A Character Template for Bray Wyatt’s Return by R-Prof (LOP Column Forum December 2018 Column of the Month)

Bray Wyatt

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A Character Template for Bray Wyatt’s Return

The Eater of Worlds is stirring. Cryptic tweets offer clues of an awakening. Bray Wyatt stands on the cusp of his return.

That should sound way more ominous than it does.

Bray Wyatt’s career thus far has been one of unmet expectations, both as a character and competitor. Following his debut, he achieved moments of brilliance by preying on the psychological vulnerabilities of his adversaries. Indeed, Bray Wyatt was at his most menacing when he identified specific targets, and harnessed the brute strength of The Wyatt Family to wear them down. The attempted corruption of Daniel Bryan led to perhaps his most memorable match, at the 2014 Royal Rumble. For a moment, Bray looked as if he had put Daniel Bryan under his spell, but after Bryan split from The Wyatt Family to revive his Yes Movement, Bray Wyatt defeated him a in a high-impact classic.

The self-proclaimed leader of the masses then led The Wyatt Family into a series of blood wars with The Shield that were generation-defining landmarks of epic combat. The Wyatt-Shield clashes eventually led to compelling singles feuds for Bray Wyatt with all three members of The Shield, but each also managed to feel oddly inconclusive. In 2014, Bray Wyatt first trained his sights on the damaged psyche of Dean Ambrose, drawing on a troubled family history that was never fully explained (and the conflict suffered for having followed a much hotter series between Seth and Dean). In the summer of 2015, Bray attacked Roman Reigns, and though he seemed to be truly taking up the mantle of the masses clamoring for Roman’s downfall (“Anybody but you, Roman”) Bray never explicitly acknowledged doing so. Then in 2017, he became embroiled in a feud with Seth Rollins – Bray’s attacks on Seth’s eyes presaged a desire to blind Seth to his redemptive path – but their matches were once again overshadowed, this time by the subsequent Seth-Dean reunion.

Bray Wyatt’s confrontations with the established stars of past generations ultimately failed to elevate him. Both John Cena and The Undertaker dominated Bray Wyatt across multiple contests, and The Rock would not even afford Bray the dignity of a match, instead giving him a face-to-face critique dripping in condescension at WrestleMania 32. It was during his battles with The Undertaker that Bray Wyatt got caught in a contest of supernatural abilities, an unwinnable venture against the peerless supernatural being in the WWE. The prolonged vendetta with Randy Orton became an exercise in the occult taken to absurd lengths, with the most disappointing match of Bray Wyatt’s career at WrestleMania 33 resulting in the loss of his only WWE Championship.

Still, Bray Wyatt was on the verge of a renaissance in the summer of 2017. His brief alliance of convenience with Samoa Joe at Extreme Rules might have furthered a provocative storyline if Samoa Joe had not, indeed, won the match. After Seth Rollins, Bray locked horns with Finn Balor, though their feud was cut short at TLC 2017 due to Bray’s illness. For the next few months, Bray Wyatt struggled to carve a role for himself on the roster, and after a short-lived tag-team championship with Matt Hardy in 2018, he suddenly disappeared.

As the calendar turns to 2019, Bray Wyatt risks devolving into irrelevance. Through each of the above-mentioned examples, he has steadily lost an edge. In fact, Bray Wyatt has lost a great deal since he was introduced to the WWE. He is the pater familias who lost his family. He is the populist leader who lost his mass following. He is the supernatural being who lost any credibility in possessing supernatural power, as said powers have never contributed to victories. He claimed to be a God but offered no intelligible religion. Even the more bizarre half of his bizarre tag-team has all but retired. Bray Wyatt has by all appearances lost every characteristic that would make him an intimidating presence in the WWE.

Bray Wyatt is a man with nothing left to lose.

What is past is prologue. The opportunity for a returning Bray Wyatt is that of a man left with the one attribute that has been imprinted on his character from the outset: we know that Bray Wyatt understands human psychology, and how to manipulate it. A returning Bray Wyatt has the chance to elevate this skill at exploiting the weaknesses of his opponents, but with more subtle forms of expression.

When Bray Wyatt returns, he should not announce his intentions. But he should be in full control of his agenda. To do this, Bray Wyatt need only play the role of the sadist.

The namesake of the term, the Marquis de Sade, was also a man who repeatedly lost everything, having spent 32 years of his life confined to prisons and insane asylums (including the Bastille, just before the start of the French Revolution in 1789). The sexual crimes of the Marquis de Sade put him squarely on the side of evil. Yet, his literary repertoire affirms a genius of invention and creative output. Covering the range from pornography to blasphemy, the collected works of the Marquis de Sade claim advocacy of absolute freedom from all moral systems, whether social, religious, or political.

Sadism thus combines evil intent with complete independence of thought and action, and a pleasure derived from inflicting suffering. It would be difficult to think of a more dangerous collection of qualities to possess.

The mark of the sadist is to lead other human beings to their own self-destruction. In the world of wrestling, this takes an extra layer of cunning. Overt declarations of evil designs are unnecessary. The sadist must simply understand the strengths and weaknesses of the personalities around him, and know how to capitalize on them for selfish purposes.

Two examples of characters who effectively played the role of the sadist, relying purely on psychological manipulation rather than supernatural abilities, stand out as potential templates for Bray Wyatt’s return.

In the summer of 1991, Jake “The Snake” Roberts appeared on The Funeral Parlor with Paul Bearer, and threatened to share the secrets of the dark side with The Ultimate Warrior, then the main rival of The Undertaker. The Funeral Parlor was an especially chilling setting for such a suggestion, as the organs played and the smoke swirled throughout the entire promo. In offering to help the Ultimate Warrior overcome his fear, Jake’s motivations certainly seemed short of benevolence. More likely, he was engaged in a battle of egos with the Dead Man, still a relative newcomer at the time. But Jake certainly wanted to prove that he too had dipped his feet in the preternatural beyond, just as The Undertaker had.

There was, however, one thing the Warrior had to do in order to conquer his fear, said Jake:

“He has to trust me…”

In a series of vignettes, Jake promised to exorcise the Warrior’s fear of The Undertaker. He coerced the Warrior into a coffin, locking him inside and telling him to “quit fighting it, breathe easy, and let the coolness creep upon you.” He had the Warrior dig his own grave in a cemetery, and then buried him up to his head. All the while, Jake Roberts was a constant stream of admonition and persuasion: “I can show you the path but I can’t walk along and hold your hand…Open up your soul and let the snake in…”

To listen to Jake Roberts talk is to listen to a master of the verbal arts. The words flow forth so easy, like daggers made of silk:

“If you’re gonna get to heaven, you have to go through hell.”

“Release all those fears of death, Warrior. Trust me.”

The audience was led to believe that Jake might actually be helping the Warrior in some perverse fashion. In the final vignette, Jake trapped the Warrior in a dungeon full of snakes, with a massive cobra hidden inside a chest. Watching the Warrior get struck by the cobra through a window, Jake released a sadistic chuckle. He then turned toward a concealed figure, who had just emerged from the shadows: “Why don’t you come and see how the Devil’s work is done.”

Jake opened the door and a rapidly expiring Ultimate Warrior struggled to crawl out. The Warrior’s hands reached up to touch The Undertaker’s boots, who had conspired with Jake to arrange the Warrior’s demise. Jake revealed just how naïve The Ultimate Warrior had been, admonishing him to “never trust a Snake.”

Everything Jake Roberts said to The Ultimate Warrior was delivered with perfect logic, and everything was a deception. Jake had no supernatural powers after all, but was able to destroy the weak mind of the Warrior with the simple promise of an advantage. Jake Roberts would soon go on to torment Randy Savage and Elizabeth in a feud that felt like it took place entirely within the confines of hell. Going forward, the words “trust me” would be interlaced with Jake “The Snake” Roberts’ entrance music.

A different version of the resident sadist was present at the birth of the intensely violent Undertaker-Mankind rivalry in 1996. That sadist was Goldust.

The early Goldust character succeeded in using sexual histrionics as a weapon against his opponents, often with evil intent. Goldust instinctively knew, in a competitive environment fueled by machismo, that playing on the sexual inhibitions of his rivals could weaken and distract them. It was a vulnerability that had not been exploited in such a fashion to that point. As emphasized on commentary by none other than Vince McMahon, it was Goldust’s abilities as an actor that allowed him to get in the minds of his opponents, including one as formidable at The Undertaker.

On the May 6, 1996 episode of Raw, Goldust sits for commentary during an Undertaker-Owen Hart match, remarking how “cold and clammy” the Dead Man looks, then arising to stalk and grope Paul Bearer. As the match progresses, Goldust’s presence seems to agitate The Undertaker toward greater acts of violence. The Undertaker ultimately delivers what might be the most brutal Tombstone of his career, getting serious air as he drills Owen Hart’s skull into the mat.

The following week, on the May 13 episode of Raw, Goldust dared to confront The Undertaker in the ring, touching his hands and stroking his arms before The Undertaker bent Goldust’s wrists back and overmatched him with his strength. This was the prompt for Mankind to enter the ring and assault The Undertaker with the Mandible Claw. As Goldust slithers around the floor, a voyeur to Mankind’s violence, the audience realizes they are acting in concert. It was Goldust who choreographed the savage attack, watching Mankind mutilate his own fingers to choke the Undertaker out. Goldust then proceeded to straddle The Undertaker and writhe on top of him before Taker returned to consciousness and chased Goldust off.

Goldust and Mankind traded pay-per-view matches with The Undertaker from May to November of 1996. While Mankind’s matches remain more memorable (and more violent) it was the Undertaker-Goldust rivalry that was as much responsible for the September In Your House pay-per-view being named “Mind Games” as was the match between Mankind and Shawn Michaels (which had comparatively less build-up). Goldust nurtured and channeled Mankind’s particular brand of deranged menace, so much so that in later promos Mankind referred to Goldust as “mommy,” revealing a relationship in which Goldust indeed played the sadist to Mankind’s masochist.

Drawing lessons from each of these examples would make for an intriguing and unorthodox return for Bray Wyatt.

The advantage Bray Wyatt has upon his return is to first present himself as non-threatening. He has no allies, no friends, no family. He has, in fact, no supernatural powers. There is nothing to fear, he could say. After all, he’s lost everything.

In that approach – the sly, guileful approach of a humbled man – he can prey on the minds of those whose career aspirations have been similarly thwarted. He can start with empathy, and find the tortured souls who need a nudge. He can manipulate the anxieties and inhibitions of those who, like him, have been left to flounder on the roster. And in so doing, he can weaponize them against loftier targets.

Bray Wyatt could, for example, approach Finn Balor with a hand extended, as a friend. “I’ve been watching you Finn,” he could say. “There’s nothing to fear from me. I don’t want to fight you Finn, we’ve already done battle with one another. We’ve both been held back. But I do know a way out of your mediocrity.”

And speaking softly, Bray Wyatt could advise, “Bring out the Demon, Finn. Trust me. Bring out the Demon.”

It is the sadist’s appeal to an individual’s ambition, and the truth he already knows.

“You have had your greatest success as the Demon, Finn. And you deserve more. You deserve the freedom to be yourself. You deserve freedom from the crowd, freedom from the constraints of morality. You deserve the freedom to release the Demon inside you.”

With villainous encouragement, Bray Wyatt might use his most creative instincts to seduce and mold the Demon into a sword used to slay champions and headliners. Bray may not even need to engage in any evil acts himself, only persuading the Demon to use nefarious tactics against his chosen targets. As the Demon Balor engages in more sneak attacks, double-crosses, and vindictive acts of violence, Bray could stand aside and observe, watching Finn put his body through increasing levels of agony and pain.

After his moral calculus has become so thoroughly twisted, the Demon Balor would become dependent on Bray, and he would have sacrificed his beloved Balor Club. It would, of course, be Bray Wyatt who ends up feasting on the wounded heroes who did battle with his Demon. In time, we would see Bray Wyatt walking out to his entrance music, only the light of his lantern marking the path toward the ring, with a Demon Balor crawling at his side.

After leading Finn Balor into the darkness, Bray Wyatt – perhaps, by now, a champion – would abandon Finn to face the consequences of having lost the Balor Club. Such a development would not only mean that feuding with Bray Wyatt carries great significance (one risks losing everything, as Bray had), it would present Finn Balor with a chance at a redemptive arc. Finn Balor would have to step out of his isolation, having realized that the Balor Club was an even greater source of strength than the Demon. And if he could once again win back his Club, he could seek to vanquish the man who deceived him into his own self-destruction. Finn Balor would become a fully-fleshed and complex character, the exhibition of his demonic depths serving as a harbinger that in desperate circumstances, his evil side could potentially return.

A returning Bray Wyatt now has the liberty to question all previous assumptions. There is no need to revert to flashes of lightning, ghostly images, or elaborate set pieces. He can operate as a shadowy figure, deliberately low-key, well-mannered and soft-spoken. Evil intent can be expressed in the implication of his actions, rather than in overly-complicated wordplay. He can test the will and mindfulness of those who are the real heroes, with the absolute freedom of a man who has already lost everything. Bray Wyatt needs to lure his targets in, and in sowing doubt about his intentions, he will lure the audience in. To unleash a diabolical reign atop the WWE roster, Bray Wyatt may only need a well-timed whisper of the two most sadistic words in the English language:

“Trust me…”

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