Every single week, Monday Night Raw sets out to tell a story. In fact, it sets out to tell a whole bunch of stories at once. Despite its unique position as “sports entertainment,” Raw itself is ultimately a TV show, and therefore operates on an episodic basis. Storylines need to be created, fostered, and then followed through with. It’s why Roman Reigns winning the title at Wrestlemania ultimately made sense: it was the logical end to that story. Sometimes WWE forgets it’s telling a story though, and that leaves everything feeling disjointed and pointless. Tonight’s Raw is the best Raw in ages, hands down. There may have been better and more memorable matches or segments in the last few months, but from top to bottom, tonight’s Raw is near-perfect in its storytelling execution.

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Sometimes, you just need to keep things simple, and that’s something WWE seems to have in mind as the show gets underway with Shane McMahon once again. Now, the reason cited for why he’s controlling Raw again—“overwhelming social media support”—is silly and stupid and doesn’t make a whole lot of kayfabe sense, but it’s hard to argue with the logic when his presence brings such cohesion and coherence with it. He comes out at the top of the show and keeps things brief and pointed. Essentially, he announces the night’s card. He sets up a Women’s Championship match, announces the start of a Tag Team tournament to determine the #1 contender for the titles, and decides that since Kevin Owens ruined Sami Zayn’s chance at getting a title shot at Payback last week, so Zayn willll go one-on-one with Styles tonight for the opportunity to make Payback’s main event a Triple Threat. Then, when Owens interrupts him, all bluster and anger, he schedules him in a match against Cesaro to determine who will face the Miz at the next PPV for the Intercontinental Championship. It turns out that announcing the night’s matches is a good strategy for keeping us invested throughout the three hours.

Still, as great as the opening is, it doesn’t mean much unless you follow it up with great matches, and tonight’s Raw has that in spades. Kicking things off with Cesaro vs. Kevin Owens certainly helps. I don’t think it was their best match—certainly not the best they can do—but it’s a hot start. Cesaro’s “I’m the best at wrestling” gimmick continues to be wonderful and charming and sexy, Owens continues to be the best in-match talker in the business, and the match storytelling on display is beautiful. For instance, when Cesaro locks in the Sharpshooter, he does it with one arm, selling that shoulder injury once again. It’s little things like that that can make the difference.

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Tonight’s Raw is often about those little things. There’s an attention to detail and logic tonight that’s usually absent from much of WWE’s programming. Just take a look at how the main event comes together. First, Roman cuts a promo that’s basically the same one as last week before the League Of Nations interrupt him. Rusev tells him how he’s the more handsome man, then a fight breaks out and the Wyatts interrupt the whole thing. That’s when Shane comes out and basically says, “hey, this is cool. I never thought I’d see Reigns and Wyatt together. Let’s schedule a tag team match for the main event.” That booking is something WWE does almost every week, but we never get to see the decision being made. Here, Shane comes out and lays out why he thinks this match will be cool, therefore telling us why we should care about the match. It’s so simple, but it works. And the main event itself is a lot of fun, with Bray getting the hot tag from the World Heavyweight Champion (!!!) and then staring down Reigns as the show ends. Perfection.

The real beauty of all this though is in the fact that this week’s Raw isn’t afraid to juggle multiple stories. Reigns is having this huge moment with Bray Wyatt, because Bray hates “everything he stands for” and probably wants the title, and yet AJ Styles is Reigns’ Payback opponent. Typically, WWE would just put those two together again and again, so to see them commit to the idea that many wrestlers on the roster want a piece of Roman and a shot at the title is refreshing. Then, there’s the tag team tournament to determine the new #1 contenders. There are all sorts of storylines built in there. There’s the Lucha Dragons losing to the Dudley Boyz because Kalisto is the true star and was injured for the duration of the match. There’s Enzo and Cass once again coming out to beef with the Dudleys—Enzo referring to D-Von as “Devon” was legitimately hilarious. Then, there’s the Usos winning their tournament match, only to be destroyed after the fact by goddamn Bullet Club members Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson!!! I mean, that’s insane! The WWE tag team division is legit right now, and tonight’s booking is a big part of that. Anderson and Gallows look like immediate threats, and even though Enzo and Cass haven’t wrestled yet—their tournament match against the Ascension is on Smackdown—they’re clearly in a good position already.

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But, back to storytelling. Sometimes storytelling in wrestling is a simple as letting two people who are good at their jobs just go, and that’s the philosophy behind the two best matches of the night. First, Charlotte defends her Women’s Championship against Natalya, and it’s perhaps better than their stellar match at Roadblock. Sure, Charlotte still cheats, much to the chagrin of Dr. Phil—I can’t believe I just typed that—but the contest acts as a nice reminder that the Women’s division has a ton of talent. It’s nice to see that Nattie can just step in to a huge spot and deliver. She’s so over with the crowd, partly because she’s a fan favorite on Total Divas and partly because she’s an incredible wrestler, that her loss is okay. She doesn’t need to win. What’s important is the performance, and for too long the women haven’t been given any time to shine. Tonight, Natalya and Charlotte fight through a commercial and for about 12 minutes, which is huge when compared to some of the segments that dominated the old Divas division.

That same kind of storytelling and excitement extends to the match of the night. Let’s just take a second and really appreciate that we just saw Sami Zayn and AJ Styles wrestle on Monday Night Raw for upwards of 20 minutes, and that it was a goddamn classic. This is the wrestling world we live in right now. WWE fumbles everything a lot of the time, but the talent is undeniably there. Tonight’s Raw gave us this match, Cesaro vs. Owens, a hilarious Enzo and Cass promo, a killer Women’s Championship match, an engaging main event, and the debut of Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows. It’s like wrestling Christmas; we’re just missing Nakamura kneeing some dude in the face.

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But, intense enthusiasm aside, this week’s Raw is what the show should be more often than not. It’s not going to be perfect from week to week; there’s too much time to fill. But there’s no reason why WWE can’t deliver with this depth of talent on most weeks. Just look at the Zayn-Styles match. It’s a thing of beauty, from AJ’s knee on the apron, to the visual beauty of Sami’s Blue Thunder Bomb, to the excruciating near falls. That’s how you tell a story, and for at least one night, WWE remembers that it’s in the business of telling stories.

Stray observations

  • Results: Cesaro defeated Kevin Owens; The Dudley Boyz defeated the Lucah Dragons (#1 Contender Tournament); Natalya defeated Charlotte via DQ (Women’s Championship); The Usos defeated Heath Slater and Curtis Axel (#1 Contender Tournament); AJ Styles defeated Sami Zayn; Apollo Crews defeated Adam Rose; Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt defeated Sheamus and Alberto Del Rio.
  • How good is Chris Jericho right now? The guy is on fire ever since turning heel on Styles.
  • I love Owens being escorted out of the building after he tells Shane he’ll hurt Sami Zayn. That’s what a manager should do when his employee is threatened!
  • Thankfully that Lucha Dragons-Dudleys match was short, because it was sloppy as hell. D-Von is seriously a problem. Going for the pin when he isn’t legal? Forgetting to do the 3-D? Get outta here.
  • You know it’s a great Raw when the New Day segment hardly makes a mark.
  • I’m reluctant to admit it, but Dr. Phil had some good points.
  • Yep, I’m all in on Miz and Maryse back on TV together.
  • Shane thanking AJ and Sami for their match was a small but welcome detail. All part of telling a story, making this all feel real. Maybe the key is to reduce the role of the Authority figures? Having Shane (the character), who’s enthusiastic about everything that’s happening, is perhaps the key to crafting engaging episodes of Raw.
  • Ambrose’s dismissive, “oh yeah, this is my show now” was delightful.
  • Kevin Owens’ frog splash is so good.

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