Wrestling is full of stables formed from necessity, common enemies, similar aesthetics, or strange challenges. Few break onto the scene as unified and as powerful as the Shield when they hit the main roster at Survivor Series in November of 2012. Seth Rollins betrayed his Shield brothers (a word thrown out consciously, full weight, often) in June of 2014. Still, at least between Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose constantly, and in displays of unity even before Seth’s two month apology tour in autumn of 2017, it is easy to argue that the Shield has one of the longest running friendships in pro wrestling.
I want to emphasize this: friendship.
With the exception of Arn Anderson and Ric Flair, friendships don’t get very long runs in professional wrestling. There’s the on again, off again of Triple H and Shawn Michaels but during their prime it was majority off after their initial parting of ways. And neither of them seemed to learn from it or reflect. Wrestling has always but also never been about forgiveness. The cease fires aren’t announced to the audience or even to the general managers. They happen til they don’t.
The Shield has and could continue to change all that. They’ve tackled archetypes and tropes that thrive in wrestling: Old King, New King, Reclamation, Revolution. Each member of the Shield could easily give us another ten years in which their acting and in ring psychology can only improve.
Let them do it with bonds rare in a soap opera about throwing punches for titles… and for any other reason you see fit.
Before we talk more about the stable, let’s talk about the man. Dean Ambrose was the wild card mouthpiece of the three. Dean delivered each line with conviction, so passionate and sincere that he can’t be still. He’s nearly salivating every time he speaks of honor and justice. He carried his titles with pride, but it didn’t seem to be about that. An especially reckless barricade jump or rush to aid another of the Shield might leave the title tossed to the winds. His interest in titles grows when he is an open wound, aching. When he is in emotional ruin, it’s then that he focuses on proving himself and moving with pride.
In character, when asked about the past, he states, “if anybody asks, I was raised by wolves.” He is the man who delivered our modern “Hard Times” with his “Technicality” speech (Money in the Bank, 2015, mere days after Dusty Rhodes’ passing). He floats through interviews, at turns direct and informative to a sense of humor that reads half charisma and half defense mechanism. On one of WWE Network’s Stone Cold Steve Austin podcasts, he stumbles to begin retelling his childhood. There was struggle, isolation, waywardness. He was happy overall… but his story is one that rings familiar with a lot of kids who weren’t or aren’t happy.
He is scrappy and wild, daring and willing to bruise and bleed. He toes the line on what is legal in a match, he has gone off on refs and thrown fists at folks on the sidelines. In this, however, he has never been deliberately or excessively cruel. He’s tough but he’s human. Whether he meant to be or not, whether WWE meant it to be or not, Dean Ambrose is the heroic stand in for the genuine outcasts, rebels with the cause. Dean Ambrose is the Harry Potter, abuse and neglected, low-key smart as hell, always ready for a fight, but intrinsically linked with a moral compass whose true North is kindness. He’s a born babyface. So many of us imprinted on him, recognizing his scrappy moves and headstrong tactics as ultimately honest, born of living a real life.
His most raw performances have been with Seth Rollins. Their feud after the shocking Shield split* in June of 2014 will be considered their greatest work and some of the greatest work in WWE overall for decades to come. Those men damn near killed each other but Dean was always vulnerable, emotionally bleeding, crying in the ring more than once. He isn’t a plotter, he isn’t a snake, he doesn’t bide his time. He was broken-hearted, honest, and unafraid of letting Seth know that he was devastated. He’d use his own devastation to remind Seth of who he was, even as he talked about breaking his face into pieces and tossing him limb from limb until he was unrecognizable.
Even at the peak of his violence, he isn’t a calculated soldier, hungry for blood. The motivation is right there in his solo theme, titled “Retaliation”. This isn’t revenge. He is returning the hit out of instinct. He is doing what was done to him, trying to make it even. But nothing ends the ache.
The story between Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose in 2017, from May until his unfortunate injury in December, doesn’t happen if he’s a man capable of standing in the background while he thinks of hurting his brothers. He hurts Seth from a place of love so what would he have to throw at Roman Reigns, his brother, who he has faced countless times with no resentment? His brother, who he has bested and been bested by? His brother who has always assured him that he’d be there til the end, no matter how many matches they had or what Dean had to do? The Shield split showed us that no amount of bickering, competition, or supernatural mind games would get between them.
If we want to change Dean Ambrose, give his character a new spin, we can do all of it without casting his core and the given circumstances aside. We can tell complex stories without needing to concretely define good and bad.
Give me a Dean Ambrose who came too close to death and doesn’t know who he is anymore. Give me a Dean Ambrose who pushes his brothers away because he feels vulnerable and weak. Give me a Dean Ambrose who picks fights with Seth and Roman, who spits in their face, who throws a punch in a backstage segment because they just don’t get it. Give me a Dean Ambrose who still shows up to fight by their side because that’s what family does, even when they’re fighting. Give me a Dean Ambrose who walks away because he’ll never believe that his brothers will understand how much the injury hurt, because they had family to go home to, stability to lean on.
Dean Ambrose loves out loud. And so Dean Ambrose aches out loud. He cries in the ring, he stands up for himself, he tells people who they are and what they aren’t but could be, even when he has no respect for them. Some sleeze ball like Dolph Ziggler wouldn’t lead this bleeding heart to insecurity deep enough for him to be someone he isn’t. It’s character assassination for a heel turn to be born from this story. Let him make a mistake and be momentarily shunned for it. Let him travel a road to hell, paved with good intentions. Let him find himself once again face to face with Bray Wyatt, some enigmatic cult leader who sees how he hurts and seduces him to use the darkness of it all. Let him stay on his own path, the path we’ve curated for six years, even if he must outrun the Shield.
I will die arguing that the Shield is the best storytelling in modern professional wrestling. And I am desperate for it to stay that way. There will always be mistakes in the struggle of the medium but treating the heart and morality of Dean Ambrose as an easily disposable thing for shock value is a disservice to the art form as a whole. It reduces sports entertainment to exhibitions instead of narratives. I want to see commitment to both organic and written character arcs, not to tired and senseless “turns”. Wrestling lags behind all visual mediums that seek to connect to people. It hasn’t kept up with a changing audience’s desire for grey areas and rich backstories and motivations. That’s a shame. It has power to hit us in our most tender and visceral places. I love wrestling because I believe it has the most potential of any medium to tell everyone’s story. Assassinating Dean Ambrose is a toxic marriage to the heel and face tradition when the Shield has been there and back again, when the Shield has proven that those terms are guidelines at best and easily made unnecessary if you make the audience care about you.
Seth Rollins’ heel turn and Roman Reigns evolution as some sort of grey Jedi make sense for who they are. There is a growth you can track, an evolution of boys into men. Dean Ambrose is a man who can go toe to toe with anyone, who can make it personal, or make it about proving himself. Dean Ambrose is a man who can get a plant over (RIP Mitch). He makes us laugh and cry. He has never hurt us. If that man listens to the inconsistent, whiny, and self pitying Dolph Ziggler and loses his honesty and clear cut pain… well, sure, we may still be here.
But he won’t be the man we fell in love with. And the legacy and growth of professional wrestling will have suffered for it.
*shocking not because of the split, which has become inevitable in wrestling stables, but because of the red herrings leading up to it hiding Seth in plain site and the turn being motivated by protection and comfort from the Authority