THE RAW REVIEW
At the end of this week's RAW, I found myself delightfully intrigued.
But, at the time of this writing, I’m really not sure if that feeling is because I like The Undertaker’s story or because I like The Undertaker’s lighting.
The complexity of this episode is resultant from a blend of genuinely interesting attempts to tell good stories and occasionally confusing creative choices that don’t always coincide with a segment’s previously established tone or the seeming direction of a narrative.
It’s very easy to overthink a lot of these segments, to see the WWE setting up heel-turns and narrative twists and unexpected reveals at Sunday’s PPV. It’s very easy to think your way into a corner (aided by the words of little birds) where John Cena is going to turn heel and Dean Ambrose is going to turn on Roman Reigns and Sting is going to cost The Undertaker the match and on and on it goes and it stops with everyone’s communal dissatisfaction. The WWE and its fans play a terrible little game these days that really gets in the way of being able to just enjoy, or even tell, a good story.
We’re all far too focused on outsmarting each other rather than having fun together.
I’m convinced this dynamic between the company and the fan, established over the past several decades where a “twist” ending is regarded as the pinnacle of a payoff, plays a large part in an unnecessarily contentious relationship. The WWE tries so hard to stay ahead of its overly prodding fanbase while also trying to deliver epic, big-draw match-ups. That’s a paradoxical philosophy that regards the fan both as an enemy worth thwarting and a friend worth satisfying.
The fan then, suspect of everything the company ever does, desirous of every little detail, pokes and prods and dredges up half-heard, half-formed notions about what’s going to happen at the next show. And then the company, learning that their idea has been outed or, even worse, polluted, starts over again and creates something needlessly complicated.
This environment makes for insecure storytelling, and incredibly obnoxious, jaded viewers.
When a storyteller’s goal is to outsmart the viewer instead of moving the viewer to a satisfying catharsis, the storyteller becomes transparently manipulative or, worse, unsure of himself. The storyteller stops thinking about a character’s psychology and only thinks about what’s going to shock the viewer - the storyteller thinks about someone’s else’s mental framework, not what's logical and compelling. The viewer, much like an obstinate child, then recognizes the attempt to pull the wool over his eyes and then spends the rest of his days trying to tear that wool down in spite rather than absorbing a story.
As I watch this episode of RAW I feel the effort of the players. I see and hear their commendable attempts to get ideas over in the hearts and minds of the viewer. But I also perceive a fog of half-formed designs that obscures the central conceit or emotional power of a particular story, inevitably resulting in the fan trying to fill in the gaps or the fan passively thinking, “Well…it’s SummerSlam…I guess I’m excited for that.”
Two segments in particular epitomize the WWE’s far-too-complicated approach at storytelling: the contract signing between John Cena & Seth Rollins and The Undertaker/Brock Lesnar closing scene.
I thoroughly enjoyed both segments, and thought everyone did an excellent job in their role.
But the details of these segments are incredibly important to consider when judging if the presented information is actually effective at telling a recognizable story that creates incentive to buy a pay-per-view.
This show, theoretically, and these stories, are supposed to make you want to pay money to witness their climax.
Do you want to pay money to see the climax of a good story?
Or do you want to pay money to see SummerSlam because it’s SummerSlam?
In the case of Cena/Rollins, the scene is set with an excellently delivered, but confusing promo by Seth Rollins. Since the night began with The Authority not being their vicious fan-hating selves and instead being promoters (something I’m a big advocate for), their alliance with the evil Seth Rollins already crosses some paradoxical wires in the viewer’s brain.
The question becomes: What’s the relationship? Is The Authority good now and disappointed in Seth? Is The Authority pretending to be good again only to later pull the rug out from under us? They’re being nicer to the fans, but they’re still willing to build Seth a statue if he wins on Sunday? Who is who? Who wants what? What the hell is going on here?
Even if the “casual viewer” is unconcerned with those questions, that wonky characterization registers in the back of their mind subconsciously and inhibits their emotional investment. I want the WWE to know that I'm not needlessly racking their ideas through the coals on this. I have no interest in nitpicking, which is what I imagine many a reader will perceive this to be.
I'm attempting to diagnose unavoidable problems that arise when one simply considers what they're watching in the pursuit of a potential fix.
Seth began his promo with classic heel fair, poking fun at the local sports team, mocking everyone’s intelligence, undermining John Cena’s manhood. But then Seth’s promo transformed into something reminiscent of a CM Punk pipebomb.
Seth eloquently labelled John Cena a "disease", a "villain", and called himself the "cure".
Cena’s inevitable haters cheered at this. People got happy. People got excited. And Seth really seemed to settle into himself. He seemed to believe what he was saying.
The story seemed to be revealing a new, unexpected layer to itself. It became more interesting thanks to the quality of Rollins’ delivery and the way his words spoke to a large portion of the audience. Rollins was “flipping the script”, making it seem as though he was the secret savior, the antidote to the long-despised corporate cancer dubbed "John Cena".
Then, just when Rollins was really hitting his stride, ascending to the status of a Cena-hater’s hero, he called Daniel Bryan a “cripple”.
Everyone loves Daniel Bryan. Cena hater and lover alike.
And so the good-feelings that this Rollins promo had just inspired were negated in what seemed to be yet another attempt to earn typical heel heat. But it doesn’t earn heat. It just confuses people, and it just makes people angry at the writers and the bookers for not letting us feel what we naturally want to feel instead of remaining beholden to a formula in entirely random ways. And Rollins’ characterization becomes even murkier in the process. His character becomes unlikable because he's a poorly-constructed character not because he's a good heel. He was playing to the crowd two minutes before he called Bryan a “cripple”. He acknowledged that they liked what he was saying and he seemed to like that they suddenly liked him.
Why would the Seth Rollins character be smart enough to play to the fans who hate Cena and lure them into his trap, but not also smart enough to know calling Bryan a “cripple” would alienate them?
It almost felt like a mistake. But I doubt it was. I think it’s the heavy hand of the script.
Put simply, it’s too much.
All clarity goes to the wayside and it becomes impossible to just know and enjoy who and what you’re watching.
And then Cena comes out and it gets even more complicated.
Cena, focusing his promo on Triple H’s legacy, seems to open up another layer to this story.
The fight with Rollins for the title suddenly becomes about Triple H wanting to ensure John Cena doesn’t match the sixteen-time-world-champion-record set by Triple H’s mentor, Ric Flair.
The story becomes about Triple H wanting to mold Seth Rollins in his own image so that his legacy will live on for all time in the world of wrestling.
That is a good story and it has been told sometimes subtly sometimes overtly over the past several months. But it’s popped in and out of the fiction as a footnote rather than the driving force, and the quality of that particular story has suffered as a result. Sometimes Triple H is trying to crush Seth into a diamond, sometimes he’s tired of Seth, sometimes Seth is a coward who loves manipulating Triple H & Steph, sometimes they're buddies, sometimes Seth resents the pressure, and sometimes Seth is a vicious descendent of the Cerebral Assassin poised to dominate the business through cunning and athletic genius.
The bookers clearly wanted to give the Cena/Rollins SummerSlam match added depth so they went to this legacy-well. But they placed the weight of this rather lofty concept entirely on John Cena’s shoulders for one promo on the go-home RAW.
As great as Cena is on the mic and as well as he did last night, these epic ideas about legacies and sixteen-time championship records and the past, the present, and the future of the business deserves a more appropriate forum to be fully realized and fully understood by the audience.
I didn’t even remember that this could be John Cena’s sixteenth championship win until he said it last night. I can’t help but think that’s a bit of a problem.
If the company knew it wanted to go this more complicated route, there’s no reason a ten minute mini-doc couldn’t have summed all this up last week while Cena was away - alleviating some of that pressure this week, and keeping things easily understandable and focused on the prize. If this was a last minute decision for this particular RAW, then it might have been better to let the story be little more than title vs title, and bring up the deeper legacy-details after the fact or even by way of commentary. In a parallel universe where Cena wins at SummerSlam this Sunday, he can just come out on RAW the next night and explain why a sixteenth win is important, and then transition into a feud with the Rollins/Triple H union.
Too much too late is, in may ways, much harder to digest than too little too late; there was already plenty of reasons for John Cena to want to beat Seth Rollins. Now he wants to beat him because he also, kind of, sort of, maybe, wants to beat Triple H?
In the end, the potential depth is almost lost and the viewer just has to continue relying on the idea that Cena is a babyface and Seth is a heel and SummerSlam is SummerSlam and the Network is only $9.99.
As for The Undertaker and Brock Lesnar - this story becomes convoluted more as a result of very specific choices in performance rather than anything else.
Heyman expertly sold the match and told the real story.
The real story is as follows: how does Brock Lesnar learn to respect another human being?
I’ve long-thought The Undertaker/Brock Lesnar match should end with Brock showing Taker the ultimate sign of respect, extending his hand to The Deadman after a hard-fought war.
It’s been established that Brock respects absolutely no one, not even the most respected man in wrestling. To solidify Brock as the company’s top babyface and for him to undergo a real character-transformation, it only makes sense for him to eventually come to admire The Undertaker.
A SummerSlam that ends with a bruised and battered Taker and Lesnar shaking hands and raising their arms together, the beef squashed in believable fashion, is an organic payoff many fans wouldn’t see coming. In today’s age of guess-work, natural conclusions are actually the most surprising conclusions. And Heyman has set the stage for that natural conclusion by emphasizing, repeatedly, how much Brock does not respect The Undertaker.
The company clearly understands that Brock Lesnar is a babyface.
This was his homecoming.
Brock smiled and played to the crowd in a way I’ve never seen before - and it was great.
It seemed the company’s understanding of the audience was sharp, and as though they let the crowd do what the crowd wanted to do.
That understanding breaks down a bit with regard to The Undertaker.
The Undertaker interrupted Brock’s celebration with a kick to the balls.
Analysts and fans have wondered whether Taker had turned heel for this feud or not since he first gave Brock a low-blow at the last pay-per-view. On this night, with a second low blow and the chorus of boos it inspired, it seemed as though the company had finally committed to the story’s natural direction. It seemed as though Undertaker had settled into a surprisingly well-fitting role as the bitter villain. He appeared fresh and interesting, a newfound luster emitting from his grim stature. His eyes told the story. Lesnar and Heyman sold the pain and the shock.
But it’s hard to get people to boo The Undertaker now, even with a low blow in Brock’s hometown, especially when he then performs beloved gestures like the throat-cut and the kneel-pose. An Undertaker that remains classic-Undertaker inspires too much nostalgic love to go fully heel and sell that idea.
Undertaker didn’t literally kick Brock when Brock was down.
Undertaker didn’t kick Brock in the groin a second or third time to drive the point home.
He kicked Brock once, earned the heat, but then performed a classic Chokeslam and a classic Tombstone Piledriver and stuck out his tongue; all things the crowd loves to cheer.
The scene feels less like the company and the performers committing to a relatable sense of character and instead trying to straddle a very shaky, limp, ill-defined line that tries to reconcile people’s present understanding of Brock Lesnar as a babyface with people’s past love of The Undertaker (despite the overtly despicable nature of Taker’s actions).
Make no mistake. In narrative terms, Undertaker is absolutely, positively the bad guy. But that prospect seems to frighten the WWE who wants to preserve Taker’s positive image for…something in the future. Such is a shame because The Undertaker has found new life in this feud and has merged his old-fashoined, over-the-top mysticism with modern believability. He seems to want to play it full-heel.
The most confounding and dare I write almost-regrettable decision in this particular scene was The Undertaker stopping at the top of the ramp and raising his arm in triumph.
He’d just kicked a man in the testicles.
He'd just blindsided a man in that man's hometown, cheated because he wouldn’t have been able to win otherwise, walked away, and then raised his arm as if he’d just won the Superbowl.
Only a schoolyard bully aged ten (or someone with that schoolyard bully’s mentality) would be proud of kicking a man in the giblets.
It is a shameful act, especially in the world of pro-wrestling where it’s long-been established that it’s the classic heel-move along with an eye-poke.
The fan associates Taker raising his arm in that manner with feelings of joy and love, and it felt as though fans were supposed to feel that way again. Taker’s arm-raising didn’t register as an attempt to subvert those expectations. It was not an interestingly ironic gesture that suggested The Undertaker was no longer the man we wanted him to be. It was as though we were supposed to be proud of Taker for kicking Brock in the guts. Commentary did nothing to sell Taker’s villainous actions and Taker didn’t do enough to Brock to totally transform.
And so…again…confusion. Murky characterization. The story fades into the background and the draw becomes purely the spectacle of the match itself.
The story doesn’t breathe.
The story isn’t permitted to be what it wants to be.
The story isn’t allowed to be as fascinating as it can be.
How interesting is the following: Brock Lesnar, a part-timer the people despise, defeats the most respected winning streak and one of the most beloved performers in the medium’s history at WrestleMania. Then, against all the odds, slowly but surely, over the course of several months, Brock Lesnar morphs into a hero and the man he defeated transforms into a bitter, hated villain.
That is the natural flow of this story.
That is the natural flow of the fan. The fan chose to love Brock Lesnar (or they think they did).
The modern fans, many of whom don’t have strong ties to Taker, were entirely willing to overlook Taker’s history and keep chanting “Suplex City”. Because chanting “Suplex City” is fun, and people just want to have fun when they watch RAW.
They don’t want to cheer a guy for kicking another guy in the balls (in this way).
Fun can be achieved when those in charge stop concerning themselves with outsmarting the audience or strong-arming the audience into a desired direction or into an unclear direction.
Pro-wrestling is an improvisational narrative medium, in the ring and behind the scenes. To capitalize on the emotional power of these stories, the WWE would be wise to concern themselves less with people’s expectations and less with people's past feelings and more with people’s present desire to believe.