This week’s SmackDown concluded the same way Raw started: with one of WWE’s top superstars carted out on a stretcher after suffering a brutal and one-sided beating. Tuesday’s casualty was SmackDown general manager Daniel Bryan, fresh off the announcement that he’d been medically cleared to resume in-ring activity for the first time in more than two years. It was only apt that ass-kicking honors went to heel duo of the moment Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, who spent years cultivating parallel careers to Bryan on the indie circuit, a fact acknowledged Tuesday night during a tense promo that brilliantly built to a spasm of violence. It’s hard to imagine anyone Bryan would trust more with choreographed, running boots to the face and powerbombs off the ring apron than a pair of comrades who — in-character callousness notwithstanding — understand better than most what was at stake: nothing less than writing the first chapter of wrestling’s greatest comeback story.
But what’s intriguing about Zayn and Owens’s assault and Bryan’s requisite shuffling off to a presumed “nearby medical facility” is how unexceptional it was in the context of this year’s WrestleMania build. As mentioned, the previous night’s Raw was off and running with Universal Champion Brock Lesnar pummeling his handcuffed and prone (long story) Mania challenger, Roman Reigns, till the EMTs came to his rescue.
And only six days prior, on the March 13 edition of SmackDown, Zayn and Owens set about their reign of terror with a gruesome-looking onslaught on commissioner Shane McMahon, its horror only mildly tempered by McMahon’s gagging-soundboard antics.
Though in fairness, Zayn and Owens (and, for that matter, Shane and his thoracic high jinks) were merely following the lead of fellow SmackDown bad guys the Bludgeon Brothers, who as deconstructed in this space after this month’s Fastlane PPV, almost broke New Day’s Xavier Woods in two with the help of some steel stairs.
None of the above put a terribly new spin on one of WWE’s most soap-operatic tropes (no one ever really dies!). And it’s not as if anyone truly believes that Reigns, McMahon, Bryan, and Woods (well, maybe Woods) will all be on the shelf for Mania, let alone that their respective assailants would, strictly legally speaking, get away with attempted murder. You could even argue that these kinds of staged incapacitations are in poor taste given the truly thin line between wrestlers’ calculated risks and collateral damage — especially in the case of Bryan. Or, if you wish, that the constant simulation of emergency scenarios is curiously un-PG-rated. (Despite subtle branding shifts into the “Reality” and “New” eras over this past half-decade, family-friendly programming remains a relevant company mandate.) And yet the beatdowns continue — and they’re effective.
The preponderance of punishing attacks is hard to separate from how WWE’s been racing to prioritize its Mania card. A combination of an overbooked PPV schedule (hence the recent decision to cut back on Sunday-night affairs), overcooked angles (see: “Who will Asuka, John Cena, and Shinsuke Nakamura be facing on April 8?”), delicate debuts (ahem, Ronda Rousey), part-timer disappearing acts (Lesnar), and the usual conundrum of unforeseen injuries and other moving parts led to an almost unprecedented lack of rivalries with real juice, and nary time to spare. So what better way to hasten fledgling feuds than by having one party (or parties) maul the other within an inch of their livelihoods? The Undertaker, after all, needn’t be the only competitor capable of rising from ashes.
Yet none of that accounts for how this familiar contrivance resonates with viewers wise to the product’s predeterminedness. Outsized gimmicks (Doink the Clown, et al.) and other vestiges of WWE’s big-top past have all fallen on the sword of post-kayfabe reality. But somehow, we still keep lapping up scenes of carnage like these as if our relationship to wrestling hadn’t evolved since Earthquake caved in Hulk Hogan’s chest 28 years ago. This isn’t an isolated occurrence: Even throughout the grittier, late-’90s Attitude Era, fans set aside their cynicism for absurdist “Buried Alive” matches and actual, kayfabe deaths. When WWE absorbed ECW in the early aughts, it arguably stumbled on a modern synthesis of spectacular entertainment and extreme aggression, a formula that’s had people packing arenas in one variation or another for centuries. What distinguishes wrestling from gladiatorial extremes or contemporary combat sport is its presentation of violence as a virtual reality, not an actual one. In moments like Bryan’s brush with possible paralysis, wrestling affects a bloodless teen-horror movie between the ropes.
Zayn and Owens doubling down with their evisceration of Bryan not only set aside questions (for now) about Shane’s and Daniel’s months-long, simmering adversarial relationships, but instantly clarified Sami and Kevin as Mania’s mightiest heavies (no offense, Brock). Not to mention that Bryan’s already too-good-to-be-happening (but it is!) miracle recovery now has a little scripted, comeback-within-a-comeback magic to give it that spectacular, WrestleMania feel.
Whether Raw’s collision between Lesnar and Reigns, and Reigns’s subsequent pseudo trip to the ICU, helped animate their animosity is in the eye of the beholder. What it did accomplish — with an assist by commentators Michael Cole, Corey Graves, and Jonathan Coachman’s admonishment of Lesnar as a coward — was dictating who we should be rooting for and against when these two square off. (WWE might be welcoming Bryan back with open arms, but it doesn’t seem to have learned its lesson from his original success.) Brock might be the box office attraction, and Reigns has had to contend with constant fantagonist hostility (it’s a whole thing), but in their own weird way, wrestling audiences have always revered the sport’s fantasy of street justice, and they’ll at least not be rooting for the guy who pounced on a man in shackles.
As for poor Xavier Woods, who’s been occupying himself with Twitter polls about toilet-paper dispensation while recuperating, he’s set up for the win-win of either: (a) a hero’s welcome at ringside when his partners Big E and Kofi Kingston presumably tango in a three-way bout opposite champs the Usos and those dastardly Bludgeon Brothers at Mania or (b) a brief hiatus before repackaging or refreshing his character, whether as part of an overall New Day overhaul or his own solo push, something both Big E and Kofi have tasted but Xavier has likely craved.
Fastlane, however, is the distant past. All eyes, and pointed fingers (how is there a gallery of this?), are on the Superdome and what awaits us in a scant two and a half weeks. And to WWE’s credit, all it took to summon buzz for Mania’s headlining matches was confidence in its biggest-name talent and the strange appeal of homicidal rage. Now, at last, we can anticipate a killer show.