I liked the way this week's show opened up, with Hunter mid-sentence in the ring, reaming the locker room (and particularly Eric Bischoff) for their actions last week in his absence. It went quite a ways toward conveying the sense that Hunter was absolutely beside himself over the way things were turning out than any sort of backstage beatdown, slow, cocky walk down the entryway or overproduced video recap could ever hope to. Hunter was so angry this week, he couldn't even wait for the show to go live and when Eric Bischoff cut him off, he was instantly out for blood. When Eric got in the ring and Hunter immediately made a move to re-establish himself as the show's alpha male, (with all respect to Monty Brown) it marked a noticeable change in both men's attitudes. It wasn't a change on par with Kurt Angle's abrupt about-face when he turned face to contend with Steve Austin several years ago. It wasn't like Booker T and Shawn Michaels' mysterious apparent friendship, only a few months after Michaels superkicked Booker out of the nWo and hinted that his actions were racially motivated. Simply enough, it was Bischoff coming to the realization that he's had Evolution by the balls all the time. It was Triple H seeing a fire in the General Manager's eyes that he didn't like and making one last, desperate gamble to regain his stranglehold over his physically-diminutive superior. As Adam said before me, the reason this corner Bischoff's character has taken is so incredibly interesting at the moment is because he isn't a completely different person than he was three weeks ago. He's still an asshole, and he'll still hold a grudge if you cross him. The difference is that he's finally playing on the same field with the heels AND the faces. He's making decisions with the status of RAW's bottom-line in mind now, not the status of Triple H's next title reign. This was an incredibly important point for them to make if the "new" EB is going to succeed, and they delivered it in style. Too bad, then, that Eric won't be on the show for a full month now.
Speaking of solid character development, take a look at freaking Batista this month. Rather than holding tight as the flunky of Evolution, he's quickly becoming a well-rounded creature of his own, showing moments of unbridled rage from which no one is safe, and expressing some subtle aspirations to follow the same path out of the stable that Randy Orton took just three months ago. I think there's a good chance they'll reveal that Batista was the one to take out Flair last week, in a violent fury similar to the one we saw backstage after his loss to Randy Orton in the first match of the night. There's an interesting character starting to break through beneath that veiny facade, one who speaks well and dresses well, but loses all sense of right and wrong when overcome with anger.
Or maybe I'm reading too much into things again. I've made a habit of doing that.
Since I've pretty much stampeded past it already with my comments on the progression of the various personalities of some of the show's top heels, now's as good a time as any to backpedal a bit and mention that Batista and Randy Orton had a big, long match to open the show. Putting it as simply as I can, this would've been an outstanding match at ten or fifteen minutes. There was a good pace to the match, a natural progression from a violent brawl to a more submission-based game of "human chess" and a great gathering of momentum near the conclusion that would've been even more noteworthy if the match had ended on something a little more memorable than a fluke roll-up. The real problem was that extra five or ten minutes, which were basically recycled from earlier in the match, and the toll they took on the speed of the whole package. Starting a match with punches, shoulder blocks and plenty of irish whips is a good way to establish deeply-seated hatred between the two men in the ring. Chris Benoit and Edge did the exact same thing in their match at the end of the show, and it worked just as well there as it was here. The problem was, Batista and Orton lingered on that portion of the match for way too long, throwing punches and running into each other when they should've been slowing it down on the mat, slowing it down when they should've been heading for home and finally wrapping it up when the crowd had already deflated. It's good to see these two members of the current youth movement aren't afraid to test the water with some longer matches, but they don't quite have it down just yet.
Tyson Tomko and Shelton Benjamin followed that one up with a midcard match of their own, bringing some wordless promotion to the Intercontinental Title match this Sunday between Benjamin and Tomko's boy, Christian. Truth be told, I was expecting far less than we got here. Tomko is steadily improving, to the point that I'm now beginning to believe he might evolve into something more than Billy Gunn version 2.0, and Benjamin was really feeling it last night. The way he was bouncing around the ring to get Tyson just a little bit more over as a legitimate threat wasn't unlike a young Shawn Michaels, and he's just starting to gain enough confidence in the ring as a single to take charge of a match and transform it from something mediocre into something special. Take a look at the chokeslam he took for the tattooed wildebeest about two thirds of the way through that match, and then go back and look at the way every other Tomko opponent has taken it... it's two completely different worlds. If he can grab hold of a spot, a catchphrase or a character that the audience can identify with, Shelton's got big things in his future. The match was a bit hurried, but there is such a thing as too much Tomko so it's a fair trade.
I had no love for the Highlight Reel segment, neither before nor after Gene Snitsky made his appearance and delivered "the punt heard round the world." Beforehand it was just more of the same between Trish and Lita, who have been treading water, waiting for the whole pregnancy angle to run its course before moving forward with their Women's Title feud. Trish plays the bitch, Lita the outraged, furious scapegoat with a mean bite and we're on the verge of another painful cat fight when the baby killer interrupts. The baby punt didn't get as big a laugh out of me as it seems to have produced throughout the forums, and I'm once again feeling like I missed the joke with this guy. I definitely preferred Hunter's potted plant dropkick during his vow renewal with Stephanie a few years back, in terms of sheer unexpected comedy on RAW.
Right from that segment, which was itself toeing the line between light humor and bold annoyance, we then head into Simon Dean's second live appearance on Monday Night, with his lineup of plants and fakes following close behind. If the Snitsky baby-booting toed that line, this segment backed up, got a running start and performed an Olympic-sized long jump beyond it. It's one thing to build heat by annoying, insulting and basically begging an audience, it's something else to do it for over a quarter of an hour. They need to get to the point with this angle ASAP, because one more tedious segment like that and it's over before it's begun. How can they be moving in such a realistic direction at the top of the card and such a cheesy, unbelievable direction down here at the bottom?
And, just as we appear to be on the verge of a third match and a conclusion to this string of ugly segments, Gene Snitsky jogs down the entryway and wipes Tajiri around the ringside area, concluding the Japanese Buzzsaw's match with Triple H before it had even begun. I'm not sure what the point of this was, since Tajiri isn't remotely involved in the match this Sunday and Snitsky's only intent seems to be warning Triple H that he'll be looking out for number one in the occasion that their team wins the month-long RAW GM-ship. Don't get me wrong, I like that the heels are anything but buddies, and that they're having second thoughts about blindly following Triple H's lead, (actually, quite the opposite... I think it gives a fresh dynamic to Sunday's match) but I'm not sure the center of the ring was the only available spot to express that with Snitsky, especially so soon after his last segment.
I enjoyed what we got of the Benoit / Edge match, and have to admit I'm really getting a kick out of their feud as a whole thus far. It's something that was kept on the backburner for a little while, as Edge briefly occupied himself in the Intercontinental Title scene and took some time off to heal his wounds, but came back up to the forefront in a hurry and felt much more like an accumulation of several months' worth of animosity than an ill-timed change of heart. These guys had issues the LAST time they were tag team champions, and all that started to pour out as the match got underway last night in Austin. Benoit was really in his environment here in the early-goings, as he's never quite as good as he is when they give him a reason to get personally offended at his opponent, but as things settled down, the pace grew more and more awkward. It's like neither Edge nor Benoit couldn figure out who was supposed to be in control at any particular moment, so they substituted by trading off more frequently than usual. Unfortunately, just as things seemed to be coming together again, Evolution came down to ringside, followed closely by Team Orton, and all hell broke loose shortly thereafter. The post-match battle didn't have the emotion you'd figure it would, and in that respect I think Ric Flair was sorely missed. Simply enough, the faces are surprised and thrown out of the ring, take a moment to regroup and overtake the heels as they argue in the middle of the squared circle. For once the faces are all on the same page, while the heels are going in six different directions at once.
All things considered, I can't claim this week was better than the last, especially without the requisite outstanding match that's been RAW's calling card all through 2004. Edge / Benoit and Orton / Batista weren't half bad, in reflection, but both seemed to be missing something that kept each of them from being more than an average TV match with more time than usual. I'm loving the attention they're giving to character development on the show right now, especially in the mid-card and upper-card heels, and the main event storyline's been great this month, but it hasn't been there in-ring as consistently as it had been earlier in the year. Above average, no question, but not by much.
Overall Score: 5.7