Heels Episode 8 “Double Turn” Recap & Review

When Heels first began, I praised its first episode for delivering “the best parts of wrestling that aren’t wrestling — the soap opera, the family strife, the backstage squabbles — with a level of accuracy that is simplified for the uninitiated but not totally insulting to the smart marks in the audience.” Over the course of its first season, its family drama has gotten richer and more realistic while its depiction of pro wrestling has gotten significantly dumber. The season finale, “Double Turn” continues this trend, pairing the most interesting character conflicts and ending with its most sloppy and ridiculous wrestling climax yet. 

Big Brother is Watching

Like last week, “Double Turn” opens with a flashback to Jack and his father butting heads over Ace. This time, a pre-teen Ace lobbies for Jack’s attention and affection, to which Tom responds by getting territorial and physically wrestling Jack to the ground. The vignettes spaced out over the past few episodes have solidified that the primary source of conflict on Heels is the commodification of Ace Spade. Ace has great physical gifts and an innate charisma, but has lived with the perception that he’s too foolish or fragile to make his own decisions for so long that it’s become true. In Jack’s eyes, anyone else trying to use Ace is exploitation, but Jack trying to use Ace is protection.

We then pick back up where “The Big Bad Fish Man” left off, with the present-day Jack standing over a bloodied Charlie Gully in front of a packed Florida Wrestling Dystopia crowd. Ace decides to help Jack flee the scene, and a real-life Backstage Brawl ensues. On the drive home to Duffy, the Spade brothers air out all their dirty laundry, with one notable exception: When Ace asks Jack if he planted the tissue packets in the crowd during his would-be comeback match, Jack won’t dignify the question with a response. This is a pretty transparent deflection, but Ace lets it go. Staci, on the other hand, learned the truth about this last episode and has consequently taken Thomas and gone to stay at a friend’s house for a while.

Coming home to an empty house should be a wake-up call for Jack, but even after he and Staci finally talk in person the following night, nothing’s really changed. Staci calls out Jack for his “devious puppeteering” (a fantastic turn of phrase), and Jack can only respond by congratulating himself on its success. Jack is entrenched in the position that he’s his brother’s keeper because his brother needs keeping, that Ace is unstable and needs to get his fuckups out of his system in Duffy, where the stakes are lower, before he can be let out into the world. The drama on Heels often feels lazy, but never where Jack and Staci are concerned — the scenes in which Staci confronts Jack about his behavior and he attempts to justify himself are consistently the best written, best performed in the series. The season ends with Jack still in the doghouse, where he belongs.

Heels

Everyone’s Happy, That Can’t Be a Good Sign

Meanwhile, the rest of the DWL family prepares for the big day. Ace looks to apply some of the emotional growth he’s accumulated (and retained!) over the past few episodes and try to make amends with Helen (Atlanta actor Tatom Pender), the convenience store clerk who he bullied for her weight back in the second episode. Alexander Ludwig gives his funniest performance of the season in a scene in which Ace apologizes for his behavior with the absolutely unshakable confidence that he’ll be forgiven (he isn’t) and then gleefully congratulates himself for the effort. Ace’s positivity manages to lure his best friend and recently retired wrestler Big Jim Kitchen (Duke Davis Roberts, The Good Lord Bird) back into the fold for at least this show, which doesn’t have much narrative utility but contributes to the overall positive energy going into the state fair.  Hell, Willie Day is even seen getting along with her daughter and husband in this episode, diffusing the conflict that was highlighted last week in favor of establishing a feeling of “What could go wrong?” in advance of the climax. 

Rather than let Crystal miss out on the state fair entirely, Wild Bill Hancock offers her a cameo in the main event as the latest incarnation of his longtime valet character Bunny Bombshell. Bunny Bombshell is a non-speaking, non-wrestling sexualized accessory — exactly the sort of role Crystal has been trying to escape — but she decides it’s better than nothing. By the way, remember The Dad, the other wrestler who auditioned last episode to work the state fair? We don’t see him wrestle. Apart from the main event, the only match we witness is a tag match, Diego Cottonmouth & Apocalypse vs. Big Jim and the visiting Ricky Rabies (Phil “CM Punk” Brooks), because naturally when your roster is thin, the thing you want to do is pile all your experienced wrestlers into one match so that you have nothing else for the rest of the card. We catch only a glimpse of this match, presumably because it goes well and therefore, by Heels logic, is not worth watching.

Instead, we cut to another major event in local sports entertainment, the Georgia State Rodeo Championship, where Staci has been invited to sing the national anthem. Staci’s performance is scheduled to overlap exactly with the start of the DWL main event, meaning that Jack can’t even watch her sing on his phone. The two events are intercut to lend the drama of Staci’s performance to the start of the season’s climax, but also to demonstrate that Staci and Jack’s respective artistic pursuits are dragging them further apart. Later, the athleticism of the main event match is juxtaposed against footage from the rodeo, but the value of this is mainly that it looks cool.

Heels

I Was Expecting a Shitshow Main Event, but This is Ridiculous

For the championship ladder match, Jack has booked a double-turn in which beloved legend Wild Bill teams up with heel champ Jack Spade to wail on Ace, turning him into an underdog babyface who eventually triumphs and walks out champion. Of course, since we’re told the planned outcome near the beginning of the episode, there is absolutely no chance of it coming to fruition. First, the match is rocked off its rails when Wild Bill, suffering side effects from whatever uppers he took earlier in the night, involuntarily shits his pants and elects to play dead on the ring apron for the rest of the match. This isn’t unheard of, actually, and is exactly the kind of in-ring complication that I don’t mind seeing depicted on Heels. Finding a way to keep a match going after some kind of unexpected accident is part of the craft of wrestling, and seeing how the performers work around this obstacle to triumph anyway might make a good climax.

Unfortunately, this is Heels, where no wrestling main event is complete without one of the participants deliberately hurting someone. As the Spade brothers work towards the climax of the match, trading blows on the top of the ladder with the belt within reach, Charlie Gully and the rest of the Dystopia leadership exact their revenge from the stands. Gully and his crew start a “Jack” chant and lead the crowd to once again pelt Ace with tissue pocket packs. I find this twist to be totally realistic — this audience is mostly new to the DWL and is likely to follow the lead of anyone in the crowd who seems confident. Very few of the people throwing the tissue packets would even know what this bit is referring to, but someone has invited them to participate in some kind of ritual and they want to be a part of it. The fickle nature of the wrestling audience has already been established via the ease with which Jack’s booking is able to turn them against their beloved Wild Bill. Now, it’s weaponized against him with catastrophic results.

Ace is enraged by the reprise of his lowest moment and asks Jack if this is his doing. Jack, trying to follow Staci’s advice to be more honest with Ace, confesses that while he has no involvement in this particular fan revolt, the first one was his idea. True to form, Ace can’t contain his rage until after the match and starts viciously wailing on Jack in the ring. Maybe this would be shocking if there hadn’t been an incident like this since the pilot, but it’s literally the only thing that ever happens on this show. Counting last week’s Dystopia promo, this is the fourth main event on Heels in which someone has resorted to real violence. 

The increasingly nasty fight between the Spade brothers threatens to spoil the entire event. Referee Bobby Pin can’t intervene without confirming the crowd’s suspicion that this is not part of the show, Wild Bill can’t get between them without revealing the shitstain he’s laying on, and Willie knows that sending another wrestler down the ramp means abandoning all hope of ending the match as written. Luckily, there’s still one performer left at ringside who can set things right — Crystal Tyler. Crystal discards her Bunny Bombshell accessories and confronts Ace in the ring, which gets a loudly positive response from the audience. Snapping out of their rage and seeing the opportunity at hand, Ace and Jack cooperate with Crystal to improvise a new finish to the match in which Crystal takes out both brothers via dazzling feats of strength and agility. As an added bonus, Wild Bill sacrifices his pride and gets off the ring apron to intercept Charlie Gully before he can run into the ring and involve himself in the finish. Crystal climbs the ladder and retrieves the belt, to thunderous applause. After a moment to enjoy this triumph for Crystal and for the DWL, Ace leaves Jack behind in the ring, walking off towards an uncertain future as the season comes to a close.

Previously:

Heels

Ring the Bell

“Double Turn” neatly ties up the show’s state fair story arc while leaving a number of character threads dangling for a second season that, at the time of this writing, has not yet been ordered. Crystal winning the title is (as I predicted last week) a feel-good moment, made properly bittersweet by what it means for Jack and Ace. A number of unanswered questions remain after the credits roll: Will Ace leave the DWL again over Jack’s transgression? Will Jack be able to patch things up with Staci, and can Staci find the purpose she’s been looking for? Family drama has been Heels’ strongest suit all season, and I’d be curious to see what series creator Mike Waldron, showrunner Mike O’Malley, and the rest of the writers’ room have in mind for these characters going forward.

The trouble is, there are plenty of other places a viewer can look for good family drama. What differentiates Heels is that it’s set in the world of professional wrestling, but the storytellers have yet to figure out how to make the most of their gimmick. The backstage politics of a real-life wrestling promotion are interesting because they’re complicated, because they involve balancing a large group of performers and a variety of storylines. Heels, maybe for budget reasons or maybe to keep the screen story more legible, shows its “brilliant” wrestling booker struggling to manage a tiny roster and focusing only on a single storyline, one week at a time. Even then, the decisions he makes don’t matter because the stories he writes are never actually executed. 

Should Heels continue for a second season, I would like to see a major shift in the way wrestling interconnects with dramatic storylines. The current philosophy, which assumes that watching the characters wrestle is not interesting unless real life intrudes into it in a destructive manner, was not successful and is not sustainable. The idea that the offstage conflicts of the characters influence the stories being told in the ring, as they do in the real wrestling business, is interesting enough on its own without the constant added danger of a real fight breaking out in the ring. Heels doesn’t need to be a totally realistic depiction of the pro wrestling business any more than The Good Fight needs to be a by-the-numbers portrayal of the US legal system, but every once in a while something has to go right. Otherwise, Heels might become as unwatchable as the DWL.

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