Storytelling within the framework of professional wrestling and WWE isn’t simple. Sure, there are arcs and angles that make it look simple, but the constant balancing act, willingness to adapt, and ability to essentially see into the future doesn’t make crafting a consistently compelling show all that easy. But there are basic fundamentals that need to be in place that allow for those other, more daunting obstacles to seem a little more manageable. After all, people who love wrestling are more than willing to give a little leeway to a choppy segment or botchy match if the storytelling is good. There’s room for mistakes, but that comes with the assumption that everything else is working like it’s supposed to.

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Right now, Monday Night Raw isn’t working like it’s supposed to. It’s barely making its stories work, it’s keeping talent like Neville off of television (even though there’s a goddamn Cruiserweight division sitting right there!), and it can’t seem to build off of or towards its brand-specific PPVs. Raw seems to have an issue with balancing its talent. There’s obviously a ton of superstars who deserve the time Raw can afford, and yet almost every single week since the brand extension there’s hardly been a memorable segment. Where Smackdown! Live seems to be making a show that’s necessary to tune into every week, playing to the strengths of live television and using the format to tell compact 2-hour stories, Raw is operating like its content is going straight to YouTube, with decent four-minute chunks surrounded by a ton of filler.

The problems are in the way WWE is laying out its feuds, and there’s no clearer example than whatever is going on between Roman Reigns and Rusev. As the opening segment progresses, after Lana has spit a bunch of truth at Reigns and he’s responded with ball jokes and smug laughter, Cole mentions that “this has been going on for months.” It’s meant to be a reminder that these two really don’t like each other and haven’t been able to resolve their issues no matter how many hands they throw. But, as is too often the case with WWE programming, the words being said don’t match what we’re seeing on the screen.

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We’ve been told over and over again that this feud is “personal” and yet we haven’t seen a single thing since the wedding celebration that would suggest Reigns and Rusev feel that way. That’s a flaw in character work, and a huge flaw in WWE’s ability to look at its feuds with clear eyes. Reigns being the bad guy here isn’t just smark nonsense; it’s evident in the crowd reaction, in his inability to get people to laugh at his dumb jokes, in the fact that Lana can out promo him any day of the week. When your story is built on a shaky foundation, it’s only a matter of time before it all comes crumbling down, impending Hell In A Cell or not.

Similar problems plague the direction, or complete lack thereof, of Gallows and Anderson. It was only a few weeks ago that it looked like they were getting their mojo back, with WWE finally booking them as the dominant, angry team they should be. But now, after a few losses to New Day, they’re back to being one of the least important tag teams in a division that even they admit is “a clown car full of weirdoes.” And yet, the WWE promo package that hypes their Raw match mentions them “running roughshod” over the entire tag team division. Look, I get that WWE is going to/needs to build up everyone on the roster, but at some point you’re doing everyone a disservice by ignoring the plain and simple facts. We’re not stupid. We’ve watched as Gallows and Anderson have lost every single title match they’ve been involved in, and we’ve watched as they’ve failed to adapt to New Day’s style and pick up a win. At this point, what’s keeping anyone invested in them, never mind actually treating them like legitimate threats? There’s a breakdown in the delivery here, and it’s because WWE fails to acknowledge its own mistakes. It just keeps moving forward as if nothing matters.

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That said, while most of Raw is dominated by directionless feuds or ridiculously short matches that fail to accomplish much—see: Brian Kendrick vs. TJ Perkins, Titus vs. Sami Zayn, and Braun Strowman vs. Jobber Of The Week—there are some storytelling moments that truly stand out. Take, for instance, the delightful, inspiring friendship that’s developed between Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho. This week, Jericho comes up with a plan for the best friends, and by God it actually makes sense. You see, Jeri-KO have already reached the top of the mountain with the Universal Championship, so naturally they need to take their talents elsewhere. With a big win over Enzo and Cass last week, Y2J figures they might as well challenge New Day for the Tag Team titles. Of course, they can’t have that match right off the bat, but that doesn’t stop New Day from coming out and, after some truly wonderful banter that involves Jericho’s list, a shoutout to Simone Manuel, and the recitation of Whodini lyrics, accepting a challenge for a non-title match that night. It’s a shame Jeri-KO fails to win the match, but the seeds of a good story are still there. It makes sense that Jeri-KO would go for complete title dominance, and it makes sense that these two teams would feud over who is better friends. This isn’t revolutionary material, but when given to the right performers, it becomes something more than it should be.

Keeping things clear and simple is the name of the game, and that’s why the main event succeeds. Here, for what I believe is the first time since Trish and Lita in 2004, a women’s wrestling match is the main event. And guess what? Sasha Banks and Charlotte deliver in every way possible. They go out there and, for what seems like the 100th time this year, absolutely put themselves through the wringer in order to show why they deserve the spot they’re in, and so much more. Despite some early commercial breaks that threaten to kill the momentum, Sasha and Charlotte build to a fever pitch, with Charlotte pulling off a crazy corkscrew moonsault from the top rope, and Sasha making the comeback for the big win, after a great series of false finishes and reversals, to claim her second Women’s Championship win on Raw.

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The match itself is by far the best of the night, and that’s thanks in large part to the way these women have allowed us to be emotionally invested. The storytelling is all laid out for us. These two hate each other, and not in that vague Rusev-Reigns way, but in a way that befits a Championship match. They don’t hate each other because of any poorly-established personal reason. Rather, they hate each other because they know they’re the best at what they do. They know they’re at the top of the division, and they’re fighting for supremacy. That couldn’t be any clearer. The best match of the night is the result of the best story being told. Once again, Sasha Banks and Charlotte have stolen the show and proven that meaningful, emotional storytelling matters to WWE audiences. The question is: can WWE learn from this main event?

Stray observations

  • Results: Brian Kendrick defeated TJ Perkins; Braun Strowman defeated Chase Silver; Sami Zayn defeated Titus O’Neill; Gallows and Anderson defeated Golden Truth; New Day defeated Jeri-KO; Tony Nese defeated Rich Swann; Cesaro and Sheamus defeated Team Jobber; Sasha Banks defeated Charlotte (Raw Women’s Championship match).
  • Jericho’s line for adding things to the list is gold: “Ink it in, maaannnnn.”
  • So, Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson were actually a decent addition to the commentary booth, right? Also, unsolicited opinion: The Ranch is actually a pretty heartfelt sitcom, if you can get past the usual sitcom issues.
  • Tony Nese called Rich Swann a “second rate Amber Rose.”
  • The New Day got their Captain back and it feels so, so right.
  • I love that Jericho is now delaying the delivery of the “it” line the way Booker T did with “sucka” back in the day.
  • Despite the match being just okay, Brian Kendrick continues to do tremendous heel work in the ring. Every movement is part of the story.
  • My note about Strowman’s jobber looking like the chubby version of Adam Cole seemed great until I saw literally everyone on Twitter making the same joke.
  • So TJ Perkins, Enzo Amore, and R-Truth all dab on Raw now? That seems like overkill.
  • I like the touch of Braun Strowman demanding real competition for next week. He needs to start moving in a new direction. Squash matches only go so far.
  • Lana deadpans to Roman, and speaks for all of us: “Very funny, very funny, I’m laughing.”

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