Now we know, and we didn’t even have to wait halfway through this first eight-episode season to find out. And we only have to wait less than five minutes into this episode to learn what happened to Tom Spade, the DWL daddy and recently-deceased father of Jack and Ace.
In the opening flashback of “Cheap Heat,” Tom is going for a run through Duffy, passing by waving neighbors, The Dome, and a billboard touting a ladder match starring “King” Spade. It reads “Long Live The King.” But live long, he didn’t. Tom gets back home, mows the lawn, and hangs a sign reading “Carol’s Garden” for his wife. He spots a deer in the yard and goes to his bedroom dresser to get a gun (maybe to shoo the garden pest away?). He walks out to the porch, aims the gun under his chin, and pulls the trigger. Ace hears the shot and comes into the living room, blanket wrapped around his bare chest. He walks out onto the porch, looks down, and begins to shake.
I’m certain that this is, even by cable and streaming standards, among the most jolting opening moments of an episode of television that we’ll see all season.
There are a couple of gut punches still to come for the Spade sons in “Cheap Heat.” Although there is the ongoing theme that no one is always the heel or the face, inside or outside the ring, this time around, the championship belt of heeldom is firmly around Jack’s waist.
Jack reached incredibly low-levels of manipulation when he talked Ace into being a part of DWL in order to keep it running, despite Ace never wanting to be a wrestler. Especially considering that he was convinced while Ace was still reeling from Tom’s death after being the one to find him dead. Ace might have agreed to anything that made him feel closer to his father and his father’s legacy. Jack’s present-day maneuvering becomes even more flagrant when he tries to force Ace to become a DWL heel. “What is wrong with being a heel?” Jack asks.
“You’re the fuckin’ heel. I’m the fuckin’ face,” Ace says. “Dad was a face. Get that through your fuckin’ head!”
“Dad was a face? Tom Spade was a face? Yeah, because he was a good guy … he was a real good guy,” Jack says in a lowered voice, loud enough so only Ace can hear him. “He knew that you were home.”
Unlike Chris Rock’s champagne room, sex in the laundry room at The Dome is totally permissible, and Crystal engages in some pre-game lovin’ with Ace to calm him down after Jack’s cruel verbal piledriver.
Jack’s exploitation isn’t solely reserved for his brother, either. He convinces Bobby that he’s going up against Ace in the week’s main event because he’s good, when in reality it’s because Jack sees Bobby as someone who’ll carry out Jack’s storyline. When the increasingly unhappy Rooster (played by the increasingly wonderful Allen Maldonado) confronts Jack about getting his shot at the DWL title, Jack tells him it will happen when it’s right for the narrative. But Rooster doesn’t believe it. He thought things might be different when Jack took over the business (a hint about Tom’s management style, perhaps), but he tells a grousing Ace “that championship belt only really stands out against a white background.” Worse for Rooster, who loves wrestling and has been working in professional leagues since he was a teen, he’s sharing this with the painfully un-self-aware Ace, who only sees himself as wronged just like Rooster.
Rooster is the one who finally makes Ace see that his face days are over. “That dog won’t hunt” anymore, Rooster crows after Ace cries in the ring. And so Ace takes cheap shots at Bobby during the match and follows it up with some good old-fashioned arrogance aimed at the audience. Boos erupt from the crowd, but he’s greeted with cheers from his cohorts when he gets backstage. He leans further into his villain role and tells Crystal she’s not his girlfriend and calls Willie a bitch. “That’s what you wanted, right? I’m a heel now,” Ace tells his brother.
And Jack doesn’t have an ounce of regret! When he and Willie are totaling the cash from the week’s event, the numbers are up. Partly because Jack paid to bring in crowd favorite Ricky Rabies — who comes complete with a drone-propelled, fake blood-spewing possum and a hissing valet named Vicki who cooks up the blood — and partly, he assumes, because Ace became the heel everyone wanted him to be. “It was the right move, and he was going to see that in time,” he tells Willie.
Smugness, thy name is Jack. But he’s about to get the wind knocked out of him with a suplex from his have-had-it-up-to-here wife. Staci’s college friends come to town for dinner and drinks, and when they end up at The Dome, her sorority sisters are pretty impressed with how hot Jack and Ace are and what a boss Jack is at running the DWL. Staci, of course, doesn’t tell them how broke they are, how he’s always either at work at the lawnmower store or at The Dome, how he spends almost no time with Thomas, and how she can’t even get him to commit to a date night at the local movie theater.
So when she asks him about going on vacation to Machu Picchu, and he automatically drops the needle on the recitation of excuses why he can’t, then accuses her of trying to pick a fight, she unleashes a well of pent-up anger and resentment.
“You came to the show. You got to have some drinks with your friends,” he says. “Everybody had a good time.”
“And then they got to leave,” Staci says as she walks away. “I was starting to wonder if you’d let Thomas live with me.”
With that threat — declaration? — that his marriage is as shaky as his relationship with his brother, Jack walks through his house to the porch, which looks like the very same spot where we saw his father point his gun to his chin.
We don’t yet know exactly why Tom Spade ended his own life. But the mounting pressures of running a flailing business and making that business your whole identity, while alienating your family, are things they have in common. Jack still has a chance to turn it around.
If, as Charlie Gully warned, he doesn’t let that ego keep leading the way.
Notes From the Squared Circle
• The song that bookends Tom and Jack’s dejected moments on the Spade porch: Delta Spirit’s “Yamaha.” Sample lyrics: “So cold, I know you can’t believe it/Sometimes you gotta face the feelin’/When you don’t care if you get up again.”
• Crystal gets a little bonding time with Vicki (Bonnie Somerville), the older, not necessarily wiser valet, who aptly points out that wrestling “ain’t exactly [a] female-friendly industry.” Vicki also shares her “most important” advice: “Tuna for lunch, then gummy bears for dinner. That’s how I stay skinny. And girl, you’ve got to stay skinny.”
• Why, yes, that was former WWE Champion CM Punk playing Ricky Rabies. Ricky sums up the physical toll the sport can take and why so many wrestlers keep doing it: “Underneath this skin, there’s war raging in this body. It’s like a melee of bone and bile, flesh and fever, every organ taking shots at the next guy. And I’m up in the cheap seats, hurting like hell. But what can you do, right? Am I gonna get a job to support my wrestling habit? I just keep on fighting the fight. It’s a livin’.”
• When Willie gets home, she pulls into her driveway to find a drunken Wild Bill waiting for her. That’s a backstory just waiting to unfold, right? And might it have something to do with why he left the DWL all those years ago?
• The Heels writers do love them some f-bomb drops. This week’s best, from Jack, countering Ace’s assertion that good always triumphs over evil: “Evil’s got a fuckton in the trophy case.”
• Another good line, from one of Staci’s friends upon entering the audience-packed Dome: “You’re the first lady of this bitch.”