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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Rusev and Lana: Caricatures to Humanized

Even the densest fan a year ago could connect the dots that were shoehorned mightily into the activity book. When Rusev as a character suddenly moved from Plovdiv, Bulgaria to Moscow, a 1,321 mile drive, it was quite clear that Rusev's new home was prime to become fodder for yet another jingoistic arc. The Titantron video displaying images of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin had the subtlety of a swarm of bees, and was just about as welcome.

Rusev and real-life girlfriend Lana made do with the retrofied tale of bla-bla-America-sucks, and the wrestler himself evolved into a pretty nifty monster heel before our eyes. There was a conviction to the one-note act, far beyond Lana'a portrayal of a coldly-amused diplomat and Rusev as the barrel-chested warrior. These were not cardboard cutouts of some modern-day Red Scare, but rather two characters that seemed to believe everything they were saying.

That conviction's carried over to the new twist in the angle, where Rusev, despondent over his third and most humbling loss to John Cena, has taken to verbally berating Lana for quitting on his behalf. Though Rusev did quit on his own (braying in Bulgarian, complete with the immortal line, "Damn your old mother!"), Lana's anguished confirmation of Rusev's submission gives the heel his out. He didn't quit, he insists, but rather the gutless girlfriend showed her feminine weakness by surrendering in the thickest heat of battle.

It was the Raw after the contested submission that we were treated to something we hadn't seen in quite some time in professional wrestling: believable interplay between two characters who love each other in real life. Lana was torn as she declared her love for Rusev, insisting that she confirmed his words of submission out of that love, not wanting to see him harmed further. Rusev held onto the dubious claim that his screams were not of submission before snarling that Lana's presence was only holding him back. "You are weak," he seethed. "And you make me weak."That seemed to sufficiently tear Lana's heart in half, as the fans (all of whom would take Lana home if given the chance) raged at this dour buffoon.

What made that segment so captivating was the, well, acting involved. Who would have guessed that the duo that was essentially a Nikolai Volkoff tribute act a year ago would demonstrate the capacity for real soap opera thrills? Topping that, most fans have caught on to the fact that the two are shacked up in real life, so the idea that the two would split is actually a far-fetched one if you blend reality with story. And yet, the plausibility of it all is born from the acting. The late Johnny Valentine is credited with saying, paraphrased, "I can't make (the fans) believe that wrestling is real, but I can make them believe that I'm real."

Last night, the story continued, with a little dip into Honeymooners-like comedy, with Rusev showing off some superb timing as Ralph Kramden. After killing R-Truth, he called Lana out, pleading for an eternity, before she finally showed her face, and proceeded to touch her heart with a sincere message about fixing things and letting bygones be bygones. They embrace (to boos) and Rusev asks for three little words he's been wanting her to say. With a smitten grin matching hers, he reveals those three words he wishes Lana to repeat: "I.....was wrong." Lana then steams, and proceeds to tear Rusev a new corn-chute with a strong-willed, I-am-not-your-plaything speech that whips the crowd into a frenzy, and leaves the troglodytic brawler flustered.

Again, the acting. Is it because these two are a real couple? Torrie Wilson and Billy Kidman had the collective chemistry of three Legos and a mud puddle. Brie Bella can't even show convincing emotion when informing us of the condition of Daniel Bryan. This goes beyond Rusev and Lana's status as real-world flames, and instead is a credit to their actual talents. Maybe Rusev can't play anything other than a chauvinist. Maybe Lana can only play a resolute feminist (not that it's a stretch from some of her tweets). What matters is they're making magic right now, and the crowds have been eating up their long talking segments when their prime instinct is to tune out and demand wrestling. Nobody's chanting for NXT or CM Punk when these two are emoting to the gills.

And yes, Lana's hastily been paired with Dolph Ziggler, which takes a little impact away from her need to stand on her own two legs as 'no one's property' in her words. She's not Dolph's property, granted, but needing to connect her with a male counterpart so quickly is easily explainable: Rusev can't wrestle Lana, and the story has to have a physical element. It was either Lana picks a new man for Rusev to feud with, or Rusev shacks up with a new woman that he makes into the subservient bitch that he wishes Lana was (Emma could be repackaged for this). Lana's probably not ready to perform capably in the ring at this juncture, so going the male avatar route for her is the safest bet. Maybe you could have stretched out the story a bit before Lana took her pick of testosterone-fueled counterpart, but eh. The toothpaste is already out of the tube, and it's not hurting the performances any.

There's a fruitful marriage here between creative and the capable performers, and it's actually a shame that there wasn't more romantic interplay between Rusev and Lana when they were together. If they can make an angst-filled split more than believable, they could surely do the same in playing their real life selves on screen. They say couples in wrestling are doomed to fail the minute they split on screen, and I'm hoping this doesn't come to pass. Instead, I root for the on-screen reunion one day in the distant future. I could never have imagined Rusev as a sympathetic babyface until I realized he was one of the best actors that WWE has.

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