Stephanie McMahon (left), Randy Orton

Maybe we’ve all been looking at WWE the wrong way lately.

I realize that’s a strange way to start the first official (after Myles McNutt started it all) A.V. Club review of WWE Monday Night RAW, but just bear with me. After all, I just caught up on a month’s worth of main roster WWE programming (every RAW, Smackdown, Superstars, Main Event, and the lone Fastlane) in a little less than a day and a half in order to prepare for this endeavor. There’s a different type of clarity that comes with that.

The greatest trick Vincent Kennedy McMahon ever pulled was making “us” think “our” opinions “mattered.” The WWE Universe or the Internet Wrestling Community (IWC) or the marks or the smarks or whoever you want to call out or identify yourself with are only small cogs in the WWE machine. However, unlike real cogs, their presence is mostly for show.* It looks like they’re making a difference and getting things done, but the machine has its own agenda that it will follow through on. Once in a blue moon, the cogs actually work, but that’s merely a fault in the system. This line of thinking is extremely nihilistic, but it’s sadly what WWE expects of its audience. It’s a fine way to be, unless you’re a person who wants to ever challenge or truly question any of its programs’ storytelling.

Vince McMahon tells “Stone Cold” Steve Austin that he doesn’t believe in “wrestling for wrestling’s sake,” and yet the first match on tonight’s RAW from Nashville is one between Wade Barrett and Dolph Ziggler; in this case, the former just might be in literal mid-card Hell due to carrying the once prestigious Intercontinental Championship, and the latter is in a never-ending rat wheel where the highest high is just a temporary departure from the lowest low. The commentary doesn’t even mention that Wade is the one who beat Dolph for the Intercontinental Championship. It’s all meaningless, and that’s what the audience is shown and told on a weekly basis. So why do any of us wrestling fans stick around?

Wrestling fans—WWE fans in particular—are in an odd conundrum where they don’t like being told who or what to love or hate (the Austin-Rock-centric Attitude Era was built on that), but it’s still remarkably easy for The Powers That Be to make them do it anyway. And whether it’s 20 people or 2,000 people, the group-think can be strong in professional wrestling audiences, for better or worse. Even when those go against the grain, it often turns into a group going against the grain, just because. “Let’s Go Cena” / “Cena Sucks” is a chant that has existed for about a decade, but if you attend a live WWE event, you can see a child saying both sides of the chant just because it’s part of the routine. Independent wrestling shows can even get hijacked by that chant, and there’s no chance of ever seeing John Cena there. Thinking about wrestling—actually thinking about it and not just going along with what WWE or the group-think of wrestling as a whole tells you to—leads to a lot of cognitive dissonance.

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But when wrestling’s great (and even when it’s good), it can be one of the most amazing displays of athleticism and performance art in the form of a macho, carnival sideshow. It’s a live action superhero series that most never has to end, a “real life” clash of the titans, and even sometimes a way to see yourself in someone larger than life. It can make really you feel every emotion under the sun. That’s why the diehards keep on trucking, even when the product can be as stagnant as WWE’s main product is right now (even with its fantastic roster).

That is as good of a transition into tonight’s episode of RAW as anything else, an episode that supposedly “officially” marks the road (the fastlane) to Wrestlemania.

Thanks to the creation of the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal last year, WWE mid- and low-carders alike now have a better chance of making it on to the Wrestlemania card and getting a nice bonus. However, given WWE’s short-term planning in its story-telling, the high of the new match dropped fairly quickly. Last year’s winner, Cesaro, would honestly be a failure story if not for the fact that he and his tag team partner Tyson Kidd just won the Tag Team Championship on the worst-themed nothing WWE PPV in recent memory, Fastlane. Since he’s now one-half of the tag team champions, just in time for the build-up to Wrestlemania, he is now something for somewhat directionless Superstars The Miz, Damien Mizdow, and Curtis Axel to aspire to.

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Other than the reminder that WWE is adamant everyone say the full name of the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal with each mention, this week in WWE is really about either getting the Fastlane rematches out of the way. There’s the Usos versus the Swinging Cats/Masters Of The WWE Universe/Brass Ring Club/Natalya’s Low Self-Esteem and the Six-Man reiteration of Team Cena versus Team Authority on Smackdown, as well as the set-up for rematches at Wrestlemania (even though Rusev says no to Cena tonight, that’s not how anything works). Basically, this can be called a transitional episode. The problem is that 90 percent of main WWE can be called a transitional episode, all either building up to Wrestlemania. That’s a full year of spinning wheels and getting things “wrong.”

Take for example, the Roman Reigns story in the build-up to the Roman Reigns versus Brock Lesnar Wrestlemania main event. Logical storytelling based on the facts (from watching and listening) dictate that good guy Roman Reigns turns heel. He’s an entitled example of nepotism who constantly patronizes someone who is better than him at his job with “way to go, little guy” smiles. In non-WWE interviews, he says that anyone who doesn’t like him is jealous, has no room to talk as non-wrestlers, and that, whether they think he’s good at his job or not, he’s getting rich. That’s not a likable guy, no matter how good he looks. Roman Reigns’ in-ring work at Fastlane was the best of his career, but fans and doubters alike can most likely agree that it was largely in part to the fact that Daniel Bryan drove him to such a performance. Reigns looked like he was going to die by the end of the Fastlane match, but he still did pretty damn well.

Still, for every step forward, it feels like WWE is taking at least two steps back if they want to build Roman Reigns as babyface character right now. This week’s RAW features Daniel Bryan showing Roman respect as a competitor, even though Roman has “the look” (and size, strength, and athleticism). The crowd doesn’t want to cheer Roman, but the moment Daniel gives him the praise (after doing so in a roundabout way) and respect, they accept it, especially in light of the pay-per-view performance. It still comes across somewhat as WWE trying their hardest to make Roman look strong and have people they know the cogs like support him, but it honestly feels more genuine coming from someone as genuine as Daniel Bryan.

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Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Paul Heyman shows up, and while he delivers as usual on the mic, he also provides more reason to “hate” Roman Reigns. “You’re different,” he declares to Roman. “You’re distinct,” he elaborates. “You are head and shoulders above the rest,” he tells Roman. Well, WWE tells the audience. It’s during this segment where the boos can be heard again—Roman is losing the crowd because he’s being forced on them again, and it only continues. In what is sure to become a meme, Paul Heyman rattles off a list of WWE Superstars Roman could beat in their prime, all to eventually get to the argument that Roman still can’t beat his client, Brock Lesnar. “You’re the guy. You are. … You sir are the right guy in the right place at the wrong time.” It’s all unequivocal, unearned praise under the guise of backhanded praise. It’s making sure Roman looks “strong,” even if all the audience wants is a little less pressure applied when it comes to this.

And is Roman Reigns really the guy? Who is Roman Reigns besides a test tube Superstar? What is his character or gimmick other than Shield hand-me-downs? He has The Shield’s music, their gear, their nickname (from Hounds Of Justice to The Big Dog). Plus, his “One Versus All” moniker (and his insistence that’s it’s always been “One Versus All”) doesn’t make sense in the context of him having been introduced in a trio, Dean Ambrose still semi-regularly referring to him as his “brother,” or the fact that, everywhere he turns, a member of his Samoan family is somewhere nearby. In fact, Stephanie McMahon herself basically confirms that Randy Orton is the real Superstar with that gimmick, as she gives him the “You’re not a good guy, Randy. You have never been a good guy.” speech in the opening segment.

With that build-up of the future, you also have the inverse in the same episode, with the build-up for the battle of the face of a company… and Triple H. It’s a nonsensical rivalry that is only leading to more of WWE’s revisionist history with regards to the Monday Night Wars between WWF and WCW—starting “when DX fired the first shot”—and the longer it goes on, the stranger it becomes that Sting is facing Triple H at Wrestlemania and not The Undertaker.

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I’ll be honest: Sting have never been one of “my” guys. The only firsthand WCW memories I have from my childhood are NWO Wolfpac (that theme has been stuck in my head for years), Disco Inferno (coming from a RAW household, the only time I ever saw WCW was Thunder), and trying to explain to a huge Goldberg fan that wrestling is “fake” (she didn’t believe me, and I often wonder when she finally “got” it). The youngsters who love WWE now don’t know who Sting is unless they watched TNA, and they didn’t watch TNA—their Cena t-shirts make sure of that. Even with a video package giving them a history lesson, it’s still littered with JBL talking about the Monday Night Wars like WWE never faltered and Booker T not addressing the elephant in the room of he himself being with WCW until the bitter end.

Then there’s the somewhere in between, with Old Man Cena versus Rusev. Going into this RAW, I came to the conclusion—while bracing myself for some slut-shaming Lana and “Jack”-calling Rusev on Cena’s part—that John Cena’s at the point where his promos follow the rule set from Better Off Ted’s “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” “Listen to my tone and not my words.” John Cena promos follow a particular structure, and very rarely does the actual content even matter anymore, especially when he’s giving a recap of something the audience has already seen. However, perhaps because of the Wrestlemania season, this week’s promo is surprisingly “pleasant” for Cena’s style. There’s no slut-shaming Lana (a female character who has only been shown as loyal to two men—Rusev and Vladimir Putin), and his problems with Rusev don’t actually come from a “USA Rules, Russia Drools”-xenophobic stance this time around. Shock and awe come in the form of Cena calling Rusev out for being a fraud, a false hero to Russia. He still starts the promo off with the patented Cena “I don’t care that I lost because I could’ve won,” but there’s an honesty to him calling Rusev out for going for the low blow and succumbing to his heel role in a way he really hasn’t done since debuting (besides he and Lana just saying the United States sucks a lot). Again, being genuine never hurt anyone.

(We can all just ignore the Iwo Jima line from The Marine, though.)

To wrap all of this up, if there’s one thing this episode of RAW will provide, it is more fuel to the conspiracy theory that the Nexus reunion is on the horizon. This doesn’t just go back to The Miz talking about how he was Daniel Bryan’s Pro on NXT season one. This goes to the stars aligning in a coincidental way that WWE would honestly never even think to try. You have the Prime Time Players reuniting to bring forth millions of dollars (and whistles and washrags). You have Ryback slowly but surely transforming back into Skip Sheffield as he tells his former tag team partner, Curtis Axel, to “Turn your upper lip south and shut your mouth” (which he literally said back on an episode of NXT in 2010). You have Curtis Axel being one step away from cutting an earnestly good version of his “genesis” promo. You have David Otunga infiltrating his way onto pre-shows, removing Alex Riley from existence. You have Wade Barrett becoming downright disillusioned by a system that condones a literal lunatic stealing his hard-earned title. You have Daniel Bryan constantly being patronized by the latest Superstar with “the look.” You have Heath Slater’s new haircut. Bray Wyatt is probably going to lose at Wrestlemania to The Undertaker because his possession of Husky Harris is weakening him or something. Mark my words.

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Stray observations:

  • *Keep in mind I was an English major in college, and I don’t actually know how machines work. Cages are machines, right?
  • RAW opens with a returning Randy Orton promising he won’t go on for a long-winded 20-minute segment about nothing, and he keeps his word. Randy Orton and the Authority actually go on a long-winded 15-minute segment about Stephanie McMahon out-working everyone.
  • Speaking of Stephanie, does anyone know where her oddly “feminist” segue to Seth—asking if he didn’t support her because she’s a girl—came from? I want to say Patricia Arquette, but really, that and the 30-second Divas match (that I actually missed 10 seconds of because of an accidental channel change) messed with my head.
  • Bad News “Not Wade” Barrett (not realizing people can read lips): “Where’s my fucking title?!”
  • The Ascension versus The Prime Time Players. Well, it was mostly The Ascension versus Darren Young. It is a match that happened.
  • There is legitimately nothing I’ve enjoyed in recent WWE more than the constant replay of the Uso/Naomi/Kidd/Natalya/Cesaro “double date.” From Tyson saying no one likes anything the Usos do to Natalya standing by her man, it has been my favorite thing (besides the Tyson/Cesaro/Natalya trio as a whole) about catching up with post-Rumble WWE. Every time WWE replays it, an angel gets its wings.
  • The commentary is doing its best to ruin the Stardust and Goldust storyline, but I will give props to Stardust for going insane at the very sound of the name “Cody.” If that’s the way to exorcise the demon from Cody’s body, is it possible the same can happen with Bray Wyatt/Husky Harris?
  • Surely one doesn’t go into a review of main roster WWE hoping to have endless comparisons to its “developmental” system, NXT, but when you have a barely 30-second tag team match between the lady faces that run the place (according to Total Divas and the fact that Nikki Bella is the Diva’s champion) and two shining examples of why fans fear main roster call-ups from NXT in Paige and Emma, there’s an expectation of something more. Despite WWE not mentioning it #GiveDivasAChance was trending during the main event. People care, and that means a lot.
  • I need an #AXELMANIA t-shirt immediately. Also, I predict Curtis Axel becoming popular despite WWE’s plans because of this whole situation.
  • Besides everything related to WCW and JBL telegraphing Ascension’s loss and eventual heel/face turns for the individuals in the main event, the worst commentary moment of the night actually goes to Michael Cole. First is Michael Cole referring to Daniel Bryan as “The Wrestler” and Roman Reigns as “The Powerhouse.” That right there is how you exacerbate “You Can’t Wrestle” chants.

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