THE RAW REVIEW
These two salvaged this week’s episode of Monday Night Raw, bringing it out of the hokey land of super-powers and soul consumption and offering a focused story about the will to be the best. Without them, I would have turned the television off. Without them, I wouldn't have felt anything positive during my experience of RAW.
Where Bray Wyatt gained control over fire and lightning (and the pyrotechnics crew apparently), all Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch needed to do to make me a believer was show up and wrestle.
After last week’s incredibly successful, realism-based episode that revolved around determining a number one contender for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, I was curious to see if the WWE would follow-up with another show grounded in relatable sports-goals and believable emotionality. For the most part, they did not. It’s a true rarity for RAW to be good two weeks in a row. So rare, in fact, that it hasn’t actually happened yet in 2015. This week’s episode was a cross between what made last week’s episode a success, and what has made the vast majority of episodes unsuccessful. While the main-event Survivor Series-style match provided a thin throughline, with the exception of the Fatal Four Way women’s match between Becky, Sasha, Brie, and Paige there was not a single match that mattered on a three-hour wrestling show.
For a match to “matter” it has to feed into a developing story or, at the very least, offer a deeper understanding of a character and that character’s place in a larger fictional universe. The bumps suffered by the professional wrestlers must be logged in a memory bank that contributes to the growing mythology of their character.
I have yet to see Cesaro in a match that actually mattered the past several months following his classic against John Cena for the United States Championship.
Despite his golden ticket, I have no idea who Sheamus is nor what his plans are nor why he’s even competing in any match whatsoever.
I don’t know why King Barrett is even walking down the aisle let alone referring to himself as a King (considering the fact that his King of the Ring victory is never mentioned and has had no affect on his status in the organization).
I don’t know why John Cena, the main character of RAW if ever there was one, has vanished.
Certainly I can go on Google and learn the real-world reasons John Cena is taking time off, but the fictional world of RAW doesn't seem to think an explanation is necessary.
“People don’t care,” I can imagine someone behind the curtain saying, “they just want to be entertained. And if he’s out of their mind they’ll pop that much more when he returns.”
Because RAW’s fiction is so tenuously held together by the forth-wall-breaking conceit of “Entertain everyone!”, there is rarely any logical justification for any of what we’re seeing on RAW, especially why a “sports entertainer” even bothers coming down to the ring to “compete” for anything. What are they competing for if, as Vince McMahon suggested in his interview with Stone Cold Steve Austin, the championship doesn’t really “matter”? Are they competing for pops? Am I watching athletic actors bump for pops without the slightest veil of a fictional justification for those bumps? If that’s the case, then I can’t justify watching this three-hour body-eating beast of a variety show.
We don’t know what the stakes are. We don’t know how a win or a loss factors into a wrestler’s rise or burial. This is what happens when kayfabe ceases to exist entirely and, simultaneously, when cheers and boos no longer play a factor in determining the success or demise of a pro-wrestler in the company. If there is no fiction to justify the events on RAW, and if our cheers and boos don't justify the events on RAW, then what are we actually watching?
It’s very clear today that a pro-wrestler on the main roster lives and dies by the personal preferences of one man and a team of bureaucrats, and I have no interest in watching a three-hour Vince McMahon popularity contest. The Vince McMahon High School For Gifted Sports Entertainers has absolutely nothing to do with anything remotely entertaining nor valuable to people's lives, and I doubt I'm alone in this belief.
I don’t care who Vince McMahon has a crush on or who Vince McMahon regards as the “Total Package” because, as history has demonstrated, those biases reveal a fundamental disconnect from reality. It's also not interesting to experience one individual's tastes, biases, prejudices, and worldview when that singular perspective informs a never-ending story. The experience is tantamount to getting caught in a dinner-party conversation with someone who drones on endlessly about their rare coin collection and never even asked you if you're interested in rare coins in the first place.
Art is unavoidably an expression of an individual's perspective, sometimes informed by a larger worldview and sometimes informed by the perspective of other artists working on the same project. Even the most intensely solitary arts (poetry, literature, sculpture, painting etc) are finite experiences, however.
They have an ending. Even team-based art like film and theater which relies on a communal effort and a variety of perspectives has a running-time. That running-time, as well as the conventions of plot, character, and the three-act structure, serves as a kind of checks and balances system on the artist so that their perspective doesn't run wild on the audience or the performers assisting their creation. Without those conventions the artist or the creator's point of view transforms into incoherent, self-aggrandazing mush. If you watch a film that espouses a worldview you disagree with or spotlights an actor you find distasteful or untalented, you're only subjected to that flawed creation for two hours. You leave the theater, you shrug it off, and you go about your day.
But what if you couldn't leave that hellish theater?
What if you had to stay and keep watching that flawed, ridiculous movie for three hundred and sixty five days a year, several hours at a time each week?
That's why it's so hard to watch the WWE consistently and why so many fans find it beneficial to take a hiatus (as many currently are). You become truly fatigued by Vince McMahon's idea of entertainment. It is impossible to maintain a sustained interest in a singular vision to this gargantuan degree, especially when professional wrestling is a medium that requires a variety of perspectives (the audience's included) to thrive.
A booker tuned in to reality would build a modern main roster around names like Kevin Owens, Cesaro, a non-neutered Seth Rollins, a non-neuterd Dean Ambrose, a less talkative Roman Reigns, John Cena as a veteran with the power to build younger talent, The New Day, Becky Lynch, Charlotte, and Sasha Banks to name a select few.
But that's not happening, despite any and all evidence supporting the fact that this is, quite possibly, the best roster the WWE has ever had. How could it be that a company with so much talent at its disposal presents the majority of that talent as expendable bump-puppets who fill time? Might the reason so many perceive today's roster as "lacking personality" and not having the guts to "grab the brass ring" be because the man running the show thinks that way? How else is the vast gap in style and enthusiasm between NXT and RAW explained. NXT tells you that it has the best pro-wrestlers in the world, and you believe it. RAW tells you that these guys and girls aren't as good as The Rock, Steve Austin, Trish, and Lita. That's only true if the show books it to be true.
When there is no unifying fiction other than Vince McMahon's idea of greatness (e.g “The WWE is a professional wrestling sports league where the best pro-wrestlers compete to become champion”) the business becomes so transparent that it’s almost impossible to become emotionally invested in a particular performer.
For example, I cannot bring myself to enjoy the sight of Cesaro working nor the sea of Cesaro Section signs. All of it just leaves me feeling dejected and hopeless.
I know, the instant I see it, that it only matters if Vince McMahon thinks it matters. I can cheer for Cesaro until my lungs explode. That intensity is rendered meaningless if McMahon disagrees. And so my fandom of Cesaro and my appreciation for his work gets twisted into something deeply unsettling; as soon as I feel happiness and excitement creep into my soul as my chosen heroes ascend, dread rears its hideous head and I know that it's all for naught should Vince decide someone isn't "connecting".
How else does one explain the curious absence of stars like Damien Sandow?
Damien Sandow was booked to fail for full year, and he took that vindictive booking and transformed it into something lucrative, entertaining, and beautiful. Damien Sandow is so good that he proved that he could overcome purposefully bad booking designed to humiliate him. He proved Vince McMahon wrong, the worst sin one can commit in 2015. So where is Sandow now? He's wrestling house shows and dark matches. He has been taken off television because the man in charge realized his mistake; if you put Sandow on TV, he'll get over with the audience no matter how he's booked. How do you fix that? Stop booking him altogether.
It's very easy to become frustrated, even disheartened by this fairly bleak depiction of the WWE.
I've painted this picture so as to illustrate just how superb Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch are.
They shook me out of this dejection.
From the moment Sasha Banks appeared onscreen, admiring herself in the mirror, I forgot everything else and just focused on the instantly recognizable star-power radiating off the screen. When she speaks, when she glides out from behind the curtain, when she bounces on the ring apron, and when she synchs in The Bank Statement it's impossible not to be captivated if you have eyes and a pulse. She slices through the nonsense of RAW and creates an entire world around her, populated with swagger, charm, and conviction. The cheer "We Want Sasha!" is more than the refrain of a jilted fanbase. "We Want Sasha!" is synonymous with "We Want To Believe!"
Talents like Sasha Banks, Charlotte, Paige, and Becky Lynch make believers out of cynics.
And last night was the story of Becky Lynch's arrival on the main roster. Shoved into a subservient role since her debut, Becky was finally free to step out and display her athletic grace and her raw intensity within the confines of a relatable story. She wanted to pound Paige into oblivion. That concentration inevitably cost her the victory, but not before getting her shots in and not before overtaking the entire match with a flurry of suplexes, dropkicks, and unmatched speed.
I've not seen a more focused babyface in recent years. She didn't play to the crowd or ask for the crowd's approval or for the crowd's permission. She didn't do anything to "entertain". Everything she did, she did to win. She showed up to fight and her focus didn't deviate from her opponents. That's the perspective that creates a believable world inside the ring. That's the perspective that wakes people up and draws them in.
That's the perspective that inspires people to chant, "This is wrestling!"
No crowd has ever chanted "This is Sports Entertainment".
The epilogue of the match was a straightforward, quality promo from Charlotte that helped push the Divas Championship story toward Survivor Series. The emphasis on how Paige has made the feud about Charlotte's family, and how Charlotte wants to prove herself apart from the Flair name, is the kind of believable story the female performers have needed since debuting on the main roster.
This series of promos and this match stood out as the most recognizable highlight of the evening, the most consistent and believable story that made good use of the talent.
It is the bright spot burning in the dark.
It is proof that no matter the perspective of the booker, greatness refuses to be snuffed out of existence entirely.
I am grateful to Sasha and Becky for spreading this life-affirming message simply by telling their story and by performing honestly. They only need to enter the arena to transform a barren creative landscape into a vibrant world of possibility.