Let’s take a moment and appreciate the brilliance of James Ellsworth. And I don’t mean that in terms of Ellsworth the meme or Ellsworth the running gag. No, let’s consider precisely what it is that WWE has in Ellsworth, because for all his limitations, he can do a few things that are legitimately WWE caliber. He’s a great and surprisingly natural underdog promo—much as I love those guys, just look at how most of Raw’s cruiserweights are handling their backstage segments to see how hard it can be for wrestlers to act convincingly on live national television, and then look at how much better Ellsworth is. The guy will sell any move like it just killed him, because, well, it looks like any move should kill him. (And that goes quadruple for that hellacious Styles Clash from a couple weeks ago.) And, more than anything, fans really are behind him. They immediately start booing Dean Ambrose when the lunatic rebuffs Ellsworth’s offer to be in his corner. When Ellsworth fires himself up and prepares to hit A.J. Styles with No Chin Music—thanks, David Otunga, you justified your existence for months with that one—the crowd explodes, making it all the more heartbreaking when Ellsworth, Ambrose, and ref Mike Chioda realize that, yep, that’s absolutely a D.Q.

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And the fact that the crowd is so unified behind Ellsworth relieves so much of the pressure on A.J. Styles and Dean Ambrose’s feud. It’s a rivalry that had previously only worked in fits and starts. The initial incarnation in the run-up to Styles’ title win at Backlash felt more like a coronation than a genuine back-and-forth, as Styles capitalized on his momentum after that career-punctuating match with John Cena at SummerSlam. The next chapter of their rivalry in the No Mercy build largely put Styles on the backburner so that Ambrose and Cena could go at it. All that and these last few weeks of Ellsworth-driven antics have kept Styles and Ambrose from going stale, and the Chinless Wonder’s presence has kept the alignments where WWE wants them to be. Modern wrestling fans have a tendency to cheer the charismatic promos and in-ring innovators regardless of whether the character is face or heel, which makes it damn hard for Styles, despite all his best efforts, to get consistent boos… except when he’s beating the crap out of James Ellsworth. It’s a lot easier to forgive Ambrose that ridiculous rebound clothesline when he’s using it to fight that jerk who keeps attacking that defenseless dude JBL hates so very, very much.

More than that, Ellsworth’s presence brings SmackDown’s main event back to wrestling’s morality play roots. I’ve seen a lot of criticisms about Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan being unfair to Styles by letting that first defeat to Ellsworth stand and giving the guy a title shot, but, as tonight’s show reminds us, Styles brought all this shit on himself by disingenuously making a match with some random nobody. He made a mockery of being WWE World Champion, so Dean Ambrose screwed with him like this was Looney Tunes, and James Ellsworth was the vessel for Ambrose’s mind games. Tonight, though, Ambrose pays the price for the last couple weeks of silliness. Sure, he couldn’t have known Ellsworth was going to interfere on his behalf, but it feels fitting that the lovable loser he used as an instrument of comic revenge against Styles proves too difficult to control, even for a second. I could quibble with a bit of the storytelling—I might have liked some indication that Styles purposefully goaded Ellsworth into triggering the disqualification—but whatever: For the third straight week, SmackDown has had the same three guys in the main event, including their top heel and top face, and all three look as strong as or even stronger than they did when this all started. That’s amazing.

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Elsewhere, huh… so I guess Randy Orton might have just joined the Wyatt family? There’s a temptation to think about a prospective Orton heel turn in the most smarky terms, like what this means for that Styles-Orton clash I certainly wasn’t alone in thinking we were headed for, but my colleague Kyle Fowle has made a good case on Twitter against that. Instead, let’s ignore what “should” be happening and just focus on what actually is, which admittedly remains uncertain. Has Randy really decided to become a Wyatt, or is this just the next stage in his mind games with Wyatt? Both provide intriguing storytelling possibilities, with the potential to invigorate a feud that never really recovered from the fact that Orton couldn’t be cleared from his post-Brock concussion in time for Backlash.

That’s not to say that this retroactively makes the Orton-Wyatt program great or anything. I’ve been on record as enjoying some of the individual promos in this feud, but you don’t need to be an incorrigible fantasy-booker to have felt wary about this feud. While I’d certainly argue wrestling is at its most enjoyable when viewers give the promotion a chance to actually tell a multi-week story before judging whether or not it’s shit, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect fans to pretend they are unaware of the larger context, both in and out of universe, that informs a current feud. And with Bray Wyatt, the larger context is this guy is all talk—all rambling, nonsensical talk more specifically—and no results, and so this feud has always felt fragile because neither Wyatt nor Orton really appeared in to be in a position that one of them could afford to take a loss.

Giving Wyatt a more clearly defined plan before now—perhaps one more specifically about bringing the Viper into the fold—might well have taken some of the surprise away from Orton’s betrayal of Kane, and it would likely sacrifice that incredible look of surprise on Wyatt’s face when he saw what Orton did. Each move has its pluses and minuses, but stories tend to be more compelling and have more momentum when there’s a clear logical through line dictating the action. Orton joining the family after weeks of Wyatt trying to break him would be a perfectly logical progression, while Orton revealing it was all a ruse would be a swerve, yes, but a swerve that’s a direct reaction to the expected move. As it is, this just feels like a lurch in an unpredictable direction, one that doesn’t even really feel justified when Orton’s record with Wyatt and Luke Harper really hasn’t been that bad. None of this means SmackDown can’t make better things out of this storyline going forward, but this is unquestionably a course correction from something that wasn’t quite working.

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I don’t have to be nearly as equivocal when talking about the return of Becky Lynch, who remains the perfect underdog champion. Alexa Bliss remains the perfect challenger for her as someone who can claim superiority and worthiness in a way that rides the line between being halfway legit and just total bullshit. In other words, she’s the perfect heel challenger, and it’s going to be damn satisfying when Becky does rip her arm off in a couple weeks in Glasgow. In theory, Lynch’s illness-necessitated absence could undermine her in-universe credibility as a fighting champion, but Bliss is so vicious and so unfair in her promo that there’s no real danger of her getting the crowd on her side. Throw in the continued fun in the joint IC-Tag Team Title scene, and a theme emerges: Sure, it’s still early in the reigns for all of SmackDown’s champions, but it’s remarkable just how easy this all feels. The show is laying down the foundations of stories that it could tell with these champs for months, and I wouldn’t complain one bit.

Stray observations

  • Results: Bray Wyatt defeated Kane; the Hype Bros defeated the Ascension in Survivor Series Tag Team Elimination Qualifying Team Match; Nikki Bella defeated Natalya to become captain of SmackDown’s Survivor Series Five-Woman Team; Heath Slater and Rhyno defeated the Spirit Squad to retain the Tag Team championship; A.J. Styles defeated Dean Ambrose via disqualification
  • Assuming SmackDown lets Ambrose’s loss stick and he’s no longer in the running to be number one contender, I’m legitimately fascinated by who could step up now. This, I suppose, is the one reason it’s surprising that Orton would get still further involved with the Wyatts, even if he’s not really joining the family. Because if it’s not Ambrose, Orton, Cena, or presumably Dolph Ziggler, who would even be next up? But hey, I’m more than happy to see how SmackDown sorts this all out.
  • I realize WWE purposely doesn’t reveal the precise formats of its matches so that it can adjust on the fly, but I really assumed the tag team match at Survivor Series would be 10 on 10, with five teams apiece competing, which makes it a little weird that the show would need to do qualifying matches with a seven-team division. But what the hey: I actually really liked how both the Hype Bros and the Ascension came off here. SmackDown appears committed to slowly rebuilding the Ascension, and I’m intrigued to see what they might be able to there.
  • I’m a little bummed that Natalya—LaToya’s favorite wrestler!—is already out of the running as Survivor Series captain, because I can see a ton of fun in her coaching up her teammates while just dripping with Hart family condescension. But Nikki Bella’s victory does add another layer to her feud with Carmella, so I’m fine with this. Just generally, I’m fine with all this. Wrestling is fine and fun and sometimes even very good.
  • Talking Smack featured a fun appearance from a permanently standing Kane, Renee Young calling out Daniel Bryan for some casual sexism, Bryan continuing to shit on all things Monday Night Raw, Heath Slater revealing it was the “Rising Stars” who sold him those stocks in Puerto Rico, and James Ellsworth profusely apologizing, all while Bryan told him Dean Ambrose might be about to legit murder him. Give this show all the Emmys, basically.

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