On paper, Starz’s wrestling drama Heels seems like of the last places you’d expect to find complex, three-dimensional female characters. After all, the series centers on a sport that hasn’t always been particularly friendly towards women and has an uncomfortable history of objectifying the few it did allow to—even tangentially—participate in its world. (Related: We miss you, GLOW.)
Even within the specific world of the show itself, it doesn’t feel like there could possibly be space for a female perspective. After all, Heels takes place in a small, dead-end Georgia town, where no one has many good options, and women have even fewer ones. Its primary narrative centers on the relationship between a pair of bull-headed brothers and the residual daddy issues that often keep them at each other’s throats. And though the Duffy Wrestling League, or DWL for short, features a surprisingly diverse array of characters in its ring, they’re also all men—save for the scantily clad valets who largely only exist to serve the male gaze. So far, so “seen it,” right?
Let’s put it this way: Sometimes it’s really nice to be wrong.
Because Heels has turned out to be a remarkable surprise in many ways: Its complicated depiction of male love and friendship, its delicate portrayal of the lingering trauma of a loved one’s suicide, its realistic acknowledgement of the tough choices faced by working class families struggling to get by in small towns. But in no aspect has the series turned out to be more satisfying than in its inclusion and depiction of women.
The female characters of Heels are multidimensional and layered, with plenty of agency and arcs of their own that are completely separate from the men (read: wrestlers) in their lives. Staci Spade (Allison Duff) refuses to let her husband Jack (Stephen Amell) put her or their marriage second to his late father’s wrestling business, and has dreams of a singing career of her own. Willie Day (Mary McCormack) is basically the business mind that keeps DLW functioning—while keeping both Spade brothers in line. But it’s Crystal Tyler (Kelli Berglund), the bubbly, kind, wrestling superfan who refuses to give up on her dreams who quietly steals the show out from under the men at its center.
Initially introduced as Ace Spade’s (Alexander Ludwig) valet, it seems as though Crystal is destined to be little more than a love interest, pining over a man who isn’t willing to commit to a real relationship. And on a less nuanced show, that might have been the way things stayed. Instead, the first season of Heels is actually Crystal’s superhero origin story: The birth of a face (that’s wrestling-speak for good guy) who’s going to change everything for the DWL forever, in all the best possible ways.
Crystal’s arc is, in many ways, a classic underdog tale: A small town girl of limited means and few options to better herself or her situation is fiercely devoted to a dream that everyone around her insists that she can’t have. She’s a hard worker and an incredible athlete, yet is all too often told that the best she can hope for is to serve as arm candy to a string of men who are probably (definitely?) less talented than she is. Yet, Crystal refuses to give upon her goal of becoming a wrestler and is willing to do anything to achieve it, whether that means she must swallow her pride and falsely brand herself a cheating girlfriend in public or hop around in a bunny costume and shake her polyester tail for a leering crowd.
It helps that Crystal is an easy character to love for her own sake. She’s kind and loyal, repeatedly doing her best for people—i.e., Ace and Jack—who don’t often prioritize her or her needs in return. (Truly, the number of times that her smarts and quick thinking has saved the day for these people!) She has so much heart and grit, and watching her come into her own over the course of Heels’ first season feels like a rare gift in a television landscape where characters like Crystal are too often forced to go in the other direction, and become increasingly worse versions of themselves in the name of getting ahead. Instead, she succeeds by staying true to who she is.
Her genuine love for the sport of wrestling, and for the DWL specifically, is a huge part of Crystal’s character, but much like any woman in a male dominated space, a lot of the time that world doesn’t exactly seem to love her back. There is certainly an element to this part of Heels that feels as though it should be anachronistic, especially given that success that real-life women wrestlers like Chyna or Becky Lynch have achieved in the ring in recent years. Yet it also makes sense that the small town, hyperlocal world of the DWL might be a bit slower to modernize or to recognize that its female fans might want a hero to root for who looks like them.
And in the end, it’s because we’ve watched Crystal do all these things—struggle, humble, and belittle herself repeatedly in front of those who don’t always deserve her time or care; watch her ex purposefully break the leg of a guy who was simply kind to her; be bold enough to push back against a status quo that doesn’t always acknowledge her or her skills—that makes her ultimate moment of triumph feels so delicious. She single-handedly salvages the DWL’s biggest moment—in the face of Ace and Jack yet again putting their personal drama before the good of the league!—and in doing so forces it to make a real place for her at last.
It’s honestly hard to think of a more satisfying moment on television this year than when Crystal steps in the ring to fight for herself in Heels’ season finale—unless it’s the one that follows a few minutes later, when she raises the championship belt and roars her joy to a crowd that delights in her success and teammates that unabashedly support her win. Wherever the DWL (and Heels itself) will go in a second season (that it so desperately deserves to get) is as yet unknown, but one thing is—excuse the pun—crystal clear: The future is most assuredly female.
Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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