THE RAW REVIEW
The purpose of The Work of Wrestling is, first and foremost, to prove the artistic merit of professional wrestling by dissecting the narratives and the subtleties of the craft. Pro-wrestling isn’t a legitimate sport. It’s a form of theater. As such, it naturally demands more than top ten lists, rumors, dirt, predictions, impressions, and click-bait.
You wouldn’t write about Hamlet with a SEO-friendly “Top Ten Soliloquies” post (or you shouldn’t because you wouldn’t be doing it justice). You’d write an essay attempting to prove a thesis, an understanding of the play that you devised based on textual evidence.
Criticism is what professional wrestling deserves considering what the medium actually is. Criticism, when related to art, does not mean relentlessly complaining about why something is a failure. Criticism means “the practice of analyzing, classifying, interpreting, or evaluating literary or other artistic works”.
That’s how I would like to write about Monday Night Raw - examining, in a clear-headed way, the symbolism, the motifs, and the performances of a particular episode.
Instead of pouring over every little detail that failed to resonate with me (as I've done the past few weeks), I want to hone in on one moment of this latest RAW that stuck out as particularly entertaining and emotionally gratifying. Through positive reinforcement, I'm going to demonstrate what it is I believe WWE fans want to see, how this one simple moment represents a wrestling show that appeals to the diehard wrestling fan and the "general audience" alike. It wasn't a perfect scene. There were flaws throughout, but for the sake of this particular review, I'm going to focus on what worked and how it enhanced a larger narrative.
This one moment was a scene shared by Kane, Seth Rollins, and Triple H.
Kane, having been emasculated several weeks in a row at the hands of the coddled, sniveling Seth Rollins, had finally reached a breaking point. Fed up with Seth Rollins’ ungrateful, self-important nature, Kane screamed in Seth’s face:
“You are nothing but a spoiled little punk who’s been given everything and thinks that he earned it. You’re only champion because we made you champion. I handed you the Money in the Bank contract myself. Do you really think that anything would be different if we had recruited Dean Ambrose instead of you? Hell if we wanted to, we could have made El Torito champion!”
This was a truly enjoyable, memorable moment. Even though we were watching three villains have what is, essentially, an office meeting in the middle of the ring, the scene was believable and emotional rewarding. And it was such because of one very simple reason: it was the truth.
Kane spoke the truth. He gave a voice to what the viewer already knew, expressing the viewer’s frustration, giving the viewer something to cheer for.
Beyond that simple, gratifying experience, the Kane character spoke his mind - he ripped away his stifled facade and told Seth Rollins (and the world) exactly how he felt. Truth is infinitely fascinating. A character embracing who they are and what they believe and confidently sharing that truth is one of the most entertaining, powerful moments an audience can witness. Heel or face, villain or hero, reality or fiction, people respond to the truth.
This is why Heath Ledger’s Joker is often regarded as the most enjoyable, almost heroic, character in The Dark Knight. In every scene, The Joker is speaking the truth of his character…even when he’s lying. The Joker is the unsettling, uncontrollable truth of reality unleashed on the unsuspecting, order-seeking masses.
(Watching the infamous interrogation scene from this perspective colors it in a new light - pay attention to how Joker keeps bringing up "the truth", and how The Joker encourages Batman to "not talk like one of them". The Joker knows about Batman's connection to Rachel, peeling away a falsehood Batman has based his entire existence on, and Batman's only defense is to try and beat the Joker into submission. But, as The Joker says, Batman has "nothing to threaten me with, with all your strength". And that's because try as you might, you can't avoid the truth.)
There’s a story here about deeply personal human issues realized by larger than life, archetypal characters. Realism and absurdity is blended in an interesting manner that manages to expose the truths of these fantastical characters and their fantastical world in a way that a more straightforward drama might not.
This is what pro-wrestling can do and should do more often.
The truth is frightening, beautiful, and it can be delightfully cutting.
“Hell, if we wanted to we could have made El Torito Champion!” is one of the best pro-wrestling insults I’ve heard in my entire life as a wrestling fan. It reveals exactly how Kane feels about Seth Rollins, but it also gives us a glimpse behind the curtain of The Authority. We see how The Authority regards its talent. We see how The Authority regards Seth Rollins and we also learn a little bit more about Kane’s role in the company. Kane suddenly seems like a decision-maker, an important cog in the corporate machine and less like a neutered lackey.
The truth, even if it’s the truth of fictional characters, creates conflict and watching that conflict, watching the emotional chaos caused by the truth is an incredibly interesting and entertaining process.
We are treated to three different bodies in motion, three disparate perspectives, three clashing ideals overflowing with purpose, orbiting one another, destined to collide in a cataclysmic event.
Rollins, desperate to promulgate the lie, desperate to fool everyone (including himself) into thinking he became the champion all on his own, needs to silence Kane. Kane, desperate to reclaim his manhood, needs to tear down the veil, even if that means exposing the corruption of The Authority, and Triple H, the company man, just needs everything to calm down and go away for fear that his employees will make him appear unprofessional.
This is a very realistic Human Resources dispute played out in a surprisingly effective way on the grande pro-wrestling stage.
This conflict also represents a legitimate conflict the WWE faces in the real-world.
What Paul Heyman accurately described as the “Disneyfication” of the WWE is at odds with the inevitably violent nature of pro-wrestling storytelling.
The truth of pro-wrestling or, as the WWE calls it, “Sports Entertainment”, is that it’s a violent dance. It’s a form of theater where everything revolves around violence and inevitably culminates in violence. Nothing can be resolved in professional wrestling without, inevitably, someone beating another human being into submission.
How does a creative entity like the WWE remain a corporate, family friendly, publicly traded, inoffensive product while also distributing a violent product?
That’s a difficult limbo to live in. You have to straddle a very specific, very tense wire, and you’re forced to create a new reality for yourself, to develop a palatable fiction so as to ensure the most generalized audience isn’t alienated. You have to create entirely new labels for your product, distancing itself from the hard truth as much as possible without abandoning that truth altogether.
This tug of war results in a large portion of the audience being incredibly angry. It can also result in what many, myself included, have identified as RAW’s schizophrenia - some weeks the show is designed for adults, some weeks it’s designed for kids, and some weeks it hits that perfect middle-ground where it’s just a good, entertaining pro-wrestling show populated with interesting characters.
The violent truth of even the most family friendly “sports entertainment” is unavoidable, however, and so the company, represented in this scene as Triple H, needs to hide that violent truth as best it can, emphasizing the legitimate philanthropic efforts of the company, the reality television extensions of the product, and even go so far as to legitimately ban a finisher like The Curb Stomp.
It’s not as though the creative minds behind the WWE think The Curb Stomp is an inherently bad move or that it shouldn’t be on television.
The WWE’s top bookers and storytellers know that The Curb Stomp was a perfect finishing move. Having booked professional wrestling their entire lives, the men and women behind the curtain understand why the loss of The Curb Stomp is a frustrating, unfortunate reality. They know it’s a shame that the move cannot exist in a world where concussions and athlete-safety must be the priority (or perceived as the priority) at all costs regardless of logic or reality. It doesn’t matter that a slightly botched arm-drag is more legitimately dangerous than a Curb Stomp. The WWE, because of what they are today, must be wary of creating a product where their champion smashes people’s heads into the ground with his boot. Even the name “Curb Stomp” is referencing an incredibly violent act, and it’s surprising that moniker survived as long as it did.
The trouble with placing limits on creativity so as to adhere to political correctness is that narratives and performers might not be able to fully realize their potential - or the constant discouragement might hinder their development. Again, this is something the booker’s in the WWE certainly understand, but it’s also not something they can openly acknowledge, and it transforms into regarding today’s talent as less daring or less capable of "grabbing the brass ring".
Imagine needing to paint your bedroom blue using yellow paint. That would be pretty difficult.
It’s simply an unfortunate situation for everyone involved - the company, the employees, and the fans. Everyone is existing in a very pent-up creative environment where we’re all trying to figure out exactly what “sports entertainment” means and exactly what it can be for three hours on a Monday Night. It’s an ongoing struggle that will most likely continue for many years to come, and it stems from an inability to embrace the truth of pro-wrestling - that crusty, violent truth fundamentally at odds with a corporate show.
It’s interesting that such realities are being realized in the actual fiction the company creates, and perhaps we’re seeing these stories with The Authority due to the subconscious conflicts of the WWE’s bookers. Maybe the reason we’ve seen a nefarious, corporate figurehead do battle with an underdog character, or a character who represents a more humble, chaotic truth is because the man in charge of the show struggles to reconcile those two aspects of his own personality; the businessman and the fun-loving beer-drinking, unkempt man of the people.
Perhaps the WWE is, and remains, a massive metaphor for one man's mind.
The truth is the purest enemy of the corporate lifestyle.
Hence why Triple H repeatedly asked Kane to stop talking, to go to the back, to get out of the ring to discuss the issue “like men”. The wrestler Triple H would never have said anything like that. The wrestler Triple H believed that the only way to settle something "like a man" was to fight it out in the ring.
In the corporate world, “men” do not solve their problems with chokeslams and knees to faces. They hold clandestine meetings in dimly lit offices. They shake hands and dance around the truth while smoking cigars and trading innuendos.
The conflict between Kane, Seth Rollins, and Triple H is the WWE’s real-world conflict.
The conflict between Kane, Seth Rollins, and Triple H is the ongoing war between the crusty, uncontrollable, unpredictable, chaotic, incredibly entertaining truth and the clean, regimented, endlessly predictable, benign lie.
Running throughout this narrative is another element of chaos, a self-serving force that operates outside all limits, all moral boundaries: Randy Orton.
Orton, in an act of rebellion against the restrictions placed upon his finishing move at Extreme Rules, delivers that finishing move at random throughout the entire episode to anyone and everyone, eventually succeeding in hitting Seth Rollins with that banned move.
In this way, the narrative demonstrates that free-will inevitably succeeds.
You cannot control people. You cannot put parameters on passion. And, when you do, you create something inferior or uninteresting.
Think of the RKO as representing Randy Orton’s truest self.
In attempting to restrict Randy’s soul, Seth Rollins found himself trapped in a cage with Randy - the point being that if you try to put limits on a person, if you try to stifle someone’s creativity, you’ll find yourself at the mercy of those same limits.
You’ll be the maker of your own demise.
In reality, this conflict is realized in Seth Rollins' new, inferior finisher. The restriction placed on The Curb Stomp has resulted in a finishing move that's far too indistinguishable from Dean Ambrose's and doesn't quite appear as devastating.
So, in the fiction we see the adverse affects of restriction and in reality we see the adverse affects of restriction.
This conflict is also realized in the difference in tone & style between what happened in the ring and what happened in backstage segments.
The scene between Triple H, Kane, and Rollins was palpable and exciting when they were in the ring. They seemed to speaking from places of truth, each performer listening to the other, each performer participating in a good, improvisational exchange, all the while the crowd fed off the scene's evolving emotional energy.
This is life.
This is entertainment.
This is pro-wrestling.
This is good television.
Then, when we went behind the curtain, Kane, Rollins, and Triple H had similar exchanges but these moments felt more scripted and less sincere, the parameters of "entertainment" and backstage-presentation hovering over the potential, emotional depth.
Being "out there" performing in front of the audience is unavoidably more lively and exciting and where the WWE's stories seem to want to play out.
This is a convoluted situation where the WWE is actually critiquing themselves, perhaps unwittingly and perhaps purposefully, for embracing a more corporate lifestyle.
And the constant back and forth in the actual quality of the television show, transitioning between the truth of pro-wrestling (the excellence of what happens in the ring) and the lie of “entertainment” (the scripted quality of backstage segments) ends up becoming a real-world symbol of the company in 2015.
The WWE critiques itself in its own fiction, all the while continuing to create what it is criticizing.
And it also can’t help but keep creating what it continues to criticize because the show has yet to discover that sweet spot where it remains TVPG, but also remains thoughtful, grounded in emotional realism, and true to simulated combat.
If it sounds complicated…it’s because it is complicated.
And that’s fine.
But there’s beauty in narrative simplicity. There's beauty in a realistic style of presentation that reflects the depth of the narrative - a visual style we often see on NXT. There's beauty in stripping away all the self-criticism and twisty-turny heel & face back and forth and stating frankly, "This is what it is!"
So I will leave you, and whomever in the WWE might stumble upon this review, with one very simple, humble thought: embracing your truth results in some of the best television on television, and it can remain TVPG.
Hearing Kane say exactly what he was thinking and feeling and watching Triple H and Seth Rollins react in an honest way made for compelling TV. The talent and the elements are all there to create consistently entertaining, thoughtful stories that reflect very real human emotions. All that needs to be done to improve the overall viewing experience and satisfy the widest audience possible is for the entire show to emanate from that place of human truth.
A Monday Night Raw that remains family friendly all the while exploring what inspires people to resolve their conflicts through athletic competition is a Monday Night Raw I’d look forward to.
And it’s entirely possible.
The WWE’s auto-critique narratives where deceptive corporations restrict creativity and honesty may come to function as prophesy.
The Triple H character often says “The Authority always wins”.
The truth is that there’s an eternal struggle between chaos and control, reality and fiction, good and evil, the forces of nature that we’ve identified in a myriad of ways.
The truth…is that the truth always wins.
Embrace that truth.
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