What you need to know
Randy Orton is the champion of champions and holds both the WWE title and the World Heavyweight strap. This seems to please his bosses, and even the man he took the World Heavyweight Championship (WHC) from gave him his props last week. But while John Cena still has a rematch owed to him, Daniel Bryan remains on the fringes. He has the fans support. He has Cena's backing. But whether it's all for show or not, HHH and Stephanie McMahon are not giving him a shot at winning the belts and being the face of the company.
Last week, that translated into his "winning" a barn burner of a Raw main event when The Viper hit him below the belt. But not only was he denied a chance to stand tall over the man he's been chasing since August, but he was also shuffled back to his upper-mid card program with The Wyatt Family.
In the other title scenes, tag champs Cody Rhodes and Goldust had a rough week, with loses to both babyfaces like The Big Show and Rey Mysterio and bad guys like Luke Harper and Erick Rowan. Queen of the Divas Division AJ Lee seems to be feuding with The Bellas again, since the "plan" for the women seems to be to rotate Natalya, Brie and Nikki of Total Divas as her #1 contender until they think of something better.
The United States championship is just some bling that Dean Ambrose wears, but business is picking up for Intercontinental champ Big E Langston. He and tag partner Mark "Good Santa" Henry won a great match that was given a ton of time on Raw, then, his program with The Real Americans lead him to a win over Jack Swagger on Friday night before he got the chance to play hero in saving CM Punk and John Cena from The Shield.
And the mid-card is alive and well! Sin Hunico is racking up wins as they rebuild their other masked character, and Brodus Clay appears to have undergone a full-fledged turn in the break-up of Tons of Funk and his beef with Xavier Woods over Funkadactyl-theft.
Now if they could just figure out what the heck they're doing with The Miz. Other than continuing to run him out in front of crowds that don't know whether they're supposed to cheer or boo him, that is.
What to look out for
The end of December means lots of pre-taped shows, including the traditionally live Monday night flagship. Usually, previews are spoiler-free, but I can't really claim that this time - since I wrote the spoilers post. But let's pretend this is a normal Raw, and a normal preview.
Can good Santa save Christmas? Is Vince McMahon just trolling the social conservatives at his nemesis Fox News by having an African-American play Santa? Is there any way this can top last year's Christmas episode? Casting Damien Sandow in the Billy Bob Thornton role gives me hope.
Will Orton be on The Authority's naughty or nice list for his actions in last week's main event? HHH and Stephanie have been increasingly hard to read these days. Was the non-finish to the latest round of Orton vs. Bryan good for business?
Remember when Bray Wyatt wanted to convert The Beard to join his family? Well, so does WWE. After a week in which the Eater of Worlds cut a promo about wanting to destroy the fan favorite and had Harper and Rowan through him off of a loading dock, their website is again teasing a conversion of the Aberdeen, Washington native.
After weeks of teased dissension among The Shield, the trio has put together an impressive string of performance since TLC. What's next for the men in black? Meanwhile, the fortunes of the tag team champions have gone the other way - a new shirt is the best thing to happen to them since retaining the belts on pay-per-view (PPV). Is Christmas when the brothers right their ship?
What they should do
I'm pretty sure it's intentional, although I'm not positive they know where they're going with it. I do think that it has a ton of potential, and could be a real innovation in how pro wrestling tells stories in the 21st century (Un)Reality Era.
"It" is The Authority's murky face/heel alignment. They're playing the traditional role of heavy by denying Bryan his shot at glory, but beneath that there's no certainty that they have a preference for Orton over Cena. Hunter and Stephanie are convincing the audience that their only concern is making money, drawing a clear line between their villainy and the "It was me Austin" cartoonish-ness of Stephanie's father's personal quest to destroy Stone Cold in The Attitude Era.
By giving the fans a version of what they want (Bryan vs. Orton), they cast themselves as the benevolent overlords who are trying to give "The Universe" just enough of what it wants while keeping the focus on what it needs, even when some of those fans don't know what's best for them. And what's best fore the fans is best for business.
They've become a politician who signs off on wire tapping while kissing babies at a playground opening. Their hypocrisy infuriates us even part of us understands why they're making the decisions they're making.
Heel/Face lines shouldn't be done away with entirely. They'e a useful storytelling tool and a particularly effective heuristic for presenting programs between performers that aren't going to get 30 minutes or more of screen time each week. But the evil authority figure is a concept that at least needs to stay on the shelf for a while, as it's overdone and rarely done well.
The way HHH and Stephanie McMahon are blending what we think we know about their real-life characters and motives into the on-screen presentations has added a new level of depth to the product. And as we stare more Orton vs. Cena and even the promise of HHH vs. Punk II in the face, that's an impressive feat.
What we're afraid they will do
Keep booking everything else by the seat of their pants, like The Goat-faced Killah's storyline with Bray Wyatt and company. Or confuse inconsistency with nuance, as they seem to be doing with the Divas, or Miz.
Will Raw serve up presents or coal on the eve of Christmas Eve? How many coal/Cole jokes will JBL and King make?
Watch along with Rex and the gang in the live blog, and have yourselves a Happy Ho-ho-holiday, Cagesiders!