One of the saddest sites at Elimination Chamber in Las Vegas last week (yes, even sadder than the mind numbingly obvious than Roman Reigns win) was Matt Hardy and Bray Wyatt wrestling in front of a crowd more interested in tossing around a beach ball than the match they were having. As the cameras tried to avoid the frivolities at all cost, the men in the ring had different reactions to it, Wyatt looked angry and was clearly rattled by the disrespect while Hardy tried to play up to it. However neither of them could have been happy with how their long anticipated feud had been playing out and the reception it has received.
Less than a year ago Bray Wyatt was the WWE Champion heading into Wrestlemania and Matt Hardy was the instigator and chief protagonist of the hottest meme-fest the IWC has ever seen, The Broken Universe. While Wyatt’s title reign would ultimately be cut short at Wrestlemania, when the Hardys made their triumphant surprise return at the same show we were all counting down the days until they could bring their Broken Brilliance into the WWE. It is fair to say that top of most lists of wrestlers we wanted to see Broken Matt Hardy up against was the Eater of Worlds himself.
The two have gimmicks seemingly written for one another: an eternal spirit obsessed with DELETING those who oppose it and a cult leader who claims to possess God like powers. Add to that conflict both men’s commitment to character on the mic and penchant for B-Grade horror and it seemed like a program the WWE could not possibly mess up. However we are now three months into their feud and the crowd that once exploded with DELETE chants is more interested in tossing around a beach ball.
While it easy to place the blame in a number of places, to me it is clear where the chief failing of the fued is, the WWE’s utter failure with its commitment to character and story.
There is a famous dramatic principle called Chekhov’s Gun which states that a story should not make ‘false promises’ to its audience. The idea goes something like this, “if in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one [act] it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there”. This means that in the Rom-Coms my wife likes to watch (and I watch for purely research purposes), if a second lady is introduced to an already partnered protagonist, he absolutely will sleep with her and ruin his current relationship to drive the story onwards. Similarly in an action movie they won’t say they are working on a new gun, suit of armour or piece of technology if it isn’t going to be used as part of the battle later on. Finally in wrestling it means you should not introduce elements to a story that aren’t going to have a bearing on the actual action.
In other words, don’t promise a ‘Great War’ and simply have a wrestling match.
This is a problem that has plagued Bray Wyatt since he debuted on the roster, he would come to the ring, claim to have mystical powers and supernatural elements conspiring for him, yet when he wrestled these powers would mean nothing. Never was this more apparent than at Mania last year. In the lead up to the match Wyatt boasted of new mind bending powers he would use to win the match. In the fiction of the match Wyatt used these supernatural abilities to turn the ring into ground infested with maggots in an effort to remind his former follower, Randy Orton, of his powers. Orton’s response to the moment was to casually slide out of the ring and re-establish the match as if nothing had happened, while on the broadcast Byron Saxton and Tom Phillips simply muttered ‘ewww’ as if they had seen a hair in their food.
The WWE hung a gun on the wall and never used it. They craved the spectacle of these powers without wanting to deal with the fictional reality of giving them to a wrestler. While I’ll admit that kind of a stunt isn’t everybody’s cup of tea but by making it have no actual effect on the in-ring combat the WWE once again completely cut Wyatt’s legs out from under him.
When Hardy unleashed his Broken character on the wrestling world in 2016 his commitment to character was unparalleled, I still remember listening to his interview on Talk is Jericho, where he ranted like a madman for over an hour on a podcast that sees most wrestlers pull back the curtain on the craft. The commitment to the fiction was backed up so completely by his performances in the ring that it allowed the audience to suspend their disbelief. The whole angle may have been done with a wink to the wrestling audiences but within the fictional universe Hardy created it took itself seriously; when Hardy said he was going to delete someone he would do everything he could to delete them. Even the small parts of the narrative were treated as threats, take for instance Vanguard 1’s debut at Ring of Honour where it swooped down on The Young Bucks. The famously postmodern Matt & Nick Jackson could have easily made the segment into a joke but instead treated the threat of Hardy’s attack drone seriously, using a double Superkick to knock the drone out of the air after dodging its attempts to attack them.
This kind of escalation and character infused combat has been completely missing from Wyatt and the now Woken Matt Hardy’s feud. Going in, fans of the original Broken Universe were already worried about how the WWE’s more controlling creative tendencies would affect the angle. Their fears have been well founded as the feud has floundered. Instead of including a number of the absurd but charming elements of the Broken Universe this ‘Great War’ has been nothing more than a series of normal wrestling matches, standard interference and slightly off beat vignettes done by two men who are treated as just any other wrestler by the production and commentary teams. Michael Cole uses the same words are used to describe Woken Matt Hardy and Bray Wyatt as Tom Phillips does to describe Randy Orton or Harper & Rowan on Smackdown and Percy Jackson describes Sanity on NXT.
In announcing the Ultimate Deletion at the Hardy Compound on Raw this past Monday, the WWE has taken the right step to move this feud forward, taking it beyond the wrestling ring that has clearly been limiting it. However if that is the extent to which the gloves come off then sadly the Wyatt v Hardy faceoff will continue to flounder. Instead the WWE needs to embrace the over the top, absurd nature of Matt Hardy’s vision. Woken Matt Hardy says he is an eternal spirit that has waged war for millennia with the demon of Sister Abigail, well let’s see a war. Bring back the craziness of men shooting Roman Candles at one another, the fun of Vanguard 1, Senor Benjamin and King Maxwell and the borderline camp, overly dramatic visual presentation of the original Broken pieces.
Personally I would love to see this match get its own Network Special on Wrestlemania Weekend or alternatively take up the final hour of Raw (including commercial breaks). This would give them the time to not only feel like a special event outside of the normal programming but truly flesh out the characters and direction of the Woken Universe. Begin with Hardy preparing the compound and Wyatt approaching as a proper introduction, slowly escalate the action to a ridiculous set piece climax and have a proper ending that sees both men facing the full consequences of the war they have engaged in.
Furthermore I would keep commentary to an absolute minimum, if not remove it completely. Woken Matt Hardy and Wyatt are two of the most charismatic men in wrestling and can carry the action with interactions and asides between flurries. We do not need Michael Cole, Corey Graves or Jonathan Coachman interrupting the flow of the show by talking about how ‘disturbed’ Wyatt and Hardy’s minds are for the hundredth time.
What this cannot be is just a wrestling match on someone’s lawn. The Woken Universe is one that can involve other wrestlers in interesting ways and become a unique jewel in the WWE’s crown. However for this angle to get the fans talking again like it is 2016, the WWE needs to follow through with the promise they have made the audience, hand over the reigns to Wyatt and Hardy and make The Ultimate Deletion completely over the top and absurd but still committed to the story of the Woken Universe.
If you are into the craziness of the Broken/Woken Universe then may I suggest checking out the anual column series Dead or Alive 2018 that is currently running down in the LOP Columns Forum. It is a fictional death match that pits different WWE teams against each other on an island. 12 teams go in, only 1 survives. It is put together by former Main Page writer Triple R and is collaboration by a number of talented writers down in the forum. Round 1 has just been posted and keep an eye out for my Round 2 entry soon.