Heels is a serialized cable drama, but this week’s installment feels episodic in the best way possible. Set over the course of a single day culminating in a Duffy Wrestling League show, “Cheap Heat” doesn’t contain any major shocks to the status quo of the series but easily and efficiently advances almost every character’s story just a little. Add some in-ring excitement and a guest spot from a wrestling icon and you’ve got the series’ best episode yet.
Sad Stories of the Death of Kings
“Cheap Heat” opens with a content warning about suicide, and then gets right to the content in question. For the first time, we see a flashback to Tom “King” Spade (David James Elliott, Spinning Out) in the flesh, follow him through a routine of exercise and housework, and then witness his decision (sudden to us but obviously not to him) to end his own life. For the audience, this is an effective mislead, as Tom sees a deer poking around in the family garden and goes inside to fetch his pistol. Stepping out onto the porch, Tom looks back out towards the garden and turns the gun on himself. Perhaps this idyllic image of nature is the last thing he wants to see. The teaser adds one additional tragic twist, as Ace discovers his father’s body.
Heels has provided the details of Tom Spade’s death gradually over these first three episodes, and we now know the “what,” “when,” and “how.” We might never know why, though we’re sure to hear some theories in the coming episodes. Suicides are, sadly, not unheard of in the world of pro wrestling, where drugs, concussions, and the cumulative damage of years in the ring can take a terrible toll on performers’ physical and mental health. (One need only to turn to the tragedy of the Von Erich family, who one by one fell victim to a cruel combination of the wrestling life’s worst consequences.) Tom’s death may, in fact, be completely unrelated to these things, but no dramatic series is better equipped to explore them than Heels.
Duffy Residents with Bad Allergies are SOL
This episode also digs a bit more into the psychological dangers of the wrestling business, as the DWL audience punishes Ace for his moment of emotional frailty in the ring. Jack and Ace attempt damage control by folding Jack’s screwjob into the storyline in a bid to win Ace some sympathy and restore some of his pride. Ace attempts to deliver his comeback promo, a pledge to get back up and keep fighting in the white meat babyface tradition, but gets pelted from all sides by Kleenex pocket packs thrown from the stands. Ace never stood a chance — the marks have also come prepared, already resolved to bully him for being a “crybaby.” Ace is drawing serious heel heat, but for a grossly unfair reason. The crowd has determined that he can no longer be a hero because he has violated the strict, regressive rules of masculinity upon which wrestling is built.
Wrestlers and fans come in all genders and ideologies, but the language of the medium is still deeply rooted in mid-century manliness. A babyface doesn’t complain that life is unfair — they may acknowledge that it’s unfair, but not complain. They don’t back down from a fight even when that fight is ridiculous, accepting whatever plainly unbalanced conditions a heel might set for their next contest and resolve to win anyway without compromising their own honor. They may cry after a great victory, but not after a defeat. (Unless they’re Johnny Gargano.) There are always exceptions and storytelling conventions are made to be broken, but DWL is an old-school promotion and the audience has old-school expectations.
Ace bared his soul at the end of the last DWL show, and has been mocked mercilessly as a result. The fact that tears are a totally normal human response to having your brother try to destroy your career in front of everyone you know is immaterial — the rules of American manliness have never bowed to what is reasonable, least of all in wrestling. Now, Ace has no choice but to turn heel, but he doesn’t have the confidence or emotional fortitude to separate his reception in the ring from his own self-image. The heel turn offers Ace an excuse to close himself off both in and out of the ring, which can only be bad for him.
Where Can I Order Ricky Rabies Ice Cream Bars?
In an effort to draw back fans who were disappointed in last week’s DFW show, Jack books himself a match against popular indie wrestler Ricky Rabies (Phil Brooks, better known as CM Punk, who just a week ago announced his long-awaited return to wrestling). Ricky brings along his son Wolfgang (Stone Garcia, older brother of Roxton Garcia, who plays Jack’s son Thomas) and his valet Vicky Rabies (Bonnie Somerville, Blue Bloods), who at a glance seem like the perfect wrestling family. Wolfgang and Vicky actively participate in Ricky’s gimmick and they all clearly take pride in their work together. Brooks is capable in his somewhat cartoonish role, totally fitting into the heightened reality of the show, but the Heels makeup team absolutely deserves a round of applause for effectively covering his dozens of recognizable tattoos. And, of course, it’s great to see Brooks working in the ring, even as a different character.
Ricky and company add some of the same novelty to this episode of Heels that they bring to DFW, but more importantly cast a harsh contrast to the extended Spade family’s constant turmoil. In Ricky, Jack sees someone who has overcome two of the biggest challenges in his own life: he’s made wrestling his living, and he’s (seemingly) made his family a part of it. Ricky’s son Wolfgang beams with pride over his father’s character and career, and Ricky has found a way to include him in the process without even having to put his body in jeopardy. As part of Ricky’s entrance, Wolfgang pilots a drone wrapped in the pelt of a dead possum that spits fake blood, clearly a combination of their two passions that makes them feel like a team. Jack’s wrestling career does nothing but drive a wedge between himself and his wife and son. This week, Staci tries to take the weekend off from Jack’s world only to have it intrude into her night out with her friends. Her curious buddies end up dragging her to see DWL, and the night becomes all about her husband, as usual. Thomas does not even appear in this episode.
Vicky Rabies shows Crystal a glimpse at her possible future as the long-term partner of a professional wrestler, and it’s not exactly what she’s hoping for. Vicky pitches Crystal on a very old-fashioned sort of relationship that seems to satisfy her. “You treat your man right,” says Vicky, “there’s no telling where he’s gonna take you.” After Ace’s redeeming promo is met with jeers, Cheryl consoles him in the manner he tends to prefer — with sex. The illusion that this is going to get her any closer to the life she wants is quickly shattered when it’s revealed that Ricky is actually married to somebody else, and that Vicky starves herself in order to keep her position in his life. Faced with the reality of a life in service to a man, Crystal begins to reevaluate her relationship with Ace. Crystal’s pursuit of her own wrestling career goes unmentioned in this episode, but her need for independence has never been more clear.
Under the Dome
“Cheap Heat” is the first episode of Heels to take place primarily during one of DFW’s events, and that means we see substantially more wrestling than the show has provided so far. We’re treated to snippets of a match between real-life wrestlers Chuck Devine and Danny Flamingo, and a piece of what looks like a great fast-paced hoss battle between DWL regulars Apocalypse and Diego Cottonmouth of which I would have loved to see more. We also get a fair chunk of the bout between Jack Spade and Ricky Rabies, and an entertaining main event in which Ace Spade turns heel to squash DWL’s greenhorn Bobby Pin. It’s all very much abbreviated in favor of advancing the backstage drama, but only in the way any sports movie or TV series would stick with the highlights. It’s exciting to watch something that we’re used to seeing in a sports-style broadcast from new angles and with a different editing sensibility. No doubt this also helps to hide the relative inexperience of the Heels cast and any use of stunt/wrestling doubles.
Occasionally, Heels cuts away from the action so that a character can explain what’s happening aloud in a very unnatural way. Intellectually, I understand that this is in order to acclimatize viewers for whom Heels is an introduction to wrestling, but surely it can be done more gracefully than it is here. Apart from these moments, “Cheap Heat” is a flattering depiction of the joyful controlled chaos of a small wrestling event, with Staci’s trio of friends standing in for skeptical newcomers won over by the pageantry and athleticism. An uninitiated viewer could walk away from this episode with a much clearer understanding of what fans enjoy about wrestling than they started with. (If only poor Staci was having this much fun.)
The member of the DWL roster who we don’t get to see in action this week is Rooster Robbins, who finally confronts Jack about his place on the card and gets exactly the answer he expects: “You’re great, but it’s not your time.” Rooster, we discover, has received versions of this reaction from every promotion he’s ever wrestled for, and he’s worked for quite a few. Rooster, who is Black and Puerto Rican, has been performing since he was a teenager, has always been a reliable standout midcard wrestler, and has been passed over for main event opportunities again and again in favor of big white guys — even very mediocre ones like Bobby Pin. This is a common fate for smaller, high work rate wrestlers and for wrestlers of color in particular. (It took Kofi Kingston 13 years and 21 midcard championship reigns to get his main event push, and he’s considered a success story.) Jack expects that Rooster will quietly wait his turn and might well believe that turn will come, but clearly takes Rooster for granted. Jack doesn’t have to be willfully racist in order to perpetuate this pattern, but the pattern is racist nevertheless, and if it goes unchallenged he will fail Rooster just like every promoter before him.
The question is, if Jack & Ace’s storyline is going to remain Heels’ ongoing main event, where will this leave Rooster in this show’s narrative? There’s an unfortunate correlation between the place Rooster occupies on the DWL card with the proportion of space that he takes up Heels, and all attempts to justify it fall into the same trap that Jack does. He only gets five minutes per episode, but hey, he’s a good supporting character. The show’s not about him, it’s mostly about these other people. Okay, why is that? Oops! Don’t be surprised if Rooster’s big moment comes at the very end of the final episode, a stinger after Ace and Jack’s climactic match that promises Rooster will get his title shot… next season.