More than any other type of episode of RAW (besides maybe “Old School” RAW), the go-home episodes always feel the most like a professional wrestling-based version of The Twilight Zone. With them, we’re doomed to repeat a sense of disappointment in WWE when it comes to creating a lack of interest in its own “important” shows. The question with a lot of WWE go-home shows is usually one of whether or not they make the audience even want to watch the pay-per-view that Sunday, but that’s also a question that comes after weeks of WWE giving the audience thinly veiled versions of those matches that the pay-per-views are selling. Sometimes the pay-per-view opponents have an actual one-on-one match with either a shifty ending or a decisive victory that renders the pay-per-view match useless; other times, they have a tag match.

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This week’s RAW plays very much like a rerun, which isn’t inherently bad in some ways, but it definitely is when this is supposed to sell Hell In A Cell. But just look at the card. You have New Day versus the Dudley Boyz and John Cena, a match that happened less than a month ago and goes through exactly the same beats; except, this time, John Cena isn’t standing an awkward distance away from the Dudley Boyz. By the way: Guess who gets put through the table, after the match. Just guess. Seth Rollins goes against Ryback again, only he at least wins clean here. The Wyatt Family faces The Shield, sort of, and that “sort of” really defines the overall vibe of it all. There are two Divas matches, and based on the current alignments, you can guess who does and doesn’t have a match. Plus, one of them is of course a tag team match.

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There are so many tag team matches, and in case you missed it, the Kickoff Show for this Sunday’s Hell In A Cell pay-per-view has officially been changed to Dolph Ziggler/Cesaro/Neville versus Rusev/King Barrett/Sheamus. Yes, that’s a match that occurs in this episode of RAW… with the same finish as last week’s two Cesaro/Neville versus King Barrett/Sheamus matches, the knockout blow from between the ropes. Only this time, the finish uses Sheamus’ Brogue Kick instead of Barrett’s Bullhammer Elbow.

These six men can obviously put on a good match in their sleep, and in a world where there could possibly be a new SmackDown Six, they would fit the bill perfectly. But the problem remains that “putting on a good match in their sleep” is exactly what the show requests of them, week in and week out: It’s all on autopilot, in a similar way to how the Roman Reigns/Dean Ambrose/Wyatt Family storyline(s) is/are on autopilot. At least that’s an actual storyline with an actual goal.

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That goal is making Roman look strong, and yes, the “making look Roman strong” cracks are back, due in large part to RAW’s special guests Shawn Michaels and especially Ric Flair being around mostly to put Roman over to a crowd that just doesn’t care—about him or anything WWE’s laying down this time around. Roman briefly touched on the “anyone but you” aspect of this feud in that dud of an attempted Cena recap promo from last week’s RAW, but the longer this feud goes, the more that WWE pushes the audience back into feeling that way. WWE (or Vince McMahon) is so transparent when it wants to push Roman, and that’s a big part of the problem; it’s the whole WWE thing of a wrestler getting over organically actually being the best way to connect with fans (and for all of Cena’s backlash, that is what originally happened with him), only for WWE to ignore that and ultimately say a wrestler’s only allowed to get over if the company wants them to get over. It’s a concept that’s talked about a lot with regards to Zack Ryder, but on a more applicable level, it’s the difference between how WWE handled Dean Ambrose after the break-up of The Shield with how WWE handled Roman Reigns after the break-up of The Shield.

If last week’s Roman Reigns RAW and SmackDown promos weren’t big reminders that Roman really, really isn’t the strongest talker, than this week’s RAW promo definitely is. Until the next Roman Reigns promo on SmackDown, that is. He goes on about how Bray Wyatt is clearly scared, despite this feud beginning because Bray basically went after Roman’s family and actually scared him. It’s a promo that posits that Roman Reigns is a thinking man’s wrestler, and that is almost laughable if it isn’t just another example of WWE throwing nonsense at the wall for his character and hoping it sticks.

As I mentioned last week, with the steadily decreasing ratings, recent RAWs have reeked of being micromanaged by Vince McMahon (and not just because Summer called Rusev a “bastard” last week), and one of the biggest symptoms of that is the return of the Roman Reigns that is closer to talking about“suffering succotash, son” than “Dean Ambrose’s friend.” He’s getting back to the version of Roman Reigns that just did not work, especially the more RAW and SmackDown and legends and commentary and everyone with a voice would try to tell the audience that he works. That’s the Roman we get in his sit-down gab session with Bray Wyatt in this episode, on a RAW that goes from finally using the “WHAT” chants at the appropriate time thanks to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, to using the chants to show just how uninterested they are in what Roman has to say. This time, he doesn’t address the crowd like he so poorly did last week, but it’s really a no-win situation either way.

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However, in the most pleasant surprise of the night, especially with regards to a veteran and “rookie” interaction, Mark Henry takes on Kevin Owens, and the two of them have a match that immediately makes the case for a future feud. I’ve said before that wrestlers like Kevin Owens and Sasha Banks are great at the old school in-match trash talk, but I embarrassingly forgot that Mark Henry ain’t no slouch either when it comes to that. When Owens tries his usual shtick with Henry, it’s amazing to see Henry flip it on him and give back as good as he gets. “I’VE BEEN A BULLY FOR 19 YEARS!” Yes you have, Mark Henry. It’s a fun, brutal, quick match, and honestly, if Mark Henry does eventually feud with Kevin Owens, we all have so much trash talk to look forward to. At the very least, we’ll witness a better verbal sparring partner for Owens than Ryback.

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The arrival of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin on this RAW doesn’t count as a surprise, both because of the podcast special after the show and because he was originally announced with Flair and Michaels. However, that pop he gets from the Dallas crowd when the glass shatters can’t be beaten. If there’s one thing that’s missing in the other legends’ segments, it’s the presence and command of the audience that Austin still has. You can’t teach (or script) that, and if you’re going to say that there will be no “next ‘Stone Cold,’” chances are you’re right. With such a strong start to the episode, the fact that it transitions to the Undertaker is a bit of a disappointment.

Undertaker’s entrance is great and amazingly shot, and he looks good… until he starts cutting a promo and then takes off his hat. For the latter, his hat is apparently very tight, if the big red mark on his forehead is any indication. For the former, Undertaker is another wrestler who not only doesn’t need to talk but probably shouldn’t. You know how early detractors of Bray Wyatt would say that his promos didn’t actually say anything of substance? That’s actually the case with Undertaker and his shaky metaphors about heaven and hell. Again, autopilot comes into play with Paul Heyman’s part of the promo, but Undertaker of all people doesn’t need to be talking, especially not for an extended amount of time. He’s the Undertaker.

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By the way, there are way too many openings in this week’s RAW to point out WWE’s problems with creating capital s “Stars” these days. With Roman, it’s been said time and time again that he is not the same level of talker of either one of his former Shield brothers, and in trying to make him the next Cena, it’s not addressing the fact that he’s overall a lot closer to the next Batista. Then again, the idea of “the next” anyone is mocked mercilessly when it comes to Seth Rollins, who has been so emasculated that a new word might be needed for what exactly is happening to him. People constantly talk about how great he/it will be when he finally turns face, but that always manages to ignore how emasculated he is on a weekly basis, to a point where he’s hard to take seriously at all. Because WWE tells the audience on a weekly basic not to take him seriously at all! In fact, I’m still very confused how we’re supposed to believe he’s eventually turning face when the people this storyline asks us to cheer for are Stephanie, Triple H, and especially Kane.

Shawn Michaels completely puts Rollins down in their segment, and I’m still struggling to see the point of it in either the short or long run. The idea of “the next” anything is one that’s near impossible to live up to, but it’s also something that ultimately means that there’s a lot of faith or belief in a certain wrestler. Here, Michaels not only calls Rollins pathetic for seeing himself as “the next Shawn Michaels,” but it’s such a one-sided segment where the veteran who can’t do anything completely takes down the younger talent. And for what? It’s not getting Rollins any heat, and it’s not like greatest of all time Shawn Michaels needs to be put over.

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Knowing WWE’s constant presentation that says that legends are the only one who matter, it means something when Shawn Michaels tears Rollins down. Rollins can’t even get his entrance music to play, which is something even Heath Slater can get. Saying his character is undeserving and that it makes sense for him to be a coward who’s even afraid of mid-card wrestlers like Ryback and Erick Rowan (who he’s faced and conquered during his Shield days and even after that) completely ignores the basic concept of the character, which is that he’s the Architect. He’s the brains of the operation. So the fact that his character doesn’t rely on his intelligence is, well, dumb, and the fact that he lets Michaels completely shut him down speaks volumes for how WWE thinks in building the future. Plus, heel or face, he’s the champion: There’s no logic in having the champion be an absolute failure and still be at the top of the division, unless his gimmick is one of falling upward. And it’s not. WWE’s heel and face dynamics have been nonsensical for ages, but that’s still not as bad as the fact that WWE ultimately wants to remind audiences that the older wrestlers are better than the current ones and there’s never going to “really” be a changing of the guard.

If I were to get fully hyperbolic, I’d say that’s why people aren’t watching, but even though the ratings are going down, there are a handful of reasons for that. In fact, the argument that the ratings prove that wrestling is obviously worse now than it was in the Attitude Era always tends to ignore the concept of the Nielsen ratings system being antiquated and the complete change in the television climate. But things like all these appearances by legends and the “reunion” of The Shield are obviously attempts at bumping the ratings, even if they don’t work. I actually think the bigger problem might be how quiet the live audiences are right now. Last week’s Chicago RAW was terrifyingly quiet, given the reputation of Chicago wrestling crowds, but this week’s RAW in Dallas isn’t loud either except for in Stone Cold Steve Austin’s return. Shawn Michaels’ promo time is extremely quiet, and his body language and delivery during the promo (before Rollins shows up) demonstrates that he’s very aware of that and confused by it. The same reaction goes for Ric Flair’s brief time onscreen, but he’s also got the negative reaction to hyping up Roman to go along with that.

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Then there’s the main event, which sounds like a dream on paper, even with it being a Wyatt match with Strowman and Rowan but no Harper. The main event suffers from being a Shield match in name only—this is very much a six-man tag match with former Shield members and not a Shield or even reluctant Shield six-man tag match—and the audience wanting to latch onto that nostalgia, even though they’re not feeling it either. The match quality suffering makes a good story, with the trust being gone, but that’s not the story with Roman/Dean, and that’s not even the story the commentators tell. The crowd picks it up at the very end when Roman Reigns is a flying Superman and Dean Ambrose is swinging a kendo stick, but the “THIS IS AWESOME” chant before the match even starts is the most half-hearted version of the chant there could be, and it pales in comparison to the original version back when The Shield and The Wyatt Family began feuding. There’s no heart or soul behind the reunion, and it’s not just because Seth says it’s not a reunion or because he pulls a fake injury. It’s a ratings ploy; it’s another nonsensical Authority decision; it’s a part of a never-ending feud; it’s another week of RAW.

I’m not saying there’s no smile on my face when Seth stands shoulder-to-shoulder with his former brothers, but as soon as that bell rings, it’s just another six-man tag on RAW. We have a lot of those, on a loop.

Stray observations

  • RESULTS: New Day defeated Dudley Boyz & John Cena; Team Bella (Nikki Bella & Alicia Fox) defeated Team B.A.D. (Naomi & Sasha Banks); Seth Rollins defeated Ryback; King Barrett, Sheamus, & Rusev defeated Cesaro, Neville, & Dolph Ziggler; Charlotte defeated Brie Bella; Kevin Owens defeated Mark Henry; The Wyatt Family (Bray Wyatt, Braun Strowman, and Erick Rowan) defeated Definitely Not The Shield (Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, and Seth Rollins)
  • I watched the RAW Pre-Show for the first time tonight, and I know it will not be my last time. Corey Graves would make a great Director Of Operations. #ANYONEBUTOTUNGA
  • Who else is buying the new New Day t-shirt?
  • Does WWE plan to do anything with the fact that it has wrestlers—wrestlers who all interact with each other fairly often—named “Roman,” “Strowman,” and “Rowan”? My only suggestion is that Roman becomes Leakee again.
  • Erick Rowan officially wins the award for Most Anticlimactic Return. The camera barely catches his return, and the commentary team doesn’t really even address it until the match itself. This is what happens when Luke Harper is too busy being the lookout at The Wyatt Family’s Randy Orton Kidnapping Dungeon.
  • As if to say the NXT Women’s Championship Iron Man match was a fluke or an outlier, the Divas’ main roster matches and storylines have been absolutely dire lately. The combination of last week’s RAW and this week’s RAW has officially brought the Divas Revolution to full “all women hate each other” (see: every Diva, even Renee Young) and “women are irrational” (see: Paige and Team PCB, which is a team that should no longer exist) status, and even the match quality is suffering for it. It’s disheartening, it’s insulting, it’s a mess, and it’s spirit-crushing. But the worst part of it all is how typical and expected it is.
  • A reminder: “H-B-Shizzle” is not how that slang works, and it’s offensive every time JBL says it.
  • Ryback has a powerbomb now! Please call it The Secret. Please.
  • I had a conversation last week where I brought up that Dean and Randy being in the Kickoff Show was actually a smart decision. I called it a way to draw people to the Kickoff Show and make it feel like a real thing, not just the contemporary version of whenever Sunday Night Heat would be on pay-per-view days. The change to the six-man tag match is instead more of the same.
  • As I mentioned before, I will actually be at Hell In A Cell. While I can’t promise a report on my experience, I can promise… nothing, really. But Kyle Fowle will be back next Monday, and I’m sure I’ll be in the comments for that RAW.

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