In a post-WrestleMania 32 world in which WWE has been off-center—in a very good way—this week’s Monday Night RAW sends the audience off with a go-home show that actually feels like a go-home show for once. This isn’t to say that this week’s RAW is the best of this recent bunch, but it’s certainly solid in creating that interest in the pay-per-view on Sunday, which is honestly the sole point of the go-home show. At this point, after years of finding frustration in the way that WWE builds to its supposedly “big” shows, it’s here, in the build-up to Payback, that nearly everything finally clicks. Despite April being a month that truly proves that WrestleMania is no longer the Super Bowl of wrestling (it’s more like the half-time show without Beyonce, masquerading as the complete Super Bowl), it’s been getting the job done, as long as you don’t think too for longer than 10 seconds about the in-story reasons as to why they’re happening in the first place (Shane McMahon).

But as fresh as these past few RAWs have been in terms of match cards and just general storytelling, the signs are that the WWE is ready to go back to the status quo are there. After all, the fact that WWE is doing so well in giving the people what they want just proves that company knows what’s the audiences want and regularly makes it clear that it does not care. This is the same show that puts Shane McMahon in charge and gives the audience a taste of the “new era,” without even once trying to give a real reason as to why he’s in still charge in the first place. This is also the same show where a Kalisto/Ryback WrestleMania rematch is announced as the kickoff show to Payback in the final hour of RAW, because Ryback pinned Kalisto on SmackDown, a moment that doesn’t even warrant a replay on RAW. This is also the same show where, in an effort to build up one women’s storyline in Natalya/Charlotte, WWE apparently loses the ability to build up another women’s storyline in Emma/Becky or have a full match. And in repeating WWE’s more frustrating habits, this is also the same show where the announcers make sure to repeatedly tell the audience that a failed team is still definitely together, simply because one of the members already confirmed that said failed team is no longer together.

What makes the go-home show work, however, is that WWE does everything it possibly can to build up the stories it actually is telling. Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens get a great video package that catches up those viewers who don’t quite know their story. The tension is very much there between AJ Styles, Roman Reigns, Karl Anderson/Luke Gallows, and the Usos, even as a story that screams “swerve” instead of “collusion.” Dolph Ziggler fights back against Baron Corbin, instead of looking like a punk yet again. The Intercontinental and Tag Team Championships are treated like big deals, to the point where the latter even makes the idea of being number one contender for said championship a big deal. Chris Jericho calls everyone in Hartford, Connecticut a stupid idiot and then does a submission maneuver on the announce table that actually makes sense. Oh, and the fate of RAW will be revealed at Payback, so that’s a reason to watch too.

In my notes, I wrote that the Usos’ match against Anderson and Gallows felt like the Usos were seeing their own mortality flash before their eyes. You see, WWE knows what reaction it’s going to get with Reigns, and at this point, the powers that be just don’t care and we just accept that. But it’s an interesting move to essentially throw the Usos to the wolves, as the crowd is so firmly behind Anderson and Gallows immediately, chanting “BULLET CLUB” and “U-SOS-SUCK” throughout a match that is basically a pretty decently-lengthed execution.

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A lot of the time, wrestling fans don’t like to admit when they were wrong or that they liked something that’s no longer in vogue, but I admit to liking the Usos before they became the de facto faces that they’ve been in the last couple years. In fact, I was in the camp of fans who thought they deserved a shot at the titles and was happy when they finally won them. But after this episode of RAW, I found myself watching a match with the Usos from 2011… and realized that watching the version of the Usos now is basically like watching them with an internal light turned off. It’s like the Usos were told after their initial title reign to “wrestle less, smile more,” and while that’s something that could and has worked for them, it’s become far more transparent as WWE employs and creates far more interesting and entertaining tag teams. When tag teams just verbally sparring with each other over the opportunity for the number one contendership to the tag team championship is more compelling than another tag team actually wrestling, there’s something wrong there. That young and hungry passion is gone from the Usos. And the solution isn’t more mic time for the Usos, as the brief bit between them and Reigns backstage is a style clash (no pun intended) that just makes everyone involved look like they’ve never spoken words before—even before the crowd starts chanting “WE CAN’T HEAR YOU.”

But this is actually something that doesn’t just extend to the Usos—it’s especially apparent in singles competition in WWE. There’s an argument that the influx of international superstars has stifled those homegrown developmental talent at the Performance Center, but I’d say that the people who are most at risk by this are the “old guard” of wrestlers who were always the underrated best of the bunch as a result of the old developmental system. Obviously, the Usos fall into that, but on the singles star front, wrestlers like Cody Rhodes and Dolph Ziggler especially come to mind. And if not for the New Day, I could honestly see Kofi Kingston on that same list. Cody/Stardust is given some time on RAW this week, but unfortunately (given the Dusty of the pre-match promo) it’s only to prop up Apollo Crews, who is the future. And while Dolph gets his punches in on Baron Corbin—who is a shining example of the new developmental system—having hope for Dolph Ziggler has been a futile activity for years and that’s not changing. These are the guys who, for years, have been seen as the best in WWE, only held back. But now, as WWE hires more and more of the best in the entire world, those stars don’t shine as bright. They’re not new and shiny anymore, and years in the WWE have created a sense of complacency with them, even if they are still putting out their effort. They’re still Superstars, but it feels like the time has come and gone for them to be superstars.

Funnily enough, it’s the much-maligned Miz, who would typically be in that same class as the Rhodes and Ziggler, who has shown time after time—and continues to show—that he absolutely excels in adapting to his surroundings and evolving.

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Obviously, AJ Styles, who has honed his craft all over the world, gets to jump the line and for good reason. Unsurprisingly, the AJ Styles/Sheamus match that opens the show is good, because there’s really nothing better than Sheamus asserting his strength and power against an agile, smaller guy. The commentary constantly makes a comparison between Sheamus and Reigns, saying that wrestling against Sheamus will prepare AJ for Reigns, and while that’s technically true, it necessary to mention that Sheamus is absolutely better at the style than Reigns is. It’s obviously an experience factor, but Sheamus knows how to command a crowd and control this type of match. Sheamus hasn’t looked like he’s had this much actual fun in ages in a one-on-one match, throwing AJ around and clubbing his down. In fact, I’m fairly certain he achieves total bliss when he Irish Curse backbreakers AJ twice in a row.

And the matches on this week’s RAW all have the potential for something different (Lana throws her shoes at Sami Zayn, the actual highlight of the night), even the main event of Alberto Del Rio and Roman Reigns, two guys who don’t have the best chemistry. Del Rio and Roman is actually a match that ends up better than it has before, simply because Del Rio gets to let loose as the crowd cheers him and boos Roman.

The Hartford crowd isn’t anything special this night, as it feels more like a crowd that learned how it “should” react more than one that actually reacts. The crowd effectively proves WWE’s overall point about fans in their cheering for Stephanie McMahon for saying “Hartford Hospital” despite booing her for the rest of her promo and bringing out the old standbys of “WE WANT LANA” and “WE WANT SASHA” during the Sami/Rusev and Natalya/Emma matches, respectively. During the main event, the chants of “ROMAN SUCKS” and “SI” eventually turn into “LET’S GO ROMAN”/”ROMAN SUCKS,” complete with the appropriate voice pitches, but that final chant also reeks of the crowd reacting the way they’re “supposed” to react to prove they’re self-aware. That simultaneously is and is not their fault: There’s no way Roman Reigns is going to lose this match, even with interference, and with the exception of the Make-A-Wish promo before the match, there’s no reason to cheer him either. It’s the “LOL Roman wins” portion of the night, as he gets killed by Del Rio for the majority of the match. But at least Del Rio’s having fun!

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Speaking of “no reason,” the Primo and Epico/Puerto Rico vignettes have almost completely become a parody of themselves, as the WWE continues to think the type of thing that would have worked in 2004 and 2007 (with Carlito, the Colon WWE audiences cared about, and even with Kofi Kingston) will work in 2016, despite moving forward in other ways. Plus, in typical Funkasaurus or pre-heel turn New Day fashion, that belief that there’s an undercurrent of darkness WWE is hiding in these promos doesn’t actually exist. As great—and subversive—as it would be for WWE to actually have these vignettes go anywhere other than “you should boo these people because they’re foreign and they said America is not pretty,” it’s clearly a what-you-see-is-what-you-get situation with this, even though anyone with a cultural awareness (which wrestling doesn’t exactly want its audience to have, thus stereotypes about wrestling fans) knows that Puerto Rico is anything but perfect. That’s actually why there’s been such a demand for that hidden darkness, even before Last Week Tonight taught the world how poorly things are going in Puerto Rico these days.

But hey! Damien Sandow was on RAW! And he didn’t lose!

Stray observations

  • RESULTS: AJ Styles defeated Sheamus; Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows defeated the Usos; Sami Zayn defeated Rusev; Apollo Crews defeated Stardust; Natalya defeated Emma; Baron Corbin and Damien Sandow presumably was a no contest; Roman Reigns defeated Alberto Del Rio
  • I wrote this review with one working eye (and searing pain in the one that is giving me grief), so I really hope that it makes sense to those of you with two proper eyes.
  • The Chyna tribute card at the beginning of RAW and the video package during the show were both very nice touches. Let’s try not to say anything terrible in the comments.
  • There’s been an argument that Roman Reigns has or is turning heel post-WrestleMania, but I’d say this episode of RAW is pretty much confirmation that such a belief is just wishful thinking on the part of those who believe that. He’s not a good guy, he’s not a bad guy—but seriously, he’s not a bad guy, as much as he patronizes his opponents (like any other WWE babyface) and is booed out of the building. John Cena is totally a heel though, you guys.
  • So, Anderson and Gallows were in “a club” with AJ, huh? Any particular name for that club, Cole?
  • I didn’t mean to be absolutely existential and bring everything down with that discussion about the young “old guard” and the “new era,” but it’s hard to ignore. I still think Cody Rhodes has one of the smartest minds for the business and is great when it comes to character work, but his downfall comes in the form of WWE creative not being on the same level as him when it comes to that type of thinking. That still doesn’t explain why Tyler Breeze has to suffer for our sins, but all it’s worth discussing.
  • Who else is weirded out every time WWE pushes the Titus O’Neil/Universal Studios trip and now plays a recurring anti-smoking commercial about him being immature and inappropriate around his co-workers (you know, the thing he was suspended for)? WWE is a strange company, and the only one really suffering here is Darren Young, who I’d say also falls into the Cody Rhodes/Dolph Ziggler category.
  • The only thing that makes this week’s “WE WANT SASHA” chants even remotely “okay” is that the Natalya/Emma match is the laughable length of the dearly-departed Divas matches, while also seemingly forgetting that Emma is in a feud with Becky. It’s kind of a joke that Charlotte even takes the time to walk out for commentary.
  • The promo between Dean Ambrose and Chris Jericho is the polar opposite of the Roman Reigns and AJ promos. The promos between the latter are obviously a combination of a veteran who has never been the best talker having to work with a guy who is at his best when he talks much less. The Dean Ambrose and Chris Jericho promo is just… very good. The only thing missing if Jericho burning a Dean Ambrose shirt, in effigy.
  • Seriously, there is nothing more fun right now than saying “AJSTYLES” in Chris Jericho voice or calling everyone and everything a “stupid idiot.” It makes me feel like a kid again.
  • I feel like, for the first time ever, the WWE feels some sort of shame for the terrible song it has chosen as its pay-per-view theme. I swear, last week was the first time I heard the Payback song, and that was only once. We all know how WWE likes to beat a dead horse when it comes to playing themes for its pay-per-views, but this one sticks out even more considering just how bad this song is for a wrestling pay-per-view and how little they’ve played it.

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