Preview: SmackDown illustrates why it’s the purgatory of wrestling shows with this egregiously bad episode. To prove that I’m never happy, I get frustrated about a clean finish.

There’s something about reviewing a weekly TV show that makes you go a little bit crazy, in a specifically egotistical way. I’ve started to assign values to things, to assume segments are written personally to punish or reward me. I’ve started to give SmackDown the role of being a sort of ranking of my week. I’ve felt happier and prouder of myself in the last two weeks when we had killer main events featuring Cesaro. I was more productive at work. I took more personal and professional risks, and received more compliments. But now Thursday has rolled around again and I’ve got that sinking feeling I’m about to be passed judgement on, and it’s not looking favourable. The SmackDown Gods have granted me a poor SmackDown. I have to do better. I have to improve, or be cursed with bad finishes, inconsistent booking, botched spots and a sinking feeling that it’s somehow my fault.

If it’s not obvious, I’m writing this thing a bit wild-eyed tonight. I’ve taken on a second job for the summer, and it’s long hours and stressful work that leaves me so little time to theorise over fantasy booking and the minutiae of arm-drags and what it is exactly about that one Kota Ibushi vs Shibata match that left me weak-kneed and incoherent. I want to be fresh for SmackDown, I want to be full of enthusiasm and positivity, and able to tweet “it’s worth watching!” to the myriad SmackDown cynics, with a weak smile and a thumbs up, because I want to believe it is. I need to believe it is, or else what is the point of all of this?

Something WWE critics — or any human wrestling fans with observational skills and a brain — often comment on, is the trend of “one step forward, two steps back” booking. It’s what makes major plot points meaningless; like the Authority being dethroned at Survivor Series; and on a smaller scale, what keeps silly, pointless feuds bouncing back and forth without conclusion; like Adam Rose and the Bunny. Somehow, I keep falling for it. I’m an intelligent woman: I’m educated, I’ve had life experiences, but I seem to have a massive blind spot when it comes to recognising that there is never really progress in WWE booking. I’m always gleefully rubbing my hands together and muttering “Now, this is what I’m talking about!” when things go right, and then crushingly disappointed the next week when it becomes explicitly obvious that no, it actually wasn’t what I was talking about.

There’s been a couple of weeks of really good SmackDowns that have left me with excitement about the future. I was dreaming big: a SmackDown exclusive Dean Ambrose and Kevin Owens feud. Maybe we’d even get a sniff of a championship match after Summerslam. Or wouldn’t a tournament be awesome? Some sort of points system thing, with wrestlers organised in blocks. I don’t know where I got that idea, but it’s genius, and I think it should happen on SmackDown.

Then this week we open with a Roman Reigns promo and I remember that everything is the same as it always was.

“When it comes to family, you know the deal”

To be fair to Roman, it was a good call to invoke the most beloved feud of his wrestling career thus far very promptly into this promo, to negate any residual booing that might be looming around him. It seems that the Summerslam Bray Wyatt rematch is going to a plus one affair: Roman’s going to bring Dean, and Bray will bring Luke, and it will all be a marvellous reunion where we don’t at all start sobbing because we miss Seth so much. I am very fond of Roman Reigns, but he seems to be in a role at the moment where he thinks he’s a lot more charismatic than he is. This is effective with a smarmy heel, but as a large lovable beefcake, it errs towards cringeworthy. Here, he milks the crowd for too long, leaving litres of fresh air in between saying “believe” and “that”, in which I felt stressed on his behalf.

Did you know that SmackDown is booked entirely by dice roll? It explains both the limited pool of wrestlers available and the weird unpredictability of the way they’re thrown together to face each other. The other possibility is it’s booked by that Raw Roulette wheel they used to have; except a broken one where it’s always stuck on “singles match gets interrupted: becomes tag match” in tiny writing.

“You don’t know about creepy”

It appears that this promo slot has been double booked again, which is so often the case, and Rusev emerges to insist he has “more important things to talk about”. Rusev’s all flag-prodding and stamping and “boo USA” and Roman throws some sass his direction about the whole girlfriend clone business, calling him a creep. Babyfaces should notice when heels are doing weird bad guy stuff outside of the confines of their specific feud with each other, and they should call that stuff out: but this was just a sarcastic jab at Summer’s expense rather than anything else. I’d love it for some face to just be like “Welp, Rusev, you’re being a weirdo. Summer, are you okay? Do you need a friend right now? This guy is no good for you”. Who on earth would it be? I’m racking my brains and I think it would probably have to be Bayley.

The real plot that Summer Rae should be in throughout these crucial few weeks is how it’s a outrage she’s not booked to wrestle on the PPV that bears her name.

This opening segment is really disappointing, but it’s good if you wanna cross some stuff off your SD bingo cards. We’ve got misogyny in the old “girls name equals emasculation” format (Rusev says “you are arrogant, so I will call you Lana”), we’ve got proud babyface ignorance (Roman: “I have no idea what you just said!”) and jingoism (Roman: “This is America, baby! U. S. A.!”). Everything surrounding Rusev seems to be bringing out the worst in people. It’s a waste.

Look at that last paragraph. See how SmackDown poisons me? I wanted to write “it’s funny how it looks like Rusev is waving his flag to Roman’s theme”, and it came out as that.

I also wanted to write that the amount of times Rusev is labouring this “cold fish” motif reminds me of the “my mother is a fish” symbolism in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It’s probably a coincidence.

Mark Henry and the Prime Time Players vs The New Day

The New Day are a feel-good spot in every SmackDown, which is appropriate enough, given their positivity ethos. Big E cracks me up immediately, wide-eyed gesticulating at Mark Henry, and  requesting loudly “retire already!”.

This is a match we’ve seen a lot of times lately, with the exception of newly introduced wildcard Henry, so it’s him I had an eye on: but he turns out to be a bit of a disappointing non-factor until the finish. Darren Young has a fairly good showing; usually I struggle to find anything noteworthy about him at all, but in this match he’s throwing suplexes on the apron and all sorts. However, Young proceeds to spend the following 80% of the match stuck in the corner while all the New Day take turns to stomp him, so it was a short lived display. Henry gets the pin on Kofi with a World’s Strongest Slam.

Jimmy Uso starts having a giggle-fit halfway through this match about nipples, but it’s so infinitely preferable to anything Lawler says, it’s almost endearing.

Charlotte vs Naomi

I guess at this point, they still hadn’t twigged about the whole Submission Sorority thing. This feels understandably rushed, with too much flailing and not enough time to logically chain moves. Charlotte looks stressed and hurried, and she struggles to apply the Figure Eight.

They span that rigged Raw Roulette wheel for this one, so after barely a minute of action, Sasha runs in to stomp Charlotte and they call for the DQ. The match gets restarted as…

Charlotte and Becky Lynch vs Sasha Banks and Naomi

This match ends up being the longest bell-to-bell on the whole show, which would normally be kind of thrilling, but it under-delivers a little which leaves me feeling flat.

The change in pace as the tag match opens is immediately evident: with all the rush of the prior singles flurry being dissipated. I don’t know whether I’m just over-analysing it, but I’m still not certain of how comfortable Charlotte and Becky are on the main roster; they have an awkward self-consciousness to them, which I never saw in NXT. Sasha looks fine though. I bet Sasha is never out of her depth, ever. She’s on great form as always, just utterly charismatic with everything she does.

The one thing I find really satisfying about a longer women’s match like this (nearly 15 minutes!) is the kayfabe resilience of the women involved. When we’re used to seeing Divas’ Battle Royales and so on where the participants have the constitution of wet tissue paper, watching Charlotte kick Naomi away when she tries to drag her off the apron, rather than just immediately tumbling off, is awesome. A spirited “Becky” chant breaking out, with no derisive duelling reply, is equally awesome.

About halfway through this match, things start to slip. The Bank Statement, which Sasha applies effortlessly on NXT, with grace and confidence, suddenly doesn’t work. She goes for the backstabber, but Charlotte just slides down her legs, instead of flipping over, and the move flops. Sasha improvises with a straitjacket hold instead, but the seeds of doubt have been sown. Shortly afterward, there’s an interminably long hold sequence, where Naomi stares vacantly into the middle distance and Becky struggles and gasps for what feels like hours. Suddenly all the momentum is gone.

Things pick up before the finish, with a great hot tag and an impressive spear from Charlotte, but then there’s the finish, which is a complete shambles. Naomi runs in to break up the action but never actually tags in, then has a brief sequence of reversed roll-ups with Charlotte and ultimately gets the pin. I’m completely flummoxed about this finish, and it undermines the highlights of the match substantially. To the viewer, it looks like a mistake, like Naomi forgot to tag: but then commentary specifically mention that she didn’t tag, so was it supposed to be a heel tactic? It wouldn’t be beyond Jerry Lawler to lampshade incompetence and erode the credibility of female performers for his own amusement, but I’m unsure. Either way, it made everyone look a bit rubbish, particularly the referee, who watched the whole muddle intently and counted the pin regardless.

Stardust vs Zack Ryder

This is pretty obviously a nothing match, but it’s harmless in that capacity. It has some enjoyable spots: Stardust with the Bow and Arrow, a good flapjack from Ryder. Zack keeps on falling into flukey pins and beaming joyfully every time, which is fun to watch. Stardust gets the pin with the Queen’s Crossbow.

Rusev vs Roman Reigns

Okay. So Roman gets a clean win here: and while that does make a total of three weeks straight of clean finishes in the main event of SmackDown, it was not the right decision. A month ago, in the WWE canon, no one had pinned Rusev apart from John Cena: and then Cesaro managed it, in spectacular fashion, and began a snowball of success which fans watched teary-eyed and while proudly doing supportive hand-cannons. Now, it’s John Cena, Cesaro, and Roman Reigns that have beaten Rusev. That’s too unwieldy to list over commentary; that’s too many people to be important. So Rusev is now officially in Just A Guy status. The thing is, I’m not mad on behalf of Rusev; he’s had no credibility for months now. I’m frustrated for Cesaro. It’s like whenever he gets an achievement that means something, it becomes instantly undermined.

The match itself is forgettable. Lana runs out for a ringside catfight with Summer, if that’s on your bingo card. Roman wins with a Spear.

There was no need to waste this win here. Distraction/confusion dirty finishes are expected on SmackDown, and we had an ideal foil for Roman already prepared  in the form of Bray Wyatt. A victory over Rusev on Thursday night doesn’t make Roman look strong or important. There doesn’t seem to be any logical explanation for why this decision was made.

Long sigh.

Final Thoughts: This is the sort of show where I’m left rubbing my temples and with literally nothing I can recommend to anyone. The show opens with an offensive promo, there’s unmemorable nothing matches, and then the women get 15 minutes and mess it up. The main event booking manages to damage people in the periphery and there wasn’t any good wrestling either. A real low point.