Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn are destined to be friends and foes forever. Whether it's on the indies or within WWE, they always seem to come back to each other. It makes sense; they have a ridiculous amount of chemistry that can only happen through a perfect mix of coincidence and years of working together. Owens and Zayn are incredible performers in their own right, but they're wrestling magic when put together. It might not always seem like it, and WWE has certainly stumbled in telling their story along the way, but their feud, even when it's not the focus of the show, is always humming in the background. It's a special thing, even when WWE isn't treating it that way.
Ever since Sami Zayn saved Kevin Owens at Hell in a Cell, both men have been doing incredible work. Zayn's heel turn has worked better than anyone could have imagined, and both performers have unlocked something unique in their on-screen friendship. The problem has been everything surrounding them. The constant feuding between Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan has lacked clarity. There's been no sense of how we're supposed to feel about Shane and Bryan, and not in a good "we're playing this down the middle" kind of way, and it's effecting what's otherwise an intriguing story about best friends struggling to get what they want.
Different show, same women's division
Before we get there though, it needs to be said that so much of SmackDown Live is struggling to find that same clarity. A lot of the feuds feel thrown together, bound by nothing more than circumstance. This is especially true of the women's division, which, much like on Raw, is apparently not worth any semblance of logical or compelling storytelling. As of right now the only thing SmackDown Live has going on is Charlotte's feud with the entire Riott Squad. I guess that's fine on paper, but in reality the show isn't giving us any reason to care about what we're watching. The Riott Squad, just like Absolution, haven't been an effective force since day one(ish), and now they're locked in a battle with the best wrestler on the roster.
Nobody is asking for Shakespearean storytelling here, but some sense of what the Riott Squad wants would be nice. "Making a mark" is just a vague statement. There's nothing substantial to it, and that affects the matches. This week, Charlotte beats Liv Morgan easily. What's left to tell? What possible options are left? Since their debut, the collective record for the Riott Squad on TV and PPVs, including this week's match, is 4-5, and only one of those wins is in singles competition. There's nothing wrong with the Riott Squad as performers, but it seems like WWE has no idea what they're doing with the faction. There's no story to latch on to, leading to nothing but indifference every time they make their way to the ring. I mean, even Charlotte doesn't feel important, and she's the champion! This is a problem with the women's division as a whole though: there are no compelling storylines happening outside of Asuka's streak on Raw, and most of the talented roster (Becky Lynch and Naomi specifically) is barely getting TV time. But hey, as long as you can deploy a hashtag so that your real-life management can get some sweet brownie points with the mainstream media when it comes to equality, who needs meaningful storylines, right?
This is not how Rusev Day is supposed to happen
The United States Championship isn't in as bad shape as the women's division, but it also boasts the quality of WWE working against its own organic momentum. Much like underutilizing Charlotte and Becky Lynch is a terrible idea, so is deciding that what your perfectly fine title feud needs is a healthy dose of Randy Orton. Rusev is maybe the most over guy on the SmackDown roster not named AJ Styles, and Roode would certainly unlock more of his character potential as a heel—see: everything in NXT—if given time to do so against Rusev, and yet this week's title match only serves to introduce Orton into the mix for no reason whatsoever. It's a disheartening revelation, and yet another instance of WWE putting a tired veteran into a feud built around two guys with a ton of potential to create something compelling.
Does anyone in the main event know what they're doing?
Alright, now we can get to the mess that is the main event. Look, Styles, Owens, and Zayn are all great. They're doing everything they can to make their months-long feud matter. But there's simply no shred of logical storytelling going on. It's been months of SmackDown Live hitting the same narrative beats over and over again. Every time Styles gets close to removing himself from Owens and Zayn, and their constant connection to Bryan and Shane, he somehow gets roped back in. Every time Shane gives Bryan an ultimatum, something happens that forces him to not follow through with any consequences.
This has to be building to something, and there's nothing wrong with a slow-burn approach, but at some point we need the show to elucidate how we should feel! The show isn’t bothering to guide us through the story. One minute Daniel Bryan is a potentially villainous GM, and the next minute Shane is running him down in a way that makes us sympathize with him. AJ Styles opens the show by saying he wants nothing more than to be done with Zayn and Owens, and that he wants no interference from Shane or Bryan during the main event, and then goes ahead and interferes himself in the main event. This is, unfortunately, the story of SmackDown Live right now. The right pieces are in place, but the show has no idea how to move them in the right direction.
- If you're looking for a good example of slow-burn storytelling, what's happening with the Usos and the Bludgeon Brothers is good stuff. When that collision finally happens, it should feel HUGE.
- WWE is really going to swim against the tide with Rusev, eh?
- I love that Nakamura keeps popping up to remind an already frustrated AJ Styles that he's going to beat him at WrestleMania.
- Viktor getting some serious hot tag action this week!
- Zayn vs. Owens is as good as you'd imagine. They escalate the intensity perfectly. Owens shouting "I'm the one who wins the titles!" is an incredible touch.
Charlotte defeated Liv Morgan; The Bludgeon Brothers defeated Jobbers; Bobby Roode (c) defeated Rusev (United States Championship match); Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin defeated The Ascension; Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens went to a No Contest.