Sunday night at Fastlane, WWE will present the latest chapter in the months-long rivalry between Randy Orton and “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt when The Viper squares off against Alexa Bliss in a match that will be less wrestling and more spectacle.
That angle will be the latest in a program that began in November 2020 and figures to conclude at WrestleMania 37 on April 10-11. And it also represents a throwback to the days of long-term storytelling.
Slow-burn storylines are a rarity in today’s wrestling industry, a throwback to the days when Vince McMahon would kick off a program in October and ride it through the new year and all the way into a grand culmination at The Show of Shows.
Such storytelling hasn’t been prominent in the industry in quite some time, though, thanks to shorter attention spans—on the part of fans and bookers alike. In fact, with only four weeks to the biggest show of the year, WWE is only now starting to craft the WrestleMania card.
Of the matches announced, none of them feature rivalries that existed before the Royal Rumble on January 31.
The Fiend vs. Randy Orton, while not officially confirmed yet, will break that streak. More importantly, it will provide us with a clear look into the future of long-term booking in wrestling’s most prominent company.
The Art of the Attraction
What has helped make the storyline so effective and prevented it from getting stale is WWE’s willingness to let Wyatt’s Fiend persona become the attraction that it is.
The company and its creative forces have allowed the masked maniac to remain off television since the horrific conclusion to TLC: Tables, Ladders and Chairs last December and have told the story exclusively through the eyes of Orton and Bliss.
It has preserved the specialness of the character in a day and age when everyone else is wholly overexposed, especially on the weekly three-hour slog known as Raw.
Every Monday night, we see Drew McIntyre on the show four or five times. Ditto The Hurt Business. They almost always compete, meaning fans are subjected to them wrestling PPV-length matches on free television, making their actual pay-per-view contests less valuable.
The overexposure creates fan exhaustion, and by the time five weeks of build are over, the audience is ready to move onto something else.
It is a testament to Wyatt and the creative team that they have been able to craft a character that does not have to be omnipresent to have an effect on ongoing stories. Everyone knows The Fiend is coming back, and there is a sense of buzz and excitement about the return.
Why? Because WWE did not rush him back onto television after he was set alight by Orton in December. They have played the long game, waited it out and will bring him back just in time to have a tremendous effect on the build to WrestleMania.
He is an attraction, a premium character that simply does not exist anywhere else in wrestling right now. He can have an entire story built around him without actually appearing for four months. Then, when he does pop up, it means more than it would have if he was battling AJ Styles for the sixth time in eight weeks on another bloated edition of Raw.
That people still care about The Fiend—and there is a measurable buzz surrounding his return—indicates WWE could (and should) be more willing to use its top stars more sparingly, to prevent burnout among the fans.
Imagine how much more McIntyre’s revenge on Bobby Lashley would have been if he had been off of television since Elimination Chamber on February 21, striking at Fastlane in time to set up that WrestleMania match.
As great as the premise of premium characters sounds, though, long-term booking only works if there is a definitive endgame and WWE manages to stick the landing.
People Always Remember The Finish
WWE has proved it can keep a character hot even when it keeps them off of television, but the future of long-term booking will be determined by the conclusion of the Wyatt-Orton storyline.
One of the most recent duds in WrestleMania history was the 2017 WWE Championship match in which Orton and Wyatt clashed in a ring that had bugs and other haunting imagery projected on it, just in time for the former to deliver an RKO and win the title.
It was a disaster, a major letdown that was met with groans from fans.
The performers have the opportunity to rectify that at this year’s Showcase of the Immortals, and there is more at stake this time than critical backlash.
If the performers and those in charge of writing the storyline do not come up with a suitable ending to the six months of supernatural angles and stellar character work from Bliss, it will all be for naught.
It will plant a bug in the head of McMahon that long-term booking doesn’t work because the stories always limp to the finish line. He will opt for shorter, more compact rivalries that rob fans of the epic storytelling that gave them the Mega Powers in the late 1980s and Bret vs. Owen Hart in the 1990s.
Those in power will cite short attention spans and an ever-evolving fanbase as the reason it cannot commit so much time to a single feud. We will get more and more WrestleMania cards built in the last two months of the build, rather than the culmination of long-running feuds and character journeys.
Gone will be the days of Bret and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s intensifying feud leading to the most epic double-turn in wrestling history. We will be subjected to month-long programs that may or may not build genuine stars, rushed to a conclusion out of fear that fans will grow bored.
And all because the finish of this particular feud fails to incite the expected response.
This WrestleMania is important for a number of reasons, not least of which will be the the return of fans at Raymond James Stadium. Historically, though, it could very possibly be the event fans point to as the night when long-term storytelling in professional wrestling died.
Ironically enough, it will be up to an unkillable force born in the deepest, darkest corners of Wyatt’s mind to help keep it alive.