change made me more invested in their relationship. It is in this final section where two specific things happen which will always stay with me. The first is when Ellie passes on the picture of Sarah to Joel. Joel rejected this early on but now that he has accepted Ellie as a surrogate daughter (for lack of a better term) it is clear he is starting to heal emotionally. He is ready to get this task out of the way and go on to life a better life with his brother, daughter, and in a place with a new hope. Shortly after, Ellie says a line which for me, for some reason, is most devastating in the context of the whole story, she says something along the lines of ‘after all this is over, how about you teach me how to swim’. Ellie not being able to swim is a fantastic conceit for a few reasons, but one is that it allows this to happen. Both of these moments are very foreboding but also implanted within me as the player some understanding for why Joel would do what he does. Not only would Ellie dying after she has helped him heal emotionally totally destroy him, but he knows that she had hopes for the future too and wasn’t necessarily expecting to die. So when it becomes clear that her fate is to die, moments like that come to mind and make it even more painful.

After getting through the most infested area in the game, and barely surviving an accident in the water in which Ellie is rendered helpless, we go through the rollercoaster of finding out we’ve made it to the very much alive Fireflies and that Ellie is safe before quickly discovering what that means for Ellie’s life. If you’ve connected to the characters as I did, you experience something close to what Joel does – you think of this girl you’ve given you’re life over to, you think about the swimming lessons, and you think about not being able to save another child. You don’t have a choice here, it being a linear game, but it is a role-playing game in which the role-playing is understandable, even if you don’t agree with it, and so you go on your final run to stop Ellie from being operated on.

Game advertisements often spray around platitudes about examining choice and morality, about exploring ‘shades of grey’ but often only achieve this by giving players choices. Despite the fact that it seems near self-evident that choice would explore these dilemmas more effectively, that actually isn’t my experience. In the Fallout series, for example, there are very difficult choices to make at times, but I usually find that the replayability allows me to do multiple playthroughs role-playing as what I deem a ‘good guy’ or a ‘bad guy’ and to me, the ability to play through each style kinda waters down the gravity of these choices – everything is fluid and temporary because you don’t have to stick with that choice if you’ve saved and don’t want to. In a well-written linear story like this, where both points of view are understandable and the reaction of the character you are playing with makes total sense. This is a strength of the writing throughout the game – even when someone does something shocking, it makes total sense in the context, and it was crucial that Joel’s attempts to stop the surgery made sense for the ending to make sense. It seems to be the experience of many players that when they reached the operating room, they wanted to somehow back down. It is telling of the incredible writing and characterisation of Ellie that a character who becomes so beloved is one who you essentially want to die because it is now clear to you that this is right, and what she would want.

But you’re Joel. Joel says at the end and other characters echo it at different points, that everyone finds something to fight for. Joel has lost Tess, he’s left Boston, and all he has is Ellie. Ellie has given him a genuine reason to live, filled a 20 year void in his life, and helped him to start healing. For Joel, and for the player, the shock of the revelation that she has to die, the aggression of the Fireflies, the fact that Ellie never said she wanted to lay down her life necessarily, and the knowledge that this relationship which you have cultivated must come to an end justifies cutting through the Fireflies perhaps, but when left with the scenario right in front of you of stopping the surgery, and after having time to consider it all when getting there, it is something hard to go ahead with. Whether with vigour or with hesitation, you are forced to go ahead and do something it is hard to agree with, and it is the feelings involved with that that really confront you with moral ambiguity. You run down the corridor with Ellie in your arms in a clear, circular mirror of the opening scene with Sarah. Joel couldn’t save Sarah that time, but this time, regardless of any context, Joel will ‘save’ Ellie. He has to. It’s a relief, in a way, because you’re so attached to Ellie, but you also realise what that means in a larger context – that without her consent, Joel has selfishly robbed Ellie of her destiny, of what she has found to fight for. We understand, but in case any question remained about Joel’s betrayal, it is cleared up in the game’s final moments.


The memorable, almost heart-breaking ending which we see from Ellie’s perspective during gameplay. Credit: screencap from a SchwartzJesuz video on YouTube


In a game filled with memorable, emotional moments both big and small, the game succeeds in making it’s very final moment it’s most powerful. It would be easy to bodge a happy ending from this, but the bravery of the developers to go for an ending that was honest to the setting, the characters, and allowed the player the opportunity to be confused, infuriated, and moved forever. The direction of the scene does something simple but perfect. You play as Ellie. Generally in the game, you play as the person who is guiding the action and (to an extent) looking out for the other character. When you play as Ellie in Winter, she is either protecting Joel or herself, and when you are her again at the end, while there is no combat or challenge, it is important because it makes it clear that Ellie is now the stronger of the two and that Joel is reliant on her. You walk through the woods as Joel gleefully talks about how like his daughter Ellie is and how excited he is to spend the future with her and you see it through the eyes of Ellie, knowing what he has done to her to achieve this. I believe personally, also, that it hints further at Ellie knowing full well that what Joel said happened wasn’t the truth, so to see him speaking like this from her perspective makes us react just as she is reacting, with anger and a tinge of almost pity for this almost childlike character Joel has become.

Then Joel lies to Ellie’s face, and it’s a gut punch. A gut punch followed by another as Ellie responds ‘ok’. The ‘ok’ response deliberately gives the player enough ambiguity to come up with their own meaning of it – whether or not Ellie believes him or not and what it means. To me, I am convinced that Ellie knows Joel is lying but that, despite that, after thinking about it, Ellie realises that she loves Joel now as a father figure, the only person she has left, and that, imperfect as it is, she can live with that. Joel mentions that you need to find something to fight for. His actions preserved his reason to live, but robbed Ellie of hers, and that is the greatest betrayal. Her survival guilt isn’t just because she feels guilty that her friends died and she didn’t, it’s because her friends died, she didn’t, and her survival meant nothing. We see her struggle with that, but accept it, and then we’re left to live with it. It’s perfect.

Video games have an advantage over other storytelling mediums in that they make you the driver in the story, the person controlling the characters, even if their future is pre-determined, and so you are inherently immersed in the game more than a movie, TV show or even book can – that is why they have such promise as a medium. The Last of Us is one of only really a few games which show video games starting to live up to that promise. It’s a shame that the pacing at the start was difficult for me to get through, and it is a weak spot of the game for sure, but especially once you get past that, the dialogue, direction, attention to small details, and set pieces are near-perfect and it creates a story that is among the most memorable and powerful in recent memory, without the asterisk of it being a video game or not.It takes a tired, over-used setting of essentially a pandemic apocalypse, uses many of their well-worn tropes, but delivers them in a way that is so powerful that it feels fresh and memorable.

Playing As the Last of Us
I’m no expert in things like A.I. or user interface or combat, so you’ll have to forgive me for a lack of technical knowledge, but as a gamer, I can comment on what I enjoyed and didn’t, and what I think worked.

I spoke early on about how I struggled to connect with the game early on, and perhaps the teeth skin that kept me interested enough to come back that crucial third time was enjoying the basic combat, and most specifically, the way you have to manage your combat throughout to survive. In most games things maybe start of scarce but as it goes on, you become overpowered both in strengths and also the amount of guns and ammo available. Here, there are maybe half a dozen guns and a few extra weapons, and at any one time, you’ll have a few available to you, and even then the ability to use them is limited. From there, very naturally, you approach combat much more tactically, which is my preference in gameplay. You switch from stealth to some form of first person combat very fluidly, and between the excellent, raw, sound design, the brutal, raw animations, and the imperfect but satisfying gunplay, the combat feels desperate and visceral. It is something you want to avoid if you can, but can be fun, satisfying, and rewarding once you end up in the middle of a battle. Tactical thinking expands to the different sorts of enemies. Again, with enemies in this game, less is more – there are human attackers, infected runners, clickers, and bloaters, and each one has different strengths and weaknesses. Humans are smarter and will flank you, but are less visceral, furious fighters; runners are the smartest of the infected, and can see, but don’t have the intelligence of humans and aren’t as dangerous as the other infected; clickers are the most infamous enemies, and are much more dangerous in that if they get you, they kill you instantly and early on, your guns basically wont work on them and you can only really kill them with shivs which require a much more up-close attack, but they are attracted to fire, so a molotov cocktail can take multiple down even without a lot of accuracy and they can be distracted much easier; bloaters are the toughest enemy, eventhough you only come across a few, they take a lot more damage and have the same instant kill threat, but they are slower, so you can strafe and sprint away to set up enough attacks to eventually bring them down. Dynamic enemies mixed with dynamic, satisfying attacks makes the combat very satisfying for the most part, while the whole aspect of managing your resources throughout places it well in the apocalyptic setting.

A quick issue with the clickers. They are certainly memorable enemies, but I do have an issue with their whole explanation. It is explained that they see by using sonar, but this doesn’t match up with my experience of them. If they saw with sonar, they should have been able to see me in any room they shared with me while clicking, and not be able to see me if I was in a different room. In my experience, clickers seemed to be able to chase me between rooms at times eventhough I should have become invisible once in a new room, and at other times they seemed oblivious, eventhough I should have been visible to them regardless of noise being made. What it played more like was that their hearing was made super acute in lieu of their vision. I adjusted to this, but especially early on, it affected my play-style, leading to some frustrating moments and deaths, and it is a rare lack of care from the developers.


The crafting interface is a simple, flowing interface which really adds to the urgency of the game. Credit:

A quick note about the interface and crafting as they’ve been said by pretty much everyone who has played it, but the simple interface for your inventory and crafting is wonderful and realistic. Not only do you only have a few kinds of weapons to use, but you can only use two guns at a time – because you only have two hands. Few games put that sort of effort in to their realism, and it only adds to the visceral combat sections. If you run out of ammo with the guns you’re holding or you feel you need to change your weapon, you can, but you need to go in to your backpack and take the time, defenseless to make the switch. It’s a decision, and one you have to get right. Similarly, it would be strange in this setting to not scavenge for materials , and not try to craft things to help you. There isn’t much about to scavenge, and when you do, you have to make yet more choices. The most common example is the best – do you make a health pack or a molotov cocktail? It depends on your style and gambling on what you think might be round the corner. Not only that, but crafting and using these materials, like with changing guns, takes time. Especially using health kits. If you want to use a health kit, you can, but you need to do it from a safe place because it seems, again realistically, to take a fair amount of time to do so, during which you’re defenseless. The way the interface barely interferes with the flow of the gameplay and only adds to the combat experience is to be applauded as a huge strength.

Relatedly, another elephant in the game though is the A.I. The developers certainly had some choices to make with the A.I. because combat, and especially stealth, with a partner raises some issues that, in this game, required a compromise which can be jarring. The enemy A.I. will only engage in combat when they see you personally, so at times, Ellie and others can be running around right in front of enemies and they won’t respond or react, only to enter combat when they see you. The alternatives have their own negatives, but it really jars with the desperate atmosphere of the combat and the realism of the game more generally.

On the plus side, the NPC A.I.s have their strengths, too. I’ve already mentioned how the enemies have different strengths and weaknesses within their A.I., but Ellie especially as a companion has a very strong A.I. She warns you and assists you in battle in a way that makes total sense and actually helps you. Though it plays a smaller part of the relationship in this game, and her level of help is different, it reminds me of your relationship with Quiet in MGSV. When you’re without Quiet after she’s been helpful by your side so consistently, your bond with her becomes undeniable, and that is also the case with Ellie. It’s more subtle, but knowing she’s by your side, doing what she can, plays a part in building the bond between the characters.

The final thing I will mention about the gameplay is the puzzles that occur throughout it. Initially, these were a fun aspect of the gameplay, not super challenging, but always rewarding. At times, admittedly, this would feel repetitive and frustrating, especially at the points where I was struggling to get invested in the game, but they provided much needed quiet time in the game. Another problem I had with the game initially was that before I cared about the story, the constant feeling of fear or paranoia about what could happen made the experience exhausting and one part of the game where I could relax the most was when I was placing a plank or a bin or a ladder. Another reason why the swimming-based puzzles were so important were because they not only made Ellie feel somewhat vulnerable but also played in to the sort of life someone would have after this sort of outbreak, where it would be harder to learn to swim, and finally, because after so many instances of it, it made the powerful dialogue where Ellie talks about learning to swim  make contextual sense and give it more power.

I’ve discussed a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses of The Last of Us that many reviewers and commenters have discussed, but still seem to have had what seems to have been a minority experience with it, playing it and not really enjoying it twice in two months,and then getting hooked, completing the game within days of my third playthrough, and getting so invested in the incredible story that I’ve written a huge article about it.

There’s no need to rehash what I’ve said before, but apart for the section between starting to play 20 years after the pandemic and Tess dying, the story works incredibly well. I’ve never seen voice acting and animation near the quality of that in this game. The gameplay is a lot of fun, but without the incredible narrative, acting, and direction, it would be a fun but pretty bog standard game. This is an example of how linear games can be the most powerful form of storytelling. Movies or TV shows or books don’t (or very rarely) do this, and we don’t expect it from them, so why I see the benefit of choice in games, the risk of creating a linear story can pay off hugely when done correctly. Only a linear story can create a story this powerful and memorable because that is the only arc the developers have focused on. They haven’t had to write multiple endings, trying to share different kinds of power and emotion. That final conversation is the sort of thing that will never leave me, and i’m glad I haven’t seen an alternative ending to bleed in to that.

I can imagine some cool future sequels, but i’m not sure I want them. I know enough of the characters to understand the potential issues they will come across in their future, but I don’t need to see that. I’m also not sure I need to play it again. If I do, it would just be to experiment with different difficulties and play styles, but I feel satisfied for now and for a long time. The game and it’s story is lodged in my mind forever. That’s amazing given I was so close to not even picking the game up again so far through, but I am so glad I did because as a game player, a movie watcher, and a storyteller myself, it is one of few experiences I’ve had in storytelling media that I’ve loved so much that I’ve just fallen in love, not been able to stop thinking about, and wanted to to write about and see emulated more and more.


WrestleMania 30: Daniel Bryan and Letting the Good Times Roll

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Bryan celebrating his iconic moment, and a moment that will stay with me forever. Credit: Bleacher Report

I wasn’t expecting to be writing a new post for a while. I was close to writing an article about the incredible documentary ‘Unforgivable Blackness’ related to Cam Newton’s journey to Superbowl 50, but was beat to the punch by a writer at the Washington Post, so with the excitement of the Superbowl and the slow play-through i’m experiencing with The Last of Us, I thought it would be a while until an idea came to me – perhaps waiting until WrestleMania 32 for inspiration. Tonight though, I find myself writing about WrestleMania 30 instead; an event I will always feel privileged to have attended, but now for an extra somber reason, that reason being that the show’s undoubted star and main draw, Daniel Bryan, has announced his retirement.

This article will be a much more personal reflection on my admiration for Daniel Bryan, and the direction of booking and decision-making in the WWE, all crystallized in this event which is one of the most vivid and treasured in my life. I’m like millions of people, young and old, across the world who grew up watching wrestling, and especially WrestleMania, and it seeming like a different world representing the pinnacle of life. I couldn’t even imagine being at a WrestleMania as a kid growing up in Britain – it was something that other people went to, an alien world I could only dream of. Growing up of course, it seemed more and more like an achievable dream and with more years behind me and a job which paid just enough to afford me the opportunity, I started thinking about the dream of attending WrestleMania.

This article will focus a lot on Daniel Bryan, but he is only one half of this story as the real draw for my attending WrestleMania – this WrestleMania – was The Undertaker. Even as an adult fan exposed to the light and dark of the business, The Undertaker still seemed other-worldly to me. He was never my favourite wrestler and I never really liked hearing him speak, but he made my hair stand up on end. All the platitudes about him are true, or at least nearly all. He is a phenom, he is the greatest character of all time, he is WrestleMania. With WrestleMania 30 coming up though, he was clearly slowing up and it seemed to me that he could retire at any time; the window to see the ultimate wrestling spectacle I could imagine – The Undertaker at WrestleMania – was closing. The decision to go cost me the most money I’ve ever spent at once and quite possibly a relationship, but especially now, learning of Daniel Bryan’s untimely retirement, I have absolutely no regrets.

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The reason I was at WrestleMania 30, The Undertaker makes his chilling entrance. Credit:

As I look back at this event, it seems to me that it symbolises in it’s two most memorable stories, two approaches to booking and making wrestling shows that can coexist (as they did in New Orleans), but only when there is a sincerity and organic process behind them – an ideal which was already eroding in WWE long before WrestleMania 30, and which feels yet further abandoned just two years later in the build up to WrestleMania 32. Starting with The Undertaker, he is perhaps the perfect realisation of an aspect of wrestling which will never truly go away, and that is the larger-than-life, gigantic characters. ‘Taker is certainly the last of a specific generation of over the top, cartoonish versions of this, but the distinguishing factor of such gigantic figures is still attainable, and indeed is still attained by characters like John Cena, The Rock, and Bray Wyatt. These are characters that, in some form, seem like an ‘other’ being, characters who exist almost outside of the rest of the ‘universe’, yet still affecting everything in it. Unfortunately for WWE, and all promoters, this isn’t something you can simply book a wrestler with – they have to exude it. With Rock and Cena, it’s a ‘star’ power – they’re like superheroes, acting as deux ex machinas above the action, impenetrable and constant. Despite the lack of material he’s given, Bray Wyatt, to his credit, has retained this quality. Though he frequently loses, his ability to command your attention, and his extra bit of venom both in and out of the ring, makes his arrival on any stage noteworthy and potentially chilling. Then you have the Undertaker, a wrestler who barely seems human, even when his own mortality is plainly obvious. A man who has been wrestling for longer than a huge chunk of the audience has been alive, a spirit with powers beyond that of any other, who held a streak unfathomable even in a sideshow where the results are predetermined, and man who’s entrance you could watch dozens of times and still get goosebumps because decades of destruction have trained us to know that when The Undertaker glides to the ring, something significant, and by virtue of the man, historic, is about to take place.The Undertaker is wrestling in it’s purest form: accepting a universe, ignoring the different realities behind the man and the ‘story’, and watching a force fight for something, good or evil.

I had fantasized my entire life about it, and then standing in the Superdome in New Orleans, a house of voodoo, glory, and suffering, I heard the gong, and I fought back the tears. Outside of his matches, it was possible to view Taker a bit more bluntly. I knew he wouldn’t lose, not that I wanted him to, and seeing The Streak itself was the privilege. Of course, the secret to The Streak was the years of genuine history behind it which made it so precious. Away from the match you didn’t believe he would lose it, but every year the character was put in to situations where we believed he could lose; we’d gasp at near falls, hearts racing having been given a taste of the end of The Streak without actually losing it. But then I watched as it ended. I’ve never felt anything quite like it – the exaggerated reaction shots after the three count weren’t anomalies, they were the norm, it was me. I was shocked, even a little angry but stunned in to silence; and then I realised, later, that the only thing that afforded more privilege than seeing The Streak, was seeing The Streak end. That feeling can’t be manufactured. You can’t take two people at random, say they are suddenly important, and expect it to feel important. It was wrestling at it’s purest and it worked because it had the right players involved, and over 20 years of history behind it.

Before there was a ‘Divas Revolution’, there were things like the ‘Vickie Guerrero Invitational’, a throwaway excuse to get all the divas WrestleMania airtime. It’s was a sorry use of talent, but on this occasion, the sort of conceit that was necessary. I feel sorry for the women involved because the audience was somewhere between dead and angry throughout the match. It provided an opportunity with basically no consequences to consider to reflect on the history witnessed and start to come to terms with it, because following it was the main event, and a magical moment in the career of a magnificent wrestler.

The term ‘wrestler’ feels inseparable from Daniel Bryan. He shares some traits with the big characters mentioned earlier, but above any of that, the main trait he is defined by is his humanity. I don’t think there has ever been a more relatable guy who is so easy to like and root for. He’s not super, he’s not a phenom, he’s like us, but he’s just also the best wrestler. That last bit is crucial to what makes him significant, and what made him significant that night in New Orleans. He wasn’t just a guy the WWE picked to be ‘the best wrestler’, he was the best wrestler, and that formed his whole story there. I’m not sure exactly to what level this was true (WWE did sign him after all), but it was clear that the WWE didn’t see Bryan as a WrestleMania headliner and that, to an extent, they had little interest in pulling the trigger on him because he didn’t fit their historic requirements, the requirements that fit, funnily enough, characters like The Undertaker. As mentioned before, I bought my ticket to ‘Mania to see The Undertaker, but as it approached, I was struggling to be excited about the main event. Batista had been brought back and quite obviously handed the Royal Rumble and a spot in the WrestleMania main event. It was a transparent booking decision and left many fans feeling flat, and many feeling downright angry. The scornful response to Batista’s Rumble win started a trend that has continued ever since, and that I will discuss more later, but it was a direct response to an ever-increasing scrutiny of WWE booking which had been accelerated with CM Punk’s ‘Pipebomb’, was dancing the knife-edge between reality and story, and finally topped over when the most popular guy on the roster was being overlooked by a returning star we were being told to be thankful for.

That reaction at the Rumble was unprecedented though, and again, though I don’t know how resistant WWE were to Bryan being made the face of WrestleMania that year, they were all but forced to alter their plans to avoid a flop with their first WWE Network WrestleMania. In retrospect, as soon as Bryan was handed the stipulation setting a path for him to possibly win the title, it perhaps should have been obvious that WWE would follow through with it. It didn’t feel that way at the time though. To me it seemed like the WWE, both in story and in reality had it in them to give us the Bryan bait and switch to try and placate fans while still getting to the same result. The desire for Bryan to succeed was obvious in the furious ‘Yessing’ throughout the build up to and matches at WrestleMania 30; for the years he had spent in WWE to that point, spinning very ordinary yarn in to gold both as a wrestler and as a personality at the centre of mid-level storylines, he had shown a mainstream audience what made him an ‘indy darling’ and they were ready and hungry for him to achieve that ‘WrestleMania Moment’ to validate it. So we watched the predetermined wrestling take place before us, hoping ‘our guy’ could finally get his moment at the expense of the established norms of Randy and Batista. This too, was wrestling in it’s purest form.

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The Rock is stunned by the hateful reaction Roman Reigns got after his 2015 Royal Rumble win. Credit:

Though this was more obviously tied to backstage booking, it never felt just like a booking decision, it felt like the culmination of a journey, and even if we felt it was WWE finally getting behind Bryan, it was because they were forced to, and not that they were the ones presenting Bryan. Bryan’s mixture of years of toil, natural and overwhelming likability, and his obvious passion for what we were passionate about made this all possible, and while WWE helped frame a perfectly-told culmination of it, it was part of an organic process where Daniel Bryan was the only person who could close that show covered in confetti. Like with the huge, larger-than-life characters, WWE couldn’t just have picked anyone and made them Daniel Bryan, they needed Daniel Bryan to tell an incredible story. That story filled an almost palpable void left by the end of The Streak, and the Yessing after Bryan’s win was one forged from relief as well as joy. Though Bryan and Undertaker are two very different characters, what makes them work is the same as what means they can coexist in the same universe – if you tell a story naturally, letting the performers exude what makes them work, almost whatever you do with them will work, because we’ll trust it, we’ll go with it, and we’ll let the good times roll.

As clean (though slightly contrived) as that end would be, unfortunately, it leads to a second and more negative point about how WWE continue to make booking decisions in the main. While WrestleMania 30 became an instant classic because of WWE’s acceptance of Bryan’s earned place at the top, it resulted in them becoming even more obsessed with booking to manipulate the audience. It may be that this is just what they’ve always done, including with Bryan, and that they are as smart as their success suggests, but in the two Rumbles following WrestleMania 30, it seems like WWE have failed quite badly in creating similar organic journeys, and at the centre of it all is the beleaguered new face of WWE, Roman Reigns. There is nothing new about what i’m about to say so I won’t dwell on it, but Roman Reigns is nearly everything you could want from a megastar, right down to his blood, but he lacks one thing, the validating journey to the top.

In The Shield he became incredibly popular, partly due to how cool The Shield was, but also on merit as an athletic powerhouse punctuating their beat-downs. It was a good first step on his way to stardom, but then when The Shield broke up, he was simply plugged in, without much delay, as a top star. Perhaps in the past this could have worked, but in this era where booking is scrutinised, Reigns has become stuck somewhere between the two types of star earlier described – a near unstoppable superhero (right down to the Superman Punch), and a trod upon everyman. The problem is that while he has the look, size, and athleticism to be larger-than-life, he lacks the charisma and personality to command respect and attention against other interesting characters, and he certainly lacks the organic journey to validate him as an anti-authority firebrand. Most infamously, at the 2015 Royal Rumble, he was booked like a superhero but couldn’t pull it off, and with that as the case, it came across as an almost cold business decision by WWE, just as it had with Batista the year before and he received just as much ire, even with the support of The Rock. In retrospect, the appearance of The Rock probably made things worse as not only did Roman compare unfavourably to a successful (among the most successful) superhero archetypes, but it also smacked of him getting validation through nepotism – something which goes against the organic hero archetype. It seemed like Roman was on a straight path the WWE Championship, and as the audience reacted with ire similar to that suffered by Batista, it transpired that Seth Rollins left WrestleMania 31 as WWE Champion instead. Whether that was the plan all along, or whether it was a second amended WrestleMania main event in a row, it highlighted the Royal Rumble as a booking decision rather than a special part of the Road to WrestleMania. Eventhough it has always, of course, been a booking decision, it has never felt so palpably so until these latest years.

Even this year at the 2016 Royal Rumble, the spectre of Reigns and how to book him overtook the whole thing. The booing started as soon as Reigns entered, and the fans became truly invested when he was eliminated. Though Triple H has gained a lot of good will with great recent matches and his nurturing of NXT, it is still hard to believe fans accepting a Triple H win and WWE Championship reign in 2016 in any other context than it was him instead of Reigns. Perhaps the only way for WWE to avoid this in future years is to exclude Reigns from the Rumble match and have him in regular matches instead for a couple of years to disassociate him from it’s recent history of frustrating booking.

The problem is wider though. Even if WWE are masterminding these booking controversies to get their stars over, it isn’t a sustainable model, and in what I fear is the more likely scenario, they’re trying to replicate previous successes without the right people or organic journeys. It’s not that Roman can’t be a star or tell stories, but he needs to tell his story, not Steve Austin’s of Daniel Bryan’s or whatever vague roguery he is going for here. I don’t know what that is, but I do know he’s an incredible and marketable athlete and with some significant, organic storylines behind him in which he can develop a layer or two, he could be what WWE so desperately are begging him to be too early – a superstar. In the mean time, they are spoilt for choice with people who could be stars if they let them embrace their creative side and what makes them worse. Let Bray Wyatt talk dark and specifically about what he’s doing and go wild with it, for instance, let Sasha Banks talk about being The Boss, let Kevin Owens loose away from just his (great) in-ring rants, and perhaps most obviously, let Cody Rhodes do whatever he wants, either as Stardust or as Cody. Rhodes is a sad example of WWE smothering talent with their narrow view of booking. These are examples, but it goes for everyone. Give them something to do, let them express it, and watch the talented ones rise to the top as either a phenom or organic hero.

Just to refocus finally on Bryan, that night was one of the most special nights of my life and he will always have a huge part in my heart for that, as well as for the rest of his career. It’s a shame that it was also really a short stint in the position he deserved before starting on his injury-related spiral to today, but it’s an accomplishment – one of many – that can never be taken from him. He is so popular because of how down to earth, passionate, funny, and quietly confident he is, and it is for that reason that his retirement has led to such upset and tributes. The notorious line in wrestling is that you can make friends, or you can make money, but with Bryan, no one has a single cross word to say about him. That’s a sign of the man he is, and though I harbor fantasies about him staying involved in wrestling in some way, I am glad he’ll be able to choose his destiny rather than run himself further in to the ground, whether it be my dream of him being an entertaining, neutral GM like Mick Foley, or him settling down with Brie and watching as a fan. Whatever he does, he deserves our thanks, and has left an indelible mark on an iconic night in wrestling history.