Last week’s RAW was surprisingly good. There’s really no other way to describe it, especially since months of discussing, theorizing, and bracing for the brand split still didn’t completely assuage feelings that WWE would just continue to make the same mistakes. So for actual changes to be put into effect on RAW (and SmackDown! Live, to an unfortunately lesser extent) and for them to work, it was a real surprise to see. It’s still a real surprise to see. This week’s RAW doesn’t have the easy out of having a tournament on the show—as tournaments tend to make everything instantly better—but it also manages to be pretty good. There’s slightly more Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley this week, as is to be expected given their jobs, but it’s still much less than before the brand split. And you know what? It’s actually nice to see the two of them actively work together to address certain situations on RAW. So much better than power struggles and trying to keep the wrestlers down.
(Please let it stay like that for a while.)
Both last week’s and this week’s RAW appear to understand that WWE can do all the things it claims to do and actually do them well. You see, WWE’s role as an “entertainment” company above all else constantly leads to its attempt to be so many things at once without actually doing any of them well. It’s a comedy, variety show. A kids show. A wrestling show. A character-study. A competition. Right now, RAW is succeeding in picking its spots with all of these things, and surprisingly, it’s also leaning more toward the latter categories without having to get rid of the former. The commentary and interviews continue to put over the wrestlers, especially with regards to how they’re all trying to be the best. And it’s doing so without taking away from New Day making dick and ball jokes and Kevin Owens stealing Byron Saxton’s tie, and vice versa. In fact, the commentary continues to talk about how everyone is jockeying for positions and trying to prove their worth to their opponents, their bosses, and the WWE Universe. Compare that to last week’s SmackDown! Live, where JBL just yelled about the show being a “meritocracy” (the same show that ended a segment with Eva Marie flashing the women of SmackDown! Live) with nothing to back it up.
This week’s RAW sees Sheamus and Cesaro be put into a match not just to have wrestling for wrestling’s sake, but to prove that they should’ve been drafted a hell of a lot higher than they were a couple of weeks ago. Stephanie and Mick—who maintain a cordial relationship that essentially says Shane was the problem, by the way—bring up Sheamus’ frustration with being picked last on the televised draft, while also bringing up Cesaro’s even bigger frustration with being picked for RAW (and so low) at all. And they do so while bringing up legitimate, kayfabe reasons for why both wrestlers “flopped” in draft picks: Sheamus’ stock plummeted post-Money In The Bank cash-in and League of Nations flop, while Cesaro’s bad shoulder made him a riskier pick than he would have been otherwise. Sheamus and Cesaro go out and kill each other during their match and even try to kill each other during the commercial, because we all know top spots are limited and they want them. It’s simple, and it’s refreshing to see WWE understand and show how simple it is.
It’s the same for Sami Zayn versus Seth Rollins, a match I don’t need to go out of my way to say is a good wrestling thing. Zayn has a chip on his shoulder, as now that he’s ended things with Kevin Owens, he needs to focus on showing he can get things done outside of that. Seth is The Man, but Finn Balor (who’s the new kid on the block and needs to live up to the hype, by the way) says he’s entitled, so he goes out to prove he’s the hardest working man around. The idea of everyone (besides Brock, of course) on the RAW roster wanting to prove themselves, even as high draft picks and known main eventers, is still something to get used to because “flagship” RAW typically just carries itself as the A-show without trying hard. That was its problem during previous eras of the brand split, but in keeping with the “New Era,” things have changed. Competition from all sides means something.
The same goes with the squash matches for Braun Strowman and Nia Jax. Despite Nia having done squash matches recently enough in NXT, they’re relatively new for the main roster women’s division, especially as they brew under the surface of the women’s title aspect of it all. As for Braun Strowman, this week’s RAW does something as simple as explain why anyone would want to get in the ring with Strowman in the first place: money. The jobber squash match isn’t the most artful part of professional wrestling, and it can backfire when it gets too Goldbergian, but there is a place and a time for it, and RAW is making good use of it right now. Although, in the case of Jax, even though she’s still pretty green, the audience members who have watched NXT know that she can at least hold her own in “real” singles matches. The question of whether or not Strowman can remains to be seen, but at least WWE is making it so there is a question on the matter. There’s a reason to care about him now. There’s also clearly a feeling of potential along with the marvel to go along with both of these wrestlers, which makes their roles as draft picks make a lot more sense.
As for the reasoning behind other draft picks, Stephanie and Mick make it clear this week that the reason they drafted Mark Henry is for a mentor, locker room leader-type role, and again, that shows an amazing attention to detail that isn’t often shown in WWE main roster programming. As entertaining as guys like Mark Henry, Big Show, and even Kane can be with the right booking nowadays, there’s usually very little legitimate reason given onscreen for why they’re kept around, especially in high profile roles. Besides seniority, the obvious behind-the-scenes reason is obviously mentorship, so why not make that part of the show? Henry getting a United States Championship title shot because of his seniority and his pleading for one more chance (as someone with “a lot left in the tank”) makes a lot more sense than Titus getting one because he bullied Rusev for America; he’s a proven commodity as well as someone who is good for the company and RAW PR as a whole. Henry doesn’t win—as much as it feels like he could, because Rusev and Lana have to honeymoon one day—but he and Rusev put on one heck of a hoss fight, to the point where you kind of have to ask yourself if Mark Henry actually has a perpetually full tank.
Then comes Rusev’s next feud opponent, Roman Reigns. The best thing I can say about the crowd when Roman comes out and scares Rusev off is that they go mild. Obviously, the typical WWE crowd—especially the crowd who will do that “tomahawk” gesture because of sports—is going to chant “USA.” The typical WWE crowd is going to chant “USA” even when the good guy is Canadian or South American. At the same time, the typical WWE crowd is also going to boo Roman Reigns. The Atlanta crowd doesn’t quite want to cheer Roman (save for the pocket of fans facing the hard camera), but at the same time, they can’t really boo the guy defending the United States. That is, however, assuming Roman Reigns is even doing this to defend the United States. If there’s been one consistent characterization with Roman Reigns, it’s that he really doesn’t care about anyone other than himself. That might even extend to the United States of America, even though he comes out when Rusev is disparaging the ol’ US-of-A hardcore, Olympics edition.
The thing is, Roman Reigns going after a midcard title is a great idea… had it happened immediately after The Shield broke up. Now, it’s kind of a sign of how far he’s fallen, even though it still kind of is a good idea. The question over the new few weeks—and even months—is whether or not it’s too late for that and for a Roman makeover in general (especially if WWE still refuses to change certain things about him). It’s at least good that it’s far too early to decide on this one, though I can already tell you Rusev will probably call Roman “ramen” at least once during this feud.
The Atlanta crowd, in general, is hot for the stuff that works though and not-so-much for the stuff that doesn’t. The opening segment really gets them going, and then they die just two segments later with the Golden Truth/Shining Stars match. I saw reports about last week’s RAW that said that, unlike the viewing audience, the people in attendance weren’t shown the multiple Golden Truth/Pokemon GO segments that led to the interruption of Enzo/Big Cass and The Shining Stars’ match. I can’t exactly speak to that or if it’s the same case for this week’s RAW, but I can say that WWE being atypically topical here sadly isn’t quite landing.
Funnily enough, as dumb as it is, the Pokemon GO thing is the kind of lower card dumbness that WWE “needs” and can make solid memories from, just like back in the Attitude Era. Last week’s RAW’s decision to build to the interference through a series of segments actually showed a bit of in-episode continuity that the main roster shows have often severely lacked, and this week’s RAW’s continuation of it—again, as dumb as it is—is the type of continuous storytelling WWE could really benefit from. But while it may play better onscreen, the live experience of watching R-Truth screw over his tag team member over his inability to look away from his phone falls flat for the crowd. It’s like the world’s worst episode of Black Mirror.
It also doesn’t help that yet again, a version of Primo and Epico is not over with the crowd, and at this point, I’m pretty sure it would honestly take a miracle to change that. Keep in mind that they do not get an entrance in this week’s episode (even though they do win—same with Titus O’Neil), and they lost their “undefeated streak” last week because of Golden Truth shenanigans. As good as it is that WWE is showing an ability to tell stories about more than two tag teams at a time, let’s not pretend that The Shining Stars’ inclusion in this story isn’t just as a base for Golden Truth’s antics.
Going back to the stuff that works for the crowd though, the opening segment has the crowd living up to the nickname “Hotlanta.” Sasha Banks opens Monday Night RAW with a promo, and that’s pretty damn cool. Then Charlotte comes out to verbally spar dressed like the villain in the best Disney film never made, and that’s cool too. I’ll readily admit that Sasha Banks is not the best talker in terms of actual execution of words, as adorable as it is that she always goes with the singular “woman’s” instead of “women’s.” But she more than makes up for that with the personal conviction that’s behind every single one of her words, flubbed or not. And as the champion or at least someone who’s no longer being so protected she can’t even appear on shows, she’ll have a lot more opportunities to work on that aspect of her game. As for Charlotte, I’ve praised her mic work before, and while she has her own problems with cadence, it’s clear that the slowed down speech is at least an intentional heel decision (and she’s far from the first to use that).
Chris Jericho, of all people, then comes out to join their promo. Then Enzo fricken Amore. Sasha Banks, Charlotte, Chris Jericho, and Enzo Amore share a segment together, and it’s not just some backstage-at-catering thing. As the segment aired, I saw the argument on social media—from male wrestling fans, especially—that the appearance of Chris Jericho and Enzo Amore sent the message that the women’s wrestlers need “saving,” which… If the main argument is that the women’s wrestlers need to be seen more as equal, then shouldn’t have the same type of promo-interrupting as their male counterparts, even if that means being interrupted by said male counterparts?
Where some can only see the men “helping” out the women, all I can see is co-workers interacting, the same way they would have had Sasha Banks and Charlotte been, say, Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens instead. The same way we usually see with all-guy promo segments. Not the same way as last week’s bizarre interrupting women’s promo-off on SmackDown! Live, as everyone involved here actually gets to form a full thought and sentence. With the exception of authority figures, interviewers, and valets (and, as mentioned, backstage catering segments), when was the last time the main roster had men and women really interacting? In any other workplace, men and women function together as equals, even if they work in different divisions. Why shouldn’t that be the case here in WWE, where if you work here, you’re supposedly at the top of your profession?
If this leads to the pedantic question of why the men and women can’t fight each other then, just learn to accept the WWE’s toy deal (because as usual, it’s a publicly-traded company above all else) and move on. Removing “Divas” from the world and calling the women “Superstars” doesn’t change things over night, but treating the female Superstars at least as equals to the male Superstars by having them share promo segments and mixed tag matches (which opens up more possibilities than the typical multi-man tags did after awhile) actually does show a real change. The intense separation between the men and women wrestlers in WWE makes a lot less sense than most weird little WWE-isms, since it’s not as though being in different divisions no longer makes them co-workers. If that did, then cruiserweights would have to cruise or wait for the heavyweights to have their segments, and tag team wrestlers wouldn’t even think about interacting with singles stars. That last part would officially erase every John Cena and Enzo/Big Cass interaction from the equation, by the way. And you know what? If “saving” or “helping” is a part of the conversation, how doesn’t it help to have people who are as experienced and/or as over as Chris Jericho and Enzo Amore in a segment?
Think about it this way too: As much fun as it is when Kevin Owens (and even Chris Jericho) is absolutely terrible to Renee Young, the dislike he displays for Sasha Banks while on guest commentary this week is played more like Banks being one more wrestler (no qualifiers) Kevin just doesn’t respect than anything else. He calls her out for taking a move he used to regularly use. Remember this, because I’m pretty sure the last time John Cena interacted with a woman on WWE TV, he called her a “hoeski.”
Then there’s the Brock Lesnar/Paul Heyman return segment, which is pretty much the usual, with Paul “shooting” while Brock stands there being intimidating. It all builds up to Heyman mocking Randy Orton’s “voices” in his head and how he won’t get Lesnar into a position for a #RKOOUTTANOWHERE… only for Randy to sneak in and hit such a maneuver on Brock.
The major key to WWE making the brand split work is keeping a true brand split, which means keeping the rosters separate. Obviously, SummerSlam will have a cross-brand match in Brock Lesnar versus Randy Orton, but the entire point is that they’re on separate rosters. So Randy showing up already breaks the rules, but at the same time: It’s still Randy Orton, professional WWE rule-breaker. Randy showing up to RKO Brock outta nowhere—in a segment where the brand split means Randy’s not expected—actually works as a surprise, and it works even more with Stephanie and Mick sending security after him. He’s not supposed to be here! You hear Stephanie complaining how this was a Shane thing as the show ends, and just that question of whether or not it was solely a Randy choice or a Shane choice is enough to inspire viewing for this week’s SmackDown! Live. (If I may pull back the curtain real quick, WWE wants you to watch both shows, so, you know, they have to make it worth it.)
Meanwhile, Heath Slater continues his role as the “hottest free agent” in all of sports entertainment, and this week, it backfires even more than last. The Heath Slater/Jinder Mahal appearance actually makes even less sense with the brand split’s rules than Randy’s. Randy Orton obviously snuck in, and security goes to stop him immediately; WWE’s own Twitter shows Heath walking in, metal detector and all, and meeting up with someone (Jinder) who’s already backstage.
Also, if I may just put on my WWE fan hat for a moment: Much like I don’t know why any present day roster would want Rhyno over Heath Slater, I don’t know why any roster would want Jinder Mahal over Heath Slater (even during Mahal’s initial heel run with Khali). It’s not my intent to hinder Jinder, but he wasn’t even the second best member of 3MB—Drew Galloway-nee-McIntyre’s bandana was. Alas, this is the curse of Heath Slater’s ability to make others look good. He might ultimately be better off as a Braun Strowman jobber, since at least then he’d make $1000, easy.
- RESULTS: Charlotte & Chris Jericho defeated Sasha Banks & Enzo Amore; Braun Strowman defeated Evan Engerholt (Corey Hollis, as Braun’s jobber-of-the-week); The Shining Stars (Epico and Primo) defeated Golden Truth (Goldust and R-Truth); Rusev (c) defeated Mark Henry (United States Championship); Titus O’Neil defeated Darren Young; Nia Jax defeated Ariel Monroe (Nia’s jobber-of-the-week!); The New Day (Kofi Kingston and Big E) defeated The Club (Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows); Cesaro defeated Sheamus; Jinder Mahal defeated Heath Slater; Seth Rollins defeated Sami Zayn
- I don’t know how everyone else felt about Sasha’s “one-night stand” retort to Charlotte, but considering I still can’t wrap my head around how Ric Flair doesn’t have at least 10 known illegitimate children running around every state, it landed for me.
- The only miracle I could think of to save The Shining Stars is Carlito, and I’m pretty sure that’s just not happening. The alternative is a Tyson Kidd-esque run down in NXT, but why would they choose to do that (at this point, it’s pretty apparent they’re not going to be sent down to tweak what’s not working) when they can continue to stay on the main roster regardless?
- Titus O’Neil being an awful friend to Darren Young is probably the most I’ve enjoyed Titus in a long time, but that’s mostly because it reminds me of how he was a terrible friend to Darren back in their NXT Redemption days. Titus took Tamina out on a date, even though Darren had been trying to take her out and had even made reservations for McDonald’s! Titus eventually resolved it all by getting the Prime Time Players a contract for SmackDown! This has been your weekly reminder that no one cares more about original recipe NXT than I.
- By the way, I’m worried Darren Young will actually murder someone for Bob Backlund, and I’m not sure that’s how I’m supposed to feel.
- I don’t understand what WWE is doing with The Club, and I won’t respond to it.
- WWE really likes to go to the “Seth Rollins is handed everything” well, even though the audience has regularly been smart enough to see just how hard of a worker he is. That obvious hard work is a major part of why they cheer or at least want to cheer him. In all the line-blurring of reality and kayfabe, this one’s an almost impossible sell when he’s not threatening to murder Edge. Seth Rollins’ eventual face turn should be a thing of beauty, but it’s kind of fascinating how much WWE keeps pushing how he’s a heel simply because… his voice is nasally? And he broke up The Shield, but… that’s kind of proved to be like him ripping off the band-aid so they could all move on to bigger and better things (in theory). Plus, he mocks the Atlanta Braves’ terrible “tomahawk” gesture—“LET’S GO ROLLINS”/”SAMI ZAYN,” indeed.
- Chris Jericho running around Tom Phillips made the camera man accidentally reveal just how much Tom had been widening his stance to make Jericho look tall. Whoops. (Just let Tom/Tim live, WWE!) Also: