If there was one lesson to take away from the build to Survivor Series, it was that storytelling doesn't really matter when it comes to this particular PPV. While there were a few threads that managed to sustain themselves through the whole "brand warfare" nonsense - namely, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn continued to distance themselves from their tyrannical leader - most of the previous month's worth of storytelling took a backseat to a vague sense of the two shows hating each other.
Survivor Series doesn't really move away from that idea. The first thing Michael Cole excitedly says when the show gets started is "which is the A show?", as if anybody watching this is asking themselves that question. On top of that, WWE deploys a score bug after every match, keeping track of how many wins each brand has as the night progresses.
The thing is, nobody cares about which brand is superior. That may have been a selling point 10 years ago, but not anymore. Wrestling fans of all stripes just want to see good matches with good storytelling, and that's difficult to pull off when the commentary team, the presentation, and the entire build is trying to create stakes out of nothing. Much of the PPV itself is as conflicted as the build, leading to a tug of war between the meaningless and the memorable, the lackluster and the spectacle. It's a show that doesn't deliver throughout, but does so when it counts.
The Shield vs New Day delivers
So, as much as the show can get in its own way, WWE makes the smart decision to kick off the PPV with New Day vs The Shield. If we're talking about stakes, and the way Survivor Series struggles to find any in a lot of matches, this is a match that doesn't really need any. It's a match that's built on a simple premise: we want to watch two iconic stables fight. You don't need any other hook, which isn't something that can be said about, say, The Miz vs Baron Corbin. All you need is New Day and The Shield shouting about how they're the best faction in WWE history and then have them go to town on each other in the ring.
That's exactly what they do. The match follows a beautiful arc, where the two teams start by squaring off in specific singles matchups, coming at the match in a calculated way. Before long though everything breaks down, and the match becomes about survival and finding that one opening that will allow your team to win. They trade blows and spots and near falls, building to the moment where one team manages to isolate a single member and deliver a triple threat attack. Each team gets their chance, but it's The Shield who craft that moment just right to get the win, and Survivor Series gets off to a good start by using in-ring psychology to overcome a lack of storytelling stakes.
In fact, most of the night is defined by the matches battling against the very idea of Survivor Series. Just about every match delivers in its own way - we'll get to the two exceptions soon - and they do so by ignoring the whole SmackDown vs Raw thing and just telling contained stories. The Usos vs. The Bar is exactly what it needs to be: a hard-hitting, drama-filled match that acts as both a reaffirmation of The Bar's talent, and a coming out party of sorts for The Usos as babyfaces. Their promos have been inching them ever closer to babyface territory, but this match is the final bit of storytelling needed to get them there. They're dynamic and exciting in the ring - 2015 me is shocked to read that - and they put on a match that excels despite the lack of stakes.
Psychology triumphs over contrived stakes
Charlotte vs Alexa Bliss falls into a similar category. There's no real sense that these two have any sort of brand loyalty; hell, they can both claim to have been the women's champion on both shows. But the match finds a way to succeed anyways, largely because Bliss and Charlotte construct something that's steeped in old school heel-face dynamics. Against a stronger, bigger opponent, Bliss has no choice but to keep her distance and find her spots, and being a heel allows her to do that. She can back away and hide in the ropes, doing so early on until she sees her advantage, leading to her sending Charlotte crashing to the outside with a brutal tug of her arm.
From there, Bliss is focused and vicious. She targets Charlotte's ribs and legs, grounding the bigger opponent in clinical fashion. This allows Bliss to not only get in more offense than perhaps she should on someone like Charlotte, it also gives her an opportunity to lean on her best quality, which is her heel swagger. At no point though does that turn into misguided confidence. Instead, as Charlotte begins to work her way back out from under Bliss' offense, it becomes a story of whether or not Bliss will be able to get one final advantage. If she can make Charlotte vulnerable once again like she did in the beginning of the match, she might get the win.
So, she goes for high-risk moves and it backfires (something that's relevant to AJ Styles vs. Brock Lesnar as well, which tells a very similar story), and that gives Charlotte all the time and space she needs to physically dominate her smaller opponent. She locks in the Figure Eight and gets a big win, and the match succeeds not because of brand loyalty, but because two wrestlers tell a compelling story using nuanced psychology.
AJ Styles and Brock Lesnar is peak David vs Goliath storytelling
It's the same thing that Brock Lesnar and AJ Styles do. Styles is up against a man more powerful than him, and that's evident right off the bat. The beginning of the match plays on our understanding of Lesnar's history, as we quickly fall into the trap of thinking this is going to be something close to a squash. Then, the match uses that same understanding to distinguish AJ Styles from all of Brock's other opponents.
Styles survives the early onslaught. He gets the Beast to his knees. He uses his quickness to create space, which allows him to hit high-impact aerial moves followed by quick strikes. He throws everything at Lesnar, building to the night's best near fall after a Phenomenal Forearm. But Brock is no normal wrestler, so it's going to take one more finisher. Styles understands this and goes for it, but Brock is ready this time. He delivers an F5 and the match is over, but in a way it's not a loss for Styles. Nobody has pushed Brock like that, and the structure of the match tells us that given the right circumstances, Styles could snag a win. It leaves us itching for a rematch, and that's one hell of a thing to do with a Champ vs. Champ match of this magnitude, where expectations were sky high.
A lack of structure in Baron Corbin vs The Miz, and the women's elimination match
When the kind of psychology that drives those two matches isn't present though, the complete absence of stakes becomes a problem. While The Miz and Baron Corbin do their best to use Maryse's pregnancy and some sense of "disrespect" to bolster the story of their match, it's not enough to truly elevate it to something meaningful. Then there's the women's traditional Survivor Series match, which is a complete mess of random eliminations that doesn't do anybody any favors. There's no real structure to either of those matches, and it's incredibly deflating. Nobody is asking for a monumental prize, but there should be a sense of what these superstars are fighting for in order to give the matches the intensity commentary keeps insisting they have. Adding in something like the winning team getting to steal a superstar from the losing brand could have made all the difference in the night's most shapeless matches.
It's time to invest in the future of WWE
Shapeless is perhaps the best way to describe Survivor Series. Considering how shapeless the build was, it makes sense. Survivor Series unfolds much like its build, with the young and new talent - I make the distinction because, you know, Samoa Joe and Shinsuke Nakamura aren't exactly spring chickens - working hard to sell the matches and the feuds while the overarching story works against them. In other words, consider the night's most memorable and exciting moments: Shield vs New Day; Charlotte and Alexa, and Brock and Styles, telling two compelling David vs Goliath stories; seeing Finn Balor get a hot tag and run over everybody; seeing Nakamura and Balor lock up; watching Braun destroy everybody in his path; the continued storytelling between Samoa Joe and Finn Balor, who clearly don’t like each other.
In other words, it's the talent in their prime delivering the best stuff on the show - and that extends to Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens, who make a far too brief appearance in the main event. This year's Survivor Series is a study of contrasts, as outlined above: the memorable working to defy the meaningless, the spectacle looking to tamp down everything that's lackluster. But the biggest contrast might be between what WWE thinks is exciting and what actually is. Nakamura, Charlotte, Balor, Joe, and many others battle against the consistently deflating presence of well-worn superstars like Triple H, Kurt Angle, Shane McMahon, John Cena, and Randy Orton. One group has all the potential in the world. The other group can be used as compelling tertiary storytelling pieces, but when placed at the centre of attention they act as a vacuum, sucking up all the momentum and excitement built by the former group. Perhaps that's the story WWE should be telling. Forget brand loyalty. Forget about who's the A show and who's the B show. The storytelling money is in dismantling the superstar hierarchy, and realizing that the "B" superstars are well past due to unseat the "A" superstars who made their names 10+ years ago.
- While some of the chaos within the commentary team was entertaining—Booker T and Corey Graves remain delightful—the constant bickering and arguing about who was better was exhausting. Again: nobody cares!
- Maybe the best small storytelling touch of the night: Rollins and Woods step into the ring for the first time, and the latter gives a condescending salute to his former captain.
- Second best storytelling touch: Curtis Axel representing Raw with a red neck brace.
- Big E's spear through the ropes always gets me to jump out of my seat.
- How are you going to eliminate Team Captain Becky Lynch almost immediately? What a choice by WWE.
- That final sequence in the Usos-Bar match, where one of the Usos jumps to the outside to take out Cesaro while simultaneously making the tag to his partner for the win, was unreal.
- "Nepotism? From you, of all people?!?!" Daniel Bryan understands all of this much better than Stephanie McMahon does.
- The Shield defeated New Day
- Raw's Asuka, Alicia Fox, Bayley, Sasha Banks, and Nia Jax defeated SmackDown Live's Natalya, Tamina, Becky Lynch, Naomi, and Carmella (Sole survivor: Asuka)
- Baron Corbin defeated The Miz
- The Usos defeated The Bar
- Charlotte defeated Alexa Bliss
- Brock Lesnar defeated AJ Styles
- Raw's Braun Strowman, Triple H, Samoa Joe, Finn Balor, and Kurt Angle defeated SmackDown Live's Shane McMahon, John Cena, Shinsuke Nakamura, Randy Orton, and Bobby Roode (Sole survivors: Triple H and Braun Strowman)