With the Royal Rumble less than two weeks away, there’s a question that needs to be posed at the top of this review: does it feel like the Royal Rumble is only two weeks away?

The answer, if you’re looking at the last few weeks, is no. Raw has been stuck in neutral for weeks now, running a number of programs that never seem to change or grow. For every solid match in the ring, there’s a complete lack of storytelling and almost no real sense of these big feuds mattering to the performers, or to the build toward the Rumble. I mentioned in last week’s review that one of the bigger issues with the build so far has been the focus on “moments” rather than stringing together a coherent story. So, as cool as it was to hear The Undertaker announce his return to the Royal Rumble match, it also feels like an empty gesture when it’s surrounded by such indifference throughout the rest of the card.

This week’s Raw begins with a similar focus on making a “moment” happen, but WWE deserves some credit for making this segment entertaining, at least for a bit. What starts as a typical, sluggish opening Raw segment, with various superstars parading to the ring to insist “NO, I’M GOING TO WIN THE RUMBLE,” turns into a genuinely electric open, as Raw wastes no time bringing out Brock Lesnar and having him lay waste to everyone (after Roman gets his stuff in, of course). What makes that final stretch so much fun is the fact that these moments can actually stand as moments because they’re building toward the Rumble match itself. That’s a match that demands staredowns and overblown theatrics, so the hints of that here, from the brief confrontation between Sami Zayn and Lesnar, to the Big Man v.s Big Man moment with Brock and Braun Strowman, deliver in spades.

After that segment though, the show really struggles to find its footing and deliver a show that feels urgent, that feels like a major PPV is right around the corner, and there’s a really simple explanation for that failure: Raw seems to have no interest in investing in characters and stories, instead choosing to run the most rote, complacent programs you can imagine. There are very few legitimate character moments tonight, and that’s a big problem. There are quite a few superstars who have heel or face alignments, but that’s about as deep as the character work runs. Two moments do stand out: Sami Zayn strategizing with Rollins and Reigns and then going for the Shield fist bump, and Zayn jumping Braun during the opening segment. Both of those moments deepen our understanding of Zayn’s character and his motivation heading into the Royal Rumble. They’re the lone moments on the night though, as the rest of Raw is satisfied going through the same old motions.

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What that means is that Raw basically resurrects last week’s card, and the card from the week before that, and puts itself in the positions of having to make something stale seem fresh. So, last week we got Titus vs. a member of New Day, Big Cass vs. Jinder Mahal, Jericho and Owens vs. Reigns, and Sheamus vs. Luke Gallows. This week, those names go into a tumbler and come out in slightly different variations, as Titus takes on…a member of New Day, Sheamus and Cesaro take on The Club, Jinder Mahal teams up with Rusev to battle Enzo and Cass, and Jericho and Owens team up with Strowman in the main event to take on Rollins, Reigns, and Zayn.

Raw‘s tendency to just run through permutations of the same matchup would be laughable at this point if it wasn’t so frustrating. Take a second to think about all these matchups and see if you can come up with any reason why the superstars are throwing fists at one another. Outside of Zayn-Strowman, there’s hardly any storytelling happening. WWE shot themselves in the foot with the New Day reign, and now The Club vs. Cesaro and Sheamus doesn’t have the momentum it should, even as the in-ring product is wonderfully hard-hitting. Then there’s Rollins and Y2J, who are maybe mad at each other about something, but they also don’t seem to care that much now that Jericho has the US Title? And of course there’s Roman, whose hunt for the Universal Championship is as dull as his delivery on the mic. You can’t meaningfully build to a PPV without investing in stories. Brock vs. Goldberg has a story. Zayn vs. Strowman has a story. This week, Raw gives Bayley vs. Charlotte the story it deserves. Outside of that, everything else is just floating around without an anchor.

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This was by no means the worst Raw in recent memory. The opening segment with Lesnar, and the main event, which actually had Kevin Owens standing strong for once, is enough to make this episode memorable. At the same time though, the usual problems persist. Raw is consistently showing that it has no interest in building its characters, whether it’s Seth Rollins’ stunted babyface run thanks to the absence of Triple H, or the Schrödinger’s Cat that is the return of Emmalina. No amount of great in-ring work can make up for a lack of story and character, and Raw is failing on both fronts right now.

Stray observations

  • Results: Enzo and Cass defeated Rusev and Jinder Mahal; Ariya Daivari defeated Lince Dorado; Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson defeated Cesaro and Sheamus (c) via DQ (Raw Tag Team Championship match); Big E defeated Titus O’Neil; Cedric Alexander defeated Brian Kendrick; Kevin Owens, Chris Jericho, and Braun Strowman defeated Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, and Sami Zayn.
  • Having Lesnar actually interact with people on the show is an immediate change in energy. But please, tell me more about how Goldberg ruined his draw.
  • Daivari with a mid-match Rainmaker was not something I was expecting.
  • At the very least, The Club has motivation now. They’re pissed, and they’re coming for the titles. Let’s see how this plays out.
  • If Emmalina isn’t coming any time soon, enough with the promotion.
  • Who knows if they’ll follow through, but I’m all for New Day just being happy to be in the Rumble, asserting that if one of them wins, they all win.
  • Have you heard that Sami Zayn has “guts” and “heart”?
  • I still think the Cruiserweights feel too disconnected from Raw, but all the credit in the world goes to Neville and Swann really selling the hatred in their feud.
  • “With our brains and your…brawn.”

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