Forever Exalted: AEW Dynamite Recap

"It's Wednesday. You know what that means."

I have never felt more fulfilled to be wrong.

When Brodie Lee debuted in AEW as the much-hyped Exalted One of the Dark Order during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, I initially thought it was a miss. A waste of colossal talent who had just spent much of the past half-decade floundering in the WWE system. As Luke Harper — in the jeans and armpit-stained tank top-clad iteration before he started toting around a mallet — he was one of many criminally underutilized talents in Vince McMahon’s employ. He was more than Bray Wyatt’s sidekick or the secret weapon of his family. In a tribute post written on Sunday, Wyatt himself said that if he was the Michael “P.S.” Hayes of the Wyatt Family (the guy in the group who talked fans into the building), Harper was its Terry Gordy (the guy in the group people came to see wrestle).

Not too long after the man known to his family and some friends as Jon Huber made what I thought was an inauspicious AEW reveal and not too long after beginning to dress on television in stylish suits and employing McMahon satire, he stepped into his power. The tone of the Dark Order shifted along with Brodie’s character, from pretty straight-laced and serious to the sociopathic tyrant leader of an ensemble of talented goofballs, threatening to hit his subordinates with a roll of papers like he was domesticating a pack of bad dogs. In AEW’s subcanon world of Being the Elite, the Dark Order were putting out the funniest segments the web series has had in at least two years.

To augment this humorous depth of character, he was wrestling the best matches of his career.

At Double or Nothing 2020, Brodie was tasked to kickstart Jon Moxley’s reign as AEW World Champion in his first pay-per-view defense, a match that ended up being arguably Mox’s finest effort while holding the company’s top title. Their matches in their past lives as WWE superstars — Intercontinental title bouts which were a sweet spot in a lackluster period for the main roster — only hinted at the greatness that was their Double or Nothing barnburner. A truly punishing encounter, it set the tone for not only Mox as the tough, grouchy bastard of a champion who only grew grouchier as his title reign continued — but Brodie as a legitimate top star in AEW. If you can withstand a beating from this motherfucker and still come out on the winning side, you deserve to be called champion.

I’m of the opinion that Cody Rhodes was an unconvincing babyface until Brodie routed him for the TNT Championship. The loss humanized the self-proclaimed “prince of pro wrestling,” with that hair and that neck tattoo, not to mention the fact that as we suffocate in the death grip of capitalism, “the boss” as the good guy in any story is a pretty tone-deaf creative stance. Cody lost in the most lopsided main event in AEW’s short history and somehow it was more shocking than gratifying, in the best way to service the story.

The Brodie-Cody feud ended up being one of a small handful of emotionally resonant rivalries in a year where wrestling was at its least resonant on a human level; Cody’s surprise return/pivot to goth and Brodie’s reactionary “doing the work” promo yielded the incredible Dog Collar Match between them, arguably AEW’s finest moment in singles wrestling. Colette Arrand wrote about the match so well here that I’m not even going to try to force words out about it here.

I was in a weird funk for most of the day yesterday while jotting these words down ahead of Dynamite’s tribute episode to Brodie. Colette also wrote a moving piece yesterday that encapsulated anything I could possibly say about Brodie or grieving as a fan. Jon Huber was much more than a gifted wrestler; he was a devoted husband and father who adored his family, he was categorically beloved by his peers and friends in the wrestling industry. For many reasons but especially those, it’s tacky and critically dishonest to write a review of a tribute show, so this week’s recap will be musings on what I saw and felt while watching last night’s episode.

The weight of grief hit me hard during last night’s ten-bell salute. Grief is a journey I’ve been on for most of the decade, worst of all when my parents passed away in consecutive years in 2014 and 2015. Sitting through those 21-gun salutes at the military cemetery were the most harrowing rituals of my life, and there were twinges of that experience as the bell tolled ten times. Watching the solemn faces of Huber’s family and friends, witnessing them process their losses in individual ways hit really close to home for me. I cried for them because I know all too well what these moments are like.

Mox’s beautiful remembrances of Brodie’s life and love of fatherhood, his praise of wrestling as a community, and the expression of his sorrow played as my decidedly-not-a-wrestling-fan girlfriend sat on the couch with me, wrapped in each other’s arms. At first, she remarked about how surreal it is to see wrestlers not in character and being sincere; by the time Mox was recounting how Brodie told him he’s going to love fatherhood, tears streamed down her face as I tried to hold it together.

Once the wrestling started and my girlfriend went to watch TV in the bedroom, I did appreciate how the show kept characters in tact and flouted subtle references to ongoing storylines. I liked the little things that connected this show, borne out of real-life tragedy, to the fictional landscape it serves as tastefully as they could. Of course, sights like Colt Cabana trying hard to hold it together as the opening match began is an easy way to take things out of the fantasy world of wrestling and back into crushing reality.

Lance Archer in a tank top and jeans was a nice tribute. Eddie Kingston getting choked up starting his promo flooded my eyes with tears to the point where I could barely see, as did Bryce Remsburg’s testimonial about rekindling an old friendship and how much Brodie loved being a dad, his eyes and nose red from crying.

Silver, Reynolds, and Hangman breaking out the papers at the beginning of their six-man tag got a chuckle out of me, and I liked Silver’s Brodie gear so much that I wouldn’t mind if it became a permanent change. Silver’s bonkers Destroyer toward the end was innovative in a way that supports every argument made in his favor. Out of all the Dark Order members who have benefited from Brodie’s stewardship of the group, Silver’s glow-up has been undoubtedly the most obvious.

Toward the end of the match, Wardlow came out to interfere on the Inner Circle’s behalf and ERICK ROWAN stopped him! And then Brodie Jr. whacked MJF with the kendo stick he’d been carrying all night! The former was a wonderful surprise, and the latter I would have been delighted to see on any episode of Dynamite. After the match, Silver, Reynolds, Hangman, and Rowan (who Excalibur futilely tried to explain is Erick Redbeard now) shared a moment, crying in the ring together as Rowan held up a message to Brodie in the form of a sign.

Every match was what it needed to be, and the women’s tag match would have been a banger in any setting. There was lots of good wrestling and lots of tears. In so many areas of pro wrestling in 2020, there are people still gainfully employed who never should have been invited into the wrestling business. The sheer volume of creeps, abusers, and rapists were revealed in blinding light, making quite a few of us wonder why we even still devote time to watching it.

This Brodie Lee tribute show is a reminder of the good things about wrestling. A gathering of people celebrating the life of a man who meant so much to them — by all testimony a legitimately good person — putting on a show for a community of people who admired this man and respected, even loved, his work. Coming together to engage in the catharsis of memorializing one of our own, someone who loved pro wrestling as much as we do.

Jon Huber, Luke Harper, Brodie Lee was a man who sacrificed time with the family he dedicated his life to in order to entertain us, and I’m honored we all — his family, his friends, and his fans — were given the opportunity to show how much we appreciated his sacrifice.

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Martin Douglas

A proud adopted son of the Pacific Northwest, Martin Douglas is an essayist, critic, and journalist specializing in the fields of music (KEXP.org, Bandcamp Daily, Pitchfork) and pro wrestling (Seattle Weekly, quite a few online zines). He's also a hip-hop beatmaker, fiction writer, disposable camera photographer, and all-around renaissance man.

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