You know Monday Night Raw is in a sorry state when even the simplest of episodes seems noteworthy. That’s the case with tonight’s Raw. After a few weeks of middling storylines, with WWE seemingly taking the holidays off and forgetting that they had upwards of 6 hours of television to book, tonight’s episode finds a nice groove by getting back to basics. While there’s really only one huge moment with serious implications, there is a plethora of actual wrestling matches on the show, which is a refreshing change of pace. Tonight’s Raw is the most wrestling-based episode in quite some time, and while nothing rises above the mark of “that was a good match,” the consistency is remarkable in comparison to Raw’s of week’s past.

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But that’s just it with WWE right now; they’re coasting from week to week and hoping that, in comparison, whatever they’re doing this week is better than the last, hoping to keep you interested for one more week. There’s no real sense that the creative team is building towards something meaningful. That doesn’t mean storylines won’t immerge during the Road to Wrestlemania, but what it does mean is that, from week to week, there’s very little to latch on to in terms of compelling stories. WWE has proven they have the capability to balance many storylines at a time, but right now, there’s just a bunch of guys and two girls coming to the ring every week and putting in work that feels like a placeholder until they get to have an underwhelming PPV match.

That’s not to say that tonight’s matches aren’t pretty good—in fact, outside of Big Show vs. Ryback, every match on tonight’s card is engaging—but rather that WWE, by booking so haphazardly every week, has created an expectation that these feuds aren’t going to go anywhere, that any win or loss will just end up balanced out by the time a PPV rolls around and then be completely blown up before moving on to the next feud. That’s exactly why tonight’s best segment involves purpose, clear motivation, and the potential for week-to-week building in terms of drama. Yes, I’m talking about the debut of the Social Outcasts, also known as the Jobber Invasion. Heath Slater, Adam Rose, Bo Dallas, and Curtis Axel teaming up to get themselves out of Superstars and jobber purgatory is exactly the kind of thing that Raw could use right now. It’s something different, but more than that, the Social Outcasts have motivation. WWE has a tendency to focus all their energy on the World Heavyweight Championship while ignoring everything else, just throwing midcard guys into feuds with no rhyme or reason. At least the Social Outcasts are fighting for a reason, and that translates in their small segment tonight and leaves room for a lot more to come.

Before getting to the main event, which does contain one very interesting and, I’m assuming, divisive swerve, WWE populates the rest of Raw with solid but ultimately forgettable matches. Neville and Owens get the time they didn’t get last week to beat the hell out of each other, and Neville really takes advantage of the opportunity, throwing absolutely everything at Owens, including a 450 splash from the apron. He still loses, but Neville is the type of talent who doesn’t need to win a lot, at least not yet. Then Stardust and Titus O’Neil get some time, which is always a good thing, and New Day once again take on the Dudleys, this time paired up with Kalisto. They’re all mostly forgettable matches, with the exception being Becky vs. Charlotte. The two have really been putting in the work to singlehandedly turn the Divas division around, and it’s working. Their match tells a clear story, leads to Charlotte turning full heel and getting some solid heat, and Becky getting actual sympathy and babyface momentum. It’s the most coherent story WWE has told within the Divas division in months.

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Now, that main event. In essence, it’s not that much different than just about every other Sheamus-Roman Reigns match, except this time Vince McMahon is full-on cheating. He’s quick-counting the Sheamus pins and not even bothering to count the Roman pins. It’s all fine, but not much else, and it predictably devolves into complete chaos, with Scott Armstrong coming out to secure a Sheamus win, only to have Roman power out, Superman punch Armstrong, spear Sheamus, and then get a new ref to complete the count. The important part though is the post-match swerve delivered by Vince McMahon. After seeing Reigns once again overcome the odds, he’s had it, so he puts Reigns in an impossible spot. He tells him he’ll be defending his title at the Royal Rumble. The stipulation? He’s defending it in the Royal Rumble match.

Credit where credit is due: that’s a stipulation that immediately changes just about everything we think we know about the match and about Roman’s feud with The Authority. It adds renewed purpose to the Royal Rumble match, which hasn’t been that exciting for a few years now. Sure, it could all go terribly wrong, but considering how complacent WWE had been for the last few weeks, such a monumental and potentially game-changing stipulation is just what this show needs as it heads into the Road to Wrestlemania.

Stray observations

  • Results: Kevin Owens defeated Neville; Titus O’Neil defeated Stardust; Becky Lynch defeated Charlotte; Ryback vs. Big Show ended in a No Contest or you falling asleep during Raw; Rusev and Alberto Del Rio defeated the Usos; Heath Slater defeated Dolph Ziggler (YES! YES! YES!); New Day defeated the Dudleys and Kalisto; Roman Reigns defeated Sheamus (WWE World Heavyweight Championship match).
  • It’d be great if the Wyatts came out every week and just beat down Royal Rumble entrants.
  • “You can’t keep a good billionaire down these days.”
  • “Rooty tooty booty.”
  • I really think Becky Lynch has the potential to be the Bayley of WWE before Bayley even gets to the main roster. She could be a completely beloved babyface. You can feel the crowd getting behind her more with every match.
  • Neville’s flip over the stairs was so damn cool. That dude is superhuman.
  • Oh, did I forget to mention that Jericho came back and declared for the Rumble and called New Day “trap queens”? Sorry about that.

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