Most people probably don't tune into Monday Night Raw to examine the complex nature of friendships and relationships in their many forms, but anyone who happened to tune in on Monday night got three full hours of a deep dive into the human experience.
From beginning to end, Monday's edition of Raw was a night filled with tag-team matches and one-on-one contests with allies close by. It was a night of ebbs and flows in every sense of the phrase. For every major crowd reaction, like the one Bayley got for finally making up her mind and attacking Sasha Banks, there was a mind-boggling decision like trying to force their friendship to continue through counseling despite neither wanting any part of it.
- WWE (@WWE) June 26, 2018
After the second-longest Raw match of the year between Dolph Ziggler and Seth Rollins, for example, which garnered a huge buzz from the San Diego crowd, Ziggler's right-hand man Drew McIntyre predictably spoiled the end of the main event to save Ziggler's Intercontinental title run. Rather than wash the taste of such a rotten ending to a great match with something fans could really pop for, like maybe the return of a long-injured partner, Roman Reigns was suddenly thrust back into a story he had seemingly been removed from (for good reason) as he ran in for the save.
Outside of a quick cheer for a devastating spear on Ziggler, the crowd predictably closed the show with a reaction that audibly sounded like a mix of apathy and boos -- essentially par for the course at this point. Kevin Owens' dynamic with Braun Strowman, on the other hand, was once again a highlight as they transitioned from rivals to partners for a night. Everything felt fresh as they faced off with the equally odd pairing of Finn Balor and Baron Corbin, with Owens and Strowman picking up the win once Balor and Corbin came to blows on the outside and got counted out.
Lest you think these rivals could become friends, from a moment like Strowman driving Owens to try out some of Strowman's signature offense, Strowman showed his appreciation post-match by chasing Owens around backstage and flipping over Owens' rental car once he couldn't find his punching bag-turned friend-turned punching bag.
With the buildup to Extreme Rules coming with a much shorter runway than Money in the Bank, the mad scramble to line things up by July 15 showed the best and worst of what Raw is capable of in any given week. With some of the chances taken, there have been immediate positive dividends and reactions; at the same time, the desire to circle back to familiar and comfortable patterns in order to simplify the storytelling and push a manufactured narrative keeps leading back to a place that exposes some of WWE's deepest flaws.
- WWE (@WWE) June 26, 2018
It was clear through the biggest and smallest of moments throughout the show. Raw started with another look at the complex power struggle between Raw General Manager Kurt Angle and Stephanie McMahon, through her proxy "Constable" Corbin, with each trying to get the upper hand through a variety of means.
Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman's overpowered partnership came crashing back into the picture as the absentee Universal champion essentially scuttled a No. 1 contender's match planned for the Extreme Rules pay-per-view without even showing up. While it caused friction and an interesting dynamic between budding rivals Reigns and Bobby Lashley -- two men looking forward to said opportunity -- it also exposed the challenges of writing months of stories that should be based around pursuing Raw's top title without being able to see the title or the champion on TV on a week-to-week basis.
Then the show turned right back around with a dramatic shift, though it didn't appear that way at the outset. The Revival challenged Lashley and Reigns for a second straight week, only this time around the friendship and partnership of a long-established tag team actually managed to win out against bickering partners who didn't get along -- a novel idea indeed.
The B-Team continued their impressions of Bray Wyatt and Matt Hardy, with a few heavy-handed gags landing to a variety of levels of success. Curtis Axel's win over Hardy led to overwhelming joy from Bo Dallas in a post-match celebration, no matter how fluky the win happened to be, and the post-match confrontation showed just how tight the bonds between the two pairs of teammates were. The B-Team gets its Raw tag-team title shot at Extreme Rules.
We saw the return of the Authors of Pain on Raw for the first time since late April, with their bullying brushing up against Titus Worldwide's good-hearted nature. Alexa Bliss had Mickie James return to her side only to lose a match to Natalya, who got a big assist from Nia Jax in a moment that seemed to be a conduit for funneling Total Divas storylines back into Monday nights. Heck, we even got No Way Jose sticking up for Todd, a member of his conga line, as Mojo Rawley made fun of a man in a cheeseburger suit and refused a match on Monday Night Raw for some reason.
Making friendships (and the dissolution of friendships) the centerpiece of Raw makes all the sense in the world, but in the biggest stories it felt as though it was a matter of overthinking things. After a knock-down, drag-out backstage fight last week finally seemed to put the will-they/won't-they nature of Sasha Banks and Bayley's friendship to bed, Angle deemed it necessary to pair them up once again in a "last chance" six-woman tag-team match against the Riott Squad. Ember Moon did a remarkable job in holding the team together, while stealing the spotlight with some of the biggest high-spots in the match, but things quickly devolved once the Riott Squad picked up the victory.
Bayley battered Banks from pillar to post, inside and out of the ring, and fans lost their minds at the prospect of the façade of fake friendship between the two women finally falling. But as Bayley went backstage, instead of immediately conceding that Bayley and Banks are worth far more as rivals than as unwilling partners, Angle forcibly pushed Bayley into counseling with Banks in order to try to mend fences that have long since fallen down. There are times for nuance in wrestling, but when you have as much history and in-ring chemistry as Bayley and Banks do, it's absolutely maddening to try to reason out why WWE can't step out of its own way and let them fight it out in the ring. The story writes itself.
There's a similar problem with Rollins and Reigns. No, I'm not suggesting the timing is right for another Shield implosion (though that will be a potent future angle at some point when Dean Ambrose can get involved), but WWE keeps trying to go to the well to siphon off Rollins' genuine reactions from the crowd and give them to Reigns. There's a fine line between taking an organic reaction and funneling it into a worthwhile storyline that helps everyone involved, and trying to shoehorn that same reaction into an over-manufactured and tired storyline that fans simply aren't feeling.
We've seen it with Reigns time and again, with Rollins, Ambrose and Daniel Bryan, at various points, seemingly being used to try to make Reigns into the kind of hero that live crowds simply won't accept him as. That kind of thinking is what took unexpected popularity for a guy like Zack Ryder and funneled it into trying to help John Cena; it took the biggest bump in popularity Ziggler ever had and made it about Alberto Del Rio.
There are plenty of ways to take friendships and partnerships that fans are getting into and make them a net positive for all involved; one only needs to look at Ziggler and McIntyre to see how far the combination of charisma, in-ring ability and a decent story can carry a performer or a team that fans are buying into.
It doesn't have to mean kowtowing to each and every whim of the fans by any means, as crowds vary from week to week and their whims can change pretty quickly. But ignoring reactions that happen week after week in all of those different kinds of crowds for too long, while attempting to manipulate them in the face of mountains of evidence that tell you it's not working, is an approach that should fade in favor of a more dynamic and flexible plan.
At the heart of it all, the relationship between fans and the WWE product is just as important as the relationships we see on-screen.