Heels Season 1 Episode 1: Kayfabe
There was a bit of dread inside of me when finally getting ready to watch the first episode of Heels, the new show on Starz created by Michael Waldron. I figured they were trying to make Friday Night Lights but with professional wrestling, which is honestly a good idea. My dread came from the trailer feeling like they wanted to make a show about a small town genius awaiting his chance for everyone to see his greatness. Thankfully, that’s not what I got.
Donald “The Spoiler” Jardine warning: If you don’t want to be spoiled on the story then watch the episode first.
Having been a pro wrestling fan ever since I saw The Undertaker somersault clothesline a jobber in the mid 90s on a Saturday after my cartoons, I’m usually ready to cringe at the depiction of pro wrestling from anyone outside of it trying to come into the world. Rarely do they connect with what makes pro wrestling interesting, especially if they have to discuss the inner workings of the art. They either care too much about it being “fake” (pre-determined performances) or they care too much about it being “real” (showing you how much everything actually hurts.) For half of the pilot episode of Heels I worried about the same.
The episode begins with Jack Spade, played by Stephen Amell, scripting out move for move the action we’re seeing at the local wrestling show in Duffy, Georgia. We’re explained the wrestling terminology of babyface and heel, hero and villain, and have it displayed in the form of the heel Jake Spade facing Big Jim Kitchen, the babyface. We soon get introduced to the foil of Jack, his brother Ace Spade, played by Alex Ludwig. In the storyline, Ace Spade is the young good looking upstart who looks ready to take the championship from his villainous older brother. In reality, Ace is just an asshole.
The show goes to great lengths to show you the paradox of Ace Spade despite being a hero to children and cheered by the fans in the wrestling, he’s a late night partying drunk who pisses in churchyards and fat shames a convenience store clerk who was a family friend all because she wouldn’t let him steal some gum. He breaks all the rules, including having sex with his valet Crystal in the locker room where she’s not allowed to be in because she isn’t a wrestler. If anyone is curious if that’s true, not really. I’ve been in plenty of wrestling locker rooms and I certainly didn’t belong in them. She’s at least on the show.
The episode builds to the fact that Jack Spade is putting his title against his brother Ace at the next Duffy Wrestling League show and it’s a battle of good versus evil, brother against brother. Beyond the fabricated storyline, Jack and Ace are having real tension about Jack being given the keys to the company after their father passed away, while Ace is being courted by the major wrestling company up north. Jack is also noticing a rival promotion in Florida calling him out online (the footage being used for the promotion comes straight from the Impact Wrestling archives during their NWA:TNA days) while former star of the territory who left to be a superstar on national television Wild Bill Hancock comes by to also ruffle feathers and try to scout Ace Spade to the big leagues. A lot of seeds being planted. I was disappointed to see that Chris Bauer only shows up in one episode in the season to be Wild Bill because he’s the MVP of the episode.
Jack Spade spends his money on smoke machines and better quality cameras while the old factory they wrestled out of is leaking and the houses aren’t full of fans to really pay for such items. He refuses to let his wife Staci get a job while spending what is likely their savings to make the show better. It’s around this point I turned my opinion on the episode. It wasn’t an unrealistic portrayal of the professional wrestling business. It’s one of the greatest portrayals of small town independent wrestling ever made. Because Jack Spade might be the protagonist, but that doesn’t mean he’s the good guy.
You see, Jack spends the whole episode obsessing about his scripts and the stories he tells. But as the wrestlers whisper, the houses don’t fill on his stories. Jack refuses to allow anyone to come up with other ideas on his writing, to the point where in the end of the episode he throws a temper tantrum and throws it all away. He believes nobody is listening to his epic tales as his top babyface brother wants to leave to the big leagues as champion and his number two babyface wants to retire and pick up more shifts to take care of the baby on the way. All the while Jack wastes money on multiple smoke machines for a wrestling company in a small town while getting excited at the 10,000 views his shows get. This is delusions of grandeur, and the only people ready to say it to his face have worse problems than him.
He isn’t Mark Twain. He’s a mark for himself.
Jack is a nobody booker promoter but thinks he’s writing the great tales of American wrestling. All he sees is that what he does is right, when everyone else just doesn’t believe in it. This is a far more interesting character than what I thought coming into the show, as I expected him to be a maligned genius. He isn’t a genius. He’s just a run of the mill (that wrestling arena might be an abandoned mill) booker who thinks he’s a writer. How realistic is it? Trust me. I’ve been there. There’s good independent wrestling promoters, there’s bad independent wrestling promoters, and then there’s guys like Jack Spade. You can only admire the ambition so long and then you realize these dudes are selling people on a dream he can’t even afford. The show might have a strange amalgamation of modern pro wrestling and territory wrestling, but it nails the guy who thinks he’d be Vince McMahon if people just shut up and listened to his bad ideas more.
The most interesting moment in the episode is when Wild Bill Hancock, popping oxycontin’s in the back of a truck, lays out that Ace’s brother Jack isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, and his scripts prevent wrestlers from being able to adapt to the crowd and where the match needs to go. This is actually true in professional wrestling. I’m not sure if the show decides at some point that Jack’s scripts are genius, but Hancock isn’t wrong. I’m sure the idea is to paint him as wrong, but what ends up at the end of the show is the veteran deciding to flip the script, and the one following the scripts unable to adapt. It isn’t Ace that ends up using Wild Bill’s advice, but Jack.
Before the main event, Staci confronts Jack about the money he’s spending and asks him if he’s alright. He says he’s fine, but is clearly not. She then asks him what the finish is and Jack replies that it doesn’t matter, it isn’t real. It’s a lie because after a double choking confrontation with his brother Ace (high on oxy he snorted earlier), once the bell rings he catches Ace with a high German suplex then locks on a legitimate arm lock. The whole idea being he didn’t have a script anymore. Everyone ruined his script. So now he’s going to ruin the show by shooting (doing wrestling moves legitimately to hurt your opponent). Instead of the competitive half hour championship bout everyone expected, his brother ends up giving up in under a minute before suffering a broken arm. The fans throw garbage in the ring and boo the finish. Ace punches Jack for what he pulled but Jack walks away. Hancock shakes his head. His natural star he was scouting to sign ruined since he lost the crowd.
After all the talk of his great scripts, Jack pissed it all away and killed the town because his brother was going to leave and he had no back up. Big Jim told him he’s retiring. The act of destruction ends the episode and lays a foundation for the show going forward. Who is going to actually come out a babyface in this? Will Jack redeem himself after setting his own fathers territory on fire out of anger of people not following his self aggrandized scripts? Is Ace forced to stick around and maybe think about the fact he’s a piece of shit? Is Big Jim, looking like he’s trying to play Coach Taylor of Friday Night Lights in his 20s, going to become Coach Taylor for this show? Will Crystal learn how to wrestle and show she’s a genius at understanding pro wrestling psychology? And what’s the truth about Tom Spade, the father of the Spade brothers, which all we know is he was a big star feuding with Wild Bill, was an occasional drunk, and as Jack once puts him coarsely, “It don’t matter what he thinks he’s dead.”
Overall I enjoyed the episode, and even if the show decides to veer into a direction of Jack Spade being a brilliant wrestling script writer who crafts the ultimate story to save the fledgling Duffy Wrestling League, I think they at least told an honest story about small town independent wrestling and the characters you might find in it. And keep an eye out for Big Luke Gallows taking a bump. He doesn’t take too many of those in real life, so it was nice to see him do it on a television show.