WWE occasionally struggles to make their weekly programming feel like a singular universe in which all of the stories overlap and feel connected. That certainly wasn't the case on Monday, though, as the group calling itself Retribution ramped up its presence to its most significant level in weeks. It came in three stages: a promo to start, a postmatch tease and, eventually, an attack that interrupted the main event just as it had started to heat up.
Those moments enveloped two other key stories that evolved over the course of Monday night -- the rapidly intensifying conflict between Drew McIntyre and Keith Lee, and the rising influence of the quartet known as The Hurt Business. It all culminated in the post-main event chaos, as 13 masked members of Retribution hit the ring and surrounded Lee and McIntyre. After overwhelming the champion and his challenger, The Hurt Business delivered on a promise to improve Raw's security and marched down to the ring to bolster the response. That intrusion allowed Lee and McIntyre to hit dual running flips over the top rope to strike the first major blow against the anonymous group since they started interrupting Raw and SmackDown.
But as soon as Lee and McIntyre landed on the ground, they stared each other down rather than take stock of the opportunity at hand. For only the second time since the inception of Retribution, a response significant enough to counter the group's attack was managed, and for the first time most of the invading group was left prone. Even though the show was going off the air, it was supremely disappointing that the initial thought was to refocus on one another rather than the opportunity at hand.
Sure, the seeds had been planted throughout the night, as McIntyre spent multiple promos passive aggressively cutting Lee and his chances of contending for the title down. As that unfolded, Lee eventually grew angry enough to raise a physical threat that ultimately drove multiple backstage clashes ahead of their match.
But with so many of the masked foes lying on the ground, would it really have been so difficult to unmask at least one member of the group? It wouldn't even have to be the leader or a very important person to the equation, and everyone else could have retreated. On a night when it finally felt like Retribution was picking up steam and direction, it would've been the perfect flourish to keep the world interested with Retribution at the front of their minds with an actual face to concentrate on. Instead, the group was briefly forgotten as Raw faded to black, and made to feel secondary to the conflict of Lee and McIntyre.
The reveal is coming, if the promo from Monday night is any indication. The mention of training at the Performance Center gives a big clue to the identity of at least some of the group's members, if their height and dimensions weren't already indicative of who a few key members might be. But on a nearly perfect night in terms of making the group more three-dimensional, with the Raw roster requiring an Avengers-like team-up as a response, the lapse in logic in terms of a lack of inspiration for revealing who is behind the conflict after all this time was the only thing holding this story back from being potentially transcendent. We'll see how it goes next week.
Roman Reigns and the art of a slow reveal
It seems pretty clear what direction Reigns is headed in as he builds the foundation for what's shaping up to be a long, all-encompassing stretch as Universal champion. His appearance late in the Universal championship match at Payback to simply clean up the scraps against Braun Strowman and Bray Wyatt was cold, calculated and evil. But rather than Reigns and Paul Heyman just rolling out every step of their plan right from the outset, it's been a slow, steady drip of information.
Reigns and Heyman are certainly hitting all the key notes along the way, including promos from that position Reigns in a similar framework to Brock Lesnar while not feeling repetitive. But the unfortunate circumstances of Jimmy Uso's injury have opened the door to a unique opportunity with Jey Uso that accomplishes everything Reigns needs in terms of a full turn to the dark side.
Jey stepping up to the plate as Reigns' first challenger to the Universal championship might not have made a lot of sense at the outset, considering the fact that Jey had barely appeared on SmackDown in the lead-up to his opportunity. But Reigns and Heyman conspiring to slide Jey into a last-minute opportunity under the cover of showing love to family in order to get an "easy" win fits nicely into what Reigns has been up to since his return at SummerSlam.
That Uso not only won the Fatal 4-Way match to qualify for the Universal shot, but then took on Sheamus and King Corbin 1-on-2 valiantly for the majority of the SmackDown main event before Reigns made his late, dramatic, heroic entrance, further builds up his credibility. Reigns has toed the line of subtlety between dismissal of his cousin as a true threat with an insistence of a mutual love and respect, culminating in the moment where Uso raised Reigns' hand in victory and celebration and both men stared up at the Universal championship at once.
It will make the heartbreak of Uso's likely heartless destruction at Clash of Champions, and the moment that the last signs of Reigns' genuine "good guy" attributes fade away, all the more satisfying.
Bayley's paranoia bubbles over
When Bayley is given a story to tell, and the freedom to express it on either the microphone or from bell to bell, the potential for magic always hangs in the air. In light of her finally snapping and unleashing a brutal attack on Sasha Banks last week, the world was prepared to hear exactly why Bayley did what she did.
And Bayley didn't disappoint, as the SmackDown women's champion laid bare all of her paranoia and unapologetic anger. Despite all of the history between Bayley and Banks, the seemingly endless lovefest between the two women as Bayley ascended to a now historic SmackDown women's title reign and their brief stretch of holding all of the women's titles on Raw and SmackDown, the dichotomy of how each woman seemed to view the arrangement was revealed with every word from the champion.
Bayley ranted on about how cathartic the experience of destroying Banks felt. She projected her fears on Banks, insisting that her friend was just lining her up for another in a series of betrayals that stretch back to their earliest days together in NXT. "Who knows you better than me?" insisted Bayley, as she spoke of Banks waiting for the right time to strike, keeping her close all the while.
Bayley ran down every incident along the way, including how Banks brought Bayley to the main roster as a tag team partner and used her for her own success. That shared history added tremendous depth to the betrayal, as the best villains in history often have at least one strong leg to stand on, and the mirror image of all the times Banks betrayed Bayley over the years has set up a tremendously interesting dynamic for when Banks seeks her revenge.
On Monday night, Banks was advertised to return to SmackDown, which seems to at least slightly cheapen the effects of Bayley's attack a couple weeks ago. But with Nikki Cross lined up for the next shot at Bayley's title, there will at least be some room for the conflict between Banks and Bayley to ramp up their tension before blowing it off in a major way.
Other thoughts from the week
• After a man's eye was plucked out, a family kendo stick attack and now a steel cage match, it's hard to say what could be left to do in the conflict between Seth Rollins and the Mysterio family. A pair of stomps to Dominik Mysterio that pushed Rollins to victory seemingly neutralized the younger Mysterio, but it's hard to see a clear path to the end of this story. Perhaps we saw the hints of a creative, subtle twist in the story at the very end. After Murphy violated Rollins' wishes and got involved in the steel cage match, accidentally slamming the cage on Rollins' face, Murphy absorbed his second flurry of attacks from Rollins on the night that culminated in his own taste of steel fencing to the face. As Dominik's sister Aalyah joined her mother to check on Dominik in the ring, Aalyah paused for a moment and put her hand on Murphy in a show of concern. Could we be on our way to a doomed Romeo & Juliet moment down the line? It makes as much sense as any other direction this story could head in.
• The Hurt Business injecting itself directly into the conflict with Retribution (for a price, of course) represents another major step forward for their credibility and status within the pecking order on Monday Night Raw. It's also really nice to know that MVP fast-tracked Cedric Alexander's W-9 and other paperwork to make him a full-fledged member of the group so quickly. Also, if you missed the way Alexander hit Ricochet with the Lumbar Check, you'll want to seek it out.
• It's unlikely that Randy Orton will miss Clash of Champions, but the possibility was mentioned repeatedly throughout the show. Setting aside the over-the-top nature of an ambulance match, the stipulation that's been added, it's hard to see a scenario in which Lee doesn't factor in somehow. As mentioned above, the staredown between Lee and McIntyre to end the show shows this wasn't the end of a story by any means.
• Andrade and Angel Garza finally succumbed to the tensions of the last few months and came to blows. Zelina Vega had enough of it all and stepped out of her managerial role entirely. And then, after Asuka had successfully defended her Raw women's championship against Mickie James, Vega walked out and stated her intentions as a wrestler, capping it off with an emphatic slap to the face. Fresh blood in the women's title scene is a welcome move, and it's a chance for Vega to show what she's capable of.
• Pour one out for the shortest-tenured member of the Firefly Funhouse ever, Pasquale the Persevering Parrot. It can be hard to dig through all of the levels of meta references on the Firefly Funhouse, but the return of the Vince McMahon puppet with devil horns, introducing Wobbly Walrus as the most obvious Paul Heyman caricature in history and the level of conflict that will likely come with was as straightforward as it gets. If we've learned anything about "The Fiend" over the last few years, it's that having him as champion writes the whole show he's on into a corner, and it's tough to navigate. Giving him a different creative outlet for the near-future is smart, and the looming question of how involved Alexa Bliss will be is an interesting wrinkle.
• Speaking of Bliss, she moved from concerned friend to mesmerized Wyatt-influenced pawn in no time flat. After Cross was attacked with a chair by Bayley before the Fatal 4-Way No. 1 contender's match (and why would you turn your back on a villain who just walked past you with a chair), Bliss stepped up to comfort her friend. But as Bliss was seemingly comforting Cross again mid-match, with Tamina and Lacey Evans out of the picture, Bliss took the opportunity to hit a Sister Abigail, complete with a kiss to the forehead.
• If there's nothing more to it, it's hard to find a real point to the weeks-long crossover between Raw tag team champion the Street Profits and SmackDown tag team champions Cesaro & Shinsuke Nakamura. If the idea is to perhaps unify the titles and make a singular, floating men's tag team title along the lines of the women's tag team titles, however, I'm all for it.
• Few can play the abrasive, quick-to-victimhood style of villain as well as Sami Zayn. He had several moments to shine on SmackDown, from yelling at the guys in the production truck to interrupting the Intercontinental championship match between Jeff Hardy and AJ Styles -- capped with a Helluva kick directly to Hardy's skull. He's hit the ground running since his return, and it would be perfectly believable if he exited his presumptive match with Styles and Hardy as Intercontinental champion.
• With Mandy Rose traded to Raw, and Braun Strowman teasing a move of his own with an appearance on Raw Underground (and a return scheduled for next week to clash with Dabba-Kato), the roster moves heading into the fall seem to be in motion. Add in the mysterious promos about a woman who very well may be a returning Carmella, and a chance at some fresh starts makes sense for this moment in time.