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By Mike Johnson on 2020-05-15 09:59:00

“But the worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself; you lie in wait for yourself in caverns and forests. Lonely one, you are going the way to yourself! And your way goes past yourself, and past your seven devils! You will be a heretic to yourself and witch and soothsayer and fool and doubter and unholy one and villain. You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame: how could you become new, if you had not first become ashes?” - Friedrich Nietzsche

There is a scene in the second episode of the WWE Network's Undertaker - The Last Ride docuseries when one realizes that perhaps the greatest and worst opponent Mark Calaway will ever face is himself.

After all, in the eyes of the fan, The Undertaker will live forever as iconic combatant.  In the eyes of his fellow performers, he is the walking embodiment of the level they all wish to attain.  In the eyes of history, Calaway will be seen as one of the greatest attractions, one of the great gimmicks that ever existed in professional wrestling, a living, breathing time capsule who traveled across the decades, a prism by which the entire timeline of the last 30 years can be viewed.

But, in the eyes of Mark Calaway, all of that is meaningless because he's in hot pursuit of the one thing that he can't mentally or emotionally ever truly catch, inner peace.  Indeed, the Dead Man who has reaped so many souls on camera finds himself haunted by the performance that was originally slated to close out his career, the Wrestlemania 33 battle against Roman Reigns.

The match lives rent-free in the head of Calaway, who sees the performance as embarrassingly terrible, leaving something that was supposed to be gifted to Roman - the chance to live in infamy as the last great Undertaker adversary - lost forever.  Calaway seems himself as the anvil that plunged them down to the depths, instead of having lifting all involved to the heavens.  The reality is that to the average fan, the emotion of Calaway's planned retirement that evening in Orlando as well as the body of the actual match was certainly good enough to take them on the emotional roller coaster they came to expect of The Undertaker at Wrestlemania.  It was, to them, certainly good enough.

But they don't get the final say, Mark Calaway does...and he's tortured by what he feels is failure.

“But I need solitude--which is to say, recovery, return to myself, the breath of a free, light, playful air.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

In many ways, the second episode of Last Ride is even more riveting than the premiere episode last week.  With the bandage of kayfabe having been torn asunder, the last vestige of The Undertaker aura has been left behind as the series documented Calaway's journey into Wrestlemania 33.  With the shock value of getting past the veneer of who The Undertaker truly is having settled in, the series now allows viewers to take on the role of analyst as Last Ride dives deep into a greater examination of the fear that drives Mark Calaway downward and then forward, what he endures to exorcize himself and who holds him together on an emotional level as he attempts to extricate himself from the labyrinth he's created for himself. 

It's a journey that Calaway will have to endure on both a physical and spiritual level.  As the episode unspools, it appears we'll be going on the Rocky journey as Calaway examines the Reigns match and doesn't like what he sees in himself - an older, sluggish performer who's exposed himself as not being what he once was and even worse, someone who has failed to hit the ending of the story after decades of building it.  As this begins, we are taken into the harsh reality of what is needed to relieve Calaway of what physically ails him - surgeries, rehab, grueling workouts but all of sweat and grit and grime is mirrored by deep examinations into his closest relationships - Michelle McCool and Vince McMahon.

Perhaps the most surprising thing revealed here - from a historical perspective - is that there was time period over the course of filming where Calaway's WWE contract had actually expired, leaving him on the free market, a head scratcher that seems almost unthinkable given his history and deep seeded bond with Vince McMahon.  This sets the stage for a visit to WWE HQ where The Calaways sit down with The Grand Poobah of WWE.  McMahon himself is obviously a fascinating character for a lot of reasons that will be written and dissected long after all of us are gone but it's interesting to note that even in this series, one being streamed on the Network McMahon himself owns, there's only so much that he'll allow to be seen and discussed.  While McMahon sits down for a rare interview, it's what he declines to answer that provides the deepest acknowledgement of Calaway's importance to himself and WWE.

In many ways, Michelle McCool emerges as the emotional center to the series.  She loves her husban and has lived through what Calaway has suffered through.  She hopes for him to discover the contentment that comes with ending his in-ring career - but is honest enough to know that come April, there will always be the pull of Wrestlemania.  It's a black hole from which there is no escape, no matter what Calaway says.  It's something McCool has resigned herself to.  She's there for Calaway every step of the way  - through the preparation, the pain and the recovery. 

 A constant presence in the series - as she is in Calaway's life - McCool shines here, especially during an interview where the couple playfully rib each other while talking about how they fell in love.  While this scenario is probably the last thing anyone would have expected to have seen spotlighted while discussing The Undertaker, ever, without it, a big piece of what keeps Calaway tethered to Planet Earth would be missing and without that piece, his true story can't be told.

At the beginning of Last Ride's second episode, it appeared the big moment everything was building to would be The Undertaker's battle against John Cena at Wrestlemania 34 in New Orleans, but that's not the climactic Rocky moment.  We do see the process leading to NOLA, that bout and its aftermath thoroughly examined.  However, the bittersweet taste of the experience leaves viewers - and McCool - realizing that Calaway's quest to put everything to rest has just begun and there may be no climactic, happy ending. 

There is no Rocky moment, at least not yet.  This is no longer about a return to Wrestlemania.  Instead, Calaway's larger fight is revealed; the battle to redeem one's self in their own eyes.  Calaway has walked through hell endlessly as The Undertaker, but now he himself seeks to do the same himself, hoping for a personal redemption that can only come from within.  He wants to write the final chapter, but to do so isn't about hearing a three count and a bell ringing.

“There are no beautiful surfaces without a terrible depth.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

Mark Calaway is seeking the most elusive of prizes, his own truth.   

In Last Ride's premiere episode, Wrestlemania 33 was meant to be the end of the cycle where Mark Calaway no longer plunged himself into the pro wrestling equivalent of the Evel Knievel crash that goes horribly, horribly wrong.  Instead, it sparked a newer, more vicious cycle.  Calaway is attempting find balance between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, something that no one can script for him.   Tortured by the performer he once was, Calaway now seeks the moment of glory where he can be as great as he once was - a golden goal that might be absolutely impossible, given the restraints of age and injury.  Early on in the episode there is a literal laundry list of past surgeries that would be comical if they weren't so shocking.   The race against time and reality is upon Mark Calaway.

Those who seek the truth often find themselves forced to overcome insurmountable obstacles in order to shine the light on that truth.  The Last Ride's second episode - and Michelle McCool herself - leave the viewer to ponder - what could actually be good enough for Calaway...and with the specter of some truly poorly received matches from Saudi Arabia yet to be documented, how deep is Calaway willing to plunge down in order to unearth the truth he's seeking?

Undertaker - Last Ride Episode 2 will debut this Sunday on the WWE Network.  WWE provided an advance stream of this episode.

Mike Johnson can be reached at Mike


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