It's no secret that Raw has been struggling for weeks. It couldn't find much momentum in the build to Survivor Series, and last week's show was one of the worst of the year. The big problems seemed to be just too much time to fill, and not enough meaningful conflict to fill it with. The evidence of complacency and stagnation has been there for weeks: Kane in multiple main events, the women's division spinning its wheels, and the cruiserweights getting a decent chunk of time despite a complete lack of storylines. I spent most of last weeks' review deriding the show for putting out such an abysmal three hours, so it's a pleasant surprise to be able to say that this week's Raw is a completely different show. It has stakes, good matches, and focused storytelling. Apparently one week can make a big difference.
Reigns, Joe, and Jordan get the storytelling right
The clearest example of why this Raw succeeds where others haven't is the "opening segment." The quotation marks seem necessary because in this case, Raw spends its first 45 minutes or so on a single storyline, anchored by a lengthy match. Lets break it down piece by piece, because the structure and focus of the segment informs much of the night's storytelling. First, Kurt Angle comes to the ring to book a match for later in the night between Roman Reigns and Samoa Joe for the Intercontinental Championship. Right away the show wastes no time establishing stakes. There's no nonsense from Kurt. He comes out to make a logical GM decision, which is refreshing considering how often that doesn't happen.
Angle doesn't even get to Joe's name though before Jason Jordan interrupts and asks for his own opportunity against Reigns. Then Reigns comes out, runs down the kid for going to his daddy for chances rather than stepping up and directly challenging him, leading to Joe coming out, Jordan suplexing Reigns because he's tired of being dismissed, and Reigns giving Jordan his match because he wants to beat the hell out of him. The match itself is great, much like last week's title defense against Elias, but it’s the logic of everyone's motivations that gives the segment its power.
By the end of the match and the first hour of Raw, we have a thorough understanding of where everyone here stands. Roman Reigns is still the Big Dog, but he's got a lot of folks gunning for him. Jordan nearly gets the win a couple of times, and that should worry Reigns if he's heading into a match with Samoa Joe at some point. Joe may be angry and ready to pounce, but he's also waiting for the right moment to strike. He sees Jordan weakening Roman, and he'll take his opportunity when it benefits him most. There's Jordan, who can't snag a win to save his life and yet is so desperate to prove himself that he continues to cross lines, like suplexing Reigns out of nowhere and failing to give Angle the proper respect in his role as GM. On top of all that, Angle is growing weary of his son's entitlement. All of this is stellar, nuanced stuff that's going to make the inevitable payoff all the more satisfying.
Paige makes her in-ring return
That kind of narrative focus defines the best segments of the night. After the Reigns-Jordan-Joe-Angle stuff, Raw immediately fleshes out the Absolution angle with an actual wrestling match. It's a smart choice after last week's rather long-winded promo segment. You need those promos to advance the story's details, but I'd argue that this match does more for the angle than everything that came before it, and that's because Paige is simply a great wrestler.
Her and Sasha have one of the better women's matches on a main roster TV show in quite some time, and that's thanks in large part to the time they get to actually do some work. Running this match allows for Paige to show that she still has everything in her to be the top woman in the division, while also hiding the greenness of Mandy Rose and Sonya Deville. I also appreciate that Paige continues to play mind games with Asuka—and that WWE is committed to telling more than one story—but those segments haven't worked as well. It's just a lot of staring and implied anger, and it undercuts the more vicious aspects of Absolution.
The discarded vessel of Matthew Hardy
All of the above fills about the first half of the show, and that means that by comparison the back half of the episode doesn't feel quite as compelling. But there's still plenty of worthwhile developments, and a hot main event, to keep Raw moving at a pace that's encouraging, especially considering last week's sluggish show. The highlight of the latter half of the show is, without a doubt, Woken/Broken Matt Hardy emerging and having an absolutely bonkers promo duel with Bray Wyatt. The two muse on the universe and identity and other weird things until they both just laugh until the cameras cut away. It's delightful, and with any luck will invigorate both Matt (and the Hardy Boyz in general) and Bray Wyatt.
Woken Matt may be the most fun aspect of the back half of the show, but there's other good stuff too. Elias getting destroyed by Braun Strowman is a lot of fun up until Kane shows up on the titantron and issues a challenge for next week. Finn Balor actually gets a win on TV. Rollins and Ambrose fail to recapture the tag team titles on two occasions, once after a DQ finish and once more after Angle restarts the match under No DQ rules, which allows Samoa Joe to come out and wreck the Shield members he despises. That's great storytelling that ties in everything the rest of the show spent time building. On top of all that the cruiserweights have a real good match that, with Drew Gulak getting the win, actually sets up an intriguing story about the purveyor of the No Fly Zone coming up against the man who's been giving him a bigger platform.
All the pieces fall into place this week. It's hard to even believe this is the same show that ended its previous episode with Kane gasping for air, but I'm grateful that Raw found some much needed momentum this week.
- The best sequence in the cruiserweight match is definitely Cedric Alexander hitting Mustafa Ali with a standing spanish fly, only to have Ali follow that up with a springboard spanish fly from the top rope. Unreal.
- Roman actually dropping some good lines on Jason Jordan this week: "Well he's right about one thing, I am on a lot of posters."
- Serious kudos to Jason Jordan for selling the hell out of his injured knee during his double Northern Lights suplex and the follow-up pin. That's great in-ring storytelling.
- Elias is so chill. "You gave your son another shot, and that's not cool."
- I am very concerned about what WWE is going to do with Nia Jax and Enzo Amore
Roman Reigns defeated Jason Jordan (Intercontinental Championship match); Paige defeated Sasha Banks; Drew Gulak defeated Mustafa Ali, Tony Nese, and Cedric Alexander; Asuka defeated Alicia Fox; Finn Balor defeated Bo Dallas; Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose defeated The Bar (c) via DQ (Raw Tag Team Championship match); The Bar (c) defeated Rollins and Ambrose (No DQ Raw Tag Team Championship match).