Previously on Total Divas, all the girls faced their fears during their Lake Tahoe vacation, except for Brie who made hers up for a prank.
But enough living in the past, let’s look at everything that happens in the hard-hitting Season 8 finale of Total Divas:
The Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart Memorial Reality TV Episode
I came into this season, my first as a Total Divas recapper, ready to make some funny jokes about how reality television is just like wrestling and how every episode is built around silly conflicts that would never happen in real life. Then Total Divas caught me off guard by dealing with some pretty heavy stuff. Sure, there was the usual malarky like Nikki Bella throwing her niece an unauthorized birthday party when it wasn’t her birthday, and Paige trying to get people to eat sushi off of a naked man. But there was also Nikki being chased by paparazzi after her breakup with John Cena, and Paige dealing with the end of her in-ring career and constant harassment from fans. I still think Naomi and Jimmy Uso’s marital conflict was a bit of a work, but it felt all-too-real at its core. Even the Paige/Lana fight, as over-the-top as it was, clearly grew out of actual years-long animosity.
I guess what I’m saying is that I came into this season expecting to write about how none of it mattered, and then a lot of it ended up mattering, at least to me. That trend reached its crescendo in this season finale, in which Natalya dealt with the illness and death of her father, Jim “the Anvil” Neidhart. Jim was a recurring character on the show, in addition to being a wrestling legend, and there was never any doubt that his death would be dealt with on screen. We could debate the tastefulness of shooting at his funeral and so forth, but at the end of the day this is a family that has lived a life entwined with the wrestling business for decades, and this is what they wanted, and probably what he would have wanted. Natalya says as much late in the episode.
The episode starts with Natalya going to visit her family, where she has a discussion about her father’s advancing Alzheimer’s with her mom and her sister Muffy. This is the first time his illness has been discussed on TV, and the way these scenes are shot make it clear that there was already a plan to open up about that before he passed away. It’s weird to imagine how it would have played if he was still alive when the episode aired. On the other hand, his behavior in recent Total Divas appearances has often seemed strange, and his diagnosis actually does make things make a lot more sense. In the episode as it ended up, we get to see Natalya wrestling (pun accepted but unintended) with letting go of her father even as he’s still alive. The family had no idea how soon he would pass away, but they also didn’t know how long he would continue to recognize them, be able to live at home, or indeed be the man they remember him as.
All of this is happening against the backdrop of Money in the Bank 2018. Considering what’s going on in Nattie’s life, it’s hard to care much about Lana’s desperation to do well in the Women’s MITB Ladder match, or Nia Jax’s nerves about her title match with Ronda Rousey. And yeah, the way this show keeps selling Ronda as most important thing ever continues to grate a bit. There’s a subplot about Naomi, another competitor in the MITB match, getting matching wedding-ring-finger tattoos with her husband Jimmy Uso, to reconfirm the marital bond that’s recently been threatened. That’s a little more sincere, but still doesn’t entirely fit with the episode as a whole. But Natalya’s also in that ladder match, and we see how she has to balance her professional priorities with her family concerns, something just about any adult can relate to.
Here’s the thing: The Neidharts, as a branch of the Hart wrestling dynasty, aren’t a normal family by any definition. Lots of people go into a family business, but for most that doesn’t involve wearing a fancy pink and black outfit with epaulettes. I have mementos of my late father, but none of them are anything like a jacket he wore when he won the WWF Tag Team Championship. For most of us, practicing wrestling moves with our shirtless pajama-clad father in the kitchen would seem pretty weird, but for Natalya it’s the epitome of normal. I wouldn’t have let my father crack my neck with his hands even at the peak of his cognitive abilities, but this is a level of trust the Neidharts share, and I respect that.
What’s relatable is the loss of a parent. Many of us have dealt with it already, and of those who haven’t, most eventually will. So whether you enjoy Natalya as a TV character, and whether you think it’s in bad taste that E! filmed and broadcast her eulogy at her father’s funeral, you must know that what she’s dealing with is extremely real, and that dealing with it on television feels far more normal to her than it would to us.
At the end of the episode, they edit together her entrance wearing her dad’s jacket at SummerSlam 2018 with his entrance in that same jacket at SummerSlam 1990, and it’s honestly very affecting. Whatever else you want to say about WWE (or E! for that matter), they’re very good at making us feel emotions through the use of video editing, and this is no exception.
There’s something else much more subtle in this episode, though. The Bella Twins watch Money in the Bank from home, as they talk about wanting to get back in the ring (an obvious setup for the new season of Total Bellas). Birdie is there too, and she’s old enough to recognize her dad on television now. Amidst this hour of Natalya dealing with her father’s legacy, we see another daughter from another wrestling family, watching her father, also an all-time great, perform in the ring. We don’t know what Birdie’s future holds, or Daniel Bryan’s for that matter. But in time, everything comes round again, and in wrestling as in all things, history stretches out into the future as surely as it reaches out to us from the past.