It’s no secret that WWE monitors and mirrors pop culture. Look no further than Breezango’s increasingly directionless Hollywood parodies or the Miz’s ongoing sendup of himself as a breakout box-office star.
So perhaps the SmackDown roster’s recent siege of Raw‘s locker room, complete with fearless leader (Shane McMahon) marching his soldiers into enemy territory and initiating all-out war, was a nod to The Walking Dead‘s season-eight premiere, which featured Rick Grimes rallying myriad forces of good in revolt against Neegan’s tyrannical Saviors. Except where Rick and his coalition’s motivation was clear – Neegan and his thugs had been killing off and subjugating their communities for weeks, threatening peace and prosperity amid the zombie apocalypse – McMahon apparently galvanized his gang with the simple maxim: “I learned at a very early age that when you’re going to get into a fight, it’s always better to strike first.” (He picked this up, one is left to deduce while looking for trouble alongside the Mean Street Posse.)
We can only assume his delivery to the SmackDown roster was far more compelling, enough that foes like Baron Corbin and A.J. Styles could put aside their differences for the greater good of pounding Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins to a pulp. Or that typically buoyant babyface Chad Gable would savagely beat down his former tag partner Jason Jordan. Or otherwise good-natured good guys Tye Dillinger and Bobby Roode would ransack a production area like demented Mountain Dew commercial extras. Everywhere you looked it was chaos and nonsense, from Becky Lynch bullying the makeup department to cooler-than-thou Dolph Ziggler suddenly possessed by team spirit.
— WWE (@WWE) October 25, 2017
WWE has taken to labeling the affair #UnderSiege, hoping to will the whole fiasco into something meaningful via social media. Though what the raid, and Raw‘s pending response (all was essentially quiet the following evening on SmackDown) really reflected was aimlessness leading up to Nov. 19’s inter-brand Survivor Series PPV. It’s an almost transparently panicked reflex to rely on the creative lifeline of an invasion narrative (see: WCW/ECW’s insurgency and the infamous Nexus uprising of 2010) to move past the memory of how last weekend’s TLC event was marred by a viral infection that sidelined Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt. Not to mention how subsequent planned storylines heading into Survivor Series, particularly concerning the reunited Shield’s preeminence on Raw, were no doubt derailed.
And it could have worked, had time been put aside to air footage of Shane pep talking his men and women into action, or of adversaries having breakout conversations about putting aside their differences for the common good. Truth was, Paul Heyman did more on Raw to underscore its rival program’s inferiority complex than was accomplished on Tuesday by having Shane talk tough in a leather jacket. Occasional references to added security and reinforcement of Daniel Bryan’s reservations notwithstanding, the rest of SmackDown more or less reset and individual wrestlers reverted to their proscribed personas. It was a surreal disconnect, surpassed only by disappointment at the choice to forestall Raw‘s revenge. Had the writers really been taking cues from Walking Dead, they’d know that its boiled-over conflict is playing out over several successive episodes of non-stop intensity, a gesture to an audience let down by the prior season’s staggered pace.
In the meanwhile, we all have entirely too much time to contemplate how it is that “Lone Wolf” Baron Corbin is now howling for a chance to corral his pack; whether Dolph Ziggler’s post-Raw Twitter tangent was conspicuously defensive; why Rusev, who loathes America’s silly traditions and only has Western eyes for Aiden English, was front and center sounding off about SmackDown pride; if Ambrose and Rollins rue the fact that they were made to look as vulnerable as Curt Hawkins and Titus O’Neil; and whether Shinsuke Nakamura wishes he never left the Far East to begin with. And the most cynical among us could wonder whether this is an angle we can fundamentally get behind, no matter how successfully it insinuates itself. This is, after all, a unique societal moment in which conformity is being questioned on even the most traditional playing fields. Yet it’s now that WWE doubled down a grown-up game of color war rather than the eccentric individualism that makes sports entertainment unlike anything else.