Going into the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view last Sunday, I wasn’t expecting to give a damn about Randy Orton, but that would certainly change. Not that I have anything against Orton personally (I do find him to be a bit underappreciated as a performer), but it’s been a long time since I’ve had any strong feelings for him in a wrestling capacity. Him silently walking down to the ring in order to exchange moody glares with Shinsuke Nakamura and a downed Jeff Hardy doesn’t exactly captivate the imagination – unless you’re the among the select few that can fetishize things like dryer lint.
Those feelings didn’t change going into the cell match with Jeff Hardy, since most cell matches this decade (save for Undertaker vs. Brock Lesnar three years ago) have been mostly paint-by-number affairs that string together weapons-based stunts to justify the gimmick match since the story didn’t. Orton/Hardy wasn’t exactly a feud that was crying out for an end-all/be-all like Hell in a Cell, but I was no longer married to that opinion when Orton stuck a flathead screwdriver into the gauged earlobe of Hardy, before twisting it around like he was tightening the lug nuts of a front tire.
When in doubt, go for the nauseated screams, I guess.
It was a rather simple spot (as simple as potentially tearing a man’s ear apart could possibly be), but was enough to make the match one of the more memorable cell brawls I’ve seen this decade. The closing drop-spot where Hardy monkey-barred himself toward a cruel fate was eye-catching, but it was also what you’d expect from your typical Jeff Hardy crash-and-burn stunt show.
But a screwdriver that rips the ear? I was thinking about that more as the night went on than I was Hardy’s self-sacrificing piece de resistance. I was also thinking how that moment could be just the jump-start that Orton needs.
The Viper has had an identity crisis throughout his 16-and-a-half years on the main roster. He’s been the privileged narcissist. He’s been the overgrown high school jock. He’s been the flavourless babyface. He’s been an explosive psychopath. He’s been the quiet psychopath. Like Big Show, Orton’s there to conveniently fill whatever gap on the alignment chart necessary in order to maintain balance. With that sort of proclivity toward personality shuffling, it’s been hard for Orton to clutch onto the needed consistency to keep himself interesting.
Oftentimes, especially as a babyface, Orton just gets thrown out there to be the means to an end, to give the heel a veteran presence to play off of. Orton doesn’t have the babyface clout of a John Cena to get by with that kind of minimalist presentation, so many of his angles (vs. Wyatt, vs. Mahal, et al) falter.
In that spot with the screwdriver, I saw the Orton that I appreciate most as a fan – the heartless sadist. You know the Orton, the same one that assaulted the McMahons almost a decade back, half out of psychological warfare toward Triple H, half because he couldn’t control his rage. The same Orton that freaked out when Christian spit on him, turning their feud from competitive matches to Orton trying to beat Christian senseless (while wearing the same demented grin that some Purge masks are modelled on).
If that’s the best version of Orton (and in my opinion, it is), then the screwdriver spot, and profound response to it, should signal a firm return to that rendition of him. I’m not saying he needs to try and top that spot on every ensuing pay-per-view (no need to take notes while watching Hostel, if you’re the writing staff), but the spirit behind that attack is what’s most vital. At least it demonstrated creativity in the “Wait til the criminal profiler gets a load of *this* one,” sense.
I dare say that not going this route would be doing Orton a critical disservice. At 38, with about 263 World title wins already to his credit, what is there for him to further accomplish as the generic tall athlete with a cool finish but little else, yet is always in the mix? Isn’t it fair to say that when Orton began rifling through that toolbox last Sunday, cruel intentions spurring his pulse, that he was more interesting in that moment than he has been in at least two years, if not longer?
He’s not like John Cena, or other established part-timers, where you can just drop him into a feud cold and expect the nostalgia of his past stardom, or a palpable superstar aura, to do the heavy lifting. Orton, unlike some of his notable peers, just doesn’t carry that same gravitas. Although he’s performed exceedingly well in a number of angles and matches over the years, he just doesn’t strike that same chord as those other ostensibly-iconic figures. So Orton needs something more than just simply being there to get a spark going.
This is the best way to keep Orton interesting going forward, as WWE’s answer to Buffalo Bill or Mr. Blonde, or whatever remorseless torturer you can think of. Because as I said before, I wasn’t planning on having any detectable feelings toward Orton at Hell in a Cell, but his calm, methodical manner of inflicting unthinkable pain on Hardy proved to be a real head-turner.
By continuing to walk this path with Orton, you can also put equity in his character going forward, re-establishing him firmly through his twisted, psychotic actions. This way, when he enters a new feud, the audience has something to sink their teeth into.
Orton’s been on the main WWE roster since April 2002, and through/despite many different ordeals, he remains an entrenched regular, with both solid and dotted lines connecting him to the main event level. Clearly, he’s not leaving any time soon, unless he decides he’s had enough of the wrestling life. For however longer that Orton remains a relevant figure in WWE storylines, especially an everyday figure, WWE should at least try to get the most out of him, and allow him to do what he does best.
And if what he does best involves the use of carpentry implements on the cosmetically-modified body parts of his foes, then more power to him.