What makes a great heel? Admittedly, this is the easier of the two alignment-related questions to answer—if WWE had an answer as to what make a great babyface, we’d all feel differently about a certain oversize canine over on Monday Night Raw—but tonight’s episode is a case study in all the different ways the antagonists can distinguish themselves. And I specifically use the word “antagonist” instead of “villain” because the former underlines the whole point of a heel. A villain can, on occasion, be the main character of the story, but the whole narrative, perhaps even moral logic of pro wrestling starts to break down when a heel doesn’t eventually lose in service of a face’s great, rousing victory. This is all Wrestling 101, admittedly, but SmackDown Live deserves credit for how it keeps that reality in sight for pretty much all its storylines without making them monotonous.

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Not that those waters can’t be muddied. Take the Miz. He remains red hot even as his quest to regain the Intercontinental Championship appears at its end, to the point that I’m increasingly talking myself into the Miz as a dark-horse Royal Rumble winner. (He won’t, but still.) His feud with Ziggler went back and forth in terms of who the protagonist was, with Ziggler briefly sliding into that role when he won the title at No Mercy but otherwise serving as the fiery, plucky hero who just could never quite get the job done. This current feud with Ambrose could theoretically serve as payoff, but SmackDown Live has gone out of its way to protect Miz with the dubious non-disqualification last time and the lumberjacks’ beatdown tonight offering some measure of excuse for his defeats.

Indeed, Baron Corbin’s timely breakup of Ambrose’s pin attempt—and the fact that Corbin just generally looks like a total beast among the other lumberjacks, the ascendancy of the Lone Wolf nearly complete—suggests this Ambrose-Miz business is a transitional feud, perhaps moving toward an Ambrose-Corbin IC program and getting the Miz into the main event ahead of Elimination Chamber. So we’re still waiting on the Miz’s true comeuppance, and he’s collecting so much heat in the meantime that I’m not even sure who could possibly absorb it all, especially if he does enter the Rumble to Daniel Bryan’s music or starts slapping on the Yes lock. I mean, that last half of the sentence suggests exactly who could slay the Miz, but absent a miracle WWE medical clearance for SmackDown’s general manager, I’m mostly just looking at NXT call-ups as potential Miz beaters. (Because I’m an idiot, I’m now gazing longingly at Tye Dillinger.)

While the Miz remains SmackDown Live’s most intriguing storytelling piece, just about everyone else keeps tonight clicking along nicely, with special mention going to the women’s division. Mickie James’ official return after seven years away—minus her one-off babyface appearance last year at NXT Takeover: Toronto—is surprisingly successful at getting herself over as a heel, given crowds’ natural inclination to cheer returning favorites. She cuts the best kind of heel promo, as she attacks Becky Lynch for an eminently plausible, even sympathetic reason. The four horsewomen didn’t invent women’s wrestling, dammit! That’s absolutely something a five-time women’s champion like Mickie James has a right to be pissed about.

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But her logic falls apart under any serious scrutiny. Of all the horsewomen, Becky is the one who talks the least about those roots or her place in history. (Now if Mickie wanted to go after Sasha Banks, I’d have a hard time arguing she’s that off the mark.) And Mickie makes clear her deludedly bad judgment by declaring Alexa Bliss alone showed her any respect. Mickie is a heel for much the same reason Alexa is: Both have a point if you don’t think about it, but entitlement papers over the gargantuan holes in their logic. And speaking of Alexa: We’re getting an Alexa-Naomi title feud, maybe? Given how tiny the division is and the fact Nikki Bella is still busy beating the crap out of Natalya, Naomi is the only plausible candidate to go up against Alexa while Becky is dealing with Mickie. And sure, I’m not convinced either Alexa or Naomi is a strong enough worker to deliver the kind of matches worthy of a title, but I’d rather SmackDown give this a try and see what happens when it expands its list of potential women’s champions. Also, SmackDown is damn close to having three actual, honest-to-goodness women’s feuds running simultaneously. The timing of the Royal Rumble is such that I’m not even all that mad they’re being thrown together in the dread six-woman tag match, especially when SmackDown Live appears to be treating Elimination Chamber as its next true pay-per-view.

The other heels on display tonight don’t fit quite so easily into clear categories. The possible expulsion of Luke Harper from the Wyatt family is intriguing, if only because the crowd sure sounded like they were rooting for Randy Orton in their match for Bray’s love. (If you want to get cynical, I suppose you could argue they were really rooting for the RKO, but what the hey.) I’ll admit I’m firmly in the camp of “Well, it was stupid Harper who cost Randy all those victories anyway,” so I’m not sure I’m ready to root for Harper as the betrayed former follower against two foes as charismatic as the Viper and the Eater of Worlds. But that matters less than the simple fact that the Orton-Harper infighting has actually managed something that seemingly nothing else could: It’s made Bray seem genuinely fearsome again just by having him act above it all. That both Orton and Harper, for all their mutual animosity, still show loyalty to this proud, dangerous leader is a tribute to Bray. The story from here is uncertain, but then that’s one of the relatively few bits of tonight’s episode that genuinely built toward Sunday’s big match: If there’s one place you don’t want to have these combustible elements collide, it’s the Royal Rumble. It’s the perfect story thread to leave mysterious heading into the pay-per-view.

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Then, as ever, there’s A.J. Styles and John Cena. While A.J. doesn’t follow up on one of his most effectively heelish character traits from last week—namely, “asshole hipster who thinks New Japan is just so much better than WWE”—his constant whining about Cena’s entitlement circles back to its own form of entitlement. Cena leans hard on the fourth wall when he talks about how any Styles loss is just proof that Cena buried him, but then this is the meta joy of following late-career Cena: The line between reality and story is immaterial, with the kayfabe Cena seemingly aware of everything apart from the matches being predetermined. Objectively, we have probably reached the point where A.J. Styles ought to get his comeuppance and recognize just who he is dealing with. And yet, and yet… I do wonder whether the better story is to string this along just a little longer, to show that it’s Cena, not Styles, who is running on bluster and hype instead of results. Maybe I’m just an incorrigible Styles mark—it was just about a year ago exactly I fell in love with the man. But a Cena victory on Sunday would mean only Styles learned his lesson. A worthy outcome, to be sure, but Cena’s journey to his 16th title doesn’t quite feel complete yet. And after all, as much as heels like the Miz and A.J. Styles might be compelling, thrilling figures, pro wrestling is still built on those hero’s journeys… and maybe, just maybe, John Cena isn’t quite the hero he thinks he is anymore.

Stray observations

  • Results: Randy Orton defeats Luke Harper; Mojo Rawley wins Battle Royal for spot in the Royal Rumble; Dolph Ziggler squashes Kalisto; Dean Ambrose defeats the Miz to retain the Intercontinental Championship
  • I liked the storytelling in the battle royal, with the Ascension (the Ascension!) getting in a half-moment’s worth of good offense and Rhyno going straight after Slater. Also, anything I can even mildly interpret as a Breezango push is going to get high marks from me. Mojo Rawley is probably the right choice of those who were in it, though he feels low on the list of young guys who are realistically going to do anything worthwhile when the likes of Strowman and Corbin have much more important spots.
  • There are still eight unannounced entrants, so maybe some of these guys will take a few of those spots, but I’m not sure of the in-universe reason that the likes of Apollo Crews, Kalisto, American Alpha, and the Usos made no apparent attempt to get into the Rumble, neither announcing their entry nor participating in the Battle Royal.
  • I wasn’t quite sure what they were doing with Carmellsworth, but heelish James Ellsworth appears to just be WWE’s answer to Charlie from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, so sure, I can roll with that.
  • I want to take the temperature on this: Does anyone seriously think we’re building toward a Dolph Ziggler-JBL feud? Or even just Dolph Ziggler beating down JBL, give or take the man uncorking one last Clothesline from Hell? I’d almost be tempted to think JBL could enter the Rumble and have a bit of business with Ziggler, given how he’s been getting in the show-off’s face these last couple weeks, but I’m not sure there’s quite enough there for it to scan. Also, this seemingly requires turning JBL face, which is just wrong.
  • For those noticing I pulled double-duty this week: Don’t worry, I’m not getting a Roman Reigns-esque push that I’m clearly not ready for. Kyle and LaToya should both be back next week.

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