I’m of two minds.
You’re not wrong that this could have used a longer build. The end result suffered for, I think, a few reasons, and this was one of them.
That being said, though the execution could have been better, it’s at least nice to know that WWE creative is still capable of mapping out a storyline with distinctive story beats, each with a clear purpose and each pushing the story forward towards a definitive conclusion. I’ve gotten so used to the WWE establishing an angle and then for the next 4-5 weeks hammering us over the head with the same stagnant story beat.
It’s also rare that with the benefit of hindsight I am forced to give the WWE credit for a creative decision I originally hated.
When they first aired, I was ambivalent about both the MizTV segment with Bryan & Styles and the decision the following week to have Styles beat Bryan clean on a submission. In retrospect, both obviously make sense. Using Miz in the former as the viewer’s surrogate and to help massage their response was a nice touch.
You can pick apart either of these first two beats, just as you can pick apart the entire angle, but at the very least I can acknowledge that there was a method to the madness, which is something … I guess.
What really hampered this from coming to full fruition tonight, aside from the story needing more time to percolate, was the fact that the match was a dud. The crowd was also dead, which didn’t help. You needed a match that sucked viewers in and had them on the edge of their seats, so by the time Bryan reverses the ankle lock he lost on originally, you’re certain that he will win once he establishes his own hold. But then when Styles breaks out of that, you throw your hands in the air and in a frantic burst of frustration, confront the idea that if he doesn’t win in a situation so perfectly set up for a redemption narrative as this, then maybe he’ll never win. Which puts you in exactly the same state of mind that Bryan is in, allowing you to more acutely pick up on what he’s thinking after he low blows Styles and we get that close up of his face projecting a range of emotions.
But we didn’t get that match. We got a so-so contest that most people were probably watching half-heartedly at that point so when the moment of truth came, instead of instantly empathizing with Bryan and being able to read his expressions clearly, viewers perceived the whole thing as kind of underwhelming and fuzzy.
I thought Bryan handled it about as could be expected. Conveying his emotional journey from conflict, to ambivalence, to acceptance, and finally to sinister embrace using only facial expressions and all in a span of about 10 seconds could not have been easy, but he was up to the task. If people found it confusing, it was probably the set up that is to blame, not him.