Well, that was something else! If there’s been one consistent criticism to lob at WWE’s product in the last few months, it’s that there’s been a predictability to just about everything. A lot of that stems from the company’s insistence on pushing Roman Reigns to the moon, giving him every opportunity to take a shot at winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship despite pretty vocal fan indifference/hatred. Indifference is really the only feeling WWE has been able to muster of late, outside of a few memorable moments (we see you, AJ Styles at the Royal Rumble).

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Tonight’s Raw doesn’t fix the big, Roman Reigns-shaped problem that WWE has, but boy does it veer far away from being predictable. And that’s all because of one man, making his triumphant return to WWE: Shane [insert expletive] McMahon! That’s right. Just as Stephanie is presented with the Vincent J. McMahon Legacy of Excellence Award, his music hits. “Here comes the money!” blares over the speakers, Shane emerges on the ramp, and the crowd goes absolutely wild. It’s hard to remember a pop so huge in recent memory—I’d argue it tops the above-mentioned debut of AJ Styles—and it only gets better from there. After acting as a stand-in for the smark crowd and criticizing Steph, Vince, and Triple H for running WWE into the ground, Shane tells Vince why he’s back: he’s sick of seeing the legacy of WWE disrespected, and so he wants complete control of Monday Night Raw. It’s ridiculous, but just the kind of ridiculous the show needs right now.

And that’s not even the half of it. Because this is Vince McMahon, he just can’t resist a deal. Sure, Shane apparently has a lockbox full of things he could blackmail his dad with, but the reason Vince even comes close to giving Shane what he wants is because he loves to put people in their place, family or not—a “calculated risk” is what he calls it later. So, Vince agrees to give Shane a shot. He says that he has to agree to one match, and against an opponent of his choosing. Shane agrees, and then Vince drops the bomb. Shane McMahon will face the Undertaker at Wrestlemania…in a Hell in a Cell match! That’s a pretty evil thing to do to your son, but a pretty damn cool thing to do for your business.

Now, I don’t know if Shane is actually going to wrestle the Undertaker. There’s still six weeks to construct a swerve of some sort. I don’t know that if they do wrestle, it’ll be any good. I don’t know what the “control of Raw” stipulation means in the long run, and I don’t know if Triple H is, somehow, going to be involved in this. But that’s exactly why it’s so exciting: the unpredictability. Raw has had some good moments in the last few weeks, but nothing truly shocking, nothing truly unpredictable. The return of Shane McMahon is more than just a pop, more than just a great segment to open tonight’s show. It’s a mission statement. It’s WWE showing that they can still stir things up, still shift the dynamics, still subvert expectations and surprise audiences. Will the momentum continue? I don’t know, but that’s okay.

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Part of the reason that’s okay is because it’s clear that WWE is in pure “Road to Wrestlemania” mode, which means, for the most part, renewed purpose. Look, most of the matches on tonight’s card are dull, outside of a solid but short match between Sasha Banks and Naomi. Neville and the Lucha Dragons vs. New Day boasts great pacing and an explosive finish, but not much else. The Usos face the Ascension for some reason, Styles and Jericho tag together because they’re respectful buds now, and Ryback kind of turns heel because he’s sick of being in tag matches. But, and I can’t believe I’m saying this: tonight’s Raw isn’t about matches. It’s about the spectacle of wrestling, the feeling that anything can happen, the feeling of things being in flux.

Tonight’s Raw has some of the best segments of recent memory, hands down. There’s the opening segment, with Shane getting the crowd all riled up and setting up more McMahon family drama, which is always reliable as a storyline. Then there’s the video of Brock Lesnar savagely beating up Dean Ambrose before he can even get inside the arena. That’s followed by a killer Paul Heyman promo, where he’s in the fine form he always is when it’s time for Wrestlemania, which is then followed by Ambrose coming back for more punishment. It’s electric stuff; Dean Ambrose and Brock Lesnar are set to square off in a street fight at Wrestlemania, and there’s pretty much no chance that their match won’t steal the whole show. I want a whole hour of those two beating the hell out of each other. Lesnar is stronger, but Ambrose is tough and crazy. That makes for a damn good story.

Still, what about the Roman Reigns problem? If tonight is any indication, it’s a problem that’s not going away any time soon. Triple H comes out and interrupts Reigns’ match and absolutely destroys him. He drives his face into the announce table over and over again until Roman is pouring blood like Stone Cold at Wrestlemania 13. It’s a great segment, filled with energy and purpose and violence. The problem? Everyone is cheering Triple H. This isn’t just a smark audience problem—though that’s part of it. It’s a WWE booking problem. They keep putting Roman in these situations and it’s just…not…working. Roman is literally bleeding to get himself over, taking one beating after another, putting on one solid match after another, and yet nobody is getting behind him because of how he’s been booked these last few months. WWE still has time to make something happen here, to tell a story that works for both Triple H and Roman Reigns, but it’s not looking promising. Right now, they’re stuck. The crowd wants Triple H to beat Roman, but they also want him/the McMahons to lose their control of Raw. How can WWE reconcile those various reactions? How can WWE make sure its Wrestlemania main event isn’t a disaster? Is it still possible to put Roman Reigns in a position to succeed even though WWE has done him no favors in the last few months? These are big questions. Tonight’s Raw doesn’t have the answers, but it does show that WWE isn’t afraid to throw a few surprises out there. Hold on, folks. We’re officially on the road to Wrestlemania.

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Stray observations

  • Results: New Day defeated Neville and the Lucha Dragons; The Usos defeated the Ascension; AJ Styles and Chris Jericho defeated Heath Slater and Curtis Axel; The Wyatt Family defeated Kane, The Big Show, and Ryback; Sasha Banks defeated Naomi; Roman Reigns vs. Sheamus ended in a No Contest.
  • Can we all just relive this moment again?
  • Shane getting all teary at the reaction he received was seriously heartwarming.
  • New Day highlight of the night: Xavier playing the trombone while hurt on the outside of the ring.
  • “This is your main event of the evening.” Paul Heyman was on another level tonight. And he broke another mic! That’s when you know Wrestlemania is right around the corner.
  • Earnest Bo Dallas is a beautiful thing.
  • I don’t know where any of this Golden Truth stuff is going, but I pretty much hate all of it at this point.
  • Was it just me or did Ryback miss his spot? Pretty sure Kane said, “go Ryback” right before the Big Guy hopped off the apron.
  • Becky and Sasha are going to have a match to see who will face Charlotte for the title at Wrestlemania. I’m still hoping for a swerve of some sort, giving us a Triple Threat match.
  • LaToya was a little under the weather tonight—presumably some sort of reaction to ROMAN WINS last night—but fear not, she’ll be back in the rotation in no time.

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