THE RAW REVIEW
(Writer’s Note: I will not be offering my impressions of this entire episode. I will instead focus on a specific issue related to the WWE World Heavyweight Championship-story and Seth Rollins. If you would like to know the full results of the show CLICK HERE. I hope members of the WWE will remain open minded as they read the thoughts of this concerned, loyal viewer)
The fact that pro-wrestling is a never-ending narrative can sometimes weigh on the viewer - especially if you write about the medium. Repetition is inevitable in any kind of storytelling, but when RAW is as highly structured and formulaic as it is due to the WWE’s adherence to a more corporate, less organic creative-model, the company’s rigid storytelling patterns and reductionist characterization becomes all to clear.
Cowardice is not the only villainous human trait.
And yet cowardice is all that defines the WWE heel (especially the heel-champions).
Seth Rollins has transformed into this cowardly champion character, unwilling to defend his title against anyone despite having displayed a great deal of self-assuredness and tenacity on his way to getting the title.
Randy Orton and Roman Reigns are now the brave babyfaces chasing that title. The reason they’re justified in their pursuit is that they were cheated out of their rightful place as champion by the sniveling, cowardly Rollins.
This dynamic results in a game of musical chair-booking where the champion finds himself in an undesirable title defense at every pay-per-view. The booking has to consistently put this character in a series of title defenses that he doesn’t want to participate in while ensuring the stipulations are convoluted enough to excuse his inevitable victory.
All the while this narrative relies on the audience’s desire to see that coward get his eventual comeuppance. This, and this alone, is the payoff, the one-note that this song possesses.
Seth Rollins is playing the same character that Randy Orton played a little over a year ago.
Before Orton, CM Punk played that character.
It’s a detestable character, but not for the right reasons.
It’s a detestable character because it’s not an interesting character.
It’s a character that simply doesn’t result in compelling, logical drama worth getting emotionally invested in. It’s a character that hurts performers, the ripple-effect of this character’s existence radiating throughout the entire company and deeply affecting the viewer’s enjoyment of the product between significant pay-per-views.
It is not entertaining to watch people who don’t want to do things.
It is not entertaining to watch people who don’t want to do things be forced into situations where they must do things only to then create a means of avoiding doing things until, eventually, finding themselves in a situation where they’re shamed for not wanting to do said things.
This is a dynamic that hurts the babyface performers as much as it hurts the heel performer (if not more).
How can a babyface like Randy Orton or Roman Reigns or anyone who goes up against the cowardly champion appear strong, intelligent, and capable if they continue to fail as a result of convoluted booking?
This is a world where everyone, heel and face alike, has to rely on a litany of excuses to advance.
Orton and Reigns’ argument for why they should get a title shot is inevitably operating from a place of complacency, not determination. Their opponent cheated and that’s why they keep getting title shot after title shot. They’re not fighting to earn their spot. They’re relying on an excuse to propel them to the top, and that’s the exact same path the cowardly villain they’re pursuing takes.
Might this be why there's no babyface to really rally behind? Might these be why the WWE Universe has been so reluctant to embrace anyone the WWE has attempted to raise up to top-tier status over the past fifteen years?
Whether they realize it or not, the WWE fans are forced to watch a retread story populated by a collection of characters whom don’t want to be doing what they’re doing while they cite a convoluted precedent for why they’re owed something they haven’t really earned.
No one appears strong. No one appears capable.
Everyone appears complacent.
Could Stone Cold Steve Austin been born out of such an environment?
Add to this character-complacency a gargantuan three hours of screen-time and a self-loathing commentary accompaniment and it becomes entirely clear why so many of the WWE fans are so disenfranchised with the product.
It’s hard to watch RAW unless you’re purely focused on the show’s surface; colorful characters, in-ring action, larger than life conflicts, and appealing spectacle.
Go beyond that surface and it simply becomes difficult to go on watching characters who hate themselves, hate what they’re doing, and only want to negate progress.
It's during these down-time months where pro-wrestling characters develop who they'll be at the bigger pay-per-views. It's clear then, given the WWE's reliance on this cowardly-heel-champ trope, why "top guys" are so hard to come by. They're not developed during these less significant months. It's incredibly difficult to become emotionally invested in characters who perform from places of fear and uncertainty. It's difficult to regard Roman Reigns, Randy Orton, and Seth Rollins as important people worthy of top-tier status when they putz around in these convoluted plots that distract from their abilities.
No one is enhanced as a result of the booking complexities and repetitive, simpleton characterizations and so the audience doesn't get the time nor does the audience find the incentive to believe a guy like Roman Reigns is worthy of winning The Royal Rumble or that Seth Rollins is anything but a transitional champ or that Randy Orton's best years aren't behind him.
Coming out of WrestleMania it would have made perfect sense for Seth Rollins to want to fight Randy Orton. The villainous character that stole that title from Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns would have wanted to prove his naysayers wrong or he would have wanted to cast a veil of confidence on everyone's eyes. Having lost to Orton at Mania, he would have naturally wanted to defeat Orton at the next pay-per-view to prove his point. With the benefit of J&J and maybe an eye-poke or a chair-shot while the ref’s back was turned, Rollins could have easily scored a heel-victory over Orton at an Extreme Rules that was booked in a more straightforward fashion. A heel doesn't need to be weak or react to random opportunity. A heel can be active. A heel can create opportunities for themselves. A heel can believe in themselves and have confidence and be strong without sacrificing villainy. Brock Lesnar proved this rather easily. His transition into a face occurred only when he defied The Authority and went up against another great heel in Seth Rollins.
Kevin Owens, The NXT Champion, demonstrates exactly what a modern heel can be without ever showing signs of cowardice. The booking supports his villainy, allowing him to be dominant without ever suggesting his dominance is random or resultant from cowardice.
The Seth Rollins who did battle with Brock Lesnar at Night of Champions was an active Seth Rollins. He was a character whose delusion was often justified. He demonstrated a want and a need that originated from a place of passion, not complacency. He lied. He cheated. He used J&J whenever he could. He tried to redirect people’s attention away from the truth.
But he was still capable. He took great risks to get what he wanted.
He did villainous things well.
Now the character, like his enemies, exists in a world that’s completely out of his hands, the main event of pay-per-views “voted on” by the WWE Universe. Not only does this kind of booking/storytelling make all of the characters appear weak and hapless, it makes the fictional WWE organization appear as though they also have no control over these events.
And so everyone (characters and viewers) is now trapped in the coward-champion’s booking loop, a vast black hole from which there seems no escape. And your ability to be entertained by all of this depends upon how much you enjoy seeing the babyface’s finisher at the end of every other tag-match main event. The plots will become increasingly convoluted and the character’s motivations will become increasingly unclear until, eventually, Brock Lesnar returns and rights this wayward narrative ship.
And that is unfair to the viewer and to the talent, particularly Seth Rollins.
Look at the current championship story and you will see a jigsaw puzzle of ill-fitting pieces only occasionally intersecting in logical ways, all of it undermining the undeniable excellence of Rollins - Kane’s moral dilemma, Roman Reigns’ ever-changing demeanor and desires, The Authority’s ever-changing role as heel/villain/promotor/booker, championship matches “voted on” by the WWE Universe, and Randy Orton…
There is another way, WWE.
People enjoy watching characters who want to accomplish their dreams, even if those dreams are nefarious, twisted, dirty, reprehensible, and destructive.
People want to watch stories that are frank and honest, no matter how complex they might be, stories that seem to be in control of themselves and stories that seem to be working toward a definitive point on the narrative horizon.
Seth Rollins should want to keep a stranglehold on his title, but it simply doesn’t make sense for the character to be afraid at this point in his career. Relying on the fan’s desire to see the coward fail is placing too much faith in a dated storytelling style at odds with the youth of this roster.
We’ve seen enough cowardly champions.
We’ve seen how this character negatively affects the talent’s ability to get over. We’ve seen how this character inevitably creates convoluted booking dilemmas that result in lackluster pay-per-views and tepid audience responses.
It is long-past time for something truly new, WWE, and all it starts with transforming your perspective on what makes for a good heel and what makes for a good babyface in this PG Era.
You have a brilliant performer in Seth Rollins, someone who can represent your company incredibly well. But he must be permitted to operate outside the shackles of a characterization that does the entire company a disservice.
Trust him to work heel.
Trust him to entertain the crowd while still getting the crowd to boo him.
Trust him to be an active character, a villain with a fire in his heart and a dream in his mind.
Trust Seth Rollins to be the villain pro-wrestling fans deserve in 2015.
Feel free to comment below with your thoughts. If you'd like to hear my real-time review of the Extreme Rules pay-per-view then subscribe to The Work of Wrestling podcast in iTunes. You can also contact me via the various social media links below!