After last week’s episode of WWE SmackDown fell foul of inflated expectations, this one didn’t make any similar promises, as the final tournament matches are all taking place on Survivor Series on Sunday. Instead, we get a tag match with our semi-finalists, sheep druids, and penis jokes.

Miz TV

The Miz isn’t necessarily an obvious choice to open the show. He inexplicably presents himself here as curator of the whole tournament, pointing at the belt atop its red velvet plinth almost proprietarily. This isn’t about you, Miz. Thankfully, Owens interrupts him before he gets the chance to start a speech of any length; and what follows is the expected parade of tournament contenders, all with some last words of fighting wisdom to impart.

“I’m turning this into the Kevin Owens Show.”

Kevin claims here that he’s the man… Triple H’s new man (there’s no way to say that without it sounding pleasantly romantic), with such a level of conviction here that I can see why some would really believe it’s Owens that’s going the whole way over Dean Ambrose on Sunday. Del Rio and Zeb interrupt, and Zeb has some empty platitudes about Miz TV’s purpose being to divide, whereas MexAmerica is all about uniting; therefore Alberto will not be dragged into the foolish charade. This would be almost poignant if not for the fundamental disconnect that exists in slightly meta wrestling angles. Any self-aware protagonist in the WWE world knows that every Miz TV; every contract signing; even every backstage interview, is set up to provoke and exacerbate. The only winning move is not to play. By emerging on cue, halfway through one of Kevin Owens’ sentences, Alberto and Zeb have unwittingly become the trope they were desperate to avoid. They are Broken America, they are Stale WWE, they are Person Number 2 In the Go Home Show Angle.

Del Rio tells Owens that he doesn’t hate Canadians. After all, he adds “we will always need people to clean our swimming pools in MexAmerica.” It feels like WWE were so wedded to Zeb’s racist gimmick that they’ve decided to just switch the countries to make it seem knowing and tongue-in-cheek, but keep the exact same rhetoric. This would be more ok, or even wryly funny, if it weren’t for the fact that we know that we’re not all in on the joke. WWE isn’t a post-racial society. It doesn’t take a social justice warrior to cringe at Jericho calling Rusev an “unwashed cab driver”, and you don’t need to be the leader of the IWC to know that Alberto Del Rio (and Ricardo Rodriguez) has spoken at length about the backstage racial tension and xenophobic unease that spreads itself through the roster and non-wrestling team. Even children know that wrestling has a race problem. So why take racist rhetoric that has almost verbatim been directed at Del Rio outside of kayfabe, and then have him say those words to someone else? Is that what WWE feels is empowering? It’s not satire if you’re just copying the thing you’re satirising.

Dean Ambrose is on fine form when he emerges to defuse the atmosphere somewhat, quipping with Miz about being humbled to appear on the segment, and making his intentions clear that he will take on either man gladly on Sunday. Dean Ambrose isn’t the sort of complicated, lovable, sincere babyface that Sami Zayn is (or was, before enthusiastic arm-waving incapacitated him more than Kevin Owens’ betrayal ever managed), but he’s never, ever boring to listen to, and his motivations and feelings actually make sense. When he looks Owens in the eyes and says with chilling calmness “you deliver a beating like no one else, but fortunately I can take a beating like nobody else in this industry, so take your best shot,” the word “respect” is unspoken, but it’s floating over the interaction like smoke rings, like the electricity in the air before the lightning hits. You don’t need “respect” to be printed on a tiny towel to be a babyface. You don’t need it to be a hashtag. You need to show it through your actions.

Roman Reigns is next, of course, and mostly does handsome side-eyeing, which is wise. If I wrote scripts for SmackDown, it’d be a set of very similar stage directions next to Reigns’ name. “Look sideways, handsomely”, or “Stare beneath furrowed brows, handsomely” would probably do the job for all non-combat scenes.

Unexpectedly, R-Truth then emerges for some light relief! This is a joke they did exactly like this for the Money In the Bank match earlier in the year; the slightly delusional, stupid R-Truth cutting an impassioned promo on being the underdog and a survivor, then being reminded he isn’t actually in the match, and handling it with humble good humour and apologies. It was an unexpected amusement first time round, but to reuse this joke on the go-home show for an incredibly important title match seems lazy at best, and outright offensive at worst. What’s R-Truth’s gimmick, anyway? Black guy with ideas above his station? Back to my initial point regarding Del Rio: is WWE really in a position to be making referential racial jokes, when they can’t see a problem with this character?

Then Ambrose punches the Miz in the face, because that’s how you tell when Miz TV’s over.

Cesaro vs. The Miz

Poor, rattled, pouty Miz wants his match cancelled after enduring bodily harm from his guests, but it’s too late, because the ominous sirens are sounding, and a be-towelled Cesaro is here. In a panic, the Miz throws kicks and whips with his coat still on, and for one amazing moment I had a flashback to Naito vs Shibata at the G1, where Naito didn’t have a chance to remove his suit or tearaway trousers til late in the match, so we watched a hairy, sweaty man in small trunks roll around with a fully clothed man and it was marvellous, frenetic fun. Sadly, the Miz does remove the magnificent high-collared number in one dramatic swoop, and this opening allows Cesaro to execute a glorious head scissors into a crossface on notoriously the most unstable base on the roster.

Neville & The Dudley Boyz vs. Stardust & The Ascension

The slowest burn plotline at the moment is probably whatever Stardust has going on with Cesaro. It’s been a build of passive-aggression, crowd signs, and affectionate taunt impressions, but today it upgrades to a stolen glance at each other as Cesaro exits and Stardust comes out for his match. Next week maybe they’ll brush arms in the corridor.

The early part of this match is built around a sequence where Neville is gaining momentum running back and forth between the ropes, flipping and flailing at Stardust. Then Konnor leans on the middle rope- from the apron- at a crucial time, leading Neville to go flying through the ropes and land with a thunk on the outside. Commentary ooh and ahh at this, and Jerry Lawler splutters “What a JERK!”, but doesn’t this seem like smart teamwork and reasonable strategy? Is it actually illegal to touch the ropes when you’re holding the tag rope? It’s presented here as being the most nefariously despicable activity of all time, and Neville sells the bump like he’s had his family murdered in front of him.

The hot tag gets made to Bubba Ray, who sets up Konnor for my Least Favourite Wrestling Move Of All Time. At risk of working myself into a shoot here, why is leaning on the ropes horrendously jerkish, but a systematic low-blow headbutt is harmless family entertainment? I feel like WWE needs to do more showing and less telling, because it’s very hard to justify why it’s ever morally acceptable to crush your cranium into another man’s balls (apart from consensually).

The Dudleyz drop a 3D on Viktor for the pin, leaving Neville’s key contribution to this match being “falling on his arse”.

Tyler Breeze vs. Zack Ryder

Tyler Breeze, the patron saint of the SmackDown #bestdressed award, is here to call Zack Ryder’s fashion sense “a little bit Ninety Eighty… Never,” and here’s where I wish Tyler Breeze was available as an alternative audio commentary track for SmackDown to pass scathing judgement on everyone’s outfits, but then maybe I’d be out of a job here at VOW, so. However, Summer Rae has to lower the tone by making an unnecessary explicit dick size joke here—to Breeze’s amusement—which feels so massively out of character. Why would Breeze care about penis size? Unless it affected the fit of sequinned trousers? NXT Breeze was unfettered by the trappings of masculine insecurity, and I’d like to keep it that way. It’s John Cena who has the genitalia fixation.

The dick jokes were what finally summoned Dolph “has let himself go” Ziggler to interrupt, hoiking up his grey jogging bottoms as he runs in to callously trash Summer Breeze’s VIP area. This distraction did little to support ol’ DZ’s ex-Broski Ryder, though, and Breeze gets an easy pin.

“I will bring the apocalypse!”

Perhaps in another week, that didn’t involve the invocation of dead-brother heat, Wyatt’s freelance sheep druids would have been the central talking point to come from Monday’s RAW. They’re here again tonight, flanking the ring with bovidae menace. This week’s small nugget of Erick Rowan Backstory (I’m collating these, for the unofficial Rowan biography: “Like a Lamb to the Slaughter”, or “Beards, Overalls and Lost Dreams”) is that Rowan is a man “rejected from society; discarded like a piece of unwanted garbage; fuelled by rage and vengeance”. Interesting.

Bray spends this segment hovering over each of his team-mates, teasing each of them in turn that they may or may not be the chosen couple to represent the family at Survivor Series. The gong sounds before we get Braun’s full introductory speech, and Taker appears on the tron to drop some sweet gambling/card games related puns and say “rest in peace” in a spooky voice.

Charlotte vs. Brie Bella

The less said about Monday’s unpleasantness in the Divas’ division, the better, as this has already been discussed ad infinitum across the wrestling corners of the internet, with opinion spanning the spectrum of “edgy and brave” right through to “shameful and disgusting”. The whole contract signing is recapped here, with squeals of “reprehensible!” from commentary that feel transparently hypocritical.

This is an okay by-the-numbers women’s SD match. Charlotte busts out her headscissor suplexes, which would look much more impressive if Brie wasn’t clearly bracing her knees and throwing herself over the top each time. If I were Brie, I’d just make myself super heavy and lie there like a dead weight and embarrass Charlotte. Let’s see deadlift headscissor suplexes. Brie throws the Daniel Bryan kicks when Charlotte gets knocked to her knees, and Brennan exclaims excitedly “those kicks look familiar, don’t they?”. Are we not allowed to say his name any more? Are we pretending he’s dead?

After this, the match descends further into that weird, cautious slow-motion wrestling that Charlotte does sometimes. Remember that weird moonsault she dropped in NXT once, where she landed so gymnastically it avoided all impact? Sometimes Charlotte looks more like she’s dancing than she’s wrestling. I’d like to see wrestling that looks like it hurts, a least a tiny bit. She gets the win here with the Figure 8.

Big E vs. Kalisto

The New Day have some jokes about Kalisto (he’s short, apparently), which fall flat of the usual high standard of New Day quips we’ve come to expect. Big E says “Kalisto, size really does matter,” while swivelling his hips sensually, so this is a SmackDown with two separate dick jokes, which I feel is indicative of a creative drought.

After an all-too-brief flurry of spirit from Kalisto, Big E gets an easy pin here with the Big Ending. I’m not sure why they had Kalisto beat Ryback clean, only to mercilessly halt him only a week later. If you have any thoughts, I’d love to know. I feel sad. The New Day continue to beat down Kalisto until Ryback runs in to rescue him. They may as well have called this segment “The Undermining of Sin Cara”.

Roman Reigns & Dean Ambrose vs. Kevin Owens & Alberto Del Rio

Back to more familiar ground this week; the two healthy ex-members of the Shield main-eventing on a Thursday is simultaneously a comforting, mundane event– and shrouded in a grim sense of foreboding as we anticipate whether their friendship will emerge unscathed from Sunday’s Survivor Series. The uneasy pals of MexCanada on the other side of the apron are obviously not on the same page, so by rights, this match ought to be decisive and short.

Alberto hits Ambrose with the walking enziguri early on and incapacitates him out of all proportion; it seems Deano has adopted his brother’s hobby of selling moves with the ferocity of being run over by a truck, in order to make his later comeback more of a contrast. The battle of “best headlock”- the real subplot in the ongoing Owens/Ambrose saga- re-emerges here, too, to slow down the match a little further.

This match feels a little clumsy and awkward, and lacking the smooth teamwork that is enjoyable when Reigns and Ambrose are at their best. It descends into anarchy fairly rapidly which seems like a missed opportunity to play with some subtle storytelling. If you’re looking for nuanced suggestion or foreshadowing for what to expect on Sunday, it’s not really here. The match ends in a count-out after the brawl spills to ringside, then everyone drops finishers on each other, and the Shield boys stand tall. Either an extremely straightforward image to explicitly indicate the result on Sunday, or a random finish that made no sense.

Final Thoughts: I like it when the show has symmetry; if they’re going to have such a compact roster then it makes sense to have segments call back to each other. The tension that was built on Miz TV manifested in the main event in a way that made sense, to a certain degree. Other than that, though, this was a weak go-home show with a lot of convoluted nonsense: and failed to book any more desperately needed matches for Survivor Series.