The penultimate episode of the first season of Heels is plot-heavy, shuffling every piece on the board yet again and cranking up the volume on every element of the show. But as the story intensifies, I find myself struggling to make sense of the show’s mixed moral messages. While I enjoyed “The Big Bad Fish Man,” I find that I’m developing the smarky habit of rooting for the characters that the storytellers want me to jeer.
“The Big Bad Fish Man” finally brings the long-simmering rivalry between Duffy Wrestling League and Florida Wrestling Dystopia to full boil. Ticket sales for the DWL’s showcase at the South Georgia State Fair have taken off since announcing Jack Spade vs. Ace Spade vs. Wild Bill Hancock as the main event. Dystopia’s head honcho Charlie Gully aims to redirect the DWL’s momentum in his own favor by sniping their talent before the show. Overnight, he flies his cronies to the Duffy Dome in his own personal helicopter, and they cover its exterior walls with personalized invitations for the DWL roster to attend a party at his mansion. The invitations are styled like promotional posters for each wrestler, as if to say: “This is how good I can make you look, and how much money I’m willing to spend to do it.”
Jack Spade is able to quickly dissuade Apocalypse, Diego Cottonmouth, and Bobby Pin from accepting Gully’s invitation by demonstrating some actual leadership skills for a change and giving an energizing speech about how the DWL isn’t about wrestling for money, it’s about living out a power fantasy in the ring. “Here,” says Jack, “the only person you answer to is the crowd.” This is, of course, bullshit — they still answer to Jack, who insists on controlling their every move. The speech works because Jack presents himself as a peer struggling along with the rest of the roster, and because he seems genuine in doing so. Jack is not actually an employer making money off of his workers’ labor, he is in fact losing money rapidly even with a volunteer workforce in the hope that the work might finally pay off very shortly. If Jack could treat his comrades like important components to their collective success more often rather than as interchangeable pawns in a grand plan to prop up his family business, life at the DWL would be a lot better for everyone.
Furthering this display of team spirit, Jack consults Ace, Bill, and Willie to help determine who should win the title. Jack’s word is still final, but he’s actually asking for people’s opinions for a change and I suppose that’s growth. Jack also agrees immediately that it’s time for him to drop the belt, but hasn’t decided who should win it. Wild Bill argues that as the show’s main draw, his victory would get the biggest audience response. Ace thinks (rightly) that this would do nothing to build the DWL in the long term. Willie doesn’t voice an opinion, but she’s quietly furious that Bill is even in the building. The conversation ends without a winner being chosen because, in order for Heels to function as a TV show, Jack’s every booking decision needs to be agonizing.
Heels has a unique problem, which is that its most visually exciting scenes, which often occur at the climax of an episode, take place in an arena where the stakes are actually lower than the rest of the show. The storytellers have a limited set of tools with which to create tension around action that’s supposed to be staged, safe, and predictable. The first episode established the stakes around the show’s wrestling by demonstrating that, even if we know how a match is supposed to go, we can’t trust the performers to stick with the program. Since then, nearly every match in the DWL main event scene has been a complete mess. This injects tension into the wrestling, but at the cost of the characters’ credibility. We can’t learn Jack’s booking decisions in advance because if we did, we’d know with almost total certainty that whatever he decides is going to be sabotaged in the ring. Rather than having Jack make a choice and simply hiding it from the audience, Heels stalls for time by making Jack the most painfully indecisive booker in wrestling.
At this point, the only way to make the ending of the season feel like a victory for all concerned is for the state fair show’s climactic Three-Way Ladder Match to go off as planned. The main event needs to prove both to the crowd at the event and the folks watching Heels on TV that the DWL deserves an audience, that Jack is a talented storyteller, and that his roster can put on a satisfying wrestling match without someone getting hurt. More improvised drama will not do — if they can’t perform at a professional level even once, then no in-universe crowd excitement will satisfy the television audience who knows better. (For examples of how to build suspense while depicting a plan being executed successfully, see the entire Heist Film genre.)
Georgia Wrestling Myopia
After losing Bobby Pin to injury and Rooster Robbins to a better opportunity, the DWL roster is looking mighty thin going into their state fair showcase. To remedy this, Willie holds tryouts for new talent (though one hopes they’ll also be hiring some guests from around the Southeast circuit as they appear to do on their weekly show). Two applicants stand out in the audition, the first being a tall, plain-looking middle aged white dude in a polo shirt and khakis whose ring name is “The Dad” (stunt performer Scott Hunter). The other is Crystal Tyler, who even Willie reluctantly admits to having the goods to ascend from valet to wrestler. She tries to sell this idea to Jack, whose fumbling excuse not to hire her is that reinserting her into the main event would create friction with Ace, who he wants to keep happy.
Let’s set aside the fact that we learn later in this very episode that Ace actually does want to work with Crystal again, and assume that it would be uncomfortable for one or both performers to be part of an angle together. The real head-scratcher is whether or not Jack is aware that he has matches to book other than the main event. Wasn’t the point of trying out new wrestlers an effort to fill out the card? Just book her in an undercard match! Good god, man, you need bodies! It’s maddening that there’s rarely even a hint that there’s more than one story going on at once in the DWL universe. For my money, giving Crystal a debut match of her own would also make a far more satisfying culmination of her story arc this season than putting her into another match that’s about Ace. UNLESS…
Unless Crystal is booked to win the ladder match.
This would certainly make waves in the version of the wrestling world in which Heels takes place and win new eyes to the product. It doesn’t even seem like the most far-fetched thing to happen, either. I can actually see both Ace and Wild Bill getting behind the idea, especially as an alternative to the other man winning the match. Jack booking this ending would also represent a lot of growth for him and, as a finale for Heels Season 1, it’s probably about as feel-good an ending as we could hope for. It would be a little sudden (both to us and to fictional DWL fans) for Crystal to become the champion in her very first match, and worse if she’s not actually on the card and she just runs in and takes the belt, calling the legitimacy of her reign into question. But, as I write this, Heels has neither been canceled or renewed for a second season, and I am particularly fond of the idea of Crystal winning the title as a series finale. We’ll see what happens next week.
Plans for the DWL state fair main event (such as they are) are called further into question when Ace arrives at Charlie Gully’s house party intending to stick up for his family’s honor but being quickly seduced by Dystopia’s hip hop video glamour. Gully’s mansion is packed with sexy wrestling talent who are, apparently, having a great time working for him. Gully offers him more than just stardom and a championship, he’s promising the stability of an actually functional wrestling federation, a reprieve from being jerked around by his brother, maybe even a little respect. The next morning, plied by sex and cocaine, Ace agrees to announce that he’s jumping ship in front of a live audience at Dystopia’s next show.
On paper, this might sound like yet another of Ace’s weekly character turns, shedding the development he acquired during the previous episode as usual. In practice, I actually find this to be the first episode where we’re getting the complete Ace — the selfish kid and the remorseful adult — at the same time. Ace doesn’t turn against Jack for entirely stupid reasons, he is offered an undeniably better deal and he takes it. He is leaving one shitty wrestling company that treats him poorly for another, possibly still shitty wrestling company that might treat him better. I don’t believe people should chase money over happiness or over principle, but DWL has brought Ace more misery than joy and there is no integrity there to defend.
I’m frankly amazed by the failure of nearly every heavy-handed attempt by the storytellers to make me see Gully as worse than Jack Spade. Gully is rich from inherited wealth, but he spreads his money around and creates some financial support in a business that typically has none. (No word yet on whether or not Dystopia offers health benefits.) Meanwhile, Jack treats his unpaid workforce like interchangeable pawns and expects total loyalty in exchange. Gully’s hardcore genre of pro wrestling doesn’t interest me personally, but Heels hasn’t done nearly enough to sell me that the DWL’s alleged artistry is superior to Dystopia’s bloody sensationalism. The DWL is certainly no better at long-term storytelling, since Jack Spade can never see more than an inch past his own nose. Gully’s plans may be devious, but at least he has some. Is the revelation that Gully’s cynical storytelling tone is rooted in his having been molested by a priest as a child supposed to make me agree with him less? Am I supposed to find Gully’s misuse of Rooster Robbins more repugnant than Jack’s? I can hardly believe it, but we’re an hour from the end of the season and I’m actually rooting for the rich prick villain.
The Family Curse
At the start of “The Big Bad Fish Man,” we flash back to an incident shortly before Tom Spade’s death in which Tom, angry and insecure, challenges Jack to wrestle him on the side of the road for ownership of the DWL. It’s just as much a fight over control of the league as it is over Ace’s future — Tom has faith in Ace’s college football career while Jack is convinced that he’ll wash out and is better off joining the family business. Tom oozes such a toxic masculinity that Jack comes across as a more tolerable alpha male by comparison. This is the season’s best flashback scene, showing Tom near his breaking point and Jack as his cool-headed foil, a version of the character we’ve rarely seen. “In the real world,” says Jack, “people don’t solve their problems by fighting.” In the year since, Jack has developed something resembling his father’s temper, which exploded once earlier when he attacked Ace after the Bobby Pin match, and will go off again at the close of the episode.
Witnessing Jack striking Ace outside of the ring has done a number on little Thomas, who (in what Jack is calling a “reverse Santa Claus” situation) no longer believes that wrestling is fiction. Ace is a bad guy in the ring and apparently in real life. His father hits Ace in the ring and hits him in real life. Therefore, he should hit bad guys. Thomas punches a snotty older kid at school and gets himself suspended, and despite scolding him alongside Staci, it’s obvious that Jack is proud of his son’s outburst. Without his own father to serve as ugly extreme of old school, violent manliness, Jack no longer has a way to measure his own. Later, Thomas confesses (as best as a child his age can) that he’s been struggling with feelings of dread and depression. Staci pushes past her obvious worry to positively reinforce her son’s emotional honesty, hoping to prevent the cycle from continuing. Following the reverberations of Tom Spade’s rage and obsession through his son and grandson is an effective spine for the story, even extending beyond the immediate Spade family.
Willie, who was arguably even closer to old Tom than Jack was, is also beginning to cave under the weight of her own anger. By bringing Wild Bill into the DWL’s inner circle, Jack is forcing Willie to work closely with someone who stirs up a fierce self-loathing in her, a poison that she begins to spit back onto the rest of her well-meaning family. Her husband Ted, a very plain but very warm man, attempts to gently coax her into expressing her pain rather than drowning it in liquor, but she’s not having it and buries herself even deeper. Here, Willie demonstrates that the “strong silent type” is not an exclusively male trope, and it’s no healthier for her than it was for Tom. This may be Mary McCormack’s most compelling performance on a series where she routinely excels in subplots too slight to comment on in depth.
I Am Jack’s Smirking Revenge
The story comes to a head at the weekend’s Dystopia show, where Ace prepares to denounce his brother and his company in front of a packed nightclub crowd. In his coke-fueled excitement, Ace calls Crystal to forewarn her of his change of employment and to invite her to join him at Dystopia as a wrestler. Crystal immediately drops dime to Jack, who abandons family movie night to put out yet another DWL brushfire and drives off to Jacksonville to stop Ace before he hits the ring. Growing more suspicious of Jack’s compulsive need to control his brother’s life, Staci investigates a hunch and discovers, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jack is the one who bought a mass quantity of tissue packets and handed them out to the crowd back in “Cheap Heat,” encouraging and compounding Ace’s humiliation and forcing his heel turn.
At the Dystopia show, Rooster Robbins makes his debut and is immediately crowned champion. Sooner than you can say “Good for him,” Gully confides in Ace that Rooster will drop the belt to him next week. Ace objects, preferring to build the story for a bit and let Rooster have a longer title reign, but Gully doesn’t care. “Rooster’s just the bait, son,” says Gully, “you’re the fish.” This is certainly the nastiest thing Gully has done on the show so far, but I’ll argue that even just giving Rooster a showcase and the title for one week is still more than Jack Spade was ever going to offer him. As always, Gully is bad, but not worse. The news about Rooster is enough to make Ace hesitate backstage rather than make his debut promo opposite Gully to close out the show, unwittingly giving time for Jack to jump the barricade and hit Gully with a very sincere punch in the face.
As Tom Spade’s favorite REO Speedwagon song plays over the end credits, it’s clear that Jack’s transformation into his father is complete. Everything in the text, from his confrontation with Tom in the teaser to Thomas’s outburst and subsequent remorse, points to Jack breaking his rival’s nose to being a bad thing, a new low. And maybe it’s just that “Roll with the Changes” is an upbeat riff rock song, but I can’t help but feel like we’re still supposed to find this moment more cool than upsetting. The finale is bound to leave us with a clearer sense of the show’s overall thesis, but for the moment I’m left wondering if the values dissonance I’m feeling isn’t just between myself and the show but between the show and itself.