At the end of the series premiere of Heels, DWL Champion Jack Spade broke from his own script and applied a legit submission hold on his brother Ace in order to sabotage his chances of leaving town for the big leagues. This week, he has to deal with the aftermath of this stunning betrayal, which has put him in hot water with his family, his fans, and his roster. As one might expect from the second episode of any series, “Dusty Finish” digs deeper into each of the characters and conflicts introduced in the premiere and establishes the new status quo under which the rest of the eight-episode season will presumably operate. Where “Kayfabe” presented what makes each character damaged or edgy, “Dusty Finish” reveals what might make each of them worth rooting for.
Ace in the Hole
Ace Spade lost both the match and his dignity when Jack put an early halt to their thirty-minute main event, burying him in front of a scout for a major wrestling company. The image of him crying in the center of the DWL ring being pelted by garbage has made the rounds in the internet wrestling community, killing the heat that might have helped lift him out of Duffy, Georgia. Worse, he’s now the town laughing stock, and that’s before he gets fall-down drunk and booed off the stage for a slurred, tearful karaoke performance. Having the one thing he had going for him stripped away has forced him to stare into himself and see just how little is there, which sends him spiraling into a deep, dark depression. Last week, I described Ace as “a loathsome good old boy who doesn’t deserve our pity,” but it didn’t take long for actor Alexander Ludwig to bring out a side of the character that I legitimately feel sorry for. For once, Ace is not fully responsible for the pile of shit that he’s sitting in.
The episode belongs just as much to Crystal, who becomes Ace’s only source of emotional support in the immediate aftermath of his humiliation. This puts her at odds with Ace’s mother Carol (Alice Barrett Mitchell, Billions), who is infuriated as much by Crystal’s support for Ace’s wrestling career as she is by the couple having loud sex in her home. Carol was a wrestler’s wife and is now a wrestler’s widow, which has taught her to detest the business and the way its fiction tends to leak out of the confines of the arena. Carol assures Crystal that her “partnership” with Ace is not real, which we know was true as recently as last week. Crystal truly believes in Ace, but based on his past behavior, Carol is right. If restored to his confident self, he’s likely to resume screwing around immediately.
When Ace goes missing on a bender, Crystal accompanies Jack to search for him, offering her the opportunity to spend some time with the man who stands between her and her dream of being a pro wrestler. They swap stories over their shared history as children of alcoholics, Jack is forced to show some vulnerability, and Crystal continues her attempts to prove that she’s “one of the boys.” (Is there a more masculine-coded habit than chewing tobacco?) The bonding exercise is complete when Crystal, Jack, and Ace all put aside their differences to defend the honor of pro wrestling against some belligerent bar patrons, a fight that ends with Crystal landing a shoot headscissors takedown on a man twice her size. It’s enough to get Crystal a tacit welcome into the family, but it remains to be seen whether or not it’ll earn her the spot on the DWL roster that she deserves.
The Lawnmower Man
Last week’s episode depicted Jack Spade as a master of destinies, the king of the rugged little hill that is the Duffy Wrestling League. This episode opens (after a totally gratuitous “This show is on cable!” sex scene between Ace and Crystal) with Jack returning to the life he lives during the week — that of a regular working stiff muddling through an unfulfilling job selling ride-on mowers at the local lawn care store. After mismanaging a sale, Jack gets dressed down by his boss Tim (Steven Reddington, The Resident), a 26-year-old who inherited the business from his grandfather. Tim is a jerkoff, but he’s also correct when he asserts that Jack is not good at this gig. This is nothing Jack doesn’t know. His resentment for his subservient position in a boring business is palpable, and it’s truly a wonder that he hasn’t gotten his ass fired.
It’s totally understandable why this side of Jack’s life had to be saved for the second episode, but seeing what his 9-to-5 is like is essential to understanding and sympathizing with him as a character. How many of us have had to sell 40+ hours a week to a job where we absolutely do not feel like we belong, just to have the necessary support to work the rest of our hours on something we love? There’s a special despair that comes from being really good at something and knowing that it’s not valuable enough to pay your rent, and seeing that despair in Jack humanizes him greatly. Jack’s commitment to DWL isn’t just about his perceived obligation to his father nor the joy of creation, performance, and local celebrity, nor even the sense of control that he obviously relishes. If Jack ever gives up on professional wrestling, then he’s just a lousy lawnmower salesman for the rest of his life. This fear reads loud and clear long before he gives voice to it near the end of the episode.
Of course, even if he was just a lawnmower salesman, he’d still be a husband and a father, two roles in which he’s performing nearly as poorly. For his wife Staci, it’s getting harder to ignore that being a family man is not enough for him. This alone isn’t a crime, of course — plenty of people need both a satisfying work and home life to feel complete. But, remember, it’s Jack who insists out of old-fashioned pride that Staci should not get her own job, and then spends his salary on new pyrotechnics for DWL rather than a new mattress for the master bedroom. His priorities are clear, and the pursuit of his passion is coming at her and little Tommy’s expense. Evidence of Jack’s neglect towards his immediate family has been racking up in the form of an overgrown lawn and a pack of squirrels invading the attic, and after waiting for Jack to step up and see to these responsibilities, Staci finally decides that if Jack won’t act like the “man of the house” that he claims to be, she will. This episode solidifies Staci as the show’s most reasonable person, and hopefully this development will lead to some satisfaction for her and some consequences for Jack beyond simply having less work on his plate at home.
Workers of the Ring, Unite!
There’s no in-ring action this week, but we do get a little more time with the DWL locker room as they react to Jack’s big swerve. As Rooster Robbins (Allen Maldonade, The Last O.G.) points out, it’s hard to trust a guy who’s willing to betray his own brother. Rooster is a high-flying cruiserweight who feels undervalued by management and is thinking about jumping ship to Florida Wrestling Dystopia, DWL’s closest rival. Apocalypse (former NFL linebacker James Harrison) is the roster’s elder statesman, a former DWL Champion whose reign ended unceremoniously due to his substance abuse. He’s since gotten sober and is grateful to the Spade family for his second chance. Apocalypse is certain that Jack will be receptive to Rooster’s grievances if he submits them in good faith. Given how we’ve seen Jack treat his workers so far, I’m not so confident.
Rooster is actually in a pretty strong negotiating position, since there are apparently only seven guys on the entire permanent DWL roster. (We saw some other faces and masks in the ring last week, who I guess we have to assume are day players from the local wrestling circuit.) As far as we’ve seen, DWL is just Jack, Ace, Rooster, Apocalypse, the league’s #2 babyface Big Jim Kitchen (Duke Davis Roberts, The Good Lord Bird), masked sweetheart Diego Cottonmouth (Robby Ramos, in his first significant screen role), and the incredibly obtuse new guy Bobby Pin (Trey Tucker, likewise). Big Jim becomes a father in this episode and has told Jack he’s retiring from wrestling to focus on supporting his family, but Jack spies a bouquet from rival FWD’s promoter in the maternity ward where Jim’s wife has just given birth. Whether he retires or moves on, that brings the roster down to six. It’s hard to imagine running a weekly wrestling show with a cast this anemic, and Jack is going to need to hang onto every performer he’s got.
Which, of course, means winning back Ace. The morning after Ace’s bender, Jack convinces him to return to the fold by appealing to their common fear of becoming small town nobodies. This conversation does not include an apology, but an admission that they need each other and a concession that their relationship will have to involve more cooperation going forward. Jack agrees to grant Ace more creative control over his character and storylines, and immediately regrets it when he hears Ace’s first demand — he doesn’t want to get booed ever again. This is a bad attitude for anyone who wants to be a professional wrestler (paging Rhonda Rousey) but is particularly problematic given that Ace’s reputation in town is in the tank, and his recent tirade against a crowd of jeering barflies has revealed his natural talent for trash talk. Jack has no choice but to agree, but Ace will surely recognize his true destiny as a smug shit-talking heel in short order.
This week, Jack turns down an offer from Florida Wrestling Dystopia’s Charlie Gully (Mike O’Malley, who is also Executive Producer) to buy out the DWL. Gully is framed as the show’s overarching villain, a carpetbagger with a grudge who’s come from up north to put DWL out of business. There’s clearly some history between Charlie and Jack that we’re not yet privy to, but Heels casts aspersions not only on Gully himself but on his promotion’s hardcore brand of wrestling. When DWL manager Willie meets with Gully, she accuses him of talking down to poor Southerners with sensationalist trash rather than giving them the rich stories they really crave.
The debate about whether the use of barbed wire or fluorescent light tubes dulls the artistry of wrestling is not a new one, but framing this as a North/South culture clash is a weird position for the show to take. The South has a long and celebrated history with the bloodier side of wrestling that only dried up after Ted Turner consolidated the Southern territories under corporate ownership in the late 1980s. (When I consulted with Fanfyte editor Colette Arrand on this issue, she sent me a grisly photo from 1983’s Last Battle of Atlanta steel cell match. “Look at how much the state the show is in hates blood!”) This episode’s title evokes Dusty Rhodes of all people, a Georgia wrestling legend whose forehead was basically leather from blading.
This strikes me as the show needing to come up with a reason to demonize Gully and his promotion, to set them up as the big dog with poor taste and anyone who sides with them as sell-outs. (God forbid Big Jim or Rooster should jump ship to a promotion that might pay them more than a pittance to throw their bodies against the unforgiving canvas again and again.) In any underdog story, we need to establish why those who are higher up the ladder are less worthy than our protagonists, and there are a dozen reliable ways to do this that are torn right from reality. In all honesty, Gully having blown into town to maliciously destroy DWL would probably have been just as good, maybe even better, were he running a promotion that was a carbon copy of what Jack is doing only with more money behind it.
Instead, this becomes a battle for the soul and artistry of pro wrestling that holds one genre over another. Wrestling is a medium through which a wide variety of stories can be told, and like any medium, a lot of one’s enjoyment comes down to personal taste. I’ll admit that I don’t enjoy hardcore matches very much and that I tend to avoid them, but that’s a matter of personal taste. It’s no less “wrestling” than death metal is less “music” (though I’m sure you’ll find people who disagree). If we’re being totally honest, pro wrestling is a descendent of carnie traditions and there’s nothing more purely “wrestling” than doing whatever’s going to put the most butts in seats on any given night.
Characters are allowed to have tastes and preferences and the audience doesn’t have to agree with them. (Rooster and Diego, in fact, seem to think FWD is really cool.) But of all the storylines teased so far in the series, I’m most curious to learn about the personal drama between Charlie Gully and the Spade family. If this grudge really is just rooted in some unkind words Jack said on someone’s YouTube channel, that’s going to be a great disappointment. The territory war between DWL and FWD is a secondary conflict on the show, but it’s also the main long-term threat to our protagonists, analogous to the white walkers in Game of Thrones. (Remember how that turned out?) If we’re going to get invested in this feud, we’re going to need something a little meatier than a “slobs vs. snobs” conflict in which the protagonists are on the side of snobbery.