Paul Levesque, better known by his on-screen character name, Triple H, is the Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events, and Creative for WWE. He’s overseeing a global expansion of the company, recruiting Superstars from all over the world to fight in a WWE ring. He’s repaired relationships with estranged legends such as Bruno Sammartino, the Ultimate Warrior, and Kurt Angle, bringing them “back home” for retrospectives and Hall of Fame ceremonies.
At the same time that he’s bolstering WWE’s historical legacy, he’s also ensuring the company’s future. Levesque is the creator and de facto head of NXT, the official WWE developmental brand, which trains future Superstars for main roster spots. His proteges and mentees include Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Bayley, and Sasha Banks–all world champions–among many more. In another five years, there will be more NXT performers on WWE’s main roster than non-NXT performers.
But as Levesque becomes more of a corporate executive and less of an active wrestler, he also needs to renegotiate a precarious balancing act between himself and his in-ring character, Triple H. How often should he appear in the ring? And when he appears in the ring, what should his role be? Based on the last three years, Levesque struggles to distinguish these roles from one another, and WWE storylines suffer from these growing pains.
The problem starts with consistency; the Triple H character has no narrative continuity from one show to the next. On NXT, he’s a gruff father figure–rough around the edges, but a proud mentor and confidante to the rookies. He’s making belt presentations and taking photos with Superstars backstage. One might assume this is the closest approximation of Paul Levesque’s true self.
But then on Monday Night Raw, Levesque is Triple H: an evil, sledgehammer-wielding, career-sabotaging psychopath. Along with Stephanie McMahon, Triple H is the villainous “Authority” of WWE. He’s insecure and narcissistic. He uses his backstage clout to make the wrestlers’ lives hell. And this keeps with tradition; for two decades, WWE has scripted its authority figures as heels, who actively sabotage and ruin the careers of its talents.
Traditionally, a wrestling promotion would want to be perceived as good or at least neutral, which focuses the audience’s attention on the active wrestlers’ interpersonal conflicts. Instead, by presenting itself as a heel promotion, WWE has cultivated a strange, antagonistic relationship with its audience. It’s difficult to distinguish “real” decisions from “storyline” decisions. Why didn’t Wrestler X get a push? Is it because Paul Levesque hates him or her? Or is it because his character Triple H hates them? And at the end of the day, isn’t the end result the same?
Fans must reconcile a cognitive dissonance with Triple H–between the actual man who takes pride in promoting new talent, and the character he plays, who keeps his boot on the necks of the exact same talent. Two weeks ago, for example, Triple H gut-kicked and Pedigreed Jason Jordan–one of his NXT proteges–and put himself in the Survivor Series main event as Jordan’s replacement. It elevated Triple H’s notoriety. But a man of Triple H’s reputation and stature does not need this sort of push. And it lowered a promising, younger, full-time talent in the process.
Triple H–and all of the McMahons for that matter–should stop presenting themselves as on-camera heels, at least for a little while. This was stirring television in the years after the Montreal Screwjob, when “Stone Cold” Steve Austin feuded with Vince McMahon on a weekly basis. It gained a brief resurgence when Daniel Bryan battled The Authority, and ultimately won the WWE Undisputed Championship at WrestleMania XXX.
But now, the “underdog fights the establishment” meta-narrative is getting stale. It distracts fans, who spend more time thinking about the backstage machinations than what’s happening in front of them. Cesaro said it best in an awkward shoot promo last year: the full-time wrestlers, not the authority figures, should be front and centre.
And if WWE continues booking Triple H as an Authority heel? The company needs to commit to that decision, wholeheartedly. Triple H cannot come and go for months at a time. WWE made a crucial mistake last year, when Triple H involved himself in the Fatal 4-Way for the Universal title. He Pedigreed Seth Rollins and literally handed the championship belt to Kevin Owens.
The potential storylines that could have followed from this were numerous. Was this interference planned? Was Kevin Owens in on it? Could Triple H stage an NXT takeover of Raw? Was Triple H rebelling against the rest of the McMahon family? Would Owens live up to his “prodigal son” role better than Rollins did?
Instead, after this single interference, Triple H disappeared from Raw for months, and Kevin Owens was forced into a quasi-comedic buddy angle with Chris Jericho. Perhaps Triple H figured that if he was by ringside every week, he would be a glaring distraction. But that would still be better than the alternative. Triple H never explained his actions fully, and since the fans didn’t know his motivations, the entire storyline lost traction and importance. Owens’ reign as Universal champion should have cemented him as a main event attraction. Instead, it was a fairly low-key affair where he played straight man to Jericho’s comedic schtick. Owens needed Triple H’s ethos and explicit backing to raise the narrative stakes.
Triple H’s recent pattern of showing up but not sticking around persists today. At Survivor Series this month, Braun Strowman delivered multiple power slams to Triple H to close the pay-per-view. The following day on Raw, there was no suspension for Strowman. No storyline punishment or significant reprisal of any sort. There was just a single, awkward staredown in the ring, with Triple H backing off from any actual confrontation. And then he didn’t appear in the ring for the remainder of the show.
If Triple H doesn’t appear on Raw and sabotage Strowman in some way tonight, it will be yet another missed opportunity to elevate a young Superstar to the next level. The recurring lack of narrative follow-through taxes the audience’s suspension of disbelief.
This is not to say that Triple H should overshadow the young talent; his time as a full-time worker has come and gone, and he has more important backstage responsibilities. But he also can’t show up, shake things up, and then leave plot threads unresolved for weeks or even months at a time. There is a sweet spot–a middle ground–between the two extremes. And Triple H needs to find it.