Written by Tucker Leighty-Phillips
WWE Is Going To Screw Up Chris Jericho, I Just Know It
After seeing Jericho stroll out as the bell rang for the Universal Title match at WWE Fastlane, a lot of the wind was sucked out of my sails regarding the inevitable Jericho/Owens Wrestlemania feud. Owens and Jericho have been the brightest spot on Raw for the better part of the past year, and I was so excited to see where the eventual betrayal would take them and their story.
However, after seeing the look on Jericho’s face as he distracted Owens to cost him the title, I came to a conclusion — WWE is going to massively screw this up.
Chris Jericho has a tendency to reinvent himself in unique, exciting ways, and the “best friends” storyline was easily one of the greatest revamps of his career. The way Jericho interacted with Owens, the way they played off of each other, the way these two despicable characters literally fawned over one another made them more hilarious and endearing than most reviled characters we’ve seen (and with good reason – they’ve both been great). We all knew Owens betraying Jericho was bound to happen eventually, but it still absolutely crushed the WWE Universe when it happened.
Because it’s relatable. Nearly everybody has been in Jericho’s position (save getting their head smashed into a flat screen television) trying to salvage a friendship that wasn’t going to work, being insistent in hope for a relationship that was essentially doomed to fail. Jericho transitioned from heel to face slowly because he went from being a despicable character to a relatable character who did despicable acts out of love for another person. We have all been in a similar situation at some point, doing what we didn’t feel comfortable doing in hopes of earning the respect/love of another. The E had a chance to show us the despair one feels when they are at their most desperate – and are choosing to neglect that opportunity to go the more traditional route.
Jericho’s distraction and comeuppance in costing Owens the title felt forced, wrong even, after the way Owens treated Jericho the last time he was on television. It gave them a sense of equity immediately and signaled that this could be something to anticipate in the build to their Wrestlemania match: a back-and-forth of standing tall over the other until the match itself actually happens, and these two competitors deserve so much better than that after the care that they put into slowly building this story.
This isn’t to suggest that Chris Jericho can’t get revenge, or be cocky, or go back to his catchphrases – he absolutely can. Just make it count. What we saw last night felt less like the story of Jericho and Owens and more like two pawns advancing the story of Goldberg and Brock Lesnar. The Jericho we last saw was an absolutely broken man.
Anyone who has ever lost their best friend, or the love or their life, or any other interpersonal relationship that matters can tell you that it doesn’t get easy this quickly. We need to see this in the story. We need to see the steady rise from betrayed Jericho to confident Jericho, but we’re missing a lot of steps in between. Where is the Jericho that is in denial? The Jericho that believes that the pair’s problems can be sorted out and the friendship can be maintained? The Jericho that is willing to forgive the attack for the sake of the friendship? WWE spent nearly a year making this friendship matter more than anything to Chris Jericho, and they can’t spent two weeks showcasing the five stages of grief? Having Jericho interrupt the match in an attempt to help Owens retain the title, but doing the opposite, creates the same result, but adds complexity to the story. Why allow ordinary booking tactics to ruin an extraordinary feud?
In other forms of media, we never see the training montage immediately after the initial failure. We never see the revenge before the despair, because without the despair, the revenge means nothing. We need to see the dark underbelly of Owens’ betrayal and how it impacted Chris before we see Jericho’s comeback story.
I wholeheartedly understand that there is a very specific face-heel dynamic in the wrestling industry, and that WWE likes their faces to be cool, confident, never not-in-control. Years of Rocky, Austin, Cena, and Hogan will do that to you. Real life, however, doesn’t function like this. Popular characters in books and film often have fatal flaws and are vulnerable to those flaws because it makes them more human, more like the person engaging with the story. Sometimes this traditional feud trajectory can be subverted for the sake of the story, and it occasionally is, but not nearly often enough. There doesn’t always have to be a clear-cut face/heel dynamic, the face doesn’t always need a catchphrase (especially one that might stifle their dialogue), and sometimes we need to see good characters in a bad situation that is more than just them getting beaten up.
Traditional feud dynamics can be subverted for traditional story dynamics – take for example the plot device that author Kurt Vonnegut famously referred to as “man in hole.” The plot, if graphed on a chart, looks like an upside-down bell curve, where the story starts positively for the character before they suffer a fall, which they must work from to gradually approach a positive ending. WWE is missing the “gradual” rise, instead making the fall look more like a stiff inverse peak, a blink of tragedy before our protagonist is even-handed with his nemesis again.
Now, is this brash, to make such an assumption from a single momentary interaction between Jericho and Owens? Possibly, and I hope WWE proves me wrong and is able to create a Wrestlemania build worthy of the two competitors and the magic they created together, because, as screenwriter and WWE fan Max Landis is known for saying, “a lot of wrestling sucks, but when it’s good, it’s f***ing great.” It’s just unfortunate that the great has to be such a minority, when there are so many opportunities to even the score. Perhaps that gradual climb out of mediocrity is WWE’s own man-in-hole, their personal slow rise to success. Perhaps.