Last week, AEW’s Dynamite was almost inarguably the best fan-less wrestling show to come out during the COVID-19 crisis, if not one of the best low/no attendance shows ever produced. It worked because AEW focused in on the things that WWE’s Raw and SmackDown didn’t — there were out-of-the-ring antics (I got five on it, MJF), wrestlers and commentators addressed the situation, Cody delivered a fantastic promo about “standing together”, and perhaps most importantly, they let the massive debuts of Brodie Lee and Matt Hardy proceed as planned despite there being no audience for as big a pop as they deserve.
Nevertheless, something seemed off.
You see, a lack of a pop didn’t hinder these debuts, but that both wrestlers are already associated with stables did, and beyond the immediacy of a global health crisis, it will continue to. With Lee ascendant in the Dark Order and Hardy joining The Elite, both eagerly anticipated wrestlers are immediately sharing the spotlight with some talent we’ve already seen too much of near-weekly…and now we’re positioned to see even more of them.
This isn’t to say that I don’t understand the reasons Lee and Hardy debuted in the way they did. Hardy has a deep history with the Young Bucks, and Lee has all the reason in the world to join a collective of “overlooked” people, but they’re now one of many. AEW promotes the likes of The Inner Circle, Best Friends (plus Orange Cassidy), Jurassic Express, Butcher/Blade/Bunny, and the newly minted Death Triangle while individual wrestlers — save for charisma bombs Jon Moxley and Darby Allin — are widely overlooked or underdeveloped, such as Joey Janela, Hikaru Shida, and Bea Priestly, among others.
AEW favors these gangs over the individual (usually midcard) talent for a number of reasons, including that poor promo abilities can be bolstered by the charisma of others, that any match can quickly turn into a violent and exciting “gang fight”, and that multiple wrestlers on one card allows them to blur the lines between the usual “good vs. bad” dichotomy WWE falls into.
But, the continued push of these gangs hurts individual wrestlers a lot more than it helps them. Sure, Jericho looks like a supervillain when he emerges with his gang of hitmen, but on the same coin, Adam Page’s character development is limited to happening on Being The Elite. I don’t know who Trent and Chuck Taylor are outside of the guys that are friends with Orange Cassidy, and why should I? For that matter, who is Brandon Cutler outside of The Elite’s friend? And that’s to say nothing of how even these storylines have obviously been preserved for the men’s roster over the women’s that the promotion keeps promising well get its due…someday.
Which brings us to the long-term issues of last week’s Dynamite: Lee and Hardy aren’t run-of-the-mill talent that might need bolstering. They’re individual, defined, and experienced wrestlers and characters worthy of their own attention.
In fact, the whole issue with Lee’s (then Luke Harper) booking in WWE was that he was limited to being a member of a “family”. Now, the Exalted One is hardly the same thing as being Bray Wyatt’s lackey, but the effect is similar. What is the Dark Order without the centerpiece of the angle: Evil Uno? To date, AEW has seen much more of Uno and assorted lackeys than it has of Lee. That isn’t an insult to Uno, who I like quite a bit, but the constraints of an angle like this are readily apparent: Lee and Uno will run roughshod on the company recruiting believers and stabbing friends as in the back as they see fit until someone, maybe even someone Elite, tries to stop them.
Which brings us to Matt Hardy. Broken, Woken, V1, or other, Hardy is a standout in- and out-of-ring talent. One whose whole creative trajectory recently has also been painted by the fact that he was misused and overlooked by WWE in recent years. The solution? Unfortunately, reversion. Hardy’s new essence, Damascus, is indeed darker and more sinister than Zenith or others, but it requires the same framing to work. The Young Bucks are indebted to Hardy and they’ll do anything he asks, in return he’ll help them out as needed, he’ll be Elite. But where does he go from there? He runs a good solo or two with Jericho, maybe even Allin, and becomes deeply invested in things like Blood and Guts because…his immortal essence just so happens to be aligned with Hardy’s friends?
The #InnerCircle thought they had it all figured out. But, #TheElite had a plan the whole time!
Was @MATTHARDYBRAND a part of your #AEWTop5 moments? pic.twitter.com/8qfniUh0E3
— All Elite Wrestling (@AEWrestling) March 19, 2020
Both characters are good, as are the wrestlers behind them, but the angles themselves will become increasingly limited because of their debt to AEW’s establishment. If they must remain in their respective groups, maybe Lee become tied of his admirers, or Hardy unaware that his essence is attacking the Elite in secret — but those things seem unlikely and far off, given that Page or Omega’s eventual heel turn is still percolating and that the promotion in general rarely story tells in the ring. Instead, I would’ve rather seen Hardy arrive as a one-man wrecking force of cosmic proportions, or Lee as an individual false prophet, a ball of deserved anger and misplaced self-belief.
AEW won’t do that because, right now, their promotion hesitates time and time again to put faith in individual performers, even ones as lauded as Lee and Hardy. Heck, they won’t even let Mox, one of the most popular professional wrestlers alive, pretend to be in the Inner Circle for more than a night — an interesting angle about a lone hitman in a pit of snakes — that was over as quickly as the pop of a champagne bottle. Mox vs. Jericho was an amazing match, but it left Jericho almost exactly where he was before: supervillain with assorted muscle, too reliant on the Inner Circle to develop much beyond what AEW is using as a safety net and leaving Santana, Guevara, and others the midcard matches. Sharing the spotlight means only so many people get the shine, and the entire roster deserves better than that.
But hey, maybe Luther will break the mold…after he gets out of the Nightmare Collective.
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