THE RAW REVIEW (10/20/14)
Monday Night Raw was incredibly strong this week (and emotionally moving, upon reflection), reinforcing a solid narrative foundation for the upcoming Hell in a Cell pay-per-view.
This was the show fans, and especially the two top-stories, needed. If the WWE was hoping to create incentive for people to purchase the Network, and also get fans more invested in the "double-main-event" then the WWE has succeeded.
And they succeeded with the help of two of the most reliable performers in the history of the medium: Paul Heyman and Mick Foley.
Having re-watched both the Heyman and Foley segments (as well as the stellar main event), I became more cognizant of an important, subtle theme that permeated this particular episode.
That theme is the battle between the past and the future - a battle that has defined much of the WWE's programming for a few years, but has only just now ascended to a level of consistent narrative value, existing as a mostly unspoken tie that binds Cena/Orton and Ambrose/Rollins (even beyond that theme exists a grandiose meaning represented in Heyman and Foley's segments).
At the conclusion of this review I will juxtapose the Heyman and Foley promos, exploring the exciting parallels, how these two moments embody the subtle war being waged for the main event, the future of the WWE, and simultaneously represent the battle between good and evil.
Easily the best episode in several weeks (people certainly popped for The Rock not long ago, but this was an all-around more consistently entertaining episode than RawBrooklyn), RAW was almost sneakily excellent, delivering unexpectedly good segments and memorable matches when it initially seemed as though it would lean in a more low-key, straightforward direction.
This was a segment and promo-heavy night, and, surprisingly, it worked.
Certain spots definitely worked better than others (John Cena, Dean Ambrose, and commentary directly addressing Dean's resemblance to The Joker is a regrettable moment, snatching that recognition away from the fans, and Dean's torturing of a Seth-dummy registered as more awkward and stiff than dark and entertaining), but, for the most part, it was an enjoyable, uplifting show that grounded the top two stories.
The reliance upon pun-phraseology contributed to this moment not being entirely successful. While Dean has been presented as insane, this was a bit cartoonish, strangely reminiscent of the awkwardness inspired by Clint Eastwood's conversation with an invisible Barack Obama at the Republican National Convention.
The first match of the night was a solid six-man-tag between Sheamus/The Usos and Mizdow/Golden Stardust. Mizdow scored the roll up victory, and still wound up impersonating The Miz as if Miz had won. The seeds are being sown for an inevitable rivalry between the pair, a feud that could turn out to be something special for both pro-wrestlers. Watching them evolve, carving out a very specific niche on the midcard and figuring out a way to thrive in one of the more unenviable positions in the company has been an enjoyable process. The fact that Sandow continues to outshine The Miz will serve as an organic motivation for The Miz character to retaliate, imbuing the potential feud with a touch of realism - such a contest would also be especially rewarding for the audience, as Mizdown (Damien Sandow) fans would feel somewhat responsible for the character's unexpectedly resonant nature.
Damien Sandow is to be commended to for not only making the best out of a terrible situation, but transforming what would otherwise be a grating gimmick into a significant draw. His success is his responsibility, but there is a sense that he is "our guy" and that we've helped him get there by appreciating his talent. That bond is powerful, and can result in great storytelling.
The AJ/Paige saga continues. As reliably entertaining and genuinely likable as both female wrestlers are (and as rewarding as it is to see AJ go against a worthy rival), without any mic time between them for over a month (save the occasional stint on commentary), the characters haven't been able to grow or explore a new layer of their relationship.
Dropping the faux-lesbian gimmick was a good idea, as reducing female wrestlers to a handful of unrealistic tropes is ultimately the reason people take bathroom breaks during Divas matches.
AJ and Alicia Foxx had a quick, but decent match. The time was not afforded for the match to ascend to a place of significance, however. The pattern of Paige charging in, whacking AJ with the title, or AJ doing the same to Paige has become a far-too familiar scene.
The positive takeaway is the very fact of the feud - that it even exists at all (the fact that this feud being permitted airtime should be considered an upside is revealing of how the WWE's women have been used in the past, however). This is one of, if not the longest-running rivalry this year, and it has produced good matches and good segments, and still has the potential to do so at Hell in a Cell (and even beyond should they be permitted to tell a new variation of the story).
Unless both ladies are allowed to start cutting promos on one another, then it might be time for each to find a new rival so that they may continue to grow.
With the incredibly promising crop of female talent at NXT inevitably making the jump to the WWE main-stage, within the next two years there could be an influx of stellar women's wrestlers (should they manage to avoid becoming nothing more than walking commercials for Total Divas). A revolution for women's wrestling in the WWE could very easily be on the horizon, and AJ Lee is at the forefront.
The primary muse of THE RAW REVIEW since its inception in 2012 was CM Punk. But the blog has also existed as a chronicle of AJ Lee's exploits (both performers rose to the top around the same time). I have detailed and celebrated this ascent. To see her exist today as a veteran, one of the only women on the card who hasn't succumb to the allure of reality television, an empowered young woman who now has the ability to put others over (like Paige) is vindicating.
Though she may not get as much time on the air as she deserves (nor do the other ladies) she has effectively changed the way many look at women's wrestling, and given young girls a positive female role model. She represented (and continues to represent) a modern woman, and a modern perception of a woman's ability. While some might consider her a destructive trope, nothing more than "The Crazy Chick", her history in the company is more nuanced than that, a character that has a unique psychology, a personality that has matured throughout the years, existing for herself and not for the adolescent gaze.
She has great potential rivals in NXT's Charlotte, Sasha Banks, and perhaps a tag partner in the ever-hugable Bayley.
With so much time devoted to Total Divas, one wonders if the WWE might serve their talent (and their marketing) better by creating a Divas (Women's) Tag Team Championship.
Such a division would give a typically underused roster something to do, it would lend even more credence to the division, and it would give experienced female wrestler's like AJ Lee and Natalya a fresh angle to attack.
Another company division (and title) that is underserved remains The Intercontinental Championship.
Cesaro defeated Dolph Ziggler.
He delivered a simple (but beautiful) European uppercut.
Ziggler lost to Orton last week as well. The state of the Intercontinental Championship was in trouble before these back-to-back loses, but this certainly doesn't help the belt nor Ziggler.
Sadly, the IC Championship won't mean anything until it lands around the waste of somebody the WWE is actually keen to support. The belt is meaningful only when it exists as a stepping-stone to the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Bray Wyatt, Seth Rollins, and Roman Reigns fit that bill, but because the company is so desperate for immediate, main-event caliber stars, these younger wrestlers will be catapulted toward the WWE World Heavyweight Championship instead (for better or worse).
And so the IC belt will remain a concession for midcard mainstays, an ultimately meaningless prop for those that live in limbo.
Cesaro has a maturity and an offensive intensity that Ziggler lacks, so between the two, the Swiss Superman might be able to offer that belt a bit more prestige. The company also seems more willing to support Cesaro, and, at this point, for the sake of the belts and the stories (and because the roster is deep with quality talent) I want to see those wrestlers the WWE is willing to support possess the championship gold. Normally, I would not defer to the WWE's judgment, and I would keep supporting whoever my particular guy was.
But these days I find it easy to support a lot of different wrestlers, from Cesaro to Roman Reigns (yes, Roman Reigns) the roster is deep with good talent, talent that can earn both the favor of the audience and the favor of the "people in the back". Such is a winning combination the product has lacked (in such resounding fashion) for about fourteen years.
So while Ziggler certainly has his legions of fans (and while his talent is undeniable) members of the Ruthless Aggression midcard, like him, may end up as sacrifices on the alter of progress for the time being, as this modern crop of focused, talented performers ascends.
This battle between the past and future is represented at all levels of the card, but nowhere better than at the top.
The mini-feud between Dean Ambrose and John Cena, founded on who would get to fight Seth Rollins at Hell in the Cell, has been masterfully transformed into a larger, thematic war for the main event.
While the Cena and Orton match has been booed out of arenas in recent years (not because it's a bad match, but simply because it's been so prominently featured for so long), their rivalry has been rejuvenated in a very short period of time (a testament to their veteran ability to turn it on when they need to).
Where last week Randy Orton seemed like just another weak, Authority henchmen, willing to settle for the Contract on a Pole match's sloppy seconds, this week he appeared passionate, capable, and even eloquent.
Despite his ever-changing relevance at the top of the card, Orton has the ability to surprise when he wants to (or when he is given the room to offer his performance). He thrives when his grace of motion, cold eyes, and seething hot-headedness are permitted the space to flourish. And while chastising or praising the Kansas City Royals was an old heel or face promo standby, his vehemently delivered vitriol directed at John Cena was the shot in the arm the character, and the audience, needed.
Whether in the way he shouted, "you can shove your hustle, loyalty, and respect up your ass", or the way he unexpectedly RKO'd Paul Heyman, or in the way he angrily tossed Cena's hat into the audience while Cena lay decimated on the mat, it was a good night for Orton.
Orton also finds himself in occasionally odd, terrifying situations that inevitably bring out a very real, entertaining rage within him. At one point in the main event match, when the cage was down, Seth Rollins came crashing into Orton over the top rope to the outside, and Orton was almost impaled on the leg of a half-broken table (or his stomach/chest actually did bounce into it).
He had to be bleeped, as he was understandably furious (like an extreme version of stubbing one's toe). His response, shouting "Move!" to the table and shoving it into the cage was perfect - these are the moments I look for, where the real emotions of a performer come out (though I don't look for them to come out as a result of injury-threatening situations, such is the last thing I want to see).
The scene reminded me of the vicious bump Orton took on a monitor at WrestleMania 30 and his crimson mask at Money in the Bank. He doesn't actually do anything in particular to find himself in these situations, it just happens to him unfortunately. But he is to be commended for how he handles these situations, using it as motivation for his character, allowing the most entertaining aspects of his personality to shine through and inform his action.
Orton and Rollins seem destined for a feud following Hell in a Cell, especially considering the Curb Stomp Rollins delivered to his Authority-Rival. This is an organic potential story and could exist as yet another layer resultant from The Shield/Evolution fallout. Rollins' attack was a brilliant, satisfying finish to the evening, a logical heel action that is hard to come by in the PG-Era.
Both Orton and Rollins demonstrated a volatility and unpredictability that once defined heels. Their battle is the least subtle extension of the larger past versus future analogy. While seeing these two talents square off is entertaining in its own right, what makes it potentially fascinating is that it is a battle between the WWE's past heel and the WWE's future heel. It is essentially a fight for the right to be to the top "bad guy" in the business.
Orton is the jealous, less-mature older brother.
Rollins is the uber-confident talent destined to take over, undermined by his hubris.
But Orton remains the unpredictable, veteran villain who can still teach the kid a thing or two.
Ambrose and Cena have already had their fight for the role of top good guy, and in keeping with the fact that they're good guys, they've let bygones be bygones and are working together.
Conversely, The Authority (more specifically Orton and Rollins) is imploding.
And here in lies the subtle excellence of these parallel and intersecting rivalries - they exist as more than a commentary on the past, present, and future of the business. These feuds exist as a commentary on the nature of good and evil.
Where good (even if it resides in a lunatic like Ambrose) finds a way to exist in a cohesive, benevolent way, evil eats away at itself, destroying everything in its path, indifferent to a moral compass, serving only itself.
Enter the voices of good and evil: Mick Foley and Paul Heyman respectively.
Both men perfectly contextualized the significance, and narrative consistency, of the matches their segments revolved around, lending even more credence and urgency to Hell in a Cell's double-main event.
Heyman eloquently and succinctly reminded everyone of who the WWE World Heavyweight Champion remains, connecting Orton, Cena, and Lesnar as members of "the class of 2002". This added dash of historical context serves as a connective narrative tissue, and it's also rewarding for fans who have experienced the evolution of the product from 2002 into 2014.
The history binding these men together assists the narrative in quickly ascending to a place of far-reaching significance, the tone of this latest Cena/Orton battle perhaps more nuanced and enjoyable than any of its previous iterations.
Cena asserted that his focus remains on Lesnar, that all he sees when he looks at Orton is Lesnar, the fight he's been hungry for since SummerSlam.
And Heyman similarly brought everything back to the stellar, consistent Cena/Lesnar rivalry that has defined, in one way or another, the WWE since July. While Cena veered into the Ambrose/Rollins feud (much to the chagrin of many fans), such never existed completely outside Cena's battle with Brock for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, and it's reassuring to know that the WWE seems to be aware of this, and it's doubly reassuring to know that Heyman is there, every once in a while, to ground everything in an easily recognizable throughline.
I've written for the past several weeks that all it would take is one Heyman promo to put the Cena/Lesnar feud back on track, catapulting it once again to the A-Story of the WWE, and I'm happy to report he proved me right.
I genuinely popped, raising my arms, when I heard "Ladies and gentleman..." having eagerly anticipated those words during his absence.
For his segment, Heyman represented the malevolent sage, prophesizing doom and destruction with pleasure, warning Cena and Orton of the terrifying fate that awaits them not to help Cena and Orton, but to insult and unsettle them.
Conversely, Foley represented the benevolent sage, similarly prophesizing doom and destruction for Ambrose and Rollins, but with a sense of dread, genuinely warning the inexperienced rivals of the pain, suffering, and psychological damage that awaits.
Foley remains gentle in this scene, even when he's challenging Seth Rollins.
These parallel scenes, twisted reflections of one another, comment on a consistent, modern, and simultaneously timeless theme, existing as instantly recognizable proof of pro-wrestling's allegorical and artistic worth.
Heyman is Satan.
Foley is God.
One is dressed in a dark suit, with slicked back hair, a walking mass of lies and deception, brimming with bravado and instantly reduced to a groveling buffoon the moment he's actually challenged by The Good.
And the other is dressed in a bright flannel vest and a Santa Claus button-down (301-days and counting!), a massive beard and long hair, glaring into the eyes of his children with knowledge, good cheer, and a deep understanding of pain, loss, and a fear of what it might do to a new generation.
Mick is the preserver of innocence, knowing that it shall inevitably be lost.
Heyman is the perversion of innocence, relishing its destruction.
This is the contrast of ideology and mythology wrestling has to offer, and it does so effortlessly. I doubt those behind the construction of these moments consciously thought,
Heyman will act as the devil and Foley will act as God.
If such was directly addressed it would certainly spoil the deeper meaning evident upon examination.
And that's exactly how it should be with good art. These themes will be present simply due to the very nature of the medium and don't need to be explicitly addressed. These massive commentaries will be discernible, or intrinsically understood, thanks to the quality of the performers.
Both Foley and Heyman arrived in miraculous fashion: one a disembodied, seductive voice kindly asking for the attention of the "ladies" and the "gentleman", and the other a truly unexpected appearance, seemingly descending from a land of barbed-wire-wrapped-Christmas cheer (a fitting land for God).
If you doubt this, or believe this to be "reading too much into it", I suggest you go back and watch the scenes to discover the supporting evidence - I promise you will find even more support than I'm able to cover here.
Both men acknowledge the Hell in a Cell (keep in mind the consistent use of the word "Hell" in these scenes), as though that structure is the world itself. And they are both fighting for the souls of the young men within that world.
Both men provide warnings, but for very different reasons. And both men had fitting exits.
Heyman receiving an RKO from a similarly evil character is entirely in keeping with the nature of malevolence, and Foley's humble "Have a nice day", vanishing as quickly as he appeared, indicative of a truly benevolent being.
Orton also slinks over Heyman in a demonic, animalistic fashion; even the smallest details of the various performances contributing (purposefully or otherwise) to this operatic story.
Foley's last moment on-screen, looking humble and fearful for even the villain of the scene.
Foley's career is now rightfully defined as epitomizing psychological depth, the ever-present duality of Man embodied in each of his characters - a longing for innocence and goodness struggling to survive in a world of torture and destruction.
To see Mick Foley on this RAW, looking very healthy and happy, earning great pops (and a great cheap one for old time's sake), cutting a great promo that alluded to the WWE Network in the most entertaining way anyone has ever alluded to the WWE Network, and telling a logical story with two of the most promising talents in the WWE, is one of the most rewarding Legend-returns ever.
And it is rewarding not just because he reminds us of our youth and makes us smile.
It is rewarding because it proves that Good shall inevitably triumph over Evil.
Mick Foley is able to calmly, quietly leave the arena, and return to his pleasant life. His message is delivered. He's done what he can, and now the rest is up to the mortals.
Heyman is last seen in an unconscious heap.
So, no matter how much pain and suffering The Good must endure throughout the years, in the end, it shall stand victorious...in a Santa Claus button-down.
Both Heyman and Foley should be incredibly proud of what they did last night, and we should be thankful that they graciously offered their skillset to enhance two eagerly anticipated Hell in a Cell matches.
We're only five days away from HIAC, and it has quickly become one of the most significant pay-per-views of the year.
We would be wise to pay attention to the larger wars being waged in the WWE, to seek out a means of experiencing these important moments, perhaps even on a certain Network for "an undisclosed monthly sum".
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