Two weeks ago everything fell apart for WWE’s flagship show, Monday Night Raw. The long-term plan of Finn Balor as the first Universal Champion was derailed by a shoulder injury, forcing him to vacate the title, and forcing WWE to completely change course. So, last week, WWE delivered with an inspired end to the show and a new beginning for this “New Era,” with Triple H coming back to Raw to screw over his old pal Seth Rollins and instead crown Kevin Owens the new face of the company. It was an immediately impactful decision, both in kayfabe terms with Triple H helping out Owens, and in terms of one of the most promising and significant talents in the company becoming the champ. As always though, the follow through is what matters, and that’s what the majority of tonight’s Raw is all about. Well, that and terrible, drawn out segment involving poop jokes and “Old Day.” Welcome to Raw!

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For the most part, this week’s Raw manages to shifts gears after the fallout of Balor’s injury, and the subsequent crowning of Owens as champ, and move in a number of promising directions. That starts with the opening segment. It’s another 20-minute setup for a PPV match that mostly seems obvious, but for the most part it’s a segment that hits all the right narrative beats, and that’s thanks in large part to Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins. I’ve heard some people slam Rollins’ mic work in the past, but I just don’t get it; paired with Owens, they make quite the tandem. So, Owens comes out for his celebration and is interrupted by an angry, passionate Rollins ready to go full babyface over the course of the next few weeks, and boy does it work. Owens and Rollins are perfect counterparts for each other—if we ignore Sami Zayn for now, of course. Rollins perfected his entitled shtick as a heel, but can now use that same fierceness to lean into pure babyface fire. The man has a point this time! And then there’s Owens, who looks right at home as the confident heel champ, the guy who knows he was helped out by Triple H but also knows he has the goods to defend his title and stay on top. Plus, this is just the beginning.

An opening segment isn’t enough though; you need to make sure that the words and actions of that opening reverberate throughout the night, and that’s what Raw does. When Mick Foley schedules matches for both Owens and Rollins for later in the night—WWE needs to be very careful with how much they lean on the Authority angle here, but tonight it works just fine—the following matches aren’t just normal WWE matches. They’re pieces of a larger story. So, Rollins comes out all fire and fury against Jericho, and the two put on one hell of a match, especially considering it’s just the first hour of the show. Then there’s Zayn vs. Owens. WWE has fumbled the storytelling with them before, too often hammering home the “end of the feud” angle, but the build here is much better. Sure, maybe Zayn and Owens could wrestle fewer matches, but it’d be a mistake to keep them completely separate. They’re WWE’s huge main event feud for years to come—if Roman Reigns can get out of the damn way for one goddamn show or PPV cycle—so you have to keep them constantly circling each other. Plus, Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens are main-eventing Monday Night Raw. Wrestling in 2016 is a beautiful thing.

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The key to the first 90 minutes of Raw being as engaging as it is comes down to the character work. Like I said, I’m hesitant about where WWE might take the story of Steph, Triple H, and Mick Foley, but the right character psychology is there. Foley wants to make sure Raw is the best WWE show on television, especially with Smackdown! Live doing so well, and he understands that that means having a fighting champion and a PPV title defense. So, he gives Rollins a shot at the Universal Championship at Clash Of Champions and then puts Owens in a match that’s consistently great for WWE, against his ultimate rival Sami Zayn. That’s exactly what a smart, savvy GM would do to draw in viewers and keep folks interested in the product. That same character work extends to the unfolding drama between Charlotte, Bayley, and Dana Brooke. Charlotte and Bayley have a match that’s all about establishing character psychology and opening up future storyline opportunities. Charlotte thinks she’s better than Bayley and is willing to go out there and prove it on a random Raw to put Dana in her place, but Dana ends up costing her the match. WWE is taking the slow and steady road to letting Charlotte be a force on her own, but at least it’s moving forward. Plus, the in-ring focus on Bayley‘s knee sets up an injury angle in the future. Those are small details that make a big difference.

Essentially, character psychology is important here because it lends legitimacy to the in-ring product. Sure, Cesaro and Sheamus can get by on in-ring storytelling alone (Cesaro’s injuries and Sheamus’ targeted offense), as can the Shining Stars by stealing a win over Enzo and Big Cass, but the stories being told need to be anchored in character depth and clear storyline progression. It’s a shame that Raw isn’t more generous with that strategy when it comes to the feuds that fall outside the main event; the worst parts of tonight’s Raw stand in stark contrast to everything mentioned above because there’s no attention being paid to character motivations and psychology. The result? Titus squaring off against Darren Young should be filled with hostility, but both guys hardly have a character at this point, Gallows and Anderson are stuck with a horrendous Attitude Era knockoff segment rather than just wanting to go after New Day’s titles, and the introduction of Sin Cara into the Braun Strowman jobber parade feels completely inconsequential. Those are all essentially throwaway segments, meaning the back-half of Raw feels particularly sluggish this week.

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This week’s Raw really does hit some encouraging highs though. The main event scene in both the Women’s and Men’s division is looking great—we’ll get to Roman some more in the Strays, don’t you worry—with clear stories that track from one week, and one PPV, to the next. The first 90 minutes of tonight’s show is all about the main event, and it’s no coincidence that it’s the most refreshing, intriguing part of the three hour runtime. The trick going forward is for WWE to extend that same focus on character work to the rest of the card. That could result in a tighter three hours, and a show that feels more than just a bunch of filler surrounding some solid championship chases.

Stray observations

  • Results: Bayley defeated Charlotte; Bo Dallas defeated Kyle Roberts; Seth Rollins defeated Chris Jericho; Sheamus defeated Cesaro; The Shining Stars defeated Enzo and Cass; Nia Jax defeated Ann Esposito; Darren Young defeated Jinder Mahal; Braun Strowman defeated Sin Cara via countout; Kevin Owens defeated Sami Zayn.
  • SASHA BANKS IS OKAY! DON’T EVER PLAY WITH OUR HEARTS LIKE THAT AGAIN THOUGH!
  • So, technically Roman Reigns has the same claim to a rematch as Rollins does, but only if you look solely at last week’s Raw. Looking back further, Rollins has one claim after another that he was screwed out of title shots/reigns, whereas Roman has been handed one opportunity after another despite consistent failure on his own part. That’s bad storytelling, and WWE keeps running with it.
  • I am very ready for Nia Jax vs. Alicia Fox. Also: moving her and Strowman away from the squashes at this point is the right move. Time to slowly move up the roster.
  • We were all old by the end of that Old Day segment.
  • Three cheers for Corey Graves mentioning Mae Young giving birth to a hand.
  • Keeping Sami Zayn hovering around the main event is a great idea, but only if it leads to something and he’s not just the constant stepping stone for PUSH ROMAN REIGNS, like tonight.
  • Jericho proudly calling Kevin Owens the “longest reigning WWE Universal Champion of all time” is just too perfect. Never let anything come between those two, WWE.
  • I can dig the new aggressive Bo Dallas with the Cody Rhodes finisher.
  • Jericho is a great first match for Rollins after being screwed by Triple H. Gets the crowd used to cheering for him.
  • The Cruiserweights are coming in two weeks!
  • So the fourth match in the Sheamus vs. Cesaro Best Of 7 Series is happening at a house show in London? Umm, why?
  • We’re getting awfully close to reaching the saturation point with Enzo and Cass, so having them go through some struggles could be good for their characters and our investment in them.

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