If there is one thing that the PG-Era has unquestionably tainted, it's the cowardly heel. Specifically, it has narrowed the character type into one particular brand of cowardice, the weakest version, the one that can't throw a punch and runs from any fight it coul;d lose. In the absence of blood, edgy, psychological warfare, or even good old fashioned steel chair beatdowns, we're left in a world where the coward's only recourse is retreat. This is both regrettable and unrealistic; the stories become stale when options for telling them are removed, and besides, retreat is only one direction for the coward to go. Another darker, scarier avenue is desperation and false bravado. Because sometimes, the fear of failure doesn't dampen the spirits, but instead heightens them well beyond the point of irrationality. Sometimes, fear manifests itself as a hardened, intensified external pride for the sake of keeping up appearances, perhaps to bluff your opponent into fear, or perhaps only to convince yourself of their reality. When the powerful become afraid, they don't relinquish their power; they attack with it in new, more desperate ways.
Thank goodness for Zeb Colter, then, who is reminding us all just what a wounded emperor looks like, and just how satisfying it can be to watch villains kick back, however spitefully, even while they squirm.
Zeb Colter is one of those perfectly timed moments in the relationship between WWE and the cultural zeitgeist, not so immediate as to seem desperate for relevance and not so late after the moment as to appear behind the times. Instead, when Zeb Colter began joining a newly returned and inspired Jack Swagger, he became the kind of midcard heel par excellence that wrestling desperately needs, a caricature spun off into space yet tied, however tenuously, to our reality. In truth, discussing Zeb as a product of the PG-Era seems almost wrong; he's a nostalgic throwback in too many ways to count. The ridiculous look, Snidely Whiplash moustache and all, the casual racism designed to let you know "THIS IS A BAD GUY", hell, he's a vocal, clever manager who KILLS on the announce table; what's more throwback than that these days? Standing alongside Antonio Cesaro and Jack Swagger, two of the WWE's most imposing physical specimens and least imposing microphone presences (and whatever you think of Cesaro, and I think he's going to be a top shelf heel champ, that has been true of his WWE tenure up to this point), Colter is everything a manager is supposed to be, a slick talking purveyor of other people's violence. We giggle with giddy enjoyment because the vitriol is buried under a thick layer of nostalgia, and really, who isn't a sucker for nostalgia?
Except the vitriol is always there, and it's what makes this throwback into something compelling and relevant. This is what makes the timing of Colter's act so perfect; the context of the era reminds us that these ridiculous things he's saying are are things that people actually believe. Colter isn't the lunatic holding up caricatures of Obama in racist garb, but he's close enough to the vicinity to remind us that those types are out there. Through the palatable medium of nostalgia, Colter connects to the fear that drives the uglier parts of the American underclass. That fear drives Colter to find new ways to keep his enemies down, to drive threats away, to marshal whatever force he can find to prolong his last gasps.
Colter is the irrational fear of the "other". His rants are built around the idea of foreign threats "sneaking" and "stealing", threats that apparently justify Colter's own underhanded tactics on behalf of "real Americans". It's hypocrisy, and it's insular, and it feels unreal. Except this is the new reality, at least from a certain terrified perspective of irrationally terrified Americans. Rome probably had the same sort of vibe as it crumbled; people look around at security slipping away, promises going unfulfilled, and they feel desperate to attach the loss of these intangibles to tangible human beings. As with most crazed fear, its root is a desperate yearning for an answer to why the world is the way that it is. Zeb Colter, like so many cult leaders, has answers, and no matter how flawed those answers may be, they will always find buyers in a reality filled with so many scary questions.
And so we're left with a character who straddles the line between pleasant nostalgia and disgusting reality, between a fiction that makes us laugh and a truth that makes our skin crawl. Buried beneath the clownish outward expressions of xenophobia is a very real and frighteningly relevant undercurrent of hate springing forth from irrational terror. The humor muddles the anger, the bravado masks the fear, the violence masks the insecurity. He's a cowardly heel that poses genuine threats.
All of these sides speak to a character fighting desperately to put walls up, both literally and figuratively, to keep his world the way he wants it. Zeb Colter is the modern day return to the threatening cowardly heel, part laughable bravado, part cornered desperation. All the while we're watching, because every side to this deceptively complicated character demands that we watch.