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The McMahon Behind The Curtain

Jan 6, 2019

Note: This article was originally published in march of 2018.

Part I:

Everything I Ever Wanted

The opening segment of the March 12th, 2018 episode of Monday Night Raw is like a beacon guiding us into the future, illuminating what the WWE could (and hopefully will) become one day. 

In it, Roman Reigns, yet again irate at the absence of his WrestleMania opponent, Brock Lesnar, took to the microphone to air his grievances.

Brock, in Roman's words, "Didn't show up to work".

This has been the essence of his problem with Lesnar, and the basis of their WrestleMania rematch. Roman, regardless of the crowd's relentlessly mixed-to-negative reaction to him, always shows up to work. He "busts his ass" for the business that's "in his blood", and, just like the fans, he's sick and tired of Brock Lesnar only showing up to work "when the money is right or the city is right". He believes The Universal Champion should be a full-time member of the WWE roster; an unconditional leader of the locker-room and the company. 

This wisely (and finally) brings the Roman Reigns character into agreement with WWE fans whether they like it or not. Roman's motivation is relatable, noble, and potentially heroic (depending on how he seizes the title). And, most importantly, there isn't a discernible difference between the character and the man. Gone are the "sufferin' succotash" promos, the B-movie one-liners like "assess and attack", and the vague sense of preordained success. 

Here, in 2018-Roman, we have a man on a mission with the right blend of humility, pride, and anger.  

His authenticity on the microphone during these segments demonstrates that he's comfortable with the subject matter. That comfort demonstrates that he actually believes what he's saying; especially the bit about busting his ass for the company and missing time with his family. 

The knowledge of the modern wrestling fan is incorporated into the story rather than ignored. Roman is saying things that can be found on any message board and Twitter timeline and heard on any pro-wrestling podcast. These scenes are staged and executed in a way that suggests reality is disrupting WWE's orderly fantasy. It's a style of storytelling that suits pro-wrestling; a form of cultivated chaos. 

Lines like "they're not gonna like me saying this" create a sense of legitimacy and unpredictability, and the "smartness" of the fans is not a problem to be solved but a tool to be used for dramatic purposes. It makes for interesting television, and what happened this Monday was the most interesting turn in the story yet.

Roman didn't chastise General Manager Kurt Angle, he didn't chastise Lesnar's "advocate" Paul Heyman, and he didn't even really chastise Brock Lesnar.

His ultimate grievance, we would learn, was with his boss, Vince McMahon.

Vince, in Roman's estimation, was coddling Lesnar. If anyone else on the roster, including Reigns, didn't "show up to work" they would be suspended "at best" or, more likely, fired. Reigns, who was  legitimately suspended in 2016 for violating the WWE's wellness policy, finds this situation unfair and untenable, calling Lesnar "Vince's Boy" (a clever means of inverting the commonly held belief that Roman is "Vince's Boy"). Roman alluded to the fact that he had literally just "walked past" Vince on his way to the entrance ramp. In Roman's mind, Vince didn't "respect" him enough to say Brock wasn't going to show up.

He let Roman find out "on live TV" like a chump.

We then followed Roman back up the entrance ramp, through the curtain, and into the director's booth where he confronted McMahon.

Vince, flanked by unnerved crew-members, wasn't the red-faced, barking Mr. McMahon character I was expecting to see.

He was a shrewd business-man, a manager of people's emotions, supremely confident, and accustomed to this sort of thing.

He calmly asked Roman to talk with him in private. 

"Let's talk about it," Vince ushered Roman away. 

"Yeah, let's talk about it!" Roman snarkily agreed.

"Go to commercial," Vince commanded. "Go to commercial!" he said again, before getting caught in some headset wires. He tossed the wires out of his way in irritation as the image faded to black.

The scene was naturalistic, and a compelling piece of orchestrated improvisation. 

It was everything I've ever wanted WWE to be.

Part II:

What The Screwjob Teaches Us

In wrestling, it's often said that the Mr. McMahon character was born the moment he emerged from behind the commentator's desk at the 1997 Survivor Series.

This would be The Montreal Screwjob.

If we agree, then we must acknowledge that The Montreal Screwjob also represents the birth of an entirely new creative direction for the WWE. That new direction, made in Mr. McMahon's own image, was a grim, nihilistic power-fantasy. It would later be dubbed The Attitude Era. It had been gestating for months prior to the Screwjob in the form of Shawn Micheals' anarchistic antics, Bret Hart's "heel in America, hero to the world" gimmick, and Stone Cold Steve Austin's gradual transformation from vicious heel to beloved anti-hero. 

But it was the Screwjob itself, and the requisite fall-out, that represented The Attitude Era being born in a single moment. Fantasy and reality collapsed, and out came something wholly new and unsettling.

The Screwjob was a raw, visceral explosion of emotion, will, and pent up frustration. 

It was the event that foretold the company's future, and set the tone for what wrestling would be in the late 90s and early Aughts. Suddenly, after years of having struggled in the ratings in a post-Hulkamania world, the WWE had once again found a tangible identity that resonated with viewers.

Roman's Walk obviously isn't comparable to the actual act of The Montreal Screwjob, and it likely won't ascend to a legendary status (please do not mistake my argument for one that puts this RAW-segment on equal footing with The Screwjob because that's not what I'm suggesting).

But, if the WWE wanted, Roman's Walk could similarly represent the birth of a new Mr. McMahon-character and, by extension, the birth of an exciting new creative direction for the company.

Part III:

The Bad Magician

The new creative direction born out of Roman's Walk is one where the already-transparent pretenses of predictable WWE-television are dropped.

No more "angles".

No more "scripted, fifteen-minute opening segments".

No more matches "right now!"

No more "authority figures".

The company that exists behind the camera and the company that exists before the camera would be virtually indistinguishable. 

What exactly does that mean?

Even to this day, there remains a barrier between the truth of the WWE and the fiction of the WWE. That barrier is incredibly thin, but it persists. It represents the tenacious remains of the original kayfabe; pro-wrestling's word for "being in character" or, simply, fiction.

Present WWE-kayfabe comes in many forms, but none are as immediately apparent as WWE's Commissioner & General Manager authority-characters.

Commissioners and General Managers (currently Shane & Stephanie McMahon, Daniel Bryan & Kurt Angle) are playing pretend.

They're actors.

They don't actually book matches.

They don't have authority over anything in the way their televised segments suggest.

So, when Kurt Angle (or any GM) emerges from behind the curtain each night to "spontaneously" book a match between wrestlers who are already in the ring arguing, it's pure pretense.

Or, to pointedly use pro-wrestling's dirtiest of words, it's fake.

I'll forgo deconstructing the logical fallacy of booking a live sporting event's match-card as that live sporting event is happening, and instead focus on the simple fact that WWE-fans know GMs and Commissioners don't actually book matches.

The fans know it's fake, and not in the same way they know a wrestling match is fake.

You see, even though a wrestling match isn't "real" in the exact way it suggests, there's still a lot of truth in it.

Men and women do fall on their backs, slam into ropes, chop each other's chests, bend each other's limbs, and, sometimes, suffer real injuries for their art. The very nature of a professional wrestling match, especially when performed by talented wrestlers, facilitates the suspension of disbelief.

Watch any good match long enough and you will forget that you know it's theatre.

You'll find yourself rooting for one participant and condemning the other. The emotions this simulation of combat inspires are synonymous with (if not more intense than) the emotions legitimate combat inspires.

The same cannot be said for WWE's ancillary "authority" characters.

Nothing about their scripted performances, their nondescript offices, or their roles in framing the direction of rivalries feels real. It's just not believable that they play any part in booking the show for one very simple reason:

we all know Vince McMahon is behind it.

We know that Vince McMahon is the WWE chairman, CEO, and ultimate decider of all things WWE.

Only a truly great performance by a Commissioner or GM can justify its presence. But, even then, the viewer would only be appreciating the quality of a performance in isolation, not a through-line of a believable story and a character that's actually necessary to the plot.

Put another way, Stephanie McMahon cuts a great promo, but she's not actually booking matches. That hurts the believability of any story where she (or any Commissioner or GM) books matches. It becomes increasingly difficult to justify the very presence of these authority characters when they're so transparently being characters.

It's like a magician who begins his act by saying, "Magic is fake, but please enjoy watching me perform this illusion."

So long as we know Vince McMahon is really the one pulling the strings, any story that appears to contradict that reality is inconsequential.

Part IV:

When I Know You Know I Know

It's important to remember that fans know authority characters are inconsequential not because we read dirtsheets. This is not some expertly guarded secret.

We know Vince is in charge because WWE tells us Vince is in charge.

Repeatedly. Openly. In myriad ways. For decades!

One doesn't even need to be a WWE Network subscriber to know that Vince McMahon is the one actually calling the shots, and that most of what we see on weekly WWE television is an obligatory pretense.

But, if one does happen to be a Network subscriber, they will be treated to any number of kayfabe-destroying docu-dramas that demonstrate, in delightfully interesting detail, precisely how in-control of everything Vince McMahon really is.

And yet, despite how much they've exposed themselves and the business over the years, WWE continues to cling to that little bit of curtain once the main roster cameras start rolling; that little bit of kayfabe that suggests Kurt Angle thinks he's actually booking matches, that John Cena actually worried he didn't have "a path" to WrestleMania, and that AJ Styles vs Shinsuke Nakamura could have actually been Shinsuke Nakamura vs Baron Corbin.

That little bit of curtain has transformed "WrestleMania builds" into a concerted effort to outsmart fans by delaying the gratification of a solidly booked card (and a coherently told story) until only a few weeks before the actual event.

The WWE fan is required to house multiple perspectives in their mind simultaneously as they experience the WWE-product.

We're supposed to enjoy the behind-the-curtain quality of Kurt Angle's WWE 24 special on the Network that explains how he's just playing a character, but then switch mental gears during RAW to start believing in his decision-making ability. It's not like Kurt Angle has different names identifying when he's the performer and when he's the actor, and it's not like other elements of RAW's production are consistent enough to create a completely immersive world. This is just one small example of the swampy conceptual space WWE perpetuates, seemingly without any concern for how that swamp negatively affects viewer-immersion.

If I know what I'm watching is fake, and the company knows that I know what I'm watching is fake, and I know that the company knows that I know what I'm watching is fake, who's really being fooled here? 

Put another way, what's the point?

Myths are only effective when the people telling them, and the people hearing them, all agree to believe in them. If there are no rules and the forth wall is more like a frayed, rubber band, the story, and any potential for emotional resonance, vanishes into the ether.

Roman's Walk may signal that the company is finally ready to let go of that last, inhibiting bit of curtain, and create a modern WWE-mythology we can all believe in.

Part V:

The New Kayfabe

The company has been laying the foundation for this new WWE-mythology for years. It is defined by "unmitigated access" (albeit a carefully designed sense of "unmitigated access"). 

Once appropriately labelled "The Reality Era", this is a creative direction that readily embraces the fan's awareness of Vince McMahon's power as Chairman, promoter, and booker. He's not a "character". He's not a villain. He's a man running a company.

It is a creative direction that accepts RAW is a television show built around the athletic competition of professional wrestling, and that this television show is operated by Vince McMahon and his immediate family.

We have seen hints of this more interesting, more inviting, more believable WWE in feuds typically involving Brock Lesnar.

Brock's feuds with Cena, Samoa Joe, and now, Roman Reigns, don't bother with symbolic stand-ins and painfully transparent "angles". No one is searching for their long lost family member, no one has mysterious legal leverage over their rival, and no one is "a little crazy". Everyone is a competitor who believes they are in a fight, and it's the how and why they fight that makes them unique and interesting.

This is because Brock's entire gimmick is that he is a legitimate fighter - which he is, so it's easy to believe. These realism-based rivalries are rooted in the thrill of competition, and they have the tendency to radically transform the overall quality of the show (for the better) and positively affect anyone participating in them.

Examples include the promos of Paul Heyman, the recent forth-wall nudging feud between Roman Reigns & John Cena, the evolution of Braun Strowman from Wyatt Monster to brute force, the transformation of women's wrestling via NXT, the presentation of tournament-style specials on the Network like the Mae Young Classic and The Cruiserweight Classic, the far too short-lived Talking Smack, The Miz's promos and his obsession with the IC-title, and now, a literal glimpse at Vince McMahon behind his curtain, seated at his table of ultimate power.

These examples are all bricks in what makes a solid, new creative foundation for the company.

But, again, only if the WWE actually wants to see it that way.

It's very possible this superb segment, and the mythology it creates, will exist as yet another isolated incident of excellence; a painful reminder of what could be rather than a tangible, flesh-and-bone new creative direction.

If the WWE was brave enough to tear down the last of The Old Kayfabe in the interest of building The New Kayfabe, many questions would need to be asked of its world. Those questions would form the basis of the show's structure and style of presentation.

What does it mean for Commissioners and General Managers when their legitimate irrelevance is acknowledged on-screen?

How do they react? What do they become? Do we discover that they're actually mentors and managers to the younger wrestlers behind the scenes, and is that how we see them from now on?

Who is Stephanie McMahon when she's not playing a "TV villain", as her Twitter bio openly acknowledges? 

What decisions does Triple H get to make and how does he feel about the direction of the company?

What does Shane McMahon actually...do?

What purpose, if any, does The Royal Rumble serve if we know Vince McMahon hand-picks his WrestleMania main event based upon who he regards as the biggest draw?

What other aspects of WWE's legitimate behind-the-scenes world could be integrated into the world viewers regularly watch on RAW & SmackDown?

What's it like to get ready for a match? What's it like to eat in catering? What do wrestlers think about each other? What relationships and friendships do they have?

What's it like to walk through those halls and engage with that fascinating, complex world of sport and entertainment populated by fascinating, complex people who love and believe in professional wrestling?

I have more hope than usual that I might finally get some answers to these questions on weekly WWE television.

My cause for hope is in the sight of Vince McMahon behind that desk.

His approval of this radical creative overhaul has always seemed to be the missing ingredient. In this scene, and in his subsequent interview with Renee Young, Vince McMahon seemed to be a fan of this style of production. He seemed new. He seemed interested in what he was doing. He knew it was good television. And he did all of it with a calm, self-assured authority that required no proxy.

The aforementioned nagging and unnecessary barrier between reality and fiction was gone, and I was free to be captivated by a new kind of fiction.

That is a WWE I'd gladly watch every week.

That is the beauty of professional wrestling.

It makes a believer out of you when it believes in itself.