It’s clear, no matter what they say, that AEW has WWE scrambling, if only a bit. While they would never admit it, and WWE is in no danger of losing its massive TV deals or its place in wider culture, you can tell by their need to shake things up that they feel something is pressuring them. Even today, Big E announced on Twitter that he’s cashing in his Money In The Bank briefcase tonight to try and get viewers to Raw. This isn’t normal for the company, even after months (years, really) of just about every observer decrying how awful and boring Raw has been.
The problem is that WWE doesn’t respond to any sort of pressure to do better, or to any inclination to spice things up, by changing anything fundamental. It just goes by its own playbook, which itself is the problem. There are no new ideas in there, and if there are, they’re temporary or just meant to flash across Twitter. They’re just flashes. They don’t get to the foundation. There’s also no real introspection of why something from the past worked.
It should have been impossible to screw up a Becky Lynch return. She was the company’s most popular performer, male or female, when she went on maternity leave. She was everywhere, as the first woman to rise to the very top of WWE. Her natural charisma, her connection with fans who had watched her rise from being ignored by the company to reaching its highest peak, and a compelling build to her match with mainstream crossover Ronda Rousey led Lynch to a status that only a few ever get to. An appearance on Billions hinted that she, too, could follow The Rock’s and John Cena’s paths to Hollywood full-time one day, though farther off.
And yet WWE did screw up her return, and continues to do so. Sadly with a little help from Lynch herself. Both Lynch and WWE have cited Roman Reign’s return during the pandemic and success since as a heel as the model they wanted to follow. And yes, Reigns has been far and away the best thing WWE has had going for over a year now. That’s certainly a credit to Reigns, and god knows how much more ground AEW might have gained if WWE didn’t at least have him.
But to think that simply having Reigns being a badass bad guy is all that it took for him to finally be thought of as deserving of top billing in WWE is to fundamentally misunderstand, or ignore, everything that went into his heel turn. WWE had spent years trying to push Reigns to the top of the card as a face, despite all the evidence that fans simply wouldn’t accept it. It even got to the point where The Rock had to stand in the middle of the ring in 2015 and listen to an avalanche of boos after Reigns had won the Royal Rumble, which certainly must’ve confused the shit out of him.
They tried everything with Reigns, from new catchphrases to alliances with the Authority, to becoming the anti-authority figure that had worked so well for Daniel Bryan. None of it worked, and it pretty much culminated with the strange study of performance art/behavioral science that was the main event of WrestleMania in 2018, where 70,000 people spent the entire Reigns-Brock Lesnar match actively shitting on it, to the point where Vince McMahon had to alter the ending mid-match for fear of his biggest show ending on a Tsunami of displeased fans making it clear how they felt. There’s the famous clip of Lesnar throwing the title at Vince McMahon after the match, which lets you know just how poorly everything had gone.
But all of that is why Roman’s turn works now. Beneath the bluster of his ass-kicking, arrogance, dismissiveness, and great matches has run an undercurrent of still needing to be accepted. He was never accepted as the next Cena or Rock, and that’s what fuels him to run roughshod over the whole company now. There’s still that insecurity from being rejected that causes him to demand to be accepted, acknowledged, and feted as the head of the class at every turn. At the core of it, he’s still afraid of getting rejected and diminished. From that insecurity springs every action he takes now. By leaning into that insecurity instead of pretending it didn’t exist, as both Reigns and WWE did during his singles run from 2015-2019, they’ve sprung this wonderful character.
Becky Lynch does not have any of that history. She was never rejected as a top star. She never felt forced upon fans. She organically rose to that level, which is all fans ever wanted Reigns to do. She put on a string of great matches and kept rising up the card. WWE even tried this before, when she flipped out on Charlotte at SummerSlam 2018. It catapulted Lynch into the stratosphere, but the crowd only cheered her more. They had to abandon that heel turn because she was cheered so heavily. It’s hard to be a heel when the crowd agrees with everything you say and do. And maybe that’s secretly the plan here, but it doesn’t feel like it.
And now WWE is forcing it again, just in the opposite direction. Lynch came out during SmackDown last Friday and gave the same same tired “YOU PEOPLE” promo that’s supposed to turn fans against her (while also citing her child as a reason for any type of behavior, which generally gets my antennae up, admittedly). She’s acted cowardly in ducking Bianca Belair since their SummerSlam… what-have-ya. But none of it lands. The “YOU PEOPLE” promo wasn’t greeted so much with boos as much as, “Really? You’re doing this?” We’d seen it before, heard it before. There’s no bottom to this Lynch heel turn. It’s just doing something to do it. There are no layers.
Lynch will probably make it work in the long run. She has that much allure. But she shouldn’t have to succeed despite her booking. There were just so many other ways to go that would have had depth or nuance to it that would have worked so much better, even as a heel. If WWE really wants to try and counter AEW programming, they might start with doing anything that gets below the surface.