Early on in Sunday’s Survivor Series pay-per-view, it was obvious that the show was going to be the apotheosis of WWE’s current belief that there aren’t really babyfaces and heels anymore. The New Day, who had spent the better part of a month acting as heelish ringleaders of the Smackdown “invasions” of Raw, were facing the Shield, who were reuniting in what announcers assured us was one of the mostly hotly anticipated reunions of all time.
Xavier Woods was getting beaten up while desperately trying to reach one of his New Day partners for a tag. He’d claw and scrabble his way to the corner, only to be dragged back by a member of the Shield. It was textbook Ricky Morton: the smaller member of the legendary Rock n Roll Express mastered the art of getting his ass kicked by his opponents, working the crowd into a fever pitch as the ultimate scrawny underdog, before laying off a hot tag to his partner, Robert Gibson, just as the tidal wave of heat crescendoed. It was textbook stuff and Woods was doing it. He got his tag into Kofi Kingston and there was silence.
It was not that anyone in the match had screwed up. It’s that the classic Ricky Morton technique requires clearly defined babyfaces and heels. The six-man tag match didn’t have that. The New Day were acting like heels in the weeks prior, their buoyant personalities being subsumed into WWE’s now annual dalliance into the Raw vs. Smackdown storyline which nobody cares about and never lasts long. The Shield were ostensibly the faces and the beneficiaries of weeks of hype, but there they were acting as the heels in the actual match. Until they didn’t, of course; within a matter of minutes, the roles were reversed once again and Dean Ambrose played Ricky Morton’s role as the New Day double and triple teamed him to prevent a tag.
This was more or less (I’ll get to the less in a moment) the story of the night. Survivor Series had plenty of solid matches. What it didn’t have was any sort of clear storytelling outside the temporary umbrella of Raw vs. Smackdown and the matches suffered for it.
This is the second year of Survivor Series being yoked to that storyline. Last year it seemed novel, and the self-contained nature of it felt akin to those old Marvel vs DC comic books which leaned on dream matchups—Superman vs Spiderman, Wolverine vs Batman—to sell copies, generate interest, and then disappear with no lasting impact. It was cool and the idea that Survivor Series was a little pocket universe where nothing got in or out seemed freeing.
It turns out that was a one-off. This year the story had a narcotic effect on the proceedings. The only way to put it is that the bulk of the show just couldn’t hit the next level worthy of one of WWE’s touted big four pay-per-views. The matches weren’t bad—WWE rarely has stinkers anymore, such is the roster’s ambient level of talent—but the crowd just didn’t seem to know why they should care once the novelty of the dream matchups wore off. Even there, how big a dream is it when Balor and Nakamura interact pretty much weekly and could be on the same show, working a program ad nauseum, next week? Or how about the fact that nobody gives a shit about Raw vs. Smackdown pride at any point until Survivor Series and that even in this little slice where it supposedly matters there’s never any pretense that it’s not all one big company anyway?
The one place where nobody could possibly care about the stale Raw vs. Smackdown stuff was in the Brock Lesnar-A.J. Styles match. Billed as champion vs. champion—and coming as something of an impromptu decision after Styles mercifully ended Jinder Mahal’s torturously bad reign as WWE champion—the match lived up to the brief supernova of hype and then some, quickly becoming WWE’s match of the year.
Lesnar’s an odd duck in that his standard “throw men around” Suplex City matches have worn thin with opponents he doesn’t click with, but he turns it way up with guys he has chemistry with and he has an uncanny knack of knowing who those men are. Word was that Lesnar was excited to work with Styles, just as he was excited to work with Samoa Joe; not coincidentally, those were his two best matches of the year, though the Survivor Series match with Styles was quite a bit better.
Styles bumped like crazy for Lesnar, and Lesnar frankly did likewise. Styles is still one of the best three or four wrestlers in the world and has an amazing ability to get thrown around like a ragdoll while still looking credible when he makes his comebacks. Both men came out looking great and the crowd, which had been up and down all night, was electric for this one, even after Lesnar got his win and pinned the beloved Styles after a closing sequence which saw the former catch the latter on his shoulders in a pretty cool feat of strength.
After that, however, we were right back to not knowing how to react to what we were seeing. The heat carried over to the main event—a five on five Survivor Series match for which I won’t recount the participants but will note, as many did in the lead up, that the youngest participant was 34—but dissipated slowly over the course of the overlong match until the arena sounded like a morgue.
One by one, the newest, most novel wrestlers were eliminated from the match (except for Braun Strowman, who once again looked like a superstar) and, once again, the unique badness of turgidity and temporariness in the Raw-versus-Smackdown storyline dragged things down. We were treated to yet another instance of McMahon family psychodrama, as Triple H saved his brother-in-law Shane McMahon from Kurt Angle’s ankle lock, only to immediately deliver a Pedigree and pin him.
Momentarily, it seemed like there might be something kind of cool there—perhaps Triple H felt badly for his brother-in-law, whose ankle was about to be kayfabe snapped, sparking a realization among the roster that the extended McMahon family always, always sticks together, even when they’re apart, and something should really be done about it.
Instead, we got the internet meme Triple H, the guy who always goes over as a heat vampire sucking the careers out of younger, more talented performers. The Shovel Triple H. This was almost certainly deliberate and it was satisfying to see Triple H the meme destroyed by Strowman after the bell. But that satisfaction wasn’t enough to counter the fact that the biggest pop was when Nakamura and Balor were facing off, that they were chanting for NXT and for New Japan, and that once it was all WWE home growns, including my beloved Braun Strowman, nobody gave much of a shit. The old (mostly) devoured the new, again, and will do it sometime in the near future, again.
But none of it is permanent, because it’s Survivor Series and it’s Raw vs. Smackdown, the story that matters for three weeks out of the year. Except the one story which is permanent: the McMahons. And here we are, waiting for it to end. And it never, ever will.