On Cena’s Failure to Represent (Smackdown 11/21/14)

I do understand that behind the kayfabe, John Cena is tired lately. Possibly starting to burn out. You can hear it when his voice cracks, and in the real emotion that surges beneath his words when he talks about the haters and his controversial roll as a booed babyface. His fortitude is mighty, but the grind of life on the road may be starting to take its toll. One night a couple weeks ago, he and Seth Rollins were both knocked out of the ring, and while Seth was writhing and moaning, really hamming it up, Cena was lying still on the floor with his eyes closed, silent and breathing softly, almost zen in what looked like an attempt to capture a few moments of peace amid the roaring chaos that has been his life for the past decade.

So I don’t begrudge John Cena the man for taking the night off last night. But from a storytelling point of view, it was a particularly bad night for Cena the character to miss. He has been crucial in building the Survivor Series match into one of historic magnitude, and on Monday he roused the crowd and the wrestlers who joined on to Team Cena with a speech of Crispin’s Day magnitude. His perfectly delivered words put the match between Team Cena and Team Authority into grand perspective. This, he said, is a match about who matters in the WWE. His words were a strong antedote to Triple H’s jaded corporate pathology, which cast the fans as spoiled, silly children who don’t appreciate what it’s like for him and his family to live for the WWE. Cena countered that the WWE is the fans, and wouldn’t be anything without them.

Then, Cena tweeted this a couple days before Smackdown:

This was quite a rallying cry for the wrestlers who took up Cena’s call to arms. But on Smackdown, Cena wasn’t there to keep their morale from flagging. In a prerecorded interview, Cena talked about how he was asking them to take a leap of faith, which wasn’t very reassuring to the members of Team Cena, who had just found out that they would lose their jobs if they didn’t win (and that Cena would keep his).

This is indeed a very important showdown: there will be much shifting of ground in the thematic conflicts of the company vs. the audience, the corporation vs. the workers, and even freedom vs. tyranny. In a more allegorical sense, this Survivor Series match is about the future of America. Does the following not have an Uncle Sam “I Want You” recruitment poster vibe about it?

And yet, the last night of wrestling before this historic match, Cena was not there. Team Cena was at a significant numeric disadvantage when Team Authority’s assorted thugs and middle managers jumped into the brawl and assured defeat for Team Cena. The crowd was chanting “Cena! Cena!” Everyone could feel the dark desperation as the despots lashed out and played dirty, using the last of their power to cling to their elevated position. We knew they would pull something like this. But Cena wasn’t there to lead his team through this treacherous pass — he left them to suffer a beating that would surely leave their power meters at less than full strength for Survivor Series on Sunday.

Lest you think I’m making too much of a guy taking the night off, recall Cena’s biggest criticism of Brock Lesnar: that he hardly ever showed up. Cena said in no uncertain terms that he shows up. Every night. This, he said, was evidence of his passion for wrestling, the company, and the fans that make it all happen. There is no way around the fact that this is inconsistent with what happened on Smackdown last night.

Keeping wrestling’s top-heavy continuous narrative on course week after week is of course a feat of storytelling, and we accept that there are periods of slowness, last minute booking changes, gimmicks that flop or just don’t get over, and cheap tricks to solve narrative problems when the company has somehow painted itself into a corner. But what I’m noticing here is that John Cena’s character is so prominent and integral to the storyline that his reliability as a leader and a hero took a huge hit when he took the night off the Smackdown before such an important pay-per-view, when the future of the company rests upon a somewhat motley team of wrestlers who have put their careers on the line to battle for Cena on a team sporting his name.

This isn’t the first time Cena has played the role of hero while every thing around him burned (as Bray Wyatt so eloquently put it). When Cena fumbles like this, I always wonder if it is in fact a failure of the narrative, or if it is intentional evidence of flaws in the John Cena character. Achilles had his heel, Hamlet his indecision, Odysseus his hubris. John Cena tends to rally other wrestlers to his cause, then preserves himself and his own message while his followers are getting their asses handed to them. Perhaps in wrestling a hero’s shortcomings are not always rooted in his character. Maybe they can also be found in the space he inhabits in the continuous narrative, and they reveal themselves as the narrative threads unfold around him.

Cena has been sold to our children as a leader and a role model. He has taught them about hustle, loyalty, and respect, and about never giving up. Yet our children understand quite well that an important part of this ethos is being a strong leader and a team player, and showing up even if you don’t feel like it. So Cena’s failure to appear and fight along side Dolph, Show, Rowan, and Ryback as the crowd chanted “Cena! Cena!” presents for some of us a very existential parenting dilemma. What do we tell our kids about their hero’s failure to represent last night? I guess the answer will not be clear until we see if he makes up for it at Survivor Series tomorrow.

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