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Episode four of Undertaker's 'Last Ride' a study in indecision & enablement

Writer's note: The recap of the finale of the series will be up shortly.

When any employee retires or leaves after a long tenure with a company, their most awkward time is their first return back to where they spent all of those hours, whether it’s an office, a playing field, or in the Undertaker's case, the wrestling ring.

Episode four of “The Last Ride” focuses on Mark Calaway’s continuing internal struggle with whether he should retire and how the awkwardness he felt during his first WrestleMania on the sidelines got him back into the game. Well, that and Vince McMahon, but we'll get there.

Unlike the disappointing third episode, “The Battle Within” is a welcome return to previous form with the series wrapping up Sunday with its fifth installment.

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Coming off the disastrous Saudi Arabia tag team match covered in episode three, Calaway thought he was done, admitting that he “wasn’t all there” due to some personal issues he and his wife were going through at the time.

Anyone that has watched the entire season knows his inability to make that final call and to stick to it has been the running theme. He clearly doesn’t want to leave but keeps looking for a foothold climbing up Decision Mountain, one that will make his decision easier. Everytime he finds that foothold, it inevitably crumbles, leaving him to pause resuming the climb once again.

The meat of episode four is Calaway returning to WrestleMania in New York, but as a former star, hanging out backstage and taking his daughter and wife through Axxess. He is clearly a proud dad and enjoys the opportunity to experience what performers never get to see during the weekend and to have his family by his side, but he feels that little bit of weirdness that he should be preparing for a match instead.

Before Mania, however, we get brief insight into the infamous Starrcast autograph signing cancellation. Calaway says that after so many years of living the character in public, he wanted to take advantage of more exposure and endorsements. Part of that was agreeing to the signing in Las Vegas where he was unaware “the other company” was doing a show there too.

He said he was oblivious to that fact, but Vince McMahon called him about it. Calaway said that he told McMahon there was no way he going to work for them and was just doing a signing. He eventually canceled and admits the two men had a falling out about the situation. Eventually, they both let their guard down to talk, saying “It’s all been sunshine and rainbows since” which a look that tells you everything you need to know.

Of course, McMahon isn’t helping make Calaway’s decision any easier, asking him to do an appearance on the post-Mania Raw. The issue? He didn’t bring his gear, a rookie mistake in the pro wrestling world. Because it’s McMahon, Calaway decides to fly home to Texas to find his bag and then flies back Sunday so he can do Raw Monday. If there's ever a question he was going to keep at it, this also tells you everything you need to know.

As Calaway surprises McMahon at the gorilla position Sunday, McMahon laughs, “A pro would have brought his gear” to which Calaway quips, “A pro would have booked me to start with.” It’s obvious neither man wants this relationship to end, again compounding the retirement quandary Calaway finds himself in.

Thus begins the cycle all over again. He is booked for another Saudi show as he again wants redemption and Paul Levesque calls him to ask about working with Goldberg. He loves the idea given both of their statuses and their roles in the game during the Monday Night War.

Much like the aforementioned tag match, near disaster strikes. The match falls apart after Goldberg hits his head on the ring post and a botched jackhammer to Calaway comes blessed inches away from possibly paralyzing him, instead injuring his back. He says his visual reactions following the match are real: dejection, frustration, and a realization things could have been much worse.

Disappointingly, we never hear from Goldberg prior or after the match which was odd considering we have heard from anyone that matters during the course of the series.

Calaway comes to a realization that perhaps he shouldn’t be doing this anymore and that the main problem is him. He struggles with the “Is it me?” discussion as any proud top performer would, a glimpse into just how tough this whole thing is for him. Wife Michelle McCool has been supportive the entire time, but tears up when thinking about the Goldberg match and how they are flirting with disaster with each time he goes out there.

To no one's surprise, he reveals he had previously agreed to wrestle at Extreme Rules and despite thinking about pulling out, he goes through with it, looking to put on a performance that will make people forget about the Saudi match. Again, there’s that redemption thing that keeps the cycle going.

Thankfully, he likes the match (a tag with Roman Reigns vs. Drew McIntyre and Shane McMahon) and is happy enough that, yes, this could be it. He tells Vince as such when he comes back into gorilla to which his friend says, “We can talk about it”, unwilling to let Calaway fully grasp the moment or accept that it's over.

For as much as Calaway can’t commit to retirement, McMahon is just as bad enabling him. Is it out of friendship, his own misgivings about never retiring, or something else?

The episode ends with Calaway walking with AJ Styles after the match, telling the camera to give them some privacy and thus beginning the cycle once again.

It struck me during episode four that Calaway is like a pro fighter who would rather have one fight too many than one fight too few, needing to ensure their competitive tank is on ‘E’ before hanging them up. 

Near the end of the episode, Steve Austin, Levesque, and Shawn Michaels talk about the difficulty in knowing when to leave, but it’s Levesque that says a line that rings true when thinking that leaving isn’t being loyal: “Loyalty is to the dragon you’re chasing -- not loyalty to Vince."

As we prepare for the final chapter, it feels like that dragon is one Calaway will be chasing forever.

Other thoughts:

  • For those following the recaps, I'm sorry this wasn't up this past week but I was dealing with a personal situation. The episode five recap should be up later Sunday night or Monday morning at the latest.
  • We get some great looks into Calaway's early years when he was filming many of the memorable in-character spots. Him laughing in a graveyard between takes, Bruce Prichard discussing how he bought books on death to better understand the character, and some words from Paul Bearer himself stand out. 
  • McMahon gets in a funny “Giant Gonzalez’s son” line during one of the aforementioned gorilla conversations with Calaway.
  • The image accompanying this review is one from backstage in Austin, TX, when Undertaker did a Raw appearance. To see Lance Armstrong, Matthew McConaughey, and Taker in the same spot having a casual conversation was surreal to say the least.
  • Before Extreme Rules, Calaway drops a great line outlining the difference between younger guys and older ones, saying, the latter that have to think vs. younger who just do. “Could be last time”