Tonight marks one of the year’s biggest TV events for sports entertainment fans: WWE’s Hell in a Cell pay-per-view, which starts at 8 p.m. EDT. Even the most casual pop-culture fans who don’t follow wrestling might recognize the names in the headline matches: Dean Ambrose vs. Seth Rollins in one, and John Cena vs. Randy Orton in the other.
True to its name, Hell in a Cell promises to be brutal and punishing, even by professional wrestling standards. And yes, what initially draws viewers to Hell in a Cell is almost certainly the promise of violence and the potential for catastrophic violence. But what keeps them entertained—and what might draw in some new fans—is the strength of the match's underlying storytelling.
To fully understand the brilliance of Hell in a Cell, it's important to take a step back and look at the event’s great-grandfather: the venerable steel cage match. Promoters of the mid-Twentieth Century initially invented it as a way to keep cowardly and craven villains in—and their scumbag associates out. Wrestlers could originally only win it by pinfall or submission, making such a match the perfect way to stick a fork in a particularly heated feud.
In the late 1960s, however, promoters changed it up: You weren’t just stuck in the cage any more. Now, wrestlers could win by escaping over the top of the cage, or even through the door. A match type created to prevent people from escaping could now, counterintuitively, be won through a well-timed retreat.
Endings of this type work just fine and dandy for a bad-guy heel, but it creates problems for a heroic baby-face. On the one hand, simply climbing over a chain link fence – even if it comes after a beating of truly Biblical proportions – doesn't provide the cathartic release that wrestling fans crave. On the other, it can become difficult to cheer a guy who chooses to beat someone mercilessly when they could achieve the same goal by walking out a door.
Tonight’s Hell in a Cell event, then, addresses this issue in the most basic of ways: It adds a lid. But despite the five tons of steel that make up the 20-foot-tall cube, any wrestling fan can tell you that the structure is far from impenetrable.
In fact, some of Hell in a Cell's most memorable moments have occurred outside the cell itself. In the very first event of its kind, Kane ripped the door off its hinges to get inside and attack his estranged half-brother Undertaker.
Then, less than a year afterward, Undertaker threw Mankind off the top of the cell (where they began the match) and later threw him through the top of the cage to the ring below.
These are massive moments in WWE history and the promotion makes zero effort to downplay them, featuring them liberally in video packages promoting the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view. All of this might seem to create a similar problem as that posed by a modern steel cage match. After all, what use is an impenetrable structure, erected to contain the most heated and violent feuds, if wrestlers can break in and out of it at will?
The most obvious answer is that the only thing hotter than a feud that needs Hell in a Cell to contain it is a feud that Hell in a Cell can't actually contain. The Hell in a Cell structure isn't meant to be impenetrable – it's designed as a hurdle for further violence and a barometer of exactly how serious WWE is about a specific feud. So, if you see someone getting thrown off the cell, you know that the wrestlers themselves, as well as WWE, are serious about the colossal magnitude of the feud and the match.
Another major difference is that to win Hell in a Cell, a pinfall or submission is still required. This means that no matter what happens outside the cell, the competitors still need to make their way back to the squared circle to score a win. Busting through a cage wall or sending an opponent flying off the top of Hell in a Cell become detours, but detours that also work to stoke the appeal of the match by setting up the expectation for even more extreme violence.
That expectation of violence also plays into and furthers a meta-story that works according to the same rhythms used in wrestling storylines and even individual matches. A fan might watch a match to see a particular wrestler's finishing move, or watch three months of Raw episodes begging for a wrestler's victory over their rival. So, similarly, fans will watch Hell in a Cell hoping for someone to once again, finally, after all these years, go flying off the top of that humongous cage.
Hell in a Cell deftly sidesteps the storytelling problems raised by steel cage matches and then goes further, turning escape and interference into an asset. Both become additional ways for the match to build up to the explosive release that comes with cathartic violence.
While it's probably a safe bet to say that no one will get thrown through the cell tonight, the potential for it is just one more reason to get excited. Well, that and the fact that Dean Ambrose is going to beat the hell out of Seth Rollins.
—Aubrey Sitterson, @aubreysitterson