Starz’s new drama Heels is set in the world of small-town wrestling and the first episode begins by explaining the series’ title for those who aren’t into the sport. Heroes in the wrestling world are known as “Faces” while villains are referred to as “Heels.”
Season one episode one introduces the siblings at the heart of the family-owned Duffy Wrestling League and establishes their dysfunctional relationship. Jack Spade (the heel) is the hands-on owner of the family wrestling business who writes the scripts and manages all aspects of the business. Ace Spade (the face) is Jack’s younger brother who’s aching to leave the DWL behind for greener pastures. There’s a deep divide between the brothers that’s only partially due to what goes down in the ring.
Jack (Stephen Amell) pounds away at the keyboard and with the choreographed match plotted out, he and his opponent act out the script in front of a cheering crowd. Jack’s wife, Staci (Alison Luff), roots him on while his young son, Thomas (Roxton Garcia), remains silent. Apparently, Thomas is more into the good guys than he is his dad, a DWL villain.
After some brutal action in the ring, Jack emerges victorious and is rewarded with a chorus of boos. He grabs the mic, slams Duffy and its citizens, and regrets this is his hometown. Jack struts around the ring, taunting the crowd while clutching a championship belt. Suddenly, the crowd roars in approval as Ace (Alexander Ludwig) enters the ring and delivers a kick to his brother’s head before tossing him over the ropes.
Ace soaks up the adulation before lobbing some insults at his brother. He challenges his big bro to a match, and Jack announces they’ll fight for the belt in a week. As Jack walks off, Ace keeps the crowd pumped with a “f*ck you” and a literal mic drop.
Backstage, the wrestlers unwind and celebrate their performances. Willie (Mary McCormack), the DWL’s managing producer, is the voice of reason and asks Jack to remind Ace to stop breaking the mic. Jack’s more upset about the fact Ace cussed on stage, reminding his bro there are kids in the audience.
Even as the chant of “Ace” rings out in the background, Jack tries – unsuccessfully – to rein in his sibling.
In the days that follow, Jack’s morning run takes him past an old, dilapidated billboard promoting the DWL’s glory days, back when his dad, Tom “King” Spade, squared off against “Wild Bill” Hancock in the ring. His own son has a poster of Jack’s dad along with an autographed photo of Ace in his room, while anything promoting Jack is conspicuously absent.
A week’s passed since Ace threw down the gauntlet and tickets for the event are sold out, yet Jack still hasn’t written the script. Staci interrupts his thought process to ask him to attend church and to chide him over the purchase of four fog machines. She could’ve shopped around for a better deal if he’d told her his plans. Jack blames his dad for buying bad equipment in the first place and also admits she’s right.
Staci’s the family’s financial planner and is quite adept at balancing their budget when she’s kept in the loop. She wonders if she should go back to work, but Jack’s against that idea and reminds her his mom never had a job.
Jack’s unsure how the match should end, and Staci assures him it should end with him winning.
After pissing on a tree outside the church, Ace joins the congregation as Staci’s playing the guitar and singing. After the sermon’s over, Jack and Ace’s mom, Carol (Alice Barrett Mitchell), warns Ace to be good to his brother in the ring. “The world needs love right now,” says Carol. Ace reminds her Jack writes the scripts.
The other wrestlers prepare for the upcoming sold-out show by making sure the ring’s in good shape and warming up. Apocalypse (James Harrison) is happy Jack brought Ace in because it’s good for business, but Rooster Robbins (Allen Maldonado) doesn’t think newcomer Ace deserves to be in the main event.
Rooster shows off some of his moves during a practice session in which the new guy, Bobby Pin (Trey Tucker), fails to act hurt. Rooster offers to demonstrate how it’s supposed to be done but Bobby Pin’s in way over his head and has no idea how to fake a hit, causing Rooster to scream in actual pain. (Bobby Pin’s going to need a lot of coaching to make it in the DWL.)
Willie watches a promo of Florida Wrestling Dystopia owner Charlie Gully (Mike O’Malley) announcing the DWL is dead. Charlie thinks it’s time to stick a fork in the DWL; long live Dystopia. (O’Malley is also the season 1 showrunner and serves as an executive producer.)
Jack seeks out Willie’s opinion on who should win and she believes Ace should come out on top, based on the crowd’s embrace of his character. Ace sells out the arena, but Jack doesn’t think it’s in the interest of the overall narrative for him to win the belt. Willie and Jack also discuss FWD, an organization Jack despises. Willie points out FWD’s selling out all over Florida, but Jack believes all they do is stage car crashes. Gully dreams of being Vince McMahon and Jack doesn’t respect him.
Willie’s worried their wrestlers will leave to join FWD which has lots more money to spend than the DWL. She’s also worried fans will stop coming after the Ace vs Jack fight. What’s left to entice them in once that’s done?
Jack’s sure the DWL has heat now and wants to upgrade their equipment to keep up with the times.
Before leaving, Willie asks who Jack’s dad would have win. Jack replies, “Don’t matter. He’s dead.”
The wrestlers offer up some solid advice to Bobby Pin leading up to the night’s fights. Apocalypse explains their job is to make the crowd either love them or love hating them. Diego (Robby Ramos) explains how he got his start, revealing he was initially the Venice Menace. Fans didn’t embrace that so King Spade rebranded him as Mexican luchador Diego Cottonmouth.
Before the crowd arrives, the wrestlers gather in the ring to learn who they’re wrestling that night. Big Jim (Duke Davis Roberts) gets a round of applause when Jack says he’ll be the star that evening. Jack’s come up with an ending for the Main Event and announces Ace will be going down via pinfall.
The news shocks Ace and silences the other wrestlers as well.
Jack’s leaving when Ace confronts him, demanding to know why he has to lose. Jack believes they need to do this in order to keep the fans interested. “If you beat me tonight, then what do we do then?” asks Jack. “If they see their hero lose to the villain and they get to watch their hero fight his way up top, that’s something. That’s an angle.”
Crystal Tyler (Kelli Berglund), Ace’s valet, reads the script out loud and Ace learns he’ll go down after showboating for the crowd. Ace hates Jack’s script and thinks he can come up with something better. Crystal, however, believes losing can be the best way to win over the crowd. That vulnerability from a heartbreaking loss can be an asset.
Ace and Crystal decide a little naked pre-match activity is the way to prepare for the Main Event.
Wild Bill (Chris Bauer) puts in an unexpected appearance in the locker room, reliving his glory days as the heel opposite Tom “King” Spade. Those matches made his career.
Wild Bill and Jack have a one-on-one chat and Wild Bill reveals he’s there to scout Ace. The “suits up north” think Ace has what it takes to succeed, but Jack’s skeptical that Ace is ready. Wild Bill can offer Ace the good life, something the DWL will never be able to do.
Jack firmly believes the stories they tell in the ring will pull in crowds and reminds Wild Bill he’s no better than the folks in Duffy just because he has wealth and fame. Wild Bill slams the DWL as nothing more than community theatre. He thinks the best thing Ace can do is leave the DWL in the rearview mirror.
After Wild Bill leaves to meet with Ace, Jack returns to his laptop and the evening’s script.
Ace has Crystal and Big Jim (Duke Davis Roberts) in his corner as he attempts to get Jack to flip the script and allow him to emerge victorious. Surprisingly, Willie doesn’t hate Ace’s suggestions. But after Ace confirms he’s leaving once he wins, Jack says the match will end as he originally planned.
After Ace storms off, Jack assures Willie they’ll be okay as long as he and Big Jim are around. Willie realizes even Jack isn’t convinced that’s true.
Jack continues to work on the script as Ace meets alone with Wild Bill. Wild Bill explains Ace will need to really work the crowd tonight; that’s what the suits are interested in. Jack will, of course, stick to the script but no one cares about that. Wrestlers have to be adaptable now, according to Wild Bill.
Wild Bill thinks Ace should improvise and land a few real punches.
In the hours leading up to the match, Jack approaches Big Jim with his idea for a twist the audience won’t see coming. He wants Big Jim to enter the match and beat up Ace after Jack goes down. Jack will come to, see what happened, and then defend his brother. It’s a win-win. Jack can become a face, Big Jim will transition to the role of a heel, and Ace can take off for the big leagues.
Sounds perfect…but Big Jim refuses to become a heel. He doesn’t want to be booed. Big Jim throws out his own twist to the night’s plans – he’s going to retire. He wants to be there for the birth of his baby and needs more shifts at work. Big Jim loves wrestling but his wife thinks it’s too dangerous.
Big Jim agrees to turn heel but, given that he’s retiring, Jack decides not to go that route.
Before the match Ace tries once final time to convince Jack to let him win. He promises after he makes it big he’ll come back and help out, but Jack knows that would never happen. They argue over who’s “against” who and Ace finally lays it on the line. He wants the belt and believes he deserves it. Jack points out he’s the one putting in all the work to keep the DWL alive, and Ace fights back by reminding his brother that he refuses to let anyone else handle any of the responsibilities.
Seconds before Jack enters the ring, Staci asks him what he’s decided about the finish. “Don’t matter. It ain’t real,” replies Jack.
Big Jim basks in the love of the crowd for what no one other than Jack knows is his final match. He exits the ring and makes way for the Main Event.
Jack enters first to a round of boos followed by a chant in support of Ace. Ace works the crowd for a minute before facing his brother who’s holding aloft the belt. When Ace turns his back, Jack attacks and takes Ace to the mat. The ref quietly warns Jack to stop hurting Ace, but Jack doesn’t let up. Instead, Ace is forced to tap out less than a minute into the match.
The crowd grows silent as Ace grunts in pain in the ring. He’s finally able to stand up and punches Jack in the face, causing Jack to tumble from the ring. The crowd turns on Ace, tossing popcorn and beers his direction.
Ace has never felt hatred from the crowd before and cries in pain and frustration as he continues to hold his injured arm.
Trash rains down on Ace and Jack leaves him in the ring, alone.
Heels Season 1 Review:
I’ve never watched a professional wrestling match in my life. It’s just not my thing. I couldn’t tell you what a backbreaker, chokeslam, or brainbuster is and, honestly, I don’t care about learning. Fortunately, Starz’s Heels requires no previous knowledge of the sport to follow the plot. Heels entices those of us who’ve managed to avoid the sport by weaving an incredibly complex, entertaining story that involves wrestling but could slide into any sport/occupation and be just as effective.
Michael Waldron (Loki) created the Starz series and promises Heels will take viewers inside the world of wrestling in a way that’s never been done before. The actors portraying wrestlers went through extensive training to prepare for their roles, and their commitment to Heels pays off with on screen matches that look savage and real.
The decision to include the sibling grudge match as part of the series’ first episode instead of being teased out over the first season is a bold choice. Jack questions what’s left if Ace wins the match, and audiences might be asking a version of that question. What remains to be told if the showdown occurs in the first episode? I’ve seen the first few episodes and can happily confirm there’s plenty of compelling storylines still to unfold.
Episode one reveals the hero and villain labels from the ring don’t necessarily carry over to life outside the ring. The series is full of flawed characters who make the right decisions for the wrong reasons and vice-versa. The talented ensemble, led by Amell and Ludwig, bring depth and unexpected layers to each of these characters who refuse to be defined by one label.
Heels lays out a tale of betrayal, loyalty, love, and loss – all in just the first episode. The payoff for the first season may be that each episode is building up to make season one a redemption story. Even if that’s not the case, the first hour of Heels provides enough juicy meat to sink our teeth into while leaving plenty on the plate for upcoming episodes.