One of the biggest issues I’ve had with WWE has been their inability to make their characters human beings. Over the last few weeks they have actually taken one of their main characters and written with nuance, and the acting has been excellent, as this person shows a range of emotions. Of course, being WWE, there must always be a caveat with this. In this case the caveat is that it is the one character who likely will never have to suffer physical consequences or lose a match because of her failings. Because she’s Stephanie McMahon.
Before WWE TLC, Stephanie McMahon was fully confident and in charge. She would get in the faces of her enemies, and they would have to give in to her demands. She was the aggressive face of the authority, backed up by the menacing power of HHH, the McMahon family, and the corporate machine she controlled. This was the woman who would threaten anyone, even such genre-spanning heroes as Dwayne Johnson and Ronda Rousey. She would saunter in and reshape entire divisions simply on a whim. Stephanie McMahon was, in many respects, the most powerful character in the WWE Universe.
There are few perks to being a long-time viewer of WWE. The only thing they seem to hate more than being a wrestling company is having been a wrestling company. History is a thing wheeled out once a year to sell tickets to marks in town for WrestleMania, and a way to give a pat on the back to the guys that were chewed up and spit out by the McMahon machine. Remembering things is for nerds who don’t know how to sit back and enjoy the show, and probably are complaining from their mom’s basement. But in this one case, having given this show hour after hour after hour, is instructive to understanding these last few weeks in the life of Stephanie McMahon.
Last week, after Roman Reigns destroyed HHH at TLC, Stephanie McMahon appeared spitting fire. She was going to take a pound of flesh from Roman Reigns. Not just by her meaty hands delivering slaps that had to leave Roman’s ears ringing (seriously, if she’s on the active roster she’s instantly the most built woman and the strongest except for maybe Tamina) but because of her ability to summon Zeus from the peak of Olympus. Along with the power of being a corporate officer and wealthy businesswoman, she always had the power of dark magic in her pocket. Sure sometimes it backfires, like last year, but gods can be fickle and you just kind of have to ride it out until they get themselves sorted out. And so when she finished laying hands on Roman she revealed she had cast the summoning spell needed to compel Vincent K. McMahon to Raw.
Certain that things were settled, and, given what we know of her character over the years, likely deferring to her father’s love of being the big swinging dick in moments like this, Stephanie waited and watched the end of Raw from another place. She watched her father do all of the things that her father did in situations such as this. He put on his most threatening voice, threatened to beat Roman Reigns all by himself, and then put Roman in a spot where his chances were virtually nil. Giving him the tiniest sliver of reward but a mountain of risk in order to avail himself of it, as Cole would say “Vintage McMahon!”
I can only assume Stephanie was in a state of joy watching the main event of Raw on 12-14-15. Everything was where it should be in her world. Her husband was home, recuperating, sure to return stronger and more vengeful than ever. Her father, the very beating heart of WWE authority, was once more bringing his brand of justice to bear on one who had wronged the Princess. Refs were being worked over, Legionnaires were being unleashed, and odds were being stacked as high as the sky, where the sun shone always on the McMahon Empire. Surely she was screaming at the tv with glee in her most dulcet tones. Right up until the moment everything began to go horribly wrong. Right up until Vince McMahon’s chin had a most unpleasant meeting with a Superman Punch courtesy of Roman Reigns.
I’ve talked before in my RAW reviews of how much time I’ve given over to watching WWE. Perhaps more time than even Frank the Clown. I’ve watched myself age and mature from a child, to a boy, to a man, to a manchild. I’ve also watched Stephanie McMahon grow, age, mature, and evolve. She has become a strong, assertive, intelligent woman not afraid to wield her strength in a male-dominated industry. She has been traumatized and caused trauma. She’s been used by her father, her brother, and her husband to further their intricate plots and resolve their petty feuds. But on December 21, 2015, she was in a position that was new to her. She was all alone.
Throughout everything there was always someone there to support Stephanie McMahon, a safe place to fall back to. The internecine feuds between McMahons always had the feel of a family resolving their issues, knowing when they needed to they would unite as one against any usurpers. They were Lannisters with the attendant icky family incestuous dynamic.
She tried to use all of the tricks she had learned over the years. She threatened Roman Reigns and all his allies with horrid punishment. She growled in her most menacing voice and claimed ownership of everything in sight. She invoked the mixture of corporate power and being a menacing presence that her father had perfected over the decades, that her husband was showing himself a worthy heir to. But she is not, and will never be Vince McMahon. Her invective was met by dismissive laughter. Her punishments lacked the sadistic imagination of her absent partner. She put the Usos in a tag match against a team where the third guy spends more time playing trombone than wrestling, and she put the Intercontinental Champion in a match against a top contender. If these matches had been announced on WWE.com at 3PM no one would have batted an eye or thought them to be pieces in Stephanie’s vengeance arsenal. The odds were not so much stacked as pushed together to look a little taller.
By the end of the show all of Stephanie’s plans had failed. She was distraught and confused and full of impotent rage. She was the daughter brought to heel, begging for her job back. The insolent partner mocked and eventually cast aside for a while by her husband. In the span of two episodes of Raw she had gone from unleashing gods upon Roman Reigns to taking out her anger on a 5th string announcer who she would most likely be able to crush in a fair fight. Stephanie McMahon at the end of 12/21 Raw was a spent force. She was exposed as a fraud, but still a fraud who could strike and could not be ignored. What will she do next. What weapons might she have hidden to strike back at this man who not only humiliated her family, but laughed right in her face as he did so? Not a bad hook for RAW next week, wouldn’t you say?
Aside from being one of the funniest words in the English language (it sounds like butt!) it is the word that always pops up when things are going well. It is the awkward boner of a 12-year-old boy. And the but in this case is WWE figures out storytelling and characterization for the one character who it can never truly pay off for. For all the stories WWE wants to tell, at its core the business model is getting people to pay to watch other people hit each other until one falls down and can’t get up anymore. And right now there is no obvious, or even fantasy booking path, that reasonably allows this character to get her just due. The show has revolved around her drama for weeks, and will almost certainly continue to do so. But what’s the damn point? Is anyone going to be more excited for a Reigns/HHH match because HHH is upset at what has become of his wife? Are there any non-disturbing people who feel like Reigns giving Stephanie a spear and a Superman punch will somehow be proper closure to all of it? Does Roman call for family backup and bring Nia Jax up from NXT to beat up Stephanie? That’s the most reasonable thing I’ve thought of, and I think that’s awful.
Stephanie McMahon, overexposed and egocentric as she is, has the oft-seen ability to be a vital onscreen character. The way she’s been portrayed the last few weeks shows that WWE does have people creating their shows who understand how characters and stories can be written to show them as people with emotional arcs. These things are lights in the darkness of the usual creative blackness. Now let us all send good thoughts towards Stamford. May they remove the light from under the bushel and let it shine on characters who can become worthy of epic endings and sign pointing and WrestleMania Moments™.
Congratulations WWE. You really did a hell of a job giving us a character we could understand and who was consistent with what we’ve seen of her over the years.
Now please do that for the characters who don’t have a billion dollar family name to fall back on. They really kind of need it the most.