We’re now deep enough into Heels to get a feel for the show’s storytelling rhythm, which alternates between episodes centered around DWL show days and those set during the workweek, when characters deal with the fallout from the last show and plan for the next while coping with the struggles of their everyday lives. During this week’s episode, “Cutting Promos,” Heels becomes a sober drama about a small town full of emotionally exhausted people coping with tragedy, identity, and financial hardship — as well as the fact that their favorite escape from their anxiety is also what’s feeding it. Last week’s episode used the common setting of the DWL Dome to force all of the characters’ subplots to brush up against each other. This week, the characters are more spread out, but the intricate causal and thematic connections feel all the more natural and inevitable.
He’s a Show-er, Not a Grower
“Cutting Promos” opens with the story behind Wild Bill Hancock’s viral social media moment that we glimpsed only briefly in last week’s episode. At the New York offices of a major wrestling federation whose logo is conveniently unseen, Bill attends a meeting in which a smiling, clueless executive unveils their new championship belt, redesigned with LED lights to make it a more appealing toy for children. (For the record, WWE Smackdown Women’s Champion Naomi once added LED elements to her title and it was wicked cool. No official toys or replicas of the belt were produced.) Indignant over the suits treating the title that he and his friends broke their bodies to win like a piece of cheap merchandise, Bill steals the belt, gets roaring drunk on an airplane, and then makes a display of himself during his flight wearing it — and nothing else — under his signature robe. (This is evocative of a significantly worse real-life incident from the infamous 2002 “Plane Ride from Hell” during which Ric Flair wandered a chartered 747 in only his robe and allegedly sexually assaulted a flight attendant.)
Videos of Bill’s dick swinging below the new belt make the rounds online, putting him in the doghouse — or, rather, at Willie’s house, where he is a familiar face to her family. Willie and Bill used to be a couple, which Bill thinks gives him status over her wealthy but exceedingly bland husband Ted and makes him a weird sort of uncle to her daughter Robin. In fact, there’s no one in Bill’s life to whom he isn’t an object of pity or embarrassment. His manager tells him that he’s squandered his money, his bosses at the company release him from his contract, and shortly thereafter he picks a fight with Willie and gets thrown out of the house. With no one for company but his bad habits, Bill checks into a motel, gets plastered, climbs onto the roof, and howls. Actor Chris Bauer brings his best to Bill this week, imbuing this sad cartoon of a man with a soul, drowning it in a bucket of toxic sludge, and begging you to go fishing for it.
Desperately clinging to his delusions of grandeur, Bill seeks validation from Ace Spade, the one person who he thinks might still have some reverence for him. Ace’s heel turn has placed him at an emotional precepace, and Bill encourages him to embrace his rage and frustration like he’s his own personal Sith Lord. Ace witnesses Bill, who is high on oxy and pounding beers, intimidate some local pool players and pass it off as a kayfabe-imbued exorcism of his ugliest feelings. Even Ace can see how pathetic Bill is at this point and the idea that Bill sees himself in him isn’t as encouraging as it used to be, but he’s also in a very vulnerable place and looking for something to do with his own feelings. Bill promises him that his anger is the fuel that will take him to the big time, and that temptation may be too great to keep him from turning to the dark side.
All Faces Go to Heaven, All Heels Go to Hell
A small electrical fire (caused by Jack’s neglect for his household responsibilities two episodes ago) forces Jack, Staci, and little Thomas out of their house for a few days. Too strapped for cash to spring for a hotel, the family crashes at Jack’s mother Carol’s house, where Ace also lives. While saying grace for a family dinner, Thomas asks God to bless his grandad in Heaven. Carol, a devout Methodist, quickly corrects him — Tom “King” Spade is in Hell, burning for eternity for the sin of suicide. This breaks up the meal straightaway, catapulting everyone present into their character stories for the rest of the episode. Thomas can’t sleep, preoccupied with his grandfather’s torment, but Ace consoles him with a reassurance that nobody knows what happens when people die, no matter how much they insist that they do. Ace is still struggling with his own grief and his own beliefs, but he’s at his best here taking care of someone he loves.
Ace brings this energy with him when he goes down to the basement and checks in on Jack, who is banging his head against the wall trying to come up with a fresh promotional idea for the DWL. Their heart-to-heart brings to light the core of their conflict, that for the past year Jack has been trying to act as Ace’s father, not his brother. Finally giving an inch, Jack allows Ace to contribute an idea for a new, more “cinematic” promo style which results in a truly fun convenience store brawl video building up Ace’s forthcoming match with Bobby Pin. It’s the first evidence that Ace might have a creative spark in him after all, but also a rare instance of him truly collaborating with and appreciating other people. Ace really is trying to take Jack’s advice and lock his heel character out of his everyday life, and as a result Ace seems as if he’s embracing his best impulses for a change. All it takes for Ace to stop being an asshole is for him to put forth a little effort.
Meanwhile, Staci continues her journey towards self-actualization and considers finally getting a job to help with the piling expenses at home. The more time she spends with her mother-in-law Carol, the more Staci realizes that her desire to go back to work is about more than money. Carol simmers with rage at all times and will rarely give voice to why. Staci offers her a friendly ear, and gets a piece of the truth — Tom’s control over their life chipped away at her ability to function alone, to take care of herself and to enjoy her own life, and then he left, suddenly and irrevocably. “I find anger to be more useful than grief,” says Carol, who grieves not only for her husband’s life but for her own, which has been over for much longer. She’s proud of having been a full-time mother, but she has also, in her own words, “given her life to her boys.” What’s left for her? Staci decides not to allow Jack’s pride to lead her to the same fate, and takes a part-time job at the grocery store for starters, with plans to go back to school eventually. Jack, a wiser man than his father, relents from his stubborn insistence on being the sole breadwinner and supports her decision.
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Are We to Believe That His Real Name is “Robert Pin?”
Our “locker room” story this week is between Crystal and DWL’s rookie Bobby Pin, the latter of whom is struggling to develop his wrestling persona. Bobby approaches Crystal for advice on how to craft his gimmick, and the two of them quickly develop a friendship. Bobby is a true himbo — he’s empty-headed, which also makes him free of malice and the casual learned misogyny of his peers. Actor Trey Tucker doesn’t betray any indication that Bobby has a sexual interest in Crystal, he seems to genuinely just look up to her as someone who has a head for wrestling and is fun to hang out with. Realizing what a sweet guy Bobby is in real life leads her to abort his planned rebrand as the nostalgia-driven “Bobby ‘85” in favor of keeping him exactly who he is, a white meat babyface who is easy to root for because his kindness isn’t an act.
For Crystal, Bobby’s “aw shucks” boyishness is a refreshing change from the brand Ace has been selling. Her relationship with Ace, such as it is, has always been about propping him up and taking pride in how successfully she’s helped him get out of his most recent pit of self-loathing. Time spent with Bobby seems to make them both feel good, almost as if that’s the way any amicable relationship is supposed to work. Hanging out with Bobby makes Crystal feel like she deserves better in life, whether that involves Bobby or not. So, when Ace — on a self-improvement kick himself — finally actually asks Crystal out on a proper date after their triumphant promo shoot, Crystal gives a tentative “yes,” but doesn’t throw herself at him as she might have two weeks ago. When Ace drops by Crystal’s place to take her out, he finds that she’s having a great time bouncing on her trampoline with Bobby and leaves, unseen, but not before keying Bobby’s Ford Bronco. (Bobby, naturally, finds a bright side to this immediately. “It kinda looks like a racing stripe!”) Ace is trying to be a good guy in life even as he becomes a bad guy in the ring, but for him, being a good guy takes work. For Bobby, it’s effortless.
Ace goes home to sulk, and when Carol discourages his wallowing, Ace stands firm that experiencing and confronting his darker feelings is much healthier than burying them. Ace confesses to the post-traumatic stress he’s experienced since finding his father’s body, but also that he recognizes the value and purpose of sadness, that sadness tells you that something is wrong and compels you to deal with it. Looking past his own feelings for a change, he urges his mother to confront the things that sent her into despair before Tom had even passed. It’s the most emotional intelligence any character on Heels has demonstrated to date, and while this feels correct for the character as he’s been presented this week, it doesn’t feel totally in line with the Ace we’ve seen in the previous episodes. It feels a little like there are two Aces, one for each version of Heels. On show days, Ace is dim-witted, impulsive, a brat whether he’s wrestling face or heel. On the alternating episodes that focus on Ace away from the ring, he seems to jump several IQ points, revealing hidden pockets of emotional depth. This contrast might be deliberate, but it’s also a little jarring. As Ace closes the episode by falling into bed with the shallow bartender Tracie (Elizabeth Posey, Euphoria), one wonders if he’ll swing right back to being his “weekend” self next week.
“Cutting Promos” is, empirically, the best episode so far, dethroning last week’s. “Cheap Heat” gave us the best of the lighter, more playful side of Heels, while “Cutting Promos” feels more like a show made for and about real adults. Both are fun to watch and I wouldn’t want to see the series shy too far away from either extreme, but one hopes that the two can learn to speak to each other with greater ease. We’ve now reached the halfway point of the season, and Heels has definitely hit its stride. The show’s success going forward will be measured on how well the storytellers are able to maintain consistency and momentum for each of their characters as each foot hits the ground.