For the last few months, A.J. Styles, Kevin Owens, and Sami Zayn have made a morally convoluted arc into compelling television.

styles owens and zayn screenshot
Sami Zayn, A.J. Styles, and Kevin Owens

As Smackdown Live approaches “Fastlane,” its best story is also its dumbest. The ongoing drama between Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan is incomprehensible as they manipulate the careers of A.J. Styles, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. At the same time, Styles, Owens, and Zayn are three of the best performers on Smackdown Live—reliably creative on the mic and in the ring. Matches that involve them are regularly among a show or pay-per-view’s best, and they have to be right now because McMahon’s efforts to protect Styles and punish Owens and Zayn make less sense every day.

He decreed that the winner of last week’s Baron Corbin/Dolph Ziggler match would join Styles, Owens, and Zayn’s triple threat match to make it a fatal four-way. When Owens and Zayn gooned both wrestlers before the start of their match, the night’s cards was changed. Corbin faced and beat Owens, and Ziggler faced and defeated Zayn. Now, Styles’ “Fastlane” match is a fatal five-way, which ups the odds that he’ll lose his belt without being involved in the decision.

He won’t lose his belt since he's slated to face Shinsuke Nakamura at Wrestlemania in New Orleans, but McMahon’s stipulations stack the deck against Styles, and the addition of Ziggler is even more improbable. Before Christmas, Ziggler won and vacated the U.S. title belt, then he was off WWE television until the Royal Rumble, where he entered at number 30 and did nothing special. There has been no explanation for why he left except that at the time, he said the fans didn’t deserve him. What’s changed? Not the fans’ behavior, likes or dislikes. And why are fans supposed to buy him as a meaningful part of a storyline when his last one ended so abruptly? 

Expecting consistency out of the WWE is a loser’s game. When Chad Gable and Sheldon Benjamin beat The Usos, video evidence showed that the referee made the wrong call so the match was restarted (The Usos won). When Owens and Zayn missed a tag and Styles pinned the wrong man at the Royal Rumble, there was no similar replay mechanism. Since the WWE’s real genre is soap opera, another installation in a storyline is ultimately all that’s needed. But when the storytelling doesn’t involve stray, confusing, and inexplicable elements, the results are so much stronger. In this story, McMahon’s attacks on Bryan, Owens, and Zayn have been so heelish that he has almost made Owens and Zayn sympathetic. They had to up their heel game to keep that from happening, and now that their friendship seems to be fraying—but is it really?—the players’ moral orientations are really hard to follow from week to week. 

The only upside throughout is that Styles’ face cred is stronger than ever.

On Raw:

- If Raw stays true to form, we should get another dumb, implausible act of destruction from Braun Strowman this week. The show manages a good stunt followed by three or four bad ones, and breaking a doghouse bass over Elias last week was a good one. The spot mimicked Elias’ standard introduction, which was funny by itself, and it was nice to see Strowman be something other than a rage beast. In the long run, he’s going to need a second characteristic.

- Right now, we’re getting Nia Jax as the powerhouse she should be. She’s charismatic and genuinely powerful, and the storyline for the last year should have been how could anybody stop her. Instead, she’s been dealt the Big Show hand, crushing opponents but eating the loss anyway. Two weeks ago, she demolished a jobber, and last week, she laid out Bayley and Sasha Banks after Bayley beat Sasha. She should crush whoever she faces this week, but I fear that she’ll get Big Showed when she faces Asuka at “Fastlane.”

- And why did Bayley beat Sasha Banks clean? Sasha came out of the Women’s Royal Rumble strong after being a part of it for almost an hour, and she had a great match with Asuka before losing. Having her lose to Bayley, who doesn’t have any particular push going made no sense. And once again the WWE left it unclear if they’re still friends or not, refusing to commit to a Banks heel turn, just as it has for much of the last year. I won’t be surprised if they get pulled together to face Asuka or Jax in a handicap match and Banks finally turns on Bayley then. 

- Woken Matt Hardy without all the family and weird videos from the Hardy property is just another mid-card jobber with a popular catch phrase. 

- Last week’s double pin by Seth Rollins and Finn Balor means both are going to the Elimination Chamber match. 

- It’s really nice that Raw and Smackdown Live spend less time each show on wrestlers’ entrances. The excitement in those moments was always a live phenomenon that didn’t translate through the television screen. It’s great to come back from a commercial and have at least one if not both of the competitors in the ring and ready to go.

On Smackdown Live:

- I suppose it makes sense for Charlotte Flair to fight her way through the Riott Squad one by one since at least the series creates a little narrative momentum, but since none of them are interesting on their own yet, there’s a real star power imbalance. That was particularly obvious last week when Flair brought Becky Lynch and Naomi to the ring as her seconds since Sarah Logan had the Riott Squad behind her. With that field of talent, Logan was the least charismatic and least able person in the ring area. Flair should be out of Logan’s league, and Logan’s not enough of a performer to make Flair look great beating her. The fact that this storyline reduces Lynch and Naomi to bit players only makes it worse. 

- I hope last week’s New Day/Gable and Benjamin is the start of something and not a one-off. That match felt rushed after the long pancake gag lead-up to it, but the pairing makes sense as it highlights the humorlessness of Gable and Benjamin. It could also produce some good matches.