Survivor Series struggles
Last night, the SmackDown Live team once again got one over on Monday Night Raw. New Day, representatives of the supposed "B-show"—I don't think anyone believes this, but let's roll with the story WWE is telling for now—crashed the main event, distracting everyone with another threatened siege, allowing Cesaro and Sheamus to steal the tag team championships from Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose. Presumably, this leads to a three-on-three match at Survivor Series between The Shield and New Day, which hey, I won't complain about. But that moment was yet another in a long line of moments that have felt crafted solely for Survivor Series, throwing out any other relevant and planned storytelling.
It's not that WWE can't, on paper, craft a Survivor Series build that feel like it exists in a vacuum. Hell, last year's PPV mostly succeeded by just offering good wrestling and fun superstar combinations. But this year's build feels like a stab at some sort of linear storytelling, and neither show is really pulling it off. Everything feels like a jumbled mess right now. There are reasons for that which can't be blamed on WWE, like Roman Reigns getting sick at the worst time possible. But there's also a lack of momentum and intrigue that can be blamed on the weekly show's inability to provide clarity about what exactly is happening.
The SmackDown Live women's division remains a mystery
I mean, I do not understand how the women's Survivor Series teams are taking shape outside of Alicia Fox being delightfully unhinged each week; SmackDown Live's division, in particular, is a black hole of storytelling. Becky Lynch is the team captain, but there's been no real insight into how the team is put together. Instead, she's fighting James Ellsworth. That's not a knock on doing an inter-gender match—I've been hoping to see Lynch and Ellsworth lock up due to their history, but tonight's match was not its ideal form—but rather the fact that the storytelling, for SmackDown Live's women's Survivor Series team, has been abysmal.
The Shane McMahon problem
To be fair, I think SmackDown Live does a much better job this week of telling stories that aren't directly related to Survivor Series, and that's a boon to the episode in general. For instance, New Day interacting with Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn maybe have some ties to Survivor Series, but there's a lot more going on there. There's a dynamic that's more intriguing than just "vying for a spot on the team." Instead, there's Zayn and Owens taking a stand against Shane McMahon, and speaking truth to power while they do. There's New Day rightfully calling out Zayn for just being sour about losing, and there's the fun match between Kingston and Zayn that follows.
But there's still the problem of flimsy Survivor Series storytelling, and the root of that problem is Shane. He's out to start the show yet again, and he's fired up about Daniel Bryan being attacked on Raw. He says he holds Kurt Angle and Stephanie McMahon responsible, and that he looks forward to getting revenge for the man who was unfairly attacked last Monday night. Here's the thing though, Shane: you attacked Raw first! You brought a whole locker room full of SmackDown men and women over to Raw and ordered them to beat down the roster. On top of that, you made Kurt Angle watch!
Look, suspension of disbelief will always be a part of wrestling, but there needs to be a solid storytelling structure to make it happen. Perhaps some people can just listen to Shane's words and think "hell yeah, fight for Daniel Bryan!" but I can't. All I see is a hypocrite spouting a bunch of stuff that makes no narrative sense while also being positioned as the show's righteous babyface. It's lazy storytelling, and it’s inexcusable.
This is not how we celebrate Rusev Day
The rest of SmackDown Live isn't really offensive from a "none of this makes sense" standpoint, but much of it is still incredibly disappointing. We're once again subjected to a Randy Orton facing off against Rusev, and once again Rusev takes the loss. How many times does this need to happen? Can't we all just enjoy Rusev Day? Similarly, I appreciate that SmackDown Live is slowly turning Gable and Benjamin heel, but again there's a piece missing in the story. After Gable injures one of the Usos during their match, why doesn't Benjamin bring him into the ring and steal the titles? Why does he settle for the countout victory? Much like in the opening segment with Shane, a little logic could go a long way on SmackDown Live.
Your new WWE Champion: AJ Styles!
But enough negativity, because while SmackDown Live may be suffering in its build to Survivor Series, we have been given a sweet release. Finally, definitively, Jinder Mahal is no longer WWE Champion. Instead, AJ Styles is back on top, and back to occupying the house that he built. It's hard to overstate just how much of a relief this win is. It finally ends the cycle of repetitive Jinder Mahal title defenses. It immediately makes the Champion vs. Champion match at Survivor Series a must-see for the right reasons rather than a must-see for trainwreck reasons. It puts Styles back in his rightful place on the show, and with a match that calls back to every other Jinder match. Styles becomes the first man survive the dreaded Singh Brothers interference, and once Jinder's used that play, he has nothing left. That leaves Styles open to snag the win.
Don't get me wrong, Styles has done great work outside of the WWE Championship, and he's still consistently held down the main event scene. But now he has that prestigious belt back, and that's good news for everybody. That leaves room for guys like Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, and Shinsuke Nakamura to step in as challengers, and it opens up several different storytelling opportunities heading into the end of the year and the Royal Rumble. For everything we've had to sit through these last few weeks with Raw and SmackDown, I think we can all deserve to bask in this moment. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, to the new WWE champion, AJ Styles.
- I like that the show didn't start with a video recap and instead boasted pre-taped promos from Jinder Mahal and AJ Styles. It not only makes their match feel important, it acts as a welcome shift in presentation.
- Sami Zayn understands where he and Kevin Owens stand: "We're men of honor and integrity!"
- Sami Zayn walked into SmackDown Live like John Cleese in the Ministry of Silly Walks, and it was delightful.
- "This world is a terrible place. We're here to make it worse." The Bludgeon Brothers, or GOP Congressmen?
- I am so sick of Rusev losing.
- I really wanted to enjoy the match between Ellsworth and Lynch, but it was too jokey for my taste. I wanted Lynch to tear him apart, and that's not even close to what we got.
- "That drop kick would have caved in Ellsworth's chest, but nature beat him to it."
- A banner night for superstars turning on their lackeys: Carmella superkicks Ellsworth after his loss, and Mahal throws the Singhs around after he loses his championship.
Kofi Kingston defeated Sami Zayn; Randy Orton defeated Rusev; Becky Lynch defeated James Ellsworth; Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin defeated The Usos (c) via countout (SmackDown Live Tag Team Championship match); AJ Styles defeated Jinder Mahal (c) (WWE Championship match).
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