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Just Business: Survivor Series 2016 - The Performance Art Review
By Samuel 'Plan
Nov 22, 2016 - 10:10:46 PM
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Just Business: Survivor Series 2016 - The Performance Art Review
Well that was interesting.
In true 2016 fashion, Survivor Series continued the tradition of being utterly bizarre. Some see that as an awful thing. I see it as a great thing, and I’ll get to the big talking points in due course. The Series at least felt worthy of Big Four occasion this year, thanks to a sizzling Takeover the night before and a cascade of strong, if unspectacular undercard matches that presented an exhaustive account of WWE’s main roster across divisions.
Not everything on that undercard was a success. In fact, most of it, I felt, stopped way short of anything more than “good.” But sometimes that’s all you need for an entertaining pay-per-view, and I would consider Survivor Series to have been nothing but; for the first couple of hours, at least.
That last hour and a half, with those two big matches, really was something else, huh? Normally, I cover three aspects of a pay-per-view in a Performance Art Review. This time, I’m covering only two, so that I may explore those aspects more deeply than normal.
As ever, my name is Samuel ‘Plan and this is the Performance Art Review of Survivor Series 2016!
Forest, Trees, Goldberg and a Beast
After eighteen months of dominating the main roster, Brock Lesnar got squashed. That’s quite a happening, as Monsoon might have said. The fan reaction was inevitable on this one, really, and it would be hard to fathom if WWE expected anything other than the uproar that followed. Those still obsessing over the end of The Streak have seen their lingering confoundedness resurface in outrage at the idea of Goldberg being “the one” to knock off “The 1.” I worry that many fans might not be seeing the forest for the trees.
In part, WWE is to blame for the way fans have reacted. For the better part of two years we, the fans, have been conditioned to think of Brock Lesnar’s story in the company as a linear narrative with a specific beginning, middle and end. That plan got thrown a roadblock when fans revolted against Roman Reigns, and really the company has never managed to successfully reorient Lesnar’s story since the dramatic conclusion to WrestleMania 31. Specifically over the course of 2016, it has become clear, in the wake of Goldberg’s shock victory certainly, that the linearity with which Lesnar’s character arc was once treated has given way to a more orthodox give and take, in line with the rest of the roster. The problem has been that, in relenting to a more fluidic treatment of Lesnar’s character arc, WWE have found themselves revisiting the same old formula that so many had become so tired of.
Whether this apparent change in tack when it comes to Brock is a good or bad thing in your mind ultimately boils down to taste, and a little bit of something else: wherever your focus lies. If you focus in on the specifics of booking decisions none of us are qualified to pass comment on – if you focus on second guessing the why – then you’re liable to be upset. If you focus in on the fiction, however – if you focus in on exploring the what - there’s every reason to be excited.
In his shocking defeat, Brock Lesnar’s character now has something to react to; to grow out of and evolve from moving forwards. That, on a basic level, could potentially ensure greater variety, at least in the short term if nothing else; and that’s something we’ve all been crying out for where Lesnar is concerned.
More than this, though, the complexion of WWE’s entire fictional universe has just shifted in tectonic fashion. Consider the following.
The Beast squashed the superhero of WWE’s fictional universe, John Cena, devouring him several times over, and having fun doing it. The Beast ignominiously subjugated the heir apparent to the throne of WWE’s fictional universe, the King of Kings, Triple H; twice. The Beast broke the Cerberus of WWE, the Dead Man, when augmented with the otherworldly power of The Streak, and then proceeded to do it twice more; including in the Dead Man’s own back yard, Hell in a Cell. The Beast split open the head of the Viper; sent the Face of Fear running away in fright; toppled the Giant, twice; ruined the New Day; silenced the Voice of the Voiceless; has even stood his ground against every component part of the mighty Shield. There was no hero left, and no hope for those of us living in WWE’s fictional universe. For the longest time, Heyman and his Beast have been holding the world to ransom.
Until now. Goldberg didn’t just slay the Beast; he proved the Beast could be slain. Suddenly, everything’s changed. Suddenly, Heyman and the Beast have had all their influence, all their propaganda, torn up and scattered into the wind. By rights, this should embolden, foolishly or otherwise, those yet to cross paths with the Beast. For the Bounty Hunter, Kevin Owens, an embarrassed Beast is prime fodder to help strengthen the Universal Champion’s own rep. For the war machine AJ Styles, what’s there to be afraid of when it comes to this neutered animal? And for those once conquered, now they’ve new reason to try their hand again. What does the Big Dog think, considering he already took the Beast to the limit once before? Or The Architect, with one mind on seeking advantage? Or the Face of Fear, who might want a fresh taste of the Beast’s power? Or even The Authority, scattered and recovering, but no longer having to contend with that constant looming threat of an opposing superpower? Most importantly, how will the Beast react; will he prove to be broken in defeat, or more vengefully violent than ever before? Either way, Goldberg’s victory has changed everything, creating a power vacuum; what emerges from that vacuum only time can tell.
I was not just impressed with the result, though; so too, the execution of their story, brief as it may have been, I thought was magic. There was an ambiguity in how events unfolded, thanks to the at-first panic stricken look on the Beast’s face, followed shortly by the arrogant belief a fight was coming. Only Goldberg didn’t come for a fight; he came for a kill, and all it took was for the Beast to turn its back – to expose the jugular – for the killing stroke to land. Land, it did; you know all those battles where the combatants break out their biggest moves in an effort to end it quick, only to fail in doing so? This was what happens when that tactic doesn’t fail. Even the setting, among the flotsam and jetsam of the total warfare that had come before, I felt proved dramatic; aged warrior and angered Beast drifting together from behind the settling smog of war.
Ultimately, I could sit and write about the mundane, real world logistics behind what happened Sunday, none of which I truly know or could possibly hope to be qualified enough to comment on. So I instead choose to immerse myself in the fiction; that’s what my performance art method of reception is all about. That fiction is brave; ballsy; radical; dramatic; and has made tomorrow far more interesting for me than it was before the Series, or might have been had the Beast won once again.
It was not, however, the real talking point, I don’t think. The real talking point was the masterpiece painted in the semi-main event; the men’s Survivor Series that, like no other before it, bled the concept of consequence inherent to the sub-genre absolutely bone dry.
The Next Worst Thing to a Battle Lost…
…is a battle won. That was the impression I was left with following the 50-minute long epic between Team Raw and Team Smackdown in the men’s Survivor Series Match that came with a heavy casualty count.
As an amateur critic, you lose count of the number of times you deploy the word “war” as a descriptor for a match you found to be especially gruelling, but never has it fitted better than in describing last Sunday’s clash of main event superstars. Leaving no stone unturned, this was a tome of a wrestling match that referenced everything from long-running character arcs, specific matches in both the histories of the Survivor Series pay-per-view and feuds between participants, as well as personal individual histories of those involved. It built new stars unashamedly, while giving every established name time to shine, and even rehabilitated those with diminishing status through central roles in the narrative.
Survivor Series Matches are all about consequence; of feeling the immediate effect of the consequences of your actions, decisions and tactics as advantage swings back and forth. So often this has been the dominant theme in Series Matches as they play out. Last Sunday’s singles men’s match seemed to relish playing on that concept more than most, to a near gratuitously epic degree. For long stretches, the odds were all even. When one side looked unbeatable, events would conspire to swing the pendulum of advantage radically in the favour of the-then underdogs. Several times this would occur, and it was often done so naturally you weren’t even aware of it until the announce booth pointed it out.
Some might find the 52 minute run time too long. Others might mark down for the awkward moments found here and there throughout the largely excellently wrestled action. Like the Goldberg / Lesnar affair, I would forewarn against losing sight of the forest for the trees. To compartmentalise this match according to eliminations, or to critique it with post-modern specificity, will only serve to blind you to the composition’s true magic. This was WWE’s Battle of Waterloo; of Austerlitz; or Marengo. This was Napoleonic in both scale and method, playing out like a match between grand armies rather than a match between teams of men.
“Raw holding the ring!” shouts one announcer late in events, as it boils down to the final reserves of both sides on the back of an emotionally exhausting Shield reunion, the conflict reaching crisis point, the booth’s verbiage consciously playing on themes of war.
What a reunion that was, if I might take a moment to sidetrack. The Shield reunion played a crucial part in the bout’s narrative, while being sure to add extra emotional punch through its execution. Seeing Ambrose attack his treacherous partner in righteous vengeance (sound familiar?) before being carried off by security in demeaning fashion while his brothers watch in shock was affecting enough; to then see those brothers lunge to Ambrose’s defence was even more affecting; and the way Rollins briefly slaps Ambrose on the chest in passing reunion, and the way that, together, the three take out the WWE World Heavyweight Champion in a revisit of what they once did so unashamedly, foregoing patriotism for brotherhood, all leads to one of the single most memorable passages of any match I can remember watching; of any kind. Just like that, The Shield changed the complexion of the Second Brand Extension’s opening battle, just as they once changed the complexion of WWE itself. Talk about a fitting metaphor.
That change of complexion did not last for long, though. Just when you thought there were no plot twists left, and just as the revitalised Shield members holds the ring against Wyatt and Orton, Luke Harper emerges and, before you know it, you’re faced with a spiritual half-sequel to the Wyatt / Shield feud we all remember so fondly; complete with tributary finish, as this time Orton takes the proverbial bullet for his mentor Bray, allowing the Eater of Worlds to swallow the last dregs of Team Raw whole. The final act of this sweeping masterwork was truly its best.
Impressively, though, it was but one element of a match teeming with life. Though Baron Corbin was denied the platform that came with participation in this grandiose conflict, Braun Strowman’s presentation more than made up for such a denial. Strowman put in an effort that watched like 1994 Diesel on Prozac, bulldozing his way through the competition single-handed, with everyone, especially Styles, being sure to make the ex-Wyatt look like a thousand dollars in the process. That Ellsworth would prove the ultimate undoing for the Face of Destruction watched as intelligent irony, rather than mundane stupidity; especially in lieu of Ellsworth’s reward afterward. A relevant role for a mascot? Who could’ve predicted that?!
Still, there was more. This was a match that allowed Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho to play their humorous roles with indulgence, while ensuring both men’s eliminations stayed true to character in the most obvious, though still rather inspired fashion. Owens’ assault on Styles made perfect character sense, as did Jericho’s reaction, and a passage that may read as farce on paper proved to become one of the narrative’s single most important set-pieces, definitively turning the tide against Team Raw. And to think, all this while continuing to lay the future foundation for an inevitable JeriKO implosion!
So goes another brilliant touch; not only did this match reference the past in too many ways to mention here, so too did it work actively toward the medium term future. It wasn’t just a pending JeriKO implosion that got built towards, but a potential tag run for Rollins and Reigns; feuds between Reigns and Owens and Rollins and Jericho respectively; a major Rumble role for Strowman; and, on the Smackdown side, events built towards the already booked TLC title bout between Ambrose and Styles; the ongoing saga of Orton and the Wyatts; and it might even have helped shape a future encounter between the Phenomenal One and the Phenom. The action was crazy busy.
Other references include the 2013 Survivor Series curtain jerk, that came down to Reigns and Rollins as the final two on one side, before finishing with Reigns all alone; only this time, there was no happy ending. There was no happy ending in part because of Orton’s sniping role that majorly informed most of the Team Raw eliminations, in a manner very reminiscent of Rollins in the 2014 main event – ironic, considering Rollins was the one who had only recently replaced Orton in The Authority’s ranks at that time.
All this and I haven’t the room to write about the number of incredible physical performances exhibiting the world class endurance, precision and skill that can only be found in pro wrestling; the subtext of confrontations between champions and old rivals, and the manner in which those confrontations played out physically; the subtle focus on character relationships instead of strained underlying concepts; or the multitude of major stunts – Shane’s elbow onto Strowman through the table; the Spear mid Coast to Coast; the Ellsworth bump; the RKO that eliminated Rollins and more.
Ok, so it wasn’t perfect, and there were clumsy moments that briefly took you out of the narrative, and it was a lengthy affair. But no time was left dead. This was a shift from all ten men, that watched equal parts tribute to the Era just passed and embrace of the Era now building. This really was warfare; a battle between armies, imperial in scale, inspiring in ambition and inspired in execution. I adored it, and while it won’t be something I revisit for a casual watch, the experience of seeing it unfold across one glorious hour will be a memory that stays with me for a very, very long time.
The final hour and a half of Survivor Series 2016 watched, to me, like mythological wartime. Two armies clashed, destroying the environment around them, and from the smoke and flame of the conflict that re-forged a once shattered Shield and saw Fear resurgent came wandering a dominant Beast and the aging vet that once slew it; and slew it anew. Survivor Series 2016’s closing hours were brave, unexpected, sweeping in imaginative ambition and, to my mind, artistically very successful; in short, right up my alley.
The rest of the card may have been unsuspecting and solid, but it is for the Team Raw vs. Team Smackdown / Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar double bill I would revisit Survivor Series 2016. I can say, without doubt, I am extremely happy that the Big Four of 2016 ended the way they began: telling epic story, rather than drowning us in epic production values.
But this was a controversial event, so let me know your thoughts on the show or my review of it in the comments below! Until next time, thanks for reading.
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