We’ve got all of the Elimination Chamber set-up matches you would expect here: in fact, it’s almost the entire Elimination Chamber card on shuffle mode. A small mercy: Kane only looms over one segment on this episode. Highlights include a gift of a Kevin Owens appearance, and a weird twist ending.

The Age of Ambrose

Dean opens the show, and explains away a lot of the holes in the contract signing plotline from Raw, while making the Authority seem petty. He references “plan B” sarcastically, which was a nice touch, marred by the commentary table over-explaining. I like the idea that no consequential members of the Authority are at Smackdown, so wrestlers who have been wronged can trash-talk them all they want. No one does anecdotes quite like Dean, even when he’s just recapping nonsense. He talks naturally, like a real human, someone you’re interested to listen to. At one point here, he looks right into the camera and says “now is the age of Ambrose”; and you know what? I really believed him. Just for a second, until Lawler interrupted my reverie with a high-pitched squawk and brought me back to reality.

The Shield love-fest continues as Ambrose reveals he used his one phone call in jail to call Roman Reigns.

Lumberjack Match – Cesaro and Kidd vs. The Lucha Dragons: The New Day, the Ascension, the Primetime Players and Los Matadores are the lumberjacks here. I love that the booking of this match has instantly clarified which tag teams are important contenders to the tag team belts at Elimination Chamber (and which aren’t), as if we needed it spelled out.

Lawler attempts to explain the history of the lumberjack match based on stuff he just made up in his brain seconds ago, prefaced with “I suppose…”, but spoken with one hundred percent confidence.

The Lucha Dragons are one of those teams that I really want to love, and I do, but only in small bursts, in which I’m always bracing myself for them to embarrass themselves. There’s no shortage of Kalisto flashiness here, but I made the mistake of watching this immediately after this week’s Lucha Underground, so found myself a little underwhelmed. There is a weird spot where he seems to go for La Mistica on Cesaro, but sort of loses momentum so Cesaro has to help him with the final few rotations; and then when he is finally in position for an armbar, Cara just thinks better of it, and goes for a pin instead. He touches the arm for a brief second, but then abandons it, which is a shame, because that’s such a cool move, and we don’t get to see it very often. Byron hesitantly says “Sin Cara…going after the arm of Cesaro!” but doesn’t have any conviction.

The lumberjack stipulation is almost entirely irrelevant, and appears to be there only to remind us of everyone who is going to be at the PPV. WWE has never subscribed to the “absence makes the heart grow fonder” idea.

Kalisto hits the Salida Del Sol on Tyson for the win after a distraction from Xavier Woods.

R Truth vs. King Barrett: The Intercontinental Title is in the unenviable position of sitting ringside. I’m faced with another R Truth match that I can’t think of anything to say about, apart from that it’s short, and R Truth gets the win.

Sheamus comes out after the end to start throwing Brogue Kicks, because heaven forbid we should wonder where someone is for a few seconds.

Backstage Lana-Drama

Renee is in a cross-strap halter-neck dress, in sort of duck-egg blue with white floral print, with a peekaboo navel triangle. It would really be better suited for a garden party than a backstage interview.

Lana asserts to Renee that she has no sort of relationship with Dolph Ziggler, and I try to resist just laying my head on my keyboard and giving up. Rusev appears and there’s a confrontation, where Rusev says the line “I had my way with your Dolph Ziggler”, which comes across as probably slightly more homoerotic than intended. Anyway, he says he’s going to make Ziggler pay and everything is Lana’s fault, forever, and always.

Ryback vs. Rusev: I’m trying to think of something nice to say about this match, and I guess one thing I do like, in a vacuum from any of the awfulness surrounding it, is the narrative point that Rusev fell out of love with Russia when he fell out of love with Lana. It’s a change that makes sense.

Anyway, here we are at number two out of “who knows” in a series of inconsequential matches that don’t matter at all. This is a tedious match that brings out the worst in both men. It starts with a lot of boring holds and grunting , then after 30 secs of this Ryback decides he’s going to start no-selling. The action spills out of the ring for a while, but is back to in-ring rest holds by the end of the ad break . Rusev has also developed a pronounced limp by this point, which doesn’t really fit anything that’s happened in the match so far, so I think the rumble on the net about Rusev being injured at these tapings probably occurred in a weird bit of dead space that wasn’t televised. He struggles on for the rest of the match and even a tentative post match beatdown but is clearly in a bad way.

There’s a whisper of an idea of a dream of storytelling and pacing here but it fails badly. Ryback wins by DQ when Rusev throws Ryback into the ring post.

Paige vs. Naomi: Paige comes out and I preemptively cringe, because, as I said in the Elimination Chamber preview, the Divas plotlines have been so horrendously offensive lately, with Paige being involved in some of the more egregious examples, that my anxiety about how insulting its probably going to be colors the whole segment.

The problem with this whole thing, which is an enduring issue with WWE and women’s feuds, is that there are no babyfaces. There’s just two women spewing vile hateful insults at eachother, criticizing each other for not being feminine enough (Paige saying Tamina “looks like a man”), criticizing each other for being too feminine (Naomi saying Paige is “over-emotional”), and no real thread of anything we can identify with or that feels real and meaningful.

The seed of a decent, universal plotline is there. Paige claims Naomi injured her on the UK tour and took her out of action for a month, causing her to slide down the hierarchy, further from her coveted title. They’ve just soaked it in horrible women-hating rubbish which means you can’t sympathise with anyone. If Paige came out and was all Sami Zayn about it, talking with sincerity, and heart, and vowing to earn back what she believes she deserves, because she thinks hard work will always pay off over cheap tricks; then it’d be compelling, and human, and worthwhile.

Then there’s the deep, systemic issues that betray how WWE feel about women, like Byron repeatedly referring to Paige and Naomi as “these girls”.

This match is short and unconvincing,  highlighted by Paige pulling out a burst of short arm clotheslines near the finish. She tries to set up the PTO but Naomi reverses, and an irish whip knocks Tamina from ringside. Paige manages to pull off a Rampaige for the win.

After the match, the Bellas (Nikki sporting a new ombre, by the looks) come out to taunt.

Michael Cole Interviews Kevin Owens

Kevin Owens is actually here at Smackdown! Oh my gosh! This whole Cena/Owens thing is making me abandon the cynical, over-critical part of my brain, and just enjoy being excited about something. Kevin Owens powerbombing John Cena on infinite replay is just the coolest, and it gives me a warm happy feeling. I’m reluctant to analyze this feud and where it’s going further than that.

Main roster Kevin is a slightly different person from NXT Kevin, but it’s not such a big difference so as to be jarring. He’s wearing his new WWE Shop Kevin Owens shirt rather than the John Cena shirt he’s been sarcastically wearing on NXT, for example.

Kevin is quick to shut down Cole trying the Striker “you haven’t been in the WWE a minute” line of questioning by interrupting and reiterating his long storied career in wrestling prior to WWE, and his shorter but also storied career in NXT, tying it back into how he’s going to dominate Cena just the same as he dominated Sami Zayn. He even cuts off Cole’s list of Cena’s accolades to list them himself, ending his numbered list with “…and over one thousand different ways to suck”, which is not exactly prime wit and wordplay, but it worked. They show a clip of poor Sami getting wrecked at Unstoppable, but unfortunately cut short before all the other cool drama that went down at the end of that match.

Owens ends with a really effective statement. He inflicted all that violence on Sami Zayn, and Sami Zayn was his friend . Someone he travelled with, someone he was close to. If he’s capable of that, imagine what he’d do to John Cena, someone he never cared about. He ends with adding that after Elimination Chamber,  “The Champ is here”, and I’m not ashamed to say I got chills.

I’ve spent way too many words breaking this down and thinking about it rather than just “there was a promo” because Owens is amazing at what he does, and it leaves me so constantly impressed and in awe that I want to dissect it and work out what he’s doing so effortlessly that other people aren’t. I think it may be the way that he’s perfect in manipulating the crowd, in a way that’s so normal and natural, that you don’t feel manipulated at all. He adjusts his way of talking depending on who he’s talking to. I don’t think the “thousand ways to suck” part would have made it on to an NXT promo, for sure, but here, it was perfect. He introduced the complex relationship between himself and Zayn without sounding like he was forcing exposition, and in a concise enough way for a potentially new audience to understand the relationship and digest what it meant for Owens’ character. He’s amazing right now and I’m so hype for his match on Sunday.

Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns vs. Seth Rollins and Kane: I like Smackdown best when it feels like a sneaky place where we can have matches that wouldn’t be allowed on Raw, because they don’t fit a long-held narrative, or because they allow too much prestige to midcarders, or because it’s an outlandish stipulation, or whatever. I like Smackdown feeling like a secret place where things aren’t necessarily totally canon, so can afford to break the mold a little.

I like Smackdown least when it’s just Raw rematches.

I’m starting to get suspicious about how heavy-handed the commentary table are getting about Reigns being Ambrose’s only friend. I don’t want to believe that this means that there’s going to be trouble or betrayal or something worse in the title match at Elimination Chamber, but that ghost of a doubt is starting to appear, and I don’t like it one bit. There wasn’t a payoff to that talk in this match, so my anxiety is rising.

J&J start to leap around the apron from the bell, which sets the tone for the match. A raucous “Justin Bieber” chant hits when Rollins gets tagged in, and I’m still bemused as to why this is a thing. Why was he ever called Justin Bieber in the first place? Is it because he takes care of his appearance? That’s all I’ve got, and it’s tenuous at best, because Rollins doesn’t look like he’s seen a hair conditioning masque this side of Christmas. And I mean, either way, it’s not a very topical thing to latch on to, is it? Tweet me. We’ll figure this out together.

Rollins does a Slingblade, and I get annoyed again that if Rich Brennan can call it, why can’t Tom Phillips? Do you get banned from saying things when you leave NXT? Probably. More mysteries.

This match starts off slow, and initially really lacks the clawing, urgent desperation that I feel should still exist between Ambrose and Rollins. They should wrestle like it means something, but in this match, you could mistake them for strangers. You should be able to let out an involuntary gasp of anticipation when the Ambrose/Rollins facedown finally happens through a fortuitous sequence of tags. Instead they open with Ambrose and Rollins , and the first part of the match is building painfully slowly towards a Reigns hot tag .

In all fairness, Reigns looks really good when he does get tagged in, as he always does in the short bursts of energy that he’s excelled at during the Shield years. He tries to catch Seth with a Superman Punch, but Rollins hooks his elbow and gets caught in a complicated back and forth of reversed neckbreakers. Of course, a powerbomb is reversed because Rollins is too slippery, and the back and forth continues for a little longer until he finally executes the Superman Punch successfully, goes for the cover, and J&J pile into the ring to beat down Reigns. The bell rings for the DQ.

Then comes the really odd bit, which I’m still not sure was a dream. During the post-match brawl, Kane beckons to some unseen aggressors from the tron, and out comes… The New Day? What the hell is happening here? Didn’t Kane force them into a handicap match in very recent memory? Anyway, all three members of the New Day bound out and enthusiastically start throwing punches at Ambrose until a Reigns dive breaks up the melee. Ambrose drops a dirty deeds on Xavier Woods, a rebound clothesline at Big E, and Reigns Superman Punches Kofi Kingston from the sky. Rollins and Kane roll into the ring to beat down Ambrose and Reigns some more, and the show finishes with Rollins Pedigreeing Ambrose.

It was the kind of crowd pleasing but nonsensical finish that you’d get as a dark match, I’m still not a hundred percent sure we were supposed to see it.

Final Thoughts: It was great to see Reigns looking so dominant and exciting in the main event, and the chemistry between him and Rollins was off the charts, but it also makes me feel slightly sad, because that’s not the match we’re building. It makes it seem even more obvious that Ambrose vs Rollins is just a filler match until the next proper obstacle for the champ. There’s no drama unless we can believe with even a glimmer of hope that Ambrose has a chance of getting a win on Sunday, and nothing here indicated that.