When Raw is going through a spell of dull episodes like it has been lately, I find there are two things that can pull the show out of its self-inflicted tailspin. The best way to liven up the show is to introduce or bring back a massive talent into the fold. WWE did that last week by bringing back Brock Lesnar from kayfabe suspension. Lesnar’s presence is an immediate jumpstart to the weekly show. With that in place WWE can then focus on another storytelling aspect that livens up Raw: creating an episodic throughline.

A throughline doesn’t necessarily always make for compelling television, but across three hours of Raw it provides a narrative structure that makes the rest of the show feel less bloated and haphazard. Tonight’s throughline sees Seth Rollins scrambling to “get the band back together,” which means that he’s sucking up to Kane and J&J Security in the hopes of getting them back on his side before his big match with Lesnar at Battleground in four weeks. Seth won’t admit that he needs The Authority in his corner because he’s afraid of Brock, but what else has changed for Seth? Lesnar is the only change to his pampered reign as champ, and just as he’s burned all his bridges.

What makes this throughline work is that it’s not drawn out. There are only a few backstage segments where Rollins talks to The Authority and expresses his desire to get everyone on the same page again, and it all leads to a show-ending apology. Tonight’s Raw has a ton of wrestling, which is great, but it’s that larger arc that makes the show feel substantial. By focusing a larger arc on Rollins and his half-assed attempts to reconcile with The Authority, WWE lets the other storylines breathe. Suddenly feuds like Reigns-Wyatt and Ryback-Big Show don’t have to carry the whole show; they just have to be a solid.

That imposed structure benefits the rest of the show, evidenced by a lack of messy finishes. Sure, Ambrose and Reigns both have matches that end in a version of the “distraction finish,” but they’re both pretty mild compared to what WWE usually puts out. If there’s a complaint about that Ambrose-Kane match it’s that there’s not a whole lot to it. They both just punch each other a lot. Ambrose’s offense has been improving every week, but going up against Kane doesn’t exactly help Ambrose deploy a varied and compelling move set.

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Every other match is good-to-great though. Not every match on a three-hour show can blow the roof off, and tonight’s episode is a perfect example of how Raw can succeed by delivering a variety of matches. There’s the inconsequential but solid match between King Barrett and Zack Ryder. There’s Ziggler and Adam Rose, who have no chemistry with their romantic partners but put on a good showing in-ring; also, Rose still has the best spinebuster in the business. There’s the Prime Time Players versus the Ascension, where Titus O’Neill and Darren Young continue to do great work. It’s been a real pleasure seeing both of those guys get the hot tag, and Young’s Gut Check is one of my favorite finishers in WWE right now. It looks great. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also Neville versus Kofi Kingston. It’s a match that could just be a high-flying spot fest but it isn’t. Instead it’s a beautiful piece of storytelling, with New Day continuing to work wonders to get heat while looking like badasses.

Reigns-Wyatt is the feud that most benefits from the throughline of Rollins’ apology though. Without the pressure to carry the show, the Wyatt-Reigns feud feels immensely real and important, and tonight’s match and segment is pretty much perfect. Not only does Reigns look great in a physical match with Sheamus­–that running elbow drop onto the announce table was amazing–there’s also the emotional element running through the feud. Reigns has never been great at cutting promos, but the way he emotes with facial expressions has been key to the success of the feud so far. He looks absolutely terrified that Wyatt is sitting backstage with his daughter, his urgency to leave the match and go after her a moment of humanity that Reigns really needs. WWE has long been selling Reigns as part of this long lineage of Samoans, but this version of family works in ways the Samoan angle didn’t. This feels more organic and less like WWE telling us Reigns is great. Bottom line: Reigns is quickly turning into the legit top-tier talent that he’s been sold as, and this feud is doing great things for both him and Wyatt. The Reigns-Wyatt feud is smart booking on WWE’s part, giving both of those guys something substantial to do.

Smart booking ends the show too as Rollins comes out for his big apology, only to be interrupted by Lesnar. Kane and J&J Security step aside, leaving Rollins high and dry. That’s only for a moment though as they eventually all gang up on Lesnar and beat him down with a series of chokeslams and knees to the face. It’s great booking because it makes both guys look great. If there was an issue with Lesnar facing Rollins at Battleground it was that Rollins never really stood a chance. WWE has been booking him as a chicken-shit heel for months; when Lesnar came back last week it felt like the Battleground match would be a squash. Taking Rollins’ match against Ambrose at Money In The Bank and his showing tonight alongside Kane and J&J into consideration, the champ looks like a legit force again. The playing field is even now, or as even as it can be when a Beast is on the loose.

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Stray observations

  • Results: Kane defeated Dean Ambrose; Prime Time Players defeated The Ascension; Reigns runs away from his fight with Shemaus to save his daughter, so countout win for Sheamus?; Nevile defeated Kofi Kingston; King Barrett defeated Zack Ryder; The Bellas defeated Naomi and Tamina; Ryback defeated Mark Henry; Dolph Ziggler defeated Adam Rose.
  • Xavier Woods with the line of the night: “I’mma call gravity, Neville! You better chill out!”
  • That Ryback-Mark Henry match was alright. More than anything though I’m still digging Ryback’s earnestness in his promos.
  • Kevin Owens speaking French to get heat is not a bad idea at all. My Canadian heart loved every minute of it.
  • Was I the only one that thought the Lesnar apology stuff was kind of goofy?
  • Tamina is a terrible wrestler. That’s all I have to say about that.
  • Ziggler and Lana have zero sexual chemistry. I honestly think it hurts the storyline. WWE can put Rusev and Lana back together now, please. Also, go away Summer Rae.

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