'WWE RAW': Randy Orton's Back…With a Vengeance?

The Viper returns and recoils, #Axelmania rules and the Bushwhackers make the Hall – all on Monday night

Randy Orton takes down Roman Reigns on ‘WWE Raw.' Credit: WWE

The demands of a three-hour live broadcast (particularly 24 hours after a PPV in a different city) continue to wear on WWE's production crew.

Whether it was a sloppy lead-out from commercial into Wade Barrett's promo or the bizarre final moments that featured a temporary blackout, an anticlimactic finish that cut to an awkward plug for the WWE Network – then back to a superfluous replay – last night's show was far from tight. Though none of that really matters if it addressed two essential needs: further paving the road to WrestleMania and offering some quality, soapy wrestling action.

So how did it do? I don't know. What am I, an expert? All I can declare is that here are five key things I took away (in addition to the usual accompaniment of Twitter-friendly sidebar scuttlebutt) from the February 23 edition of WWE Raw.

5. Dialogue Jam
As a counter to my weekly "Line of the Night" addendum below, allow me to propose a three-way tie for last night's lamest antagonistic bait: The Ascension arguing that new WWE lifetime-achievement honorees the Bushwhackers belong in the "Hall of Shame" (zing!), John Cena assuring the Nashville crowd, "You can bet your Grand Ole Opry" he'll topple Rusev, and Ryback wondering aloud why he doesn't "take the Ax Man [i.e. Curtis Axel] to Smashville." Who writes this stuff? Chuck Lorre?

4. Here's the Thing About the Bushwhackers
There are two kinds of Hall of Fame inductees (not counting a potential third variety, the posthumously honored): Signature WWE/WWF/WWWF Superstars, and performers whose total body of work was influential, regardless of what promotion or territory they plied their trade in. The latter is what makes WWE's Hall the definitive pro-wrestling shrine.

And while the Bushwhackers' actual run under Vince McMahon was owed more to shrewd business than anything else (what other midcard act sold more kiddie merch?), the New Zealand duo's overall contribution (whether as Bushwhackers or the Sheepherders) to global tag-team competition was palpable. Also, don't be surprised if a new line of retro action figures is in the works and their inclusion is yet another canny marketing angle. Between the Bushwhackers and Rikishi, people might bemoan a 2015 class that boasts a succession of good-time guys. But all three of the aforementioned worked their assess off for years in the ring, took whatever gimmick was given and ran with it (grabbing their share of glory along the way) and created something enduring. That's what the Hall acknowledges in its wisest moments, so no reason to smart too much over this overture toward Luke and Butch.

3. You Go, Natalya
I'm still not buying Natalya's complete heel turn (at least not until she demonstrates approval of being used as a decoy and human shield), but it was a lot of fun watching her get feisty with Naomi and the Usos. In fact, she even ensured her hubbie Tyson Kidd and his partner Cesaro hung onto their tag straps by pulling a would-be-flying Uso off the ropes and causing the DQ. This after violently shoving Naomi down after her former friend stopped Kidd from using the ropes to gain a cheap win. I like it. And I like the red hair and the new vixen attire and the whole bit. And the notion of Naomi and Natalya mixing it up in the Usos/Kiddsaro (why not?) rivalry. And starting sentences with conjunctions. Anyhow, Nattie will really have to commit if we're to reconcile the non-confrontational cat lover we see on Total Divas with this latest turn, but it could help provide depth to her career, not to mention both the tag team and Divas divisions.

2. Rusev's Come a Long Way
Remarkably, without going anywhere in terms of character evolution. Which might what's most persuasive about run as monster heel. The furthest this guy's stepped away from his origins as a Russian-sympathizing brute buoyed by the rhetoric of his BFF Lana was by coming down from the platform from which he used to honor Vladimir Putin. But yet, here we are 13 months removed from his main-roster debut, he's embroiled in a legit and important feud with John Cena to crest at WrestleMania and he hasn't suffered the fanbase's volatile changes in temperament.

It's very simple: They hate him, and he hates them, and base as his gimmick might be, it's obviously been an asset by making him a clear villain. That may not lead to the same kind of push a more polarizing figure (e.g. Roman Reigns) receives, but it does mean Rusev's been able to stay on track as other "next big things" like Bray Wyatt have occasionally needed a retool. I enjoy watching Rusev in the ring, even if I could do without the tired thread of nationalistic heat (that exchange between he and Cena last night was particularly over the top). In many ways, Rusev's task to this point has been somewhat thankless, and even I've grown to appreciate that.

1. That 'Triumphant Return' Could Have Gone Better
This is all surely some kind of big-picture strategy by Randy Orton, only different than the Authority-endorsed approach he assured Seth Rollins he'd abide. At some point soon, the Viper (back from four months away after Rollins storyline-sidelined him with a curb stomp to the steel stairs) will sabotage his natural foe. Maybe he'll cost him a Money in the Bank cash-in on Reigns. Perhaps the Apex Predator will RKO him in the middle of a sweet skateboarding trick. Maybe he'll leak nude pictures of him to the Internet (a lot's happened since you've been gone, Randy). But does any of that change that the fiery potential of Orton's return has – as it was with Daniel Bryan a couple months back – been irrevocably extinguished?

After biding their time, WWE finally set him loose during Fastlane, except Rollins got away, whetting our appetites for Raw, where Orton would…be willing to stand patiently alongside the man who allegedly took one-third of a year off his career just to maybe set in motion some kind of plan to take him down more ingeniously? And then appear to be sincerely considering a re-alliance with the Authority, showing signs of conflict after costing he and Seth Rollins their main-event match against Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns? What happened to the guy who kicked off the show proclaiming he wasn't one for words but for fists? I wanted that guy last night, and I wanted him to uncoil and attack. I'd waited long enough and survived too many rounds of musical chairs with DB, Kane, Big Show, Rollins, Rowan, Ryback, Ziggler et al. Planning ahead is always good, and there'd be no point in holding Orton out as long as they did without something that could unravel over time in mind. Still, if the WWE Universe really comes first, there's something to be said for summoning the urgency to stage every Raw like it could be their last.

Below the Belt:

  • Do you think Curtis' is the only #Axelmania shirt in production?
  • A four-way I.C. title match between Barrett, Dolph Ziggler, Dean Ambrose and R-Truth? Sure, why not?
  • Those KO shirts keep popping up in Raw crowds.
  • Now would be a great time for some old-school Goldust vignettes interrupting Stardust's matches.
  • Smart idea to debrief younger fans who may not have the Network on Sting's legacy.
  • Pimp that DDP Yoga, Dallas!
  • Line of the Night: I enjoyed Orton's delivery of, "I'd rather kick some ass than kiss some ass." It was like full-calorie Cena.
  • Sign of the Night: Sloth Lesnar!
  • In Case You Fast-Forwarded Through Commercials: I'm just not the audience for Party Down South. Nor the right demo for Dave & Busters. And I am definitely not interested in anything Sonic has to offer. What am I doing watching Raw again?
  • Noticeable In Their Absence: Rowan, Fandango, Alicia Fox, Brock Lesnar.