Tim Kail's Raw Review
There are times when the WWE strikes that perfect balance between heavy-handed schmaltz and sincere, logical storytelling.
That elusive sweet spot may just be the purest representation of the company's perspective on professional wrestling; an over-the-top family saga adorned in fringe & fireworks, populated by an assortment of colorful heroes & villains that occasionally inspires genuine expressions of joy, sadness, surprise, or all of the above.
One such moment occurred on the November 13th, 2017 episode of Monday Night Raw when Kurt Angle and his tearful "son", Jason Jordan, were interrupted by a grim & determined Triple H.
Jason, who had been injured in a match against Bray Wyatt earlier in the evening, pleaded with his father, Kurt, to not remove him from the upcoming Survivor Series main event. Jason argued that he could heal by Sunday, that he was "his father's son!" after all, and that he could fight injured if need be.
Kurt, whose job is on the line at Survivor Series and whose judgement is already in question by his superior, Stephanie McMahon, for having put his son in the match in the first place, found himself trapped between two bad choices:
Hurt his son (whom he naturally believes in) and take away the best opportunity Jason has had since coming to RAW (but give RAW a better fighting chance at Survivor Series), or defy his increasingly vindictive boss and stand by his boy (while possibly hurting RAW's chances at Survivor Series and ruining his already strained relationship with Stephanie McMahon in the process).
As Jason continued to crumble into himself, begging for his father's approval, Kurt's microphone went limp and his expression sunk into defeat because only Kurt knew the full extent of his dilemma. The decision had already been made for him, before he had even come to the ring to make the announcement, and there was nothing he could actually do to protect his son.
When he told Jason, "Please don't make this any harder than it has to be," Kurt really meant it.
Unable to navigate this impossible situation, Kurt fell silent.
That's when Stephanie McMahon's abstract voice suddenly cut through the scene, her omnipresence peeling away the simpering veil of this father/son melodrama.
"Don't tell me you're actually considering this!" her tone couldn't have been more dismissive.
She was downright bored and insulted by Jason and Kurt's overly emotional exchange. Her degree of disgust seemed to be in direct proportion to the legitimate over-acting in the scene, as if the Stephanie McMahon character was irritated that she had to share the same fictional universe with these weak, campy gimmicks.
Stephanie often reacts to her world and the other people in it as if she's aware of how stupid it (and they) are. In so doing, she is a kind of meta-critic of a fictional WWE that she both is, and is not, a part of. This vantage point makes her character uniquely powerful, able to lift up or destroy anyone and everyone in her orbit, fluctuating between her reality and her fiction on a whim, when it suits her.
No one is safe, from the "ordinary people" in the rafters to her Olympian General Manager. Her villainous mythology grows stronger with each promo, and anyone who crosses her path will have to work overtime if they want to make a lasting dent in her cold universe.
She appeared on the entrance ramp from behind the curtain, thrust her finger at Kurt, and demanded that he "make the announcement" (the announcement both of them knew he was originally supposed to make), and remove Jason Jordon from the Survivor Series match and install a mystery participant in Jason's stead.
Stephanie then sauntered back behind the curtain, her "I'm the boss" walk on fabulous display.
Jason continued to beg and plead, and Kurt continued to fail to find the words.
And that is when Triple H's music hit - the instantly recognizable electric power chords of Motörhead and the ominous, hissing lyric, "Time to play the game".
I just about fell out of my chair.
Every piece of this story's puzzle suddenly slotted into place at that specific moment.
That music, and the emotional response it elicited, is the sum total of the "previously on RAW" vignette that contextualized the main Survivor Series through-line at the start of the show, the opening promo between Kurt, Stephanie, and The Shield, Jason's match with Bray and the following beat-down, and a backstage dialogue between Kurt and Jason about the resulting injury.
All of those narrative pieces represent a carefully crafted design meant to move you, the viewer, to a Moment Of Pop; it's not necessarily a moment of joy here - it's just a sense of mounting significance, as though the story you thought you were watching is actually something else entirely. Something bigger.
Now it was time for Triple H's own boss-walk, stomping down the entrance ramp toward the ring with a singular purpose, his gaze firmly on Kurt Angle, his aura relegating not only Jason Jordan, but the entire arena, to utter irrelevance. Breezing past Jordon without so much as a passing glance, Triple H stared down at Kurt, and shouted, "If you won't make the damn announcement...I will."
He paused for just a moment, allowing the viewer's sense of anticipation and sense of inevitability to collide, building to the exclamation point on this expertly constructed moment.
Finally turning to the crowd, in a direct address, Triple H proclaimed, "The fifth member of team Raw is...me!"
His disgusted eyes settled back on Kurt Angle as if to silently say, "Coward."
I smiled wide, laughed, and clapped my hands.
My quiet, meditative morning, watching RAW in my office before work, had suddenly transformed into a raucous wrestling arena. I was there, in the crowd, feeling the surprise and the excitement.
That may seem like an odd reaction given the scene I just described.
The villains won, after all. Or, more accurately (and vaguely), the consistently cool, often morally corrupt, sometimes principled, and always disproportionately powerful people dismantled the hopes and dreams of the well-meaning, less-cool, hard-working, earnest people.
In real-life, that's the kind of thing I hate. So why did I love it here?
What is the source of my smile, laugh, and clap?
Am I just another "smart fan" who wants to cheer the heel? Have I succumbed to the prevailing winds of the pro-wrestling community, and cynically turned on yet another dreaded "babyface push"?
No. It's much simpler than that.
What I had just witnessed was good television.
Good television makes me happy. That's all it is.
This was a well-executed scene; by everyone involved. If I'm a "mark" for anything, it's goodness. The performances, even the over-the-top ones, were good because they all factored into the fundamental point of the story. At this stage in my pro-wrestling fandom that is what I'm after, and it has less to do with the moral alignment of the individual personas in a scene or the status of a particular performer in the company or the way wrestling fans feel about anything and more to do with the quality of the whole.
When the WWE's spectacle-based wrestling is grounded in a clearly defined who, what, where, when, and why, it tends to thrive. Add to an accessible narrative the comfy wrestling rhythm of returns, pay-per-view announcements, legendary characters, and budding rivalries and it exemplifies why pro-wrestling can be so much fun. I smile, laugh, and clap because I'm engaged by that drama, if only for a moment, regardless of whether or not I even like the people I'm watching, and I'm enjoying how it continually expands and contracts like a rainbow-colored sponge; step right up folks, just add water and you'll be thrilled by what you see!
This scene added water to Survivor Series, and my interest in the event grew instantly as a result. This happened because this scene, and the larger narrative, is focused on a clear goal. I knew who the characters were, what those characters wanted, why those characters wanted it, and when those characters might get it, and I learned where those character's motivations might lead them in the future. So long as I feel like I'm on that kind of solid narrative ground and headed toward a potentially interesting point on the horizon, I buy in. If I watched this scene through the cynical lens of "No one ever 'gets over' on Stephanie McMahon" or "There goes Triple H with his shovel", then I would miss how I arrived at my initial emotional response. I would miss the larger story that's being told - which is not a story about Jason Jordan, Stephanie McMahon, or even Triple H.
This is all a story about Kurt Angle, and how his relationships with these people are affecting his WWE-return.
Jason Jordan, now spurned by his own father (albeit reluctantly spurned), injured and left behind by the RAW brand itself, has an opportunity for real character growth (should the WWE mine the possibilities this angle affords). The character is in more interesting emotional territory than had he simply gone on to fight alongside his father at Survivor Series.
How will this turn of events affect his opinion of Kurt Angle? Where does the character go from here? And what is he capable of? I hope the WWE has asked and already answered these questions because there is a good character within and a performer who is clearly willing to play him.
Since coming to RAW, Jason Jordan has been unwaveringly committed to his character. Where other babyface wrestlers on the current roster have cracked under the pressure of boos that are "supposed to be" cheers, Jason has remained true to the narrative and rightfully ignored the crowd. His unflappable babyfaceness has been an essential component of Kurt Angle's return, and it's something that will only be appreciated after the angle is resolved, if ever.
Kurt's story is one of loss and inner-conflict, a shot at redemption quickly snatched away by forces far beyond his control; an epic familial power struggle that uses General Managers as pawns in their nefarious corporate game of chess. Kurt (and us) thought he got redemption in the form of a hero's welcome at the WWE Hall Of Fame, a WWE 24 network special, the General Manager's job, and a good time at TLC.
He will soon discover that he was completely wrong.
A Jason Jordan who isn't super-enthusiastic, always grateful, and "just happy to be here" isn't a character who contributes to where Kurt Angle's story is naturally headed: a dark and tragic place.
In fact, the more "awe-shucks" Jason Jordan is, the better.
When the narrative finally takes that darker turn, it will be all the more powerful precisely because Jason has been so resolutely earnest. The sudden contrast, however it reveals itself, will come as a shock to Kurt Angle, and maybe even to the audience. I'm not necessarily suggesting Jason Jordan will be revealed as a heel. I cannot predict exactly what the WWE is going to do.
I'm merely observing the direction this story is headed, and innocence can't be lost if innocence never existed in the first place.
Jason Jordon has exuded innocence throughout his run as Kurt's son, and that allows for great dramatic possibilities in the very near future as that innocence and naiveté is decimated by Stephanie McMahon and Triple H. Lesser performers would have succumbed to the pressure of the modern crowd's "smart" boos, and allowed themselves to be wounded by that response or lashed out rather charge toward the bigger, more important narrative goal.
What took place in this scene was both a payoff for the past few months' story development, and a table-setting.
The narrative possibilities are enticing.
Triple H's interruption doesn't only allow for greater possibilities within the fiction, it ensures there will be historically resonant moments of pop (simply for their own sake) at this year's Survivor Series. It's a promotional tool executed with such relish and bombast that it's hard not to get swept up in the promise of what's yet to come. The thought of John Cena and Triple H staring each other down, each representing opposed brands, is too good to ignore save for anyone who hates those two performers more than they enjoy the credence their legacies lend to main event matches.
Meanwhile, the question of Jason Jordan's state of mind post-Pedigree will linger over the proceedings, leaving many viewers to wonder when, if at all, he will get involved and who, if anyone, he will try to hurt or help. When expectations exist (and social media affords WWE easy access to every fan's expectations), it's even easier to subvert those expectations and deliver yet another surprise - even if that surprise turns out to be "there is no surprise".
This is all an example of the WWE being itself, but being itself well.
The rest of RAW certainly had some good moments, primary among them being The Shield's match against The Miz and The Bar (Sheamus & Cesaro remain the two toughest wrestlers in the WWE today, and their individual toughness increases exponentially thanks to their union), Paul Heyman chastising a recently-engaged couple for interrupting his promo with their proposal, Asuka delivering a wheelhouse kick to Dana Brooke at ringside, and Braun Strowman bodyslamming Kane through the ring into oblivion.
I watch RAW and SmackDown via the abridged versions on Hulu, and I abridge them further by skipping through segments and matches that don't pique my interest.
I had to learn the hard way, after several years of watching and writing about this show, that it doesn't behoove me to regularly watch RAW live, in its entirety, even when its good for all three of those hours. I can only write "three hours is too many hours" so many times before it starts to get in the way of more important observations. While I may have had to design my own experience of this episode in order to fully appreciate its strengths, that doesn't mean those strengths weren't actually there.
They were there, plain as day, if one's critical lens is clear.
This scene featuring Stephanie McMahon, Jason Jordon, Kurt Angle, and Triple H stands out as a significant example of how & why the WWE can still tell effective, fun stories. These are the moments I wait patiently for, because when they happen, I can't help but smile, laugh, and clap. It's a relief, a pleasant deviation from the "going through the motions" norm of every-day life that Stephanie admonished, and the never-ending wrestling stories that inure me to the medium.
Such moments remind me that pro-wrestling is good, that pro-wrestling is fun, and that pro-wrestling is art.
Dismantling the machinery of that art helps me appreciate the way it moves us to these brief, but powerful exclamations of wonder.