If there was one thing to say about Matt Lauria’s Ryan Wheeler, you just didn’t know what he was going to do next.
Equal parts caring friend and egomaniac MMA fighter, Wheeler was a toxic mess from the jump. Someone who is really doomed already could only deal with those issues in a cage beating up grown men. While Wheeler ran from it at times, the octagon was the place where Wheeler could truly let out the destroyer, and do some damage.
While Jay Kulina (Jonathan Tucker) was known as the wildcard of Byron Balasco’s Netflix-adopted television series, Wheeler brought more carnage to the table than anyone. Here’s a guy who brutally assaulted his dad in a gym, which ended up costing him four years of his life. A crime that fractured his career right as it was getting started. A world champion on the outside, but an insecure and unstable tornado on the inside.
He was the guy whom Alvey Kulina (Frank Grillo) took under his wing right away, giving him a second shot at greatness and even giving him a place to stay at his gym, Navy Street. Less than an episode later, Wheeler is pissing in the cage, smashing mirrors, and getting into a fight with his coach. Later in the series, after a home invasion turned into a drunken foot chase, Wheeler beat a man nearly to death outside his home.
Oh, and before that, he put his dad to sleep for the final time-at the old man’s request-with a choke hold in the living room. One of the most heartbreaking scenes on “Kingdom” was a father asking his son to put him out of his misery. Something you wouldn’t see anywhere else, on any other network, played with this much power.
Through it all, Lauria played it all so beautifully. Talk about an actor loading up, season after season. Right when you think the actor-who I knew previously from “Friday Night Lights”-had shown you everything there was in his arsenal, Lauria had another surprise. The tragedy in Wheeler’s life, for the rest of it to be honest, is his inability to find happiness.
Years before the show’s story started for us, Wheeler had an amazing fiance in Lisa Prince (Kiele Sanchez, the true boss lady of the show) and a burgeoning career. He climbed the whole mountain, and then threw himself off the top. He gets out and Lisa is with Alvey while his career has to be completely restarted-along with a parole officer and unfinished feelings for Lisa.
By the end of Season 2, Wheeler was back on top. But then he starts sabotaging himself. Right when he found answers and some stable ground with Lisa, he berates her in his office after finding out she had a one night stand with Dom (Kirk Acevedo).
Wheeler was the epitome of Balasco’s boldness with the show’s aesthetic: damaged people who win it all and still find a way to let it all slip away, yet still find a way to stay hopeful. He took another troubled man in Keith (Paul Walter Hauser) under his wing, finding a lifelong friend who was just as messed up as he was that didn’t judge him. The uncomfortable events that occurred with Keith in Season 2-and continued into the third and final season-led to some tougher moments that helped seal the bond between the two.
Wheeler had that crackerjack mentality where he could be the most caring and loving friend, yet also had an ability to go behind your back an hour later. It’s the Alpha mentality that built him up and broke him down at the same time. The way that Balasco never tried to fully redeem Wheeler gave Lauria all the firepower he needed to give an Emmy-worthy performance.
A product of the entire show was relentless dedication to the big picture, which was proving to not only fight fans and TV fans that they were authentic, but also to the actual people they were trying to portray. Lauria’s Wheeler was the most tragic and unpredictable element of the show that it needed. A true loose cannon that could explode at any second. Playing that role could seem easy to some. Many actors would just overcook the part and choose scenery, but Lauria just climbed inside the rage and lived there for a while.
I like to think that we all have a little Ryan in us. The need to impose our will and show what’s inside at all times. If anything, Lauria made the fighter one of the more truthful people on the show, someone who was honest with himself. I think we all aspire to that, but for some it’s easier to turn off the mechanism.
It’s a performance that doesn’t get talked about enough. That happens on a show where every performance hit extremely hard for the viewers. Wheeler had flaws, but the audience embraced them as their own for three years, making that journey with the actor.
Hopefully, it’s all just unfinished business. Netflix could easily greenlight a fourth season. The numbers and popularity should back that decision up. Wheeler needs to fight Jay again, stop being an asshat and win back Lisa, and maybe hate himself a little less at the end of the day. Or at least that’s the goal, right?
I’d like to think that Lauria still has a good piece of the Destroyer with him. He could channel it.
What can I say? I have a fever and I need more Wheeler!
That’s all I got. Leave the tips in the comment section and shares. Have a pleasant evening, readers.
One thought on “How Matt Lauria’s Ryan Wheeler gave ‘Kingdom’ the loose cannon it needed”
Articulate and intelligent write-up on my personal favorite character on the show, for all of the reasons you lay out here. Don’t get me wrong, I love every character on the show — except Dom and his damned powder! — but Ryan’s character has the complexity that draws me in every time. It is that real-life combination of redeeming and flawed attributes that does it for me. Balasco wrote a great role in Ryan, and Lauria plays him exactly right.