I. With Friends Like You, Who Needs Friends?
“Hangman” Adam Page feels alone even in the company of his closest friends.
A faraway look flashes across his face for the bulk of his screen time with Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks. The feeling of Page being on a different continent than his Elite “friends” started out as a subtle garnish in November 2019 when his wishes to leave their side were roundly ignored. By March, his silent expression became the loudest sound in the room.
Hangman’s presence in the group becomes more sparing as the months roll on— to the point where the only moments where he is seen with them is when he’s heroically bailing his friends out of a jam, setting his beer down or handing it to one of them, Buckshot Lariats scattering across the ring, picking his beer back up, and accepting more from astonished, impressed, and supportive fans.
Friction between Hangman and the Young Bucks simmer as the weeks spread from their Revolution classic, but it’s the space between the thunderstorm and getting electrocuted in the bathtub. No matter what, the ever-present sensation of pain is on the horizon. Page continues to bicker with Matt and Nick, his passive-aggressive quips almost as searing as when he presented them with championship title name plates they still have yet to put to use.
To say he’s reluctantly chained to the Elite in the run-up to the eventually (and smartly) aborted Blood and Guts match— which is such an obvious statement of “we don’t own the rights to the WarGames name” I spent weeks being sarcastic about it— is a dramatic understatement. Dustin Rhodes forced his way into being Hangman’s partner in a tag match against the talented asshole tandem of Chris Jericho and his Inner Circle protégé Sammy Guevara, returning to action at Revolution after Jake Hager smashed his hand in a door. (In a twist of real-life circumstance, Omega couldn’t compete due to a broken hand.) The only thing preventing Page from fucking off the match altogether is his relentless desire to see his name in the win column.
After swooping in to save the Elite’s collective ass for a few weeks in a row, Page storms into the dressing room on Being the Elite‘s “Mile High City,”, letting Matt Jackson and Cody he’s done playing the background. He has earned their gratitude, he has earned the right to speak with full candor. After assertively telling them he’s finished being the clean-up hitter for the team, after telling them how tired he is of being forced to stay in the group, Page tells Matt he’s earned the right to leave after kicking both his and his younger brother’s asses at Revolution.
Before leaving, Hangman steps outside of the tough guy veneer and asks where Nick is, not knowing he was recently crushed by a steel garage door by the Inner Circle, looking like cartoon roadkill while Jericho laughed into the lens of the camera. Matt tells Page Nick wasn’t medically cleared.
“Will he be alright?,” Page asks with worry caught in his brow. Matt shrugs and replies, “I hope so.” Hangman pauses for a beat and exists wordlessly.
There’s a stark difference between “Hangman” Adam Page and AEW’s other emergent stars. Characters like Darby Allin and Orange Cassidy have a distinct Gen X vibe; the former both aestheticizing and internalizing 80’s punk nihilism (right down to the legends from which his stage name is derived) and the latter a disaffected hero worth his weight in Pavement seven-inch singles (Chris Jericho’s criticism of Cassidy seamlessly matches up with Beavis and Butthead’s appraisal of the “Rattled By the Rush” video). On the flipside, Page feels everything that happens to him intensely, to the point where he finds himself washing down his emotions with pints of beer at ringside after every match, just to take the edge off.
Meanwhile, in the real world, the COVID-19 pandemic spreads to the point where it was too serious for professional wrestling— the genre in which events have been held days after, hours after, or continued running during human and national tragedies alike— to ignore.
II. When There is No Crowd (Or: The Cliché of Uncertain Times)
It’s difficult to say anything new about how pro wrestling should have just taken a few months off as COVID ravaged the lion’s share of 2020, with new stories about wrestlers contracting COVID popping up with regular frequency— even now, months after the first reports of an outbreak— and how it could have been (and in WWE’s case, have been) brought to TV tapings. There probably shouldn’t be sports and live entertainment at all right now, as we here at Fanfyte have reiterated a bunch of times over the past several months. (In fact, our fearless leader LB Hunktears just wrote about the absurdity of holding live wrestling shows during a global pandemic again last week, for Pete’s sake.)
After an in-character press release (which, at this point, are canon … and fucking hysterical) detailing how he will no longer accept beers from kind fans— and showing up to work in a Dixie Chicks t-shirt after an impassioned plea to show solidarity with the Elite by Cody— Hangman disappears into the backstage area, not to be seen again on AEW television for the next several weeks.
Entertainment, as vital a resource as it is, should not be considered an essential business when it puts every one of its workers at risk. Though not contracted or spread through their tapings, AEW has had several wrestlers come into contact with people who have tested positive for COVID-19. WWE has had more than one legitimate outbreak over the past number of months. Hangman sitting out for a while has no formal explanation in storyline or otherwise (nor did it ever really need one), so let’s just assume he stayed home because minimizing the spread of this virus the best he could was the right thing to do.
Thankfully, he returns as a main character on Being the Elite with his very own segment, “Hangman Gets Drunk and Lives in the Woods.” This creative vehicle will lead to the most emotional, ambitious work BTE has ever produced.
Page stands in the living room of his house in full gear, a callback to the buildup to his aborted Double or Nothing match with the shredded PAC; an inside joke AEW ended up naming their November pay-per-view after. At this moment, that BTE punchline— of which Hangman has been responsible for many— is turned on its head and given the distinct aura of sadness. The image is striking. The wrestler, the cowboy, the proverbial road warrior, all dressed up with nowhere to go, stuck at home with his thoughts, where many well-traveled veterans of the pro wrestling industry find the worst side of themselves.
In “Life at Home,” Page locks all his doors, ignores a call from Nick Jackson in order to play Animal Crossing at home, hits a few pillows with stiff lariats while ignoring a call from Kenny Omega and binge-watches Tiger King, petting his dog while transitioning to a rural South Carolina NASCAR dad look and ignoring a phone call from Cody. The final shot is quintessential Anxious Millennial Cowboy: Page, whiskey in hand, wearing a Shenandoah National Park t-shirt and a pensive look on his face— like he’s trying to process a million thoughts at once— and attempting to tune out the constant ringing of his phone.
BTE Episode 202 (“An Old Carny Trick”) features a segment titled “Hangman Stays the Hell at Home,” rife with references to sourdough starters (I don’t want to hear anyone’s snark on this— have you tried a grilled cheese sandwich with fresh sourdough??) and an ensuing awkward cooking sketch. It seems certain Hangman isn’t wearing pants for this sketch. At segment’s end, Hangman has convinced himself he is not safe enough and ends up having a minor meltdown over it.
This leads to BTE‘s next episode, where Hangman has left his comfortable home and we are given a rebranded segment, titled “Hangman Gets Drunk and Lives in the Woods.” (Its title sequence is a very funny homage to that of AEW Dynamite, featuring Hangman falling off a tree branch and crying into his fifth of Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey). Page is social distancing in the woods, taking sips out of the aforementioned whiskey bottle (which tastes great in coffee, by the way). He hunts a squirrel and almost vomits from the taste.
A telling quote— even more telling than the feigned Freudian slip earlier in the segment— is, “I’m not as lonely as I thought I’d be.”
Episode 204 is named after the seven-minute monologue Page recites at the end of the episode. The lead-in to this week’s “Hangman Gets Drunk and Lives in the Woods” is Page noting the importance of staying hydrated (not just by whiskey, but— get this— water as well) by drinking his own urine, a practice he’s not necessarily new to. After living in the woods for a number of days, he is struggling with the idea of going home, sitting on a lookout point somewhere in the hills of North Carolina, trees below stretching for miles.
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Preceding the monologue is a lengthy caption about the wind affecting its sound quality (“i’m not god, i can’t stop the wind, i also can’t buy a little microphone for my phone because amazon doesn’t exactly ship to wherever the hell in the woods i am”), a subtle Easter egg much akin to the messages on his lower third every week on Dynamite.
As he hunkers down for the night, the afternoon sky shining a bright blue behind him, he tells a story about “climbing the big red oak that’s over by [his] shittin’ pole,” cracking open his final bottle of whiskey and marveling at the bald eagle that flew to its nest about 30 feet away from him. Seeing the eagle at its nest is what made Hangman finally consider going home.
Hangman’s monologue becomes a stirring, pensive, and ultimately profound meditation on COVID anxiety, human togetherness, the irresponsibility of contact and possibly spreading an infectious and deadly disease (very telling, considering a few of his coworkers and peers have experienced very public COVID scares before and since), the pretty standard feelings of worthlessness that has become a “Hangman” Adam Page trademark, and examining the privilege of his self-imposed exile while Cynthia from his local Food Lion is forced to return to her apartment after her shift. Page speaks of the fulfillment of unlimited toast and almost winning the prestigious Man of the House award. “Maybe I’m just a fuckin’ brat,” he says before characterizing himself as the bad guy in his own story.
Page’s purpose and responsibilities are calling him, even as he ponders the tempting fantasy of saddling up, riding his horse into the sunset, and blowing off the rest of the world. He attempts to hold onto this monologue as if it’s his last possession, implies he’s been kicking a dead horse around for a while now, and goes back to the idea of returning home.
Was it the image of the bald eagle returning to its nest, where it will potentially turn eggs into a family of baby eagles, or was it just because he ran out of whiskey? Would Hangman delude logical thought by even considering the reason was anything other than the latter?
III. God Never Makes Mistakes, He Just Makes Fuck-Ups
The songs people attach themselves to says every bit as much about them as the words they say— in some cases, the worth of truth accounts to much more. In the aftermath of a toxic relationship which took months for me to finally end, I played a sad-but-funny country tune by the band Purple Mountains called “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me” on repeat, sometimes for hours on end. Take out the fact David Berman is my favorite songwriter who has ever lived, take away the fact that he tragically committed suicide last year (three weeks before said breakup)— while the album Purple Mountains was still new and Berman was scheduled to embark on tour when he was found dead— and just visualize someone singing the lyrics, “Well, if no one’s fond of fucking me / Maybe no one’s fucking fond of me.” You’d learn something about me, right?
On an episode of the AEW Unrestricted podcast, Page shares insight into making his “Anxious Millennial Cowboy” Spotify playlist and his love of Orville Peck, the masked, gay country singer whose 2019 masterpiece Pony is a surefire makeout soundtrack. A clear spiritual thread connects these two artists, subverting “traditional” cowboy masculinity in order to spotlight a version much less chauvinistic, masculine without being macho. Do you think Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp or any of the famous cowboys of lore didn’t wake up in cold sweats after PTSD dreams about the men they’d killed? You think they didn’t cry in their private moments because of the loneliness of their lifestyle? Creative folks like Page have taken the American iconography of the cowboy and have imbued it with the sort of emotional depth fitting for as deep as we are into the 21st Century.
Each song on the “Anxious Millennial Cowboy” playlist tells a different story, adds a layer of dimension to the “Hangman” Adam Page character without him having to utter a word on cable or YouTube.
Of course there are staples you’d expect to find on a playlist with such a title: Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty. Maybe Orville Peck belting out a cover of “Unchained Melody” and the Chicks would pop up on your bingo card as well. All of these contributions are fitting just as much spiritually as aesthetically, but a deeper dig into the playlist serves as narrative soundtrack to the journey of Hangman.
Carefully nestled between the fiddles and slide guitars— no cowboy playlist worth its salt can be curated without plenty of both— are messages, aesthetic touchstones, and character details articulated in song. On the compilation there are (naturally) multiple allusions to canonical country singers and overconsumption of whiskey; on Cody Jinks’ “Hippies and Cowboys,” Jinks drinks it for breakfast after passing out before sunrise.
Nina Simone’s immortal performance of “Stars” at Montreux, a titanic song about the fleeting nature of fame, appears here— though most telling is the source from which it is culled. “Stars” scores the final scene of Season 3 of Bojack Horseman, a way-too-real-to-be-humorous commentary on Hollywood, substance abuse, trauma, and the dark side of gaining the success you strive after. There may be no better corollary to mixing the drug of stardom and the cocktail of depression, no better parallel to the emotional tones of “Hangman” Adam Page’s story than that of the acclaimed Netflix series.
Playlist opener—at least at press time—”I’m a Lover, But I’ll Still Fight” is tonally on-point with the Hangman character; it’s one of those country songs with a protagonist you’d root for in a fist fight if things got a little heated. Dale Hollow’s vocal performance has a lot to do with that, and his mellow and melancholy being interrupted by his boisterous and confrontational side is eerie in how well it fits Page.
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers is a delightfully scuffed up electric country band; devoid of the overproduced polish of contemporary mainstream country, with vocals and lyrics as raw as elbow and knee scrapes. The first of two playlist selections from the band— the playlist’s lodestar— is “Fuck Up,” where Shook sings of “cocaine in [her] system and whiskey on [her] breath” and the sort of self-loathing which makes for perfect inclusion here. After all, the centerpiece lyric here is, “God doesn’t make mistakes, he just makes fuck-ups.” Being hard on oneself is often a symptom of ambition; I say this from firsthand experience. We as AEW fans know Page’s longest running feud is with himself, squabbling with his inner voice telling him he’s indeed a fuck-up for not reaching the summit he was so close to in the summer of 2019.
Sitting quite nicely alongside the heavy country ballads and Nina Simone’s mastery of songcraft is indie-rock singer/songwriter Lucy Dacus, whose “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” tells the story of Hangman’s struggles from being the comedic highlight of Being the Elite to his depressive state after coming up short against Chris Jericho at All Out last year. The couplet, “Lately I’ve been feeling like the odd man out / I hurt my friends saying things I don’t mean out loud” feels like it was mined particularly for the purposes of the yearlong storyline of Page trying to leave the Elite.
Is the idea of a wrestler making an in-character playlist an innovation? Not particularly. If anything, it’s an effort of traditionalism; it reflects a time where pro wrestlers were required to “live the gimmick,” to fully embody the character they are portraying by putting themselves into the production. Of course, in 2020 everybody knows the role is just a role, to the point where you can see the full lives of many wrestlers on Instagram. The “Anxious Millennial Cowboy” playlist is an extension of “Hangman” Adam Page, for the character to exist in mediums outside of our TV screens. If kayfabe were still alive today, I’m sure plenty of wrestlers would be engaging with this sort of artistic license, but Hangman most certainly deserves major props for thinking about his character this deeply.
Characters in pro wrestling are often just archetypes and big personalities who solely exist in the framework of a television program or streaming event, but “Hangman” Adam Page is layered to the point where his characters explores big-picture themes by brushing up against them. It’s a practice which has defined characters in literature, film, and traditional scripted television, but rarely makes its way to wrestling. I know there are people out there just waiting for the chance to throw a clever Twitter barb about me dramatically over-intellectualizing a wrestling character, but it’s the only respectful thing to do when someone puts this much thought into their work. When pro wrestling is good, it’s the greatest art form in the world; it’s worthy to be both practiced and appreciated by those of us who have too much to say.
IV. Every Cowboy Needs a Barfight Scene
Our hero returns to AEW television after sprinting the entire length of a football field and leveling Jake Hager, unbuckling his cuffs to fight off the Inner Circle (i.e. save the Elite’s ass yet again), setting him up as the last chance the Elite has to find off crumbling at the Inner Circle.
The first-ever Stadium Stampede match would have fallen a touch short of the comedic masterpiece it was without its cowboy tropes to support the Hangman character. Sammy Guevara getting run down by Page riding a horse— doing the 100-yard dash in a football uniform, pads and all— would be the iconic image of pro wrestling for the entire 2020 if Guevara hadn’t been run down on a golf cart weeks earlier. But him getting chased by a horse running full-speed is still an indelible sight nonetheless.
Hangman is quite obviously a character that would exist well in a Coen Brothers western— either The Ballad of Buster Scruggs or No Country for Old Men, really. There’s a complexity to the character that once existed more prominently in pro wrestling, but pretty sparingly in the time since it was kind of trendy to be a cowboy in the art form. In some instances wholly unpredictable, yet in its most satisfying moments wholly predictable. In the match, Hangman parks his horse in the concourse and heads for one of TIAA Bank Field’s many lounges. “Of course he’s headed to the bar,” Excalibur notes with a smirk.
The bar fight scene starts off as the pastoral oasis in the center of the madcap chaos of the rest of the match. Jake Hager finds the horse and stares at it from a distance in a gorgeous shot. He looks around and figures out what we already know in real time, slapping the wall with the sign leading to the nearest drinking hole. When Hager enters, Hangman is having a quiet drink, the only ostensible way he can quell his anxiety over being dragged into yet another Elite feud (though his annoyed dislike for the Inner Circle makes it feel a little less like a family obligation).
“Did you come here to fight,” Hangman asks after Hager takes a seat, “or did you come here to drink?” After a sip of whiskey, Hangman asks, “Honestly, what the difference?”
Hangman breaks a pool cue over Hager’s back, backflips off the bar, eventually gets chokeslammed onto the onto the pool table. A little western slapstick to settle in with the rest of the Stadium Stampede match (which includes, but most certainly isn’t limited to, Matt Hardy being drowned in the stadium’s lake of reincarnation and Chris Jericho laying out an NFL mascot with his back elbow).
Eventually Kenny Omega finds his way to where he knew Hangman would be, and the AEW World Tag Team Champions take turns breaking bubbly bottles over Hager’s head; he continues to stagger until Hangman hits a Buckshot Lariat after gaining momentum off of Kenny’s back. They celebrate with their usual— whiskey for Page, milk for Omega— and have a sloppy toast to where Hangman is basically drinking milk with a whiskey back.
After Kenny wins the match via a One Winged Angel from the stands, the Elite (and Matt Hardy) celebrate together. Kenny is given the timeless Gatorade bath by Matt Jackson, and Hangman smiles for the first time on AEW programming in months, maybe even since its inception. But that fleeting moment passes as Jackson the elder congratulates him as a teammate— as if to say, “See? We all work well together. Being friends isn’t so bad!”— and Hangman barely acknowledges him.
Page holds up his tag team championship partner as they pose while pyro explodes above the other end of the stadium. Together, as a team, the Elite overcame the persistent threat of the Inner Circle; no egos were diminished, nobody carried anybody. For a little while after this scene, Hangman and Kenny are in a good place. Kenny continues to love the Young Bucks but sort of distances himself from them in order to spend time with Hangman. It feels like the vision Page has had since they won the tag titles; that he could be every bit as good a friend as Matt and Nick.
But a looming threat to their titles— and ultimately, their friendship— is on the horizon.
Next time in the series, we will take a look at the arrival of FTR, how they ultimately shake up the AEW tag team scene, and how two pivotal tag team matches lead to the dissolution of an incredibly successful pairing.