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How Bray Wyatt Went From Cult Leader to Mr. Rogers

On Monday night, Wyatt returned to WWE with puppets and a sweater. Could this be a master class in the beautiful art of the gimmick change?

WWE/Ringer illustration

Bray Wyatt has never been much of a solo act. Some wrestling characters thrive in isolation, their motivations never wavering from pure and uncomplicated self-interest. Wyatt always seems to need someone or something buzzing around him to complete the package: Rowan, Harper, Braun Strowman, Matt Hardy, and the accoutrement of his elaborate entrance—cheering fans are one thing, but Wyatt’s “fireflies” have the feel of a backing band, a rare crowd participation moment for a dastardly heel. Bray Wyatt alone is like a man talking to himself in a subway car after 2 a.m., all apocalyptic bluster signifying nothing. After a lengthy absence, Wyatt came back Monday with a whole new cast of supporting characters, but instead of mostly mute bodyguards designed to intimidate, this new, eerie, Mr. Rogers–esque Wyatt is flanked by a couple of puppets presumably designed to enthrall children and sell merchandise. He’s Travis Bickle as the host of Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

It’s a unique character reboot for WWE, one that acknowledges Wyatt’s history rather than mercilessly starting from scratch. The puppets are named Mercy (after Waylon Mercy, a ’90s character that influenced the Wyatt persona) and Abby (after Sister Abigail, the dead woman that, according to WWE lore, gave Wyatt his superpowers). Wyatt even referenced his past misdeeds for which he was “barbarically punished” and his slightly heavier frame in the first full “Firefly Funhouse” vignette for this character rollout.

Wyatt certainly needed a refresh after a brief run with the WWE Championship in 2017 and a minor tag-team story line with Matt Hardy last year. He’d flashed across the WWE universe like a comet in his 2013 debut, culminating in a match with John Cena at WrestleMania 30. It was a match he lost, which began a noticeable trend of losses in major pay-per-view encounters. Programs with high-profile foils like Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose, Cena, and Randy Orton tended to end with Wyatt doing the favors. He could afford it, the thinking went, because his character was so compelling and vibrant. He’d never be in danger of dropping in audience esteem, until he inevitably did, thus necessitating this new iteration of Bray Wyatt—still macabre and mysterious, but with something resembling a sense of humor, for better or worse. This new Bray is meant to be for kids, seducing them with smiles and silly music, but with a persistent sinister edge. What are we meant to think about this? What does any of it mean? More importantly, was it really necessary to change Bray Wyatt this much? What was perhaps one of the most unique and memorable characters in modern wrestling history has been set aside, placed under a piece of glass that reads “Break in Case of Nostalgia Pop.”

Refurbishing Bray Wyatt could not have been an easy choice to make. At a certain point, wrestling characters become set in stone and incapable of being fiddled with. In the early ’90s, former WCW executive vice president Jim Herd wanted Ric Flair to cut his hair and become a Roman gladiator named “Spartacus” in order to refresh what he felt was a stale character. After all, Flair had been on top since the 1970s doing variations on the same act that whole time. Flair, and everyone else in the wrestling business, thought Herd was out of his mind. So Flair went to the WWF until 1993 and remained the same old Nature Boy for another three decades. The very idea of changing Ric Flair is so abhorrent to anyone with an appreciation for wrestling that it has never been broached again—and the mere inkling of Herd’s proposal is almost lost to memory.

Not everyone stays as static as Ric Flair, though. Characters like Chris Jericho, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, the Undertaker, and Hulk Hogan have undergone varying degrees of evolution with varying degrees of success. The Undertaker famously ditched almost everything about his undead mortician character to become a grizzled biker. Miraculously, he didn’t miss a beat, even if he was riding a motorcycle to the ring while Limp Bizkit blared over the arena speakers. Jericho never seems to stop evolving—from the flamboyant Ayatollah of Rock ‘n Rollah to Y2J to his current horror film-inspired AEW/NJPW look—and somehow it works every time. Hulk Hogan’s hugely lucrative NWO heel turn might as well have been a different character all together, even if some of the mannerisms stayed the same. Steve Austin’s change was more subtle—from anti-authority superhero to paranoid supervillain with almost no aesthetic differences—but far less viable than Hogan’s. (This was, of course, after several major repackagings before he became the “Stone Cold” we all know and love.) The difference is, while Jericho morphs just before he turns stale and Hogan went bad long past the Hulkamania sell-by date, Austin changed years before the audience was ready to move on. In fact, one could argue that fans have never and will never move on. Austin is more Flair than Hogan—immutable, unchangeable, and forever.

Bray Wyatt is probably hoping to be closer to the Undertaker or Chris Jericho than Austin or Flair. The first “Firefly Funhouse” vignette is the work of a performer who doesn’t appear to have much interest in settling for what’s been done before, to the point where he took a chainsaw to his old gimmick in the video. But that’s always been his M.O. Bray Wyatt went from the floral shirts and Waylon Mercy cosplay to gothic, grungy dystopian, draped in the heavy symbolism of a leather butcher’s smock. Some things never changed (the music, the hat, the lantern, the cryptic promos) but the look didn’t remain static. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Wyatt would choose to take the character into a totally different world.

Of course, what we call a “character” in pro wrestling is really more of an archetype or a tiny shade of humanity rather than a full-color picture. What we’ve all been coerced into calling “sports entertainment” is a distillation of pure emotion: rage, revenge, romance, and redemption. It’s a tale told with the arms, the legs, and the eyes. The interior life, the life outside of the ring, or the places these people have been before wrestling don’t matter. Backstory is extraneous. Bray Wyatt is from nowhere ,and he became a children’s TV host because that’s who he is now and for no other reason. Wrestlers are characters in the way that Mickey Mouse is a character: He does a certain set of things that you like and want to see over and over again.

This is what Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, and other top guys instinctively understood. Once the formula is perfected, use it until the well is dry. Hogan eventually went back to the red and yellow. Austin gave up the villain act and settled into a comfortable schtick of cracking beers and riding ATVs when his body wouldn’t let him wrestle anymore. Richard Fliehr is only Ric Flair to most wrestling fans (and to himself). The appeal is in how uncomplicated these characters are. Bray Wyatt has always been more than that—a charismatic cult leader with shifting motives, a heel who wants to be adored, a supernatural entity whose backstory is complicated and totally unknowable. Bray Wyatt has never been explained or rationalized; the viewer is forced to read between the lines—or, better yet, fill in the gaps with their own imagination. Wrestling leaves very little open to interpretation, because it’s meant to play on your emotions so that you feel what they want you to feel. It remains to be seen whether this new Bray Wyatt is meant to be cheered or booed, or whether his character has changed apart from just his delivery and his audience. Frankly, though, that’s irrelevant. Bray Wyatt has always been whatever you want him to be.

Dave Schilling is a Los Angeles–based writer whose work has been seen at The Guardian, Vice, Bleacher Report, New York Magazine, and Grantland.