Bray Wyatt is not just a man, he is an eater of worlds; the embodiment of the ugly truth most of us choose to ignore in favor of a fictitious narrative we present as truth. He is the dangerous new face of fear; the little voice inside our head that urges us down a sinister path. He is the devil and the savior; the darkness and the light. Only after we open our minds and our souls to him will we see the world as it truly is; only then can we be saved. He is Waylon Mercy with a little Max Cody, David Koresh and The Undertaker mixed in for the perfect combination of enigmatic cult leader with a hint of supernatural being. He is everything and he is nothing; he is everywhere and he is nowhere.
At least that is what he’s supposed to be. In reality Wyatt is a tired midcard act unable to maintain a meaningful connection with the audience despite a serious lack of intriguing characters on a shallow WWE roster.
In an era where WWE has taken significant (and justified) criticism for failing to push young talent, Wyatt is most definitely the exception. He is routinely presented as a character of great importance on television. He is one of the few performers provided substantial promo time on a regular basis. The majority of angles in which Wyatt is involved include established top-tier stars. None of which changes the fact that the character has become a living, breathing example of the law of diminishing returns.
How did this happen?
There are some who point to the gimmick aspect of the character as a viable explanation. In today’s pro wrestling, so the argument goes, a gimmick-heavy character cannot be taken seriously. Even WWE’s most successful gimmick characters like The Undertaker, Kane, Mankind or Goldust could not thrive as new characters in the reality-based universe pro wrestling currently inhabits.
This, of course, is utter nonsense.
A character’s gimmick is nothing more than a unique identifier — something that sets him or her apart from the rest of the characters in a specific world. Hardly a single compelling character in the history of storytelling is without a gimmick of some sort. Hannibal Lecter’s gimmick is eating people. Batman’s gimmick is fighting crime without crossing the line and becoming what he hates. Michael Corleone’s gimmick is that of a ruthless mobster desperate to gain legitimacy. The list goes on and on.
Today, many pro wrestling fans (and an alarming number of journalists) incorrectly use the word gimmick as a synonym for implausible or unbelievable. A slew of ridiculous characters presented by WWE in the mid-90s is undoubtedly responsible for this trend. Duke ‘The Dumpster’ Droese, The Goon, Mantaur and Repo Man are just a few examples. Outrageous characters like these were unsuccessful because of a lack of sound storytelling fundamentals and character development, not because they were predicated on a fictional or implausible gimmick.
Comparisons to the Wyatt character and The Undertaker character have been made since Wyatt’s main roster debut in the spring of 2012. Many went so far as to anoint Wyatt as The Undertaker of this generation (ironic considering that The Undertaker appears to be The Undertaker of this generation). The similarities between the two characters are certainly discernible, and so the exponential struggles of Wyatt to remain germane may appear to support the gimmick theory. However, further analysis ultimately disproves that theory.
The Undertaker character, at its very core, is an undead entity who resides in a grim underworld until compelled to compete inside the ring for a variety of reasons. In the early 1990s, the Papa Shango character used voodoo and dark magic against his opponents. The two characters were more alike than different, yet one is revered as perhaps the greatest pro wrestling character of all time and the other is a punchline. We associate the Undertaker with intriguing stories; a bond created between performer and audience. We associate Papa Shango with ostentatious mannerisms and green goo, two aspects that don’t necessarily go hand in hand with compelling storytelling.
Pro wrestling is a character-driven industry; it always has been and always will be. Every pro wrestler has a gimmick, whether the character is based in reality like Steve Austin, in fiction like The Undertaker or somewhere in the middle – like Wyatt.
Any character, any gimmick, is capable of getting over with the audience provided the storyteller adequately educates the audience on the character’s truths from the beginning. Once those critical truths are accepted, disbelief is willingly suspended and the character’s narrative can unfold in a safe environment. One need only look to the recent success of Dalton Castle in Ring of Honor and Tetsuya Naito in New Japan Pro Wrestling; two promotions whose respective fanbases are historically tough on gimmick-heavy characters.
The truths of the Wyatt character (and later The Wyatt Family as a whole) were brilliantly presented to the WWE audience in a series of effective vignettes leading up to the character’s initial appearance on Raw. Wyatt was framed as a backwoods cult leader, who viewed himself as more monster than man.
The audience understood and accepted the core truths of the character right from the beginning, even if they didn’t fully understand what kind of character he was going to be. Wyatt’s first televised program involved Kane, another gimmick-heavy character, providing a safe haven for the fiction of the character to incubate as the audience continued to digest the personality radically different from anyone else on the roster.
The initial rollout of Wyatt’s character remains one of the better introductions of a new character WWE has executed over the last several years. Programs with CM Punk, Daniel Bryan and The Shield helped the character continue to advance until he was ultimately packaged for a program with John Cena at WrestleMania 30.
This is where things began to fall apart.
The central theme of the angle between the two was Wyatt’s attempt to expose Cena as a fraudulent hero; as someone who could be corrupted into joining the darkside if pushed hard enough. Ultimately Cena withstood Wyatt’s tricks and ruled the day at WrestleMania and in subsequent matches following the main showcase.
The fact that Wyatt lost to Cena on multiple occasions means little. Pro wrestling is never about who wins and who losses but rather how someone wins or loses. In storytelling the how and why are always more important that the who and what.
After months of being booked as a special character; someone not quite man but not quite beast; multi-layered and nuanced; both enticing and reprehensible, Wyatt was inexplicably booked as just another member of the roster; just another opponent for the supreme hero of WWE to squash. The significant equity extracted from the character was simply flushed down the toilet.
The Cena program booked Wyatt to become exposed as a false prophet and his family as blind followers of a fool. For the better part of a year and a half Wyatt and his family have continued to be booked in precisely that manner. Michael Cole routinely refers to him as a false profit or snake oil salesman on television. In recent weeks Wyatt himself has even suggested he may be a false prophet in a promo centered around insanity.
The sudden change in course is hardly Wyatt’s fault. As a performer his promos remain among the more unique and passionate on WWE programming (even if the words ring hollow). His in-ring ability also leaves little to be desired. Ultimately the blame must be laid at the feet of the storyteller, Vince McMahon, for losing faith in the character, or more accurately put, for being afraid to let the character succeed.
Why the change of heart occurred is something only McMahon and those in his inner circle know for sure. Perhaps he fed into the believe that gimmick-heavy characters can no longer earn money despite credible evidence to the contrary. Perhaps Wyatt did something to land himself in the doghouse. Or perhaps McMahon simply woke up one morning and decided the character had run its course. Given what we know about the fickle impresario all of those explanations serve as strong possibilities.
Whatever the reason for the dramatic transformation, the damage has most certainly been done – forever cemented after Wyatt was inexplicably selected as the opponent for Cena to annihilate after being dominated by Brock Lesnar and losing the WWE title at SummerSlam. Once a serious character loses credibility with the audience it’s almost impossible to recapture it without first drastically altering the character, and even then nothing is guaranteed. Wyatt has been reduced to a villain of the week type of character like one of the silly bank robbers associated with the gameshow Where in the World is Carmen San Diego:
Alright gumshoes, this week your job is to find that wacky eater of worlds, the loquacious lantern-waving leech, Bray Wyatt, and return the Mona Lisa to The Louvre before time runs out!
Wyatt has become the worst kind of character you can be in pro wrestling – the kind that simply exists. He is someone just credible enough to be considered a heel but not credible enough to be viewed as a notable opponent. He has become The Mountie, or worse yet, he’s become the Papa Shango of this generation.