The Room at the Top is Empty: Sami Zayn and the Great Lies of Vince Mcmahon

On February 18th, Sami Zayn lost to Roman Reigns at WWE Elimination Chamber in. Montreal. It’s now been a week since then, and I still don’t completely understand the way many fans, not to mention numerous corners of wrestling media, are reacting to it.

The day after Elimination Chamber, I wrote an essay about why Sami losing was actually a good thing, because it fits the narrative of the story that’s being told — a story that’s not about becoming world champion, but about abusive families and discarded friendships, and whether you’ve gone too far down the road to hell to turn back. This story isn’t about Sami Zayn, I argued, but about his relationships with Kevin Owens, and with Jimmy and Jey Uso. The day after that, on Monday’s WWE Raw, Sami and Kevin shared an emotionally charged segment in the ring, in which Sami apologized for all he’d done to Kevin and asked for Kevin’s help, an olive branch that Kevin icily rejected, telling Sami that if he needed help, “why don’t you ask your buddy, Jey.”

In other words, I was 100% right, obviously, in your face, haters — a message that, shockingly, not all of the haters have been quick to embrace. Not even after another emotionally charged segment on this past Friday’s WWE SmackDown, which saw Sami accuse Jimmy of being both the first to accept him into the Bloodline and the first to superkick him out of it, as well as of allowing Reigns to abuse and manipulate his twin brother, Jey, who as of this writing still has yet to officially declare his loyalty to Sami or to Roman.

I think there are two reasons why fans of WWE, or at least the Bloodline story, remain so adamant that Sami (a) should have won the world title in Montreal, or (b) should still win the world title in the main event of WrestleMania 39, presumably in a triple threat match featuring Reigns and Royal Rumble winner Cody Rhodes. The first one is that they just love Sami and want him to achieve the highest level of success he possibly can, and I can’t really argue with that. I love Sami too. I would love to Sami become world champion. I would love to see it happen in the main event of WrestleMania. But being in favor of Sami’s personal success is really the only good argument, and it’s not a strong one. The second reason people are so dug in about this is because they think there are other good arguments that are stronger, and the reason they think that, I believe, is because we’re all still suffering from the long-term PTSD of 40 years of wrestling controlled and dictated by Vince McMahon, who, for worse or for fucking worse, has warped the popular perception of pro wrestling almost singlehandedly for decades, to the point that many find it difficult to talk or think about wrestling in ways that aren’t, on some level, McMahon-approved.

Am I immune to this myself? Hardly. I was calling for Sami to get that world title Mania main event along with everyone else not too long ago, and I’m sure there are other ways Vince has influenced my thinking about wrestling that I’m not even aware of. But on this particular issue, I think I see things pretty clearly at the moment, and I think I see where Vince’s creative legacy is leading people astray. And so, in an act of supreme hubris, I’ve taken it upon myself to address some of the arguments I’ve heard for why Sami either should have won the title at Elimination Chamber or should win the title at Mania, and in the process, reveal some of the Great Lies of Vince McMahon that have led us to this point.

Continue reading “The Room at the Top is Empty: Sami Zayn and the Great Lies of Vince Mcmahon”

If Sami Wins, We Riot

Speaking to the press last night after WWE Elimination Chamber, a night that saw him wrestle in the main event, for the world championship, against the biggest star in the company, in his hometown of Montreal, Quebec, Sami Zayn seemed a touch less elated that one might have expected after the most important match of his career — perhaps because he lost it.

“I’m feeling very strange, and I can’t put my finger on it,” he said. “It was kind of an unhappy ending tonight. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t affect me. Of course, this is a dream come true … but the storybook ending obviously has a certain ending to it, and that’s not what happened. I can’t act like there’s a small part of me that wishes I could have given that ending to the people, the story, myself, family, friends, fans, and the city of Montreal.”

“Looking into the crowd after the three count, just seeing their faces, I was like, ‘This is not fun,’” he continued. “They were so hurt, so deflated, but not in a storyline sense … it was a downer — even if the fight was great, which it was.”

Scrolling through Twitter in the wake of the fight in question — which was great, it can’t be denied — it seemed the fans in Montreal weren’t the only ones feeling deflated. There was a general tone of anger and resentment after Zayn’s loss, and not the kind that makes you more excited to watch Cody Rhodes dethrone Roman Reigns at WrestleMania. Instead, it was the kind of feeling where you’re wondering if WrestleMania is even worth watching. The sentiment seemed to ultimately coalesce around the idea of “same old WWE.” Can’t give anyone a win in their hometown. Can’t put the title on a guy who isn’t tall and handsome and bulging with muscle. Can’t reward the long-suffering wrestler who got himself over organically after years of being stuck in the lower midcard, or the audience who are screaming for him to win, to just win, just this once, WWE, please, listen to us when we tell you that we have chosen our champion and let that man hold those belts high to raucous applause. No, can’t have that. Same old WWE.

It shocks me more than I think anyone will ever understand that I do not share that sentiment. It seems correct, after all. I understand it. Had Zayn won, I would have been so happy. I would have basked in the joy of an entire city, an entire province, an entire nation, and an entire fandom. I’ve been a fan of Sami Zayn for 15 years, and it would have been incredibly special to have seen him defeat Reigns and raise the titles high.

It also would have been the wrong choice, and I’m glad Sami lost.

That’s because the story that’s been told over the past 12 months in WWE is not The Sami Zayn Story. It’s Sami Zayn and The Bloodline. It’s not just Sami’s story. It’s Jey Uso’s story. It’s Kevin Owens’ story. It is not, and has never been, a story designed to catapult Sami into the main event picture in WWE (though it has certainly done that). It’s not a story about Sami proving that he’s the best wrestler in the world or overcoming the glass ceilings put in his way by a company that doesn’t believe in him. That was Daniel Bryan’s story. That was Kofi Kingston’s story. That’s why their stories involved actual authority figures as primary antagonists (Triple H for Bryan, Vince McMahon for Kingston) and that’s why their stories had to end with them becoming world champion in order to have satisfying endings. Those were stories about individual accomplishment, about people who were held back from being acknowledged as truly great. And maybe, on a meta-level, you feel that way about Sami Zayn — that he’s better than WWE has presented him over the years, that he’s one of the best wrestlers in the company and deserves to be treated as such instead of working (admittedly brilliant) matches against the likes of Johnny Knoxville. That’s understandable. That’s how I feel about Sami, too.

But that isn’t what this story is about.

I was pretty sure Sami wasn’t winning the title last night, although, credit where credit is due, WWE’s presentation and the match itself did a great job of making me think, on a couple occasions, that I was wrong. I wasn’t dreading a Zayn loss — on the contrary, I was expecting it. There was only one thing I was dreading: the idea that Zayn would lose specifically because his friend, Jey Uso, who had refused to join in on The Bloodline’s beatdown of Sami at the Royal Rumble and whose loyalties were supremely in question, would turn on him. That was the expectation for a fairly wide swath of Wrestling Twitter, and while I saw the logic behind the idea, especially if the idea was to build to Zayn and Owens vs. The Usos for WrestleMania, as has been reported, I really didn’t want it to happen. It would have felt like a betrayal of Jey’s character, and a major creative setback in the phenomenal story being told. This element of the match, rather than Sami winning or losing, was always going to be the determining factor in whether I thought this was the “same old WWE,” or if it was something different. And it turned out to be the latter.

Jey didn’t turn. He actually didn’t end up making a choice at all, standing with Reigns and Sami in the ring, steel chair in hand, attacking neither of them. It was the only scenario that made sense. If Jey had hit Sami with the chair and re-established himself as part of The Bloodline, he would be undoing months of subtle, beautiful character work. But if he hit Roman with the chair and established himself as a babyface allied with Zayn, that would have essentially ended the story too early. The same is true of Kevin Owens, who came out after Zayn’s loss to attack The Bloodline, who he’s been feuding with for months. I had expected Owens, another Quebecois and Zayn’s “you and I are destined to do this forever” frenemy across the wrestling landscape for the last 20 years, to arrive to end the show as a means of sending the Montreal crowd home…well, maybe not happy, but not entirely heartbroken. And if you really wanted to make them happy, I reasoned, you would have Zayn and Owens embrace in the middle of the ring, officially best friends again. But while Owens did appear to take out The Bloodline, and while he did stand aside for Zayn to hit Reigns with a Helluva Kick, there was no embrace. There wasn’t even a clear sense that the two men were even allies again. Owens just left, cautiously and meaningfully eyeing Zayn on his way back up the ramp. Because, again, when those two finally reconcile, the story is basically over.

Because this story is fundamentally about friendship, about love, about family. It’s about sacrificing your old family for your new family, and the complications that happen when your new family maybe isn’t everything you thought it was. Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Jey Uso, and even Jimmy Uso aren’t just wrestlers, they are deep, fully realized characters who have feelings about each other, and while those feelings all exist within the orbit of Roman Reigns, they don’t involve Roman directly. Jimmy and Jey aren’t in The Bloodline because of their feelings for Roman, they’re in The Bloodline because of their feelings for each other, which Roman masterfully used against them back when he first started putting the group together. Roman himself doesn’t actually care about either Sami Zayn or Kevin Owens, and they don’t care about him the same way they care about the other characters in the story. Sami sought Roman’s approval because he wanted to be in The Bloodline, but it was Jey’s approval that actually mattered; that was the relationship the story hinged on at Survivor Series. Kevin cares about Roman only insofar as he wants to be champion; his role in the story isn’t to hate Roman, it’s to love Sami, and then to be alienated from him. Reigns is an overarching presence for all of this, but he’s actually not a central figure in this narrative. The central figures will all be present for the tag team title match at Mania, assuming that’s where we’re going — Sami, who wanted so desperately to be part of a loving community that he ended his friendship with Kevin via a Helluva Kick; Kevin, who tried to tell Zayn time and time again that The Bloodline wasn’t his true family, and who ultimately gave up on his friend; Jimmy Uso, who was the first member of The Bloodline to accept Sami, but also the first member to kick Sami in the head when he refused to follow Roman’s orders; Jey, who doubted Sami’s intentions from the beginning, but was won over the point that he now loves Sami like a brother, and now he has to decide if he will remain loyal to his old family or to his new one. That’s the story here, brilliantly told via the actions of complex characters with complicated feelings, and Sami accidentally spearing Jey last night before the latter could make a choice will only add to the tangled nature of this particular web as we head toward WrestleMania.

And Roman? He now has to deal with Cody Rhodes. And while I don’t expect that match to become a triple threat involving Zayn, I do expect Zayn to have a massive impact on the outcome of that match. Because if we all believe that Cody is going to win — and we do — the only way for that to happen is for The Bloodline to fall apart. For literally years now, Reigns has held onto his championships solely because his cousins (and Paul Heyman) have been there to help him. It’s his ace in the hole, his biggest advantage, and Sami told Cody as much last week on Raw. It makes no sense for Cody to win the title win The Bloodline still intact, and as Roman has made clear, Sami is the man who will tear the group apart, purely by being a friendly and lovable person. Would I like to see Sami Zayn win a world title in WWE? Yes. 100 percent. I want it. But that’s not how this story ends — that’s not how Sami beats Roman. He beats Roman by taking Roman’s family away and thus leaving the champion vulnerable to another contender in the form of Rhodes.

Or at least, that’s how I see it. There are still any number of ways this story could go, and any number of ways WWE could still screw it up. But they didn’t screw it up last night at Elimination Chamber — quite the opposite. That match ended exactly the way it needed to end, not with Sami holding the titles, but with Sami wondering where his friendships with Jey Uso and Kevin Owens currently stand. And if you still feel like Sami was done a disservice, consider this:

Sami Zayn has only, ever, had two televised singles matches for a world title in WWE, both against Roman Reigns. The first one, on the December 3rd, 2021, episode of WWE SmackDown, before the Sami/Bloodline story began, was in the service of the feud between Reigns and Brock Lesnar leading up to WrestleMania 38. After the opening segment saw Lesnar goad Zayn into challenging Reigns for the Universal title that night, various segments throughout the broadcast made it clear that the idea of Zayn beating Reigns was an absolute joke. Even Zayn belittled himself in the process, ultimately attempting to solicit help from Lesnar because, in Zayn’s words, Lesnar would then have an easier opponent to defeat for the title. The “story” ended with Lesnar decimating Zayn prior to the “match,” which Reigns won in 15 seconds.

Last night, Sami Zayn’s championship match with Roman Reigns was a major beat in one of the best-told stories wrestling has ever seen, and it lasted more than 32 minutes. Far from being a joke, Zayn was a hero, and very clearly capable of defeating Reigns — at one point, if the ref hadn’t been knocked unconscious, he very obviously would have won. The match established firmly that Zayn was on Reigns’ level, at least that night in Montreal, and even if WWE doesn’t continue to treat him with quite that degree of respect, I think it’s safe to say Sami’s days of losing matches to celebrities are over. More importantly, he’s an established babyface with a boatload of popular support, as he was always meant to be. Last night was a spectacular moment in the career of Sami Zayn, one that has permanently elevated his stock in WWE, and I don’t know how much more we can ask for considering the fact that none of this was supposed to happen when the story began. He’s not going to be holding a world championship as WrestleMania comes to a close, but he will almost certainly be holding a tag team championship alongside Kevin Owens, his best friend both in kayfabe and in real life, and I can’t wait to watch it happen.

As the press conference last night went on, and Zayn spoke further about what he and Reigns had created that night, he started to visibly and audibly feel better. Removed from that singular moment of loss, the moment when he stared out at the faces of the people of Montreal and felt bad for letting them down, he was able to step back and feel proud of the story he was telling, a story that, I think it’s safe to say, will go down in wrestling history as one of the medium’s crowning achievements. Sami Zayn doesn’t need a world championship to show us he’s one of the best wrestlers in the world — he’s spent a full year showing us that, and he will continue to show us that, by proving himself to be one of wrestling’s greatest storytellers. Think about how deeply he made you feel, how desperately you cared about his victory or defeat in what is, after all, a scripted narrative, and give him the credit he deserves. The world championship is a prop with no true value outside the fictional world wresting creates. Our feelings, our investment, is what truly matters in wrestling, and is what will ultimately linger in our memories forever.

Nobody can take last night in Montreal away from Sami, and nobody can take it away from us, either. We can only take it away from ourselves, by caring more about who has the big gold thing than about the story being told. On February 18, 2023, Sami Zayn proved that he was the best wrestler in the world — not by winning a championship match, but by losing one.

Bray Wyatt’s Strength Is His Faith In Himself

This article was originally published by FanFyte on August 3rd, 2021, three days after WWE released Bray Wyatt.

The first images were of decay. The abandoned degradation of small-town America – loose tires and wire fences, unpainted shacks and unpopulated storefronts, a church. The outermost borders of civilization just before the point where it vanished into the swamps beyond. The first words we heard him speak were, “Good things come to those who believe in Bray Wyatt.”

It was an assertion that would be tested constantly over the course of his WWE career. After all, no one believed in Bray Wyatt more than the man who played him, third-generation wrestler Windham Rotunda. Watching those early NXT video packages that officially introduced him in 2012, one gets the sense that Rotunda is talking not about his fictional followers, but about the Bray Wyatt character. “They don’t love you like I do,” he says. “They don’t know you, man. They can’t protect you like I can. And how am I gonna do that? With love.” Windham Rotunda loved Bray Wyatt, and that love fueled a blood-red streak of creativity in a world where creativity isn’t necessarily rewarded. Good things did come to him, but two barriers popped up for every breakthrough, demanding that he overcome them next. For nearly ten years, his dark and innovative mind sheparded Bray Wyatt through a repeating cycle of destruction and re-birth. The character would change, and change, and change again, yet somehow remain the same, continually playing with themes and ideas that were present from the very beginning, shining a light on Rotunda’s relationship with wrestling, and with himself.

Bray Wyatt was born alongside the show we know now as NXT, but by that time, Rotunda had already debuted on Raw, challenged for a championship, and been in the ring with Randy Orton and John Cena. As a “contestant” on the original game show version of NXT (in a piece of potential irony, his “pro” was Cody Rhodes) he had been given the demeaning ring name Husky Harris and was briefly part of both Wade Barrett’s all-NXT heel stable the Nexus and CM Punk’s New Nexus before being punted in the head by Orton and sent back to FCW. His main roster stint had lasted three months, and while his in-ring talent was undeniable, WWE had made it painfully obvious that he didn’t look like Vince McMahon’s idea of a wrestling star.

Bray’s early NXT packages seem to reference this history. “I been through hell, man. I know how cruel it can be. I know what it’s like. I know what it does to a man. It changes him. It makes you stronger…. It took away my ability to feel fear, to feel pain! I’m not afraid anymore!” Looking back, the creation of Bray Wyatt can be seen as a direct response to the frustration of being Husky Harris, humiliated and tossed aside. “What will they do when they discover they cannot hurt me?” he asks, briefly invoking Hulk Hogan in one of his line readings. “Whatcha gonna do to something like me?”

Wyatt never said who “they” were, but he didn’t need to. He feuded with other wrestlers, but his enemy, as he constantly made clear, was the machine, the systemic apparatus of the WWE that had judged him and found him unworthy. In the beginning, he was half fallen angel and half Antichrist (one early NXT promo involves him speaking in tongues) both of which had been done before in wrestling. His look was based on Robert DeNiro’s character from the 1991 thriller “Cape Fear,” which had previously been used as a gimmick by Dan Spivey, and he was far from wrestling’s first evil preacher. What made Wyatt unique was his vendetta against WWE itself, and crucially, the fact that he saw the fans as his allies. The imagery of derelict houses and empty streets was no accident – Wyatt spoke in the language of the impoverished and abandoned, those whose dreams had been crushed, as his had, by forces too big to fight back against and too all-encompassing to escape. He was tapping into the class resentment of post-Occupy America, but he was also tapping into the resentment of WWE fans who had spent years enduring one of the promotion’s most creatively barren periods, resentment that would lead to total revolt at the 2014 Royal Rumble. In this era, it was no trivial thing to promise revolution, and as he refined his character’s ideology, Wyatt struck on a fundamental truth: “When we are alone, we are weak and frail. But when we come together, when we unite, we are strong! We are dangerous! We are family.”

The creation of the Wyatt Family was, counterintuitively, another reaction to setback. Wyatt wrestled his debut match on NXT’s fourth episode, but shortly thereafter was sidelined with an injury. He kept appearing to cut promos, though, and more importantly, he gathered his family, incorporating Luke Harper (the late, great, and much-lamented Brodie Lee) and Erick Rowan into his act. Bray Wyatt turned out to be very much a creature of community – his rare solo runs didn’t last long, and Rotunda’s storytelling style was ill-suited to solitude. He worked best as part of a group, playing on the relationships between the people around him and keeping his character consistent by referencing his own history with them. And of course, he had his fireflies, the fans who illuminated his dark entrances with lighters and cell phones as they swayed, entranced, to the rhythm of his sinister song.

Unfortunately, no amount of crowd support could get Bray Wyatt what he really wanted. It was a fatal flaw in the meta-narrative of the character: The system the fictional Wyatt raged against was a real thing that controlled his story, and as a result, he could never be allowed to win. For WWE to make him their champion, or even let him score a big symbolic victory by, say, beating John Cena at Wrestlemania, would be to acknowledge even the smallest bit of his critique, and that isn’t a tale Vince McMahon has ever been interested in telling. Bray Wyatt was a heel who hated WWE, and heels who hate WWE lose to John Cena. The immutable truth of his dominance by actual, existing power structures had a profound impact on the Wyatt character. He could, it turned out, still be hurt. He could still feel fear. Sometimes anger isn’t enough. Sometimes community isn’t enough. Sometimes (almost every time, actually) you go up against the machine with your brothers and sisters by your side, and you lose, because the machine really is that insurmountable and the odds against you really are stacked that high.

Wyatt expressed all this explicitly in a backstage Smackdown promo following his loss to Cena at Payback 2014, ending with the words, “Brothers and sisters, I am reborn.” Rebirth was his counter to being slapped back down by reality – his appearance didn’t change much at first, but his stories gradually became less about revolution and more about his personal relationships. Wyatt never won the WWE Championship back when he was prophesying WWE’s demise, but he did win it, almost incidentally, during his 2016-2017 storyline with Randy Orton, which was about Bray placing his trust in the wrong person and losing everything because of it. This narrative would repeat itself in Wyatt’s final WWE match at Wrestlemania 37 (appropriately against Orton) when he was betrayed by Alexa Bliss – one of the most oddly endearing things about Bray was always the fact that, despite his monstrousness, he was a vulnerable character who deeply loved those who followed him, and often suffered for it.

Wyatt also came to represent creative innovation in the increasingly stale world of WWE. The ideas for the character weren’t always good, and when they were good, they were often poorly executed – that same Randy Orton story included the laughable bug projections at Wrestlemania 33 and the infamous House of Horrors match – but the attempts always centered itself around Bray Wyatt. Prior to the House of Horrors, there had been the New Day’s invasion of the Wyatt Compound, a visually offensive mess of a vignette that coincidentally came immediately on the heels of Matt Hardy’s ridiculous masterpiece, “The Final Deletion.” Later, when Hardy’s “Broken” character proved so popular that he brought it back with him to WWE, Wyatt was his opponent in “The Ultimate Deletion,” WWE’s sole attempt at re-creating Hardy’s bizarre world, and later his tag team partner. It was a collaboration that could have yielded much more, but that couldn’t get off the ground within the company’s creative rigidity – according to Hardy, he and Wyatt were taken off TV because “they were tired of us suggesting ideas.”

Rotunda was in desperate need of another rebirth. This time, though, he transformed more completely than ever before, reimagining Wyatt as the host of a creepy kids’ show, Firefly Fun House, who also happened to be the Fiend, a nightmare wrestler with a mask made by Tom Savini and a lantern made out of the old Bray Wyatt’s head. The new twist on the gimmick rocketed Wyatt back to relevance and led him to the longest period of sustained success he’d ever had, but the most interesting thing was Firefly Fun House, which again provided Rotunda with a platform to grapple with his frustrations. It’s some of the most fascinating creative output of his career, and it’s a puppet show – Wyatt finally interacts directly with the long-invoked Sister Abigail, uses “Huskus the Pig-Boy” to acknowledge the existence of Husky Harris and comment on WWE’s obsession with certain body types, and audaciously trots out a devil-horned puppet of Vince McMahon himself. It all culminated at Wrestlemania 36, in the midst of a pandemic, with the Firefly Fun House match.

It involved John Cena, of course. Bray Wyatt was, in many ways, Cena’s opposite, and always had been. Their differences were more than physical, though Cena’s bodybuilder physique represented everything Wyatt wasn’t. Cena earnestly believed in WWE as an institution; Wyatt earnestly believed it was all a lie. Cena was the superhero, inspiring children everywhere; Wyatt sang chilling versions of children’s songs and had once defeated Cena with a demonic children’s choir. And of course, Cena had beaten Wyatt all those years ago, throwing him into the cycle of death and rebirth that would eventually lead to the Fiend. Their final “match” was entirely cinematic, a dark mirror deconstruction of Cena’s career that left him broken and destroyed. Previous attempts at cinematic segments involving Wyatt had fallen short in part because they inevitably devolved into standard wrestling physicality – this one thrived on abstraction, with metaphors and historical references standing in for forearms and clotheslines, and in that environment, Bray Wyatt could finally stand triumphant. It was his first and last win at Wrestlemania, and John Cena wasn’t seen again for over a year.

There’s a bittersweet poetry to the fact that Rotunda was released from WWE immediately after Cena returned. Bray Wyatt could no longer exist in a world that he couldn’t permanently change, no matter how many times he changed himself. According to Fightful, one factor in Rotunda’s release was that he had been “getting protective of his character,” an idea that certainly tracks. Wyatt died and came back to life as many times as he needed to, but in the end, the only way to change the game was to stop playing. We don’t know if there will be yet another evolution of the strange, sad, evil character that means so much to the man behind it, but his fans can take inspiration from the final edition of Firefly Fun House, which aired the night after Wrestlemania 37. “I think this could be a brand new start for all of us here,” Wyatt said. “A new season, new friends, and a brand new me! I feel reborn!”

His WWE career, for now, is over. His future is unknown. But nobody in wrestling is better at being reborn. And good things come to those who believe in Windham Rotunda.

Bray Wyatt returned to WWE on October 8th, 2022.

The Disappointing Dullness of “Sozin’s Comet”

Recently, after weeks of Netflix binging, my wife and I finished watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. I had never seen it before, and overall, yeah, pretty good show. And normally, I’d be able to just kind of leave it at that. But Avatar isn’t supposed to be a pretty good show. Avatar is supposed to be an amazing show. It’s a show that is still celebrated today as one of the great works of animated television. When Game of Thrones ended and everyone was mad about it, I saw a lot of people recommending Avatar as an antidote. And specifically, they were recommending it as an epic fantasy story that sticks the landing. As I was going through the show, I was having fun, sure – it’s a really cool world populated by some absolutely superb characters. But I wanted to get to the end, because the ending of a story tells you so much about the story as a whole, and because I had heard so much about the ending of this particular story.

And it turns out the ending of Avatar is…not great.

I can already hear the sounds of a thousand die-hard Avatar fans slapping their hands to their foreheads. Look, I don’t enjoy this any more than you do. I wanted to love this. And I’m definitely not doing this to take a dump on your nostalgia. But as an adult watching this show in 2020, I think the ending is a near-total failure on multiple levels, to the extent that I’m fascinated by all the different ways in which it doesn’t work. This isn’t just any bad ending – “Sozin’s Comet”, the final 90-minute episode of the series, relies heavily on deus ex machina, actively undermines the show’s themes and characters, and shows a shocking disregard for the idea of set-up and payoff. I’m not analyzing this because I want to make Avatar fans feel bad – I am an Avatar fan, and I felt really let down by this. And the show as a whole is good enough that it’s worth exploring what went wrong.

(Incidentally, I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you’re already familiar with the show and the characters, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t attach an explanatory rider sentence to the first instance of every name or plot element, and just in case you’re skipping to the words in all caps, SPOILER WARNING FOR THE ENTIRELY OF AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER.)

Continue reading “The Disappointing Dullness of “Sozin’s Comet””

It’s Time for Progressives to Move On from Harry Potter


Over the last several weeks, JK Rowling, billionaire author and creator of the Harry Potter franchise, has sparked a wave of controversy among her own fanbase. Progressive fans who had been paying attention were already aware of Rowling’s forays into transphobia (which had been carefully, though unconvincingly, spun by Rowling and her agent as accidental) but it’s now impossible to ignore after Rowling produced a manifesto that officially outed her as a voice of the so-called “gender critical” movement. Of course, there’s already a term to describe the type of person Rowling clearly is – TERF, an acronym for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.” This is a person who sees herself as a progressive due to her feminist values and beliefs, but refuses to extend those values (or indeed, basic human respect) to trans women (or indeed, trans people in general). Despite her objections to the term, Rowling fits this description perfectly, and her insistence on couching her transphobia in the language of an abuse survivor trying to protect the rights of women gives her away.

It’s been pointed out that Rowling is hardly the first popular author to disappoint her progressive fanbase with beliefs that are both hurtful to marginalized communities and clearly inaccurate. Orson Scott Card, for example, author of the Ender series, has come up a lot in these conversations. People talk about “taking back” Harry Potter from its author, or continuing to celebrate the work while downplaying Rowling herself. But Harry Potter is no ordinary series, and Rowling is no ordinary problematic creator. There’s an entire generation (of which I am very much a part) that not only grew up with Harry Potter, but used Harry Potter to help them form their own system of values and beliefs. These are people who have made their Hogwarts house and the form of their Patronus into core pieces of their identity, people who will gladly credit the Potter franchise for shaping their progressivism. And unlike Card, who has never made a secret of his deep-seated homophobia, Rowling has embraced her position as a leading light of the left, using her platform to advocate for liberal political causes and, more prominently, against conservative ones. As a result, the language of Harry Potter has entered the political lexicon of progressives, particularly in the age of Donald Trump, who has been compared to the villainous Lord Voldemort endlessly for the last four years, even by Rowling herself.

So if you’re a progressive Potter fan, the transphobia hurts. It feels like a betrayal, not only by the person who crafted a story that was formative in your youth, but by someone who you thought was a high-profile ally in the fight against bigotry and ignorance. This isn’t just something you can explain away, a creator you can pretend doesn’t exist. The author of one of the most influential works in modern history has sorted herself into House TERF, and we have to look that in the face and deal with it. This is not the time to circle the wagons and defend Harry Potter because it’s important to us. This is the time to reassess something that has become an important part of who we are, to look at it again with fresh eyes, with an adult perspective, and determine if it can continue to be part of our identities as progressives. And I’m sorry to be the one to say this, but when I go back and look at Harry Potter, I see a lot of things that make me think it’s time to let the series go.

Continue reading “It’s Time for Progressives to Move On from Harry Potter”

The Big Time: An Introductory Exultation

Image source:

Fun fact to kick things off: There were Hugo Awards given out in 1957, but strangely, the award categories that year departed from those of years past. The Hugo in 1957 was given only for Best U.S. Magazine, Best British Magazine, and Best Fan Magazine, meaning there was no Best Novel that year. Unlike 1954, however, since the Hugos did technically take place, there has been no retro Hugo awarded for 1957. So the bad news is that we have to just skip 1957 entirely.

The good news, though, is that we’re skipping over to 1958, and The Big Time. If you don’t know why that’s good news…well, allow me to explain.

So far in this series, we’ve explored:

Considering that thus far I had only encountered one great novel, and considering that one great novel was written by Robert Heinlein, I began my journey through Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time with, frankly, little confidence in its quality. Even though the next book will be James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, which I’ve already read and know to be outstanding, I wasn’t confident that we had officially reached Great Novel consistency all the way back in 1958. Surely there would still be some clunkers, and seeing as I had no earthly idea who Fritz Leiber was, The Big Time was probably one of them. Hey, at least it was short, right?

Cut to present day. I have now finished multiple readings of The Big Time and consider it among my favorite works of science fiction. I think it’s better than Double Star, which makes it the best book on the list to this point — though whether it can hold up against Blish after a re-read of A Case of Conscience remains to be seen. Still, I cannot express enough how much I love this novel. And my turnaround from “what’s this, never heard of it, probably sucks” to “I must recommend this to every single person in my life” is exactly why I started this project in the first place.

Continue reading “The Big Time: An Introductory Exultation”

Double Star: Heinlein and Humanism


The last time I wrote about Double Star, I ended it with these words: “come back next time for some Martian culture shock, a bizarre presidential system, and a possible explanation for why everyone in this book uses British slang.”

I’m gonna be honest – that was like a year and a half ago, and I have no idea what I was planning to write. I mean, clearly I was planning something very specific, but as to what it actually was…yeah, no clue. Whatever it was, I got about a paragraph in and then hit a block, and then many, many many life things happened and I had to let this entire series drop for a while.  Fortunately, I’m now attempting to get back into it, and the first step in that process is to finish writing about this stupid 243-page novel, so please enjoy my final thoughts about the political ideas held by Double Star, as well as its author.

Continue reading “Double Star: Heinlein and Humanism”

And The Winner Of The 2019 Royal Rumble Is…Women’s Wrestling

2019 Royal Rumble winner Becky Lynch, aka “The Man.” Photo credit:

Disclaimer: This post discusses the progress of gender equality within WWE, a subject that is not not problematic and may require some anti-capitalist context to see the big picture. To get that context for yourself, please read my lengthy “capitalism is bad” preamble.


For fans of women getting opportunities in the wrestling industry, and women’s wrestling in general, the last few years in WWE have kind of ruled. 2015 saw the rise of the Four Horsewomen of NXT, including one of the best matches in company history from Sasha Banks and Bayley, and their follow-up rematch in a historic Iron Woman contest. In 2016, the Divas Championship was replaced by the reborn Women’s Championship, which would have to become the Raw Women’s Championship after the latest brand split necessitated the creation of the Smackdown Women’s Championship (for those who don’t recall, the first time there was a brand split, the Women’s title was shared between the two brands). That Raw Women’s Championship was also the focus of an epic series of matches between Banks and Charlotte Flair, including Raw and PPV main events and culminating in the first women’s Hell in a Cell match. 2017 gave us the first women’s Money In The Bank, which was so problematic they did the match again and pretended the first one hadn’t happened, but it also gave us the first Mae Young Classic, which has now concluded its second iteration. Not only has the MYC provided numerous women on the independent scene a chance to shine on a larger stage and a potential pathway to an NXT contract, it has also featured a number of fantastic matches, most notably a contest between indy wrestling legends Meiko Satomura and Mercedes Martinez that was so good it briefly turned Michael Cole into a relatable human being who likes watching wrestling. And kicking off 2018 was the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble, a match so historic it got the main event spot for the show, and the evening ended not with some random dude pointing at the Wrestlemania sign, but with the on-screen debut of Ronda Rousey. Pointing at the Wrestlemania sign. So, you know, mostly great.

The second women’s Rumble happened about a week ago, and I was lucky enough to be there in person. The year between the 2018 and 2019 Royal Rumble events has been packed with progress for women (despite it being painfully clear that main roster creative doesn’t know what to do with most of them and doesn’t particularly care) and while the inaugural women’s Rumble was ridiculously fun to watch, I think the 2019 Rumble as a whole is singularly indicative of how far WWE has come, and secretly one of the most important nights for gender equality in wrestling history.

With that in mind, by the power vested in me as a Person What Was In The Audience, I hereby present the following four awards to the 2019 Royal Rumble, each named for one of the people who did really good wrestling things back in 2015 and started this whole thing.

Continue reading “And The Winner Of The 2019 Royal Rumble Is…Women’s Wrestling”

Twin Tragic

Brie and Nikki Bella, the Bella Twins. Photo credit: Wrestling JAT Wiki

Last weekend, there was a minor Twitter kerfuffle involving Paige (former WWE NXT and Divas champion, retired, and current general manager of WWE Smackdown Live), Carmella (former WWE Smackdown Women’s champion), and Steven Luke (contributing writer for wrestling website It’s the kind of thing I enjoy commenting on, because (a) it involves women’s wrestling, of which I am a fan, (b) it involves the history of women’s wrestling in WWE, of which I am knowledgeable, and (c), it involves a specific question that isn’t necessarily easy to answer: As WWE builds toward the crowning achievement of its revamped attitude toward women’s wrestling in the form of the all-woman Evolution show, is the company wrongly ignoring the female wrestlers who actually created the change, and focusing instead on the ones who, in the past, were part of the problem?

Here’s how the whole thing went down. On Saturday, September 22nd, NoDQ posted an article written by Steven Luke called “How the Divas are damaging the Evolution.” In the piece, Luke stated his opinion that the Evolution show was in danger of being ruined by an emphasis on female stars of the past. Specifically, he called for a renewed focus on the wrestlers who have defined the women’s division for the last two years, name-dropping Asuka, each of the Four Horsewomen, the IIconics, the Riott Squad, and Absolution. He decried the recent return of Brie and Nikki Bella – the faces of the division in the days before the so-called “Divas Revolution” who also happen to be crossover stars with their reality television shows Total Divas and Total Bellas – criticizing their recent in-ring work and saying they weren’t as “crisp” as wrestlers like Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch. Luke also went so far as the criticize the involvement of wrestling legends Mickie James, Lita, and Trish Status on the Evolution card.

“The Bellas should be nowhere near this show,” Luke wrote. “Lita’s hundredth match with Mickie James should stay at the bottom of the card and no other members of the current division should be wasted against legends like Alexa Bliss is against Trish Stratus.”

Later that day, both Paige and Carmella responded to Luke’s commentary piece on Twitter. “You do realize both these ladies were the OG ladies to help kickstart the #givedivasachange trend?” Paige wrote, referring to the social media backlash against WWE’s poor presentation of women’s wrestling, brought on by a 2015 match that lasted a mere 30 seconds. “I know because I was part of it. They deserve to be a part of everything and more, they are the one of the leaders of the movement. Sometimes matches all won’t be ‘crisp.’”

She also wrote that “it happens with everyone. Crappy article. Not just for them but for the ‘divas’ you described that shouldn’t be a part of it, is an unfair statement. Without the divas, there wouldn’t be superstars. Thanks to all the ladies that paved the way before us.”

Carmella, who held the Smackdown women’s title earlier this year, also weighed in.

“This is an embarrassing article. Every single woman from the past and current roster have made women’s wrestling what it is. EVERYONE is deserving. Enough of the negativity around the ‘diva’ moniker.”

There is so much going on here. Does Luke really think that the Bella twins can be equated in any reasonable way with Trish Stratus and Lita? Does Paige really think the Bellas are “leaders of the movement,” or ever were? Should Evolution, a celebration of women’s wrestling, really be limited to current members of the roster instead of legends of the past? Is it fair to negatively compare the wrestling ability of Nikki and Brie to that of Flair and Lynch? Is there too much negativity surrounding the word “diva?” What are the actual contributions of the Bella twins and their generation of WWE divas to women’s wrestling, and would women’s wrestling have progressed to where it is today without them?

Continue reading “Twin Tragic”

Believe In Something: A Progressive Football Fan’s Manifesto

Philadelphia Eagles players, including social justice bad-ass Malcolm Jenkins, raise their fists in solidarity during the national anthem at Soldier Field in Chicago. Photo source: CBS Sports

If you’re a progressive (if you’re anyone, really) there is a multitude of extremely justifiable reasons to not support the NFL. There’s the inherently violent nature of the game of football and the league’s refusal to properly acknowledge concerns about concussions and CTE. There’s the corrupt commissioner and the odious owners who punish smoking marijuana more strictly than domestic abuse. There’s literally everything about the team that plays in the District of Colombia. There’s the brain damage, the suicides, the homophobic bullying, the misogynistic treatment of cheerleaders, the well-established racism, the shameless commercialism, the military partnerships, the appropriation of taxpayer dollars to pay for new stadiums just so a team can relocate to a bigger market, anyway. There’s Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Aaron Hernandez, Josh Brown, Darren Sharper, Michael Vick, Richie Incognito, LeSean McCoy, and Jameis Winston, just to name a few of the most problematic people in the recent history of the sport. And of course, there’s the national anthem, the league apparently bending to the will of Donald Trump and his white supremacist followers, and the blatant blackballing of Colin Kaepernick for his activism, which seems to be the reason that most of the football fans I know have finally had enough.

The 2018 NFL season begins tonight, and I can’t blame you even a little bit if you won’t be watching. If the numerous crimes of this league are morally abhorrent to you, if spending your Sundays doing anything other than watching football makes you feel better as a person, you won’t get any judgment from me. The NFL has given you more than enough reason to boycott, more than enough reason to tune out.

Here’s why I’m not.

Continue reading “Believe In Something: A Progressive Football Fan’s Manifesto”