Since last summer, Stephanie McMahon has been on a run as a vexing villain that invites comparisons to WWE's all-time greats.
In her quest to cut Daniel Bryan like an old tree and to keep her company looking the way Triple H and Stephanie believe it should look, she has delivered stellar performance after stellar performance. She has become one of WWE's best actors, a master of manipulation.
McMahon once ruled WWE as the first lady of the McMahon-Helmsley regime and was the on-screen co-owner of ECW. She was good in those roles but didn't have folks discussing where she ranked compared to The Iron Sheik or The Grand Wizard.
She has evolved since then, though.
Perhaps it's been her time as an executive and having to be in the public eye in a non-wrestling setting, but somewhere along the way she learned how to dig her nails under the audience's skin at an elite level. She is smug and insincere, a dictator with a toothy smile.
Her character is chilling in a different kind of way than the company's usual parade of monsters, sadists and brutes. She plays something far closer to real life—someone with great power and a disturbing moral code.
One simply doesn't run into mental cases like Bray Wyatt or Kane in everyday life.
Unfortunately, pretension and heartlessness are traits that real people possess. McMahon makes those elements the foundation for a heel capable of inspiring fans to start throwing objects at the TV.
As fans who have seen her away from the ring know, McMahon is a much different person in real life. She is one of WWE's most visible executives and brilliant at public relations. It's often McMahon speaks for WWE when interacting with charities.
Once the cameras began to roll for WWE TV, though, she morphs into a calculating, merciless villain with a lump of ash for a heart. The transformation is incredible.
Back in September, longtime wrestling journalist Mike Mooneyham from The Post and Courier called her the top heel in the company.
Paul Heyman and Triple H have made a case that they deserve that title as well, but there's no denying how exceptional McMahon has been over the past nine months. She's now earned the right to be discussed in an all-time sense.
Of the list of heel wrestlers and performers in the WWE Hall of Fame, McMahon compares favorably to many of them.
We will never again be in an era where pro wrestling fans don't realize that everything onscreen is scripted. That means it's tough to compare today's wrestling bad guys with legends like Freddie Blassie, who was stabbed by angry fans on several occasions.
What she does have in common with Blassie and the other mic masters who have already been inducted is that McMahon controls a crowd and leaves a lasting, scarring mark on it.
She doesn't need a controversial turncoat gimmick a la Sgt. Slaughter or to be a Soviet during the Cold War like Nikolai Volkoff. She has been so deft as a performer that she only needs a microphone and a pantsuit to do what those men did.
Queen of Condescension
Back in August, when her husband, Triple H, knocked out Bryan and cost him the WWE Championship, McMahon rose to prominence alongside him. They had both been onscreen executives beforehand, but the "Bryan vs. the machine" storyline turned Triple H into the vengeful king atop WWE.
McMahon served as queen, quick to dress down any of her subjects.
She often did so in a subtle way, though. Her derision for her enemies and allies alike was hidden under a layer of condescension.
In trying to calm Bryan down post-SummerSlam, she told him that Triple H attacking him and essentially ripping the WWE title from his hands was all for the best. She spoke to him in an almost motherly tone.
McMahon assured him that he was talented, but he had to manage his expectations. After mocking his height and looks, she dubbed him a "solid B+."
That line has since become famous and a significant part of the Bryan storyline.
Rather than bark at or threaten her foe, she claimed to be looking out for him. There was something especially unsettling about that because she seemed to actually believe what she was saying. Holding Bryan back, ordering The Shield and Big Show to maul him all came from a protective instinct.
She continued to perfect the nuances of this role as time went on.
A measured delivery made each of these performances haunting. She wasn't some caricature exaggerating every emotion; she was a hateful person in a position of power, and it all felt authentic.
Her interview with Michael Cole before WrestleMania is great proof of that. Bryan, set to face her husband at the event, had no chance in her mind.
She scoffed at the idea of Bryan possibly winning. In her words, he was "like a pea" next to Triple H.
Lines like "people should know when they're conquered" are the kind of quick jabs that some fans may not notice right away, but eventually, that kind of disdainful rhetoric adds up. It's hard not to boil over despite knowing that she's playing a role.
McMahon's explosive moments are becoming a set of greatest hits.
When she is one day inducted into the Hall of Fame, WWE will show clips of her squealing, growling and slapping men's teeth loose. Her abuse of Big Show last year was one of the disturbing/unmissable elements of WWE programming.
When she fired the big man in October, she seized the spotlight as she dominated a man who towered over her.
She told him to shut up, smacked him around and mockingly asked him, "What, are you gonna cry?" In a world where wrestlers kick and elbow each other on a regular basis, she has somehow made a series of slaps a startling sight.
One of her most stirring moments came when Bryan occupied Raw. Fed up with being abused and ignored, Bryan led a group of fans to clog up the ring area.
Triple H was red-faced. McMahon channeled a dark, harping beast inside of her.
She screamed at security officers who wouldn't remove the protesters. She yelled at Bryan that no one disrespects her.
Bryan talked about the ring and WWE itself belonging to the fans. She countered with, "When I was born, this place became mine!"
Her rage has come in various forms. At times, she slips on her sneer over a contrived smile. Other times, she bursts into maniacal laughter.
It doesn't take a WWE fan to appreciate her artistry. To watch her is to experience the strange blend of being upset by and thoroughly enjoying something at the same time.
Without even wrestling, she's become one of wrestling's great villains.
One has to wonder, if she was around in Blassie's era, what would the reaction to her villainy be? Chances are, she would have had to dodge a few knives.