“I’m so relieved that Roxxxy Andrews and Phi Phi O’Hara advanced to the finals over Detox and Latrice Royale,” said no one ever. For as much heat as some of the peak seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race got for favoring rough-edged, shit-stirring queens at the expense of sweet or well-rounded ones, don’t you kind of miss the drama now? True, the show arguably hasn’t really had a bona fide villain since Darienne Lake—if you don’t count the return of Phi Phi in last year’s All-Stars. And it was sort of refreshing in season eight to see the open-hearted Chi Chi DeVayne and Kim Chi reach the quartet of final-challenge queens over the likes of Acid Betty and Derrick Barry. But with the dismissal of this season’s halfway-villains Alexis Michelle (who killed ’em with “honesty”) and Nina Bo’Nina When the Pawn… Brown (whose paranoia killed herself softly), and in the absence of a from-episode-one frontrunner like Bob the Drag Queen, what’s there to fuel this race through its final lap?
I know, I know. First-world problems. Shea Coulée, Sasha Velour, Peppermint, and Trinity Taylor are in the top four, and no one among them fails to excel at multiple aspects important to the competition. Peppermint’s runway looks were sometimes pedestrian and half-finished, but she’s been an adorable slice of Sara Lee—nobody doesn’t like her—and in her two Lip Sync for Your Life at-bats, she torched her competition with the kind of fierceness money can’t buy. Sasha Velour could’ve easily stayed in the same editorial lane that ultimately flamed out for season seven’s similarly eggheaded Max, but she wisely joined forces with the most observably well-rounded queen, Shea, who if you’ve listened to her appearance on the Feast of Fun podcast you know is actually just as prone to political statements and intellectual tangents. Somehow the two loosened each other up and resulted in the strongest alliance that the show’s seen since RoLaskaTox.
From the opposite side of the spectrum, Trinity entered the competition pumped with pageant injections, and you can’t blame anyone for expecting she wouldn’t be capable of doing anything other than stomp the runway looking flawless. But she stunned everyone by embracing flaws and getting ugly for her art, and the end result was that most of her wins shockingly came from the acting challenges. Whether this is another side effect of Drag Race 2.0 (e.g. “RuPaul’s Best Friend Race”) or whether it’s a happy bit of serendipity that the final challenge has now amassed so many components, the final competition episode this season does very little to settle the score.
In the past, RuPaul would subject her queens to a music video shoot that, in a sense, represented the narrowest opportunity for the queens to plead their case. Instead of being left to make specific character choices, or to do battle with the sewing machine, every shoot was so predetermined by external artistic forces that in no season did it knock the presumed rankings upside the lace-front wig. In fact, the faux-drama of the editing, in trying to make obvious frontrunners like Sharon Needles and Jinkx Monsoon look like hopelessly club-footed, would all but tip off the eventual results. But now, the last lap involves no fewer than a half dozen individual components. Sure, some of them are sort of wrapped up simultaneously in the main challenge, but they’re all there. And while some could argue this gives shakier queens more opportunities to stumble, I’d counter that this episode’s net result is that it conversely gives the queens more chances to recover.
To wit, Ru (well, actually Michelle Visage, making her royal annual entrance into the workroom) tasks the queens to each write a rap verse for the remix of her track “Category Is….” (Which, by the way, category is “not in my iTunes library.”) They then need to record it, learn a choreographed production number to it, and lip-synch their portion. And that’s just the main challenge. On top of that, they have to sit in on an episode of RuPaul and Michelle’s podcast “What’s the Tee?,” come up with a separate runway look embodying their best aesthetic, take a look at a childhood photo of themselves they submitted ahead of time and then summon a spontaneous emotional catharsis, and try not to simply Miss America their way through a persuasive speech about why they deserve to be America’s Next Drag Superstar, a title upon which until only recently there really was no playbook to speculate. And they have to do it in heels, if not backwards.
Now would be the time to rattle off which of the four queens does best here and which ones come up short there, which ones serve happy surprises and which ones unexpectedly wipe out. But here’s the real Tee: It doesn’t matter. Having largely dropped the heroine-villainess shenanigans, Drag Race has now put itself in a position to bloviate on the merits of its finalists, to the point where the final critique sees Michelle Visage—cold, hard Michelle Visage—somewhat revealingly giving each of the final four queens one of the letters from Ru’s prescription for drag success. Peppermint is charisma, Sasha is uniqueness, Shea is nerve, and Trinity is talent.
All four are more plus than minus, and they all clearly have the utmost respect for each other. (The shadiest moment of the entire episode sees Trinity watching Shea breeze through the most difficult choreography of the entire set piece and thinking aloud that she might have to pull a Showgirls stunt and throw some beads on the floor underneath her competitor.) It’s all quite edifying and affirmative…and frankly boring, which explains why my recap this week is a little light on the punchlines. Worse than boring, it takes some of the stakes out of who gets to advance and which queen gets to, as per Stevie Wonder’s “Rocket Love,” get within half a mile of heaven before getting dropped back down to this cold, cruel world.
The episode’s thrust is “you are all winners,” and not just in the pageant-world platitudinous sense. And so when Ru drops what’s supposed to be an epic bombshell that this year’s reunion finale will boast not a top three but, instead, a top four, it’s hardly a surprise, even less so when you consider how it forms an undeniable symmetry with the elimination-free season premiere. The one upshot from the penultimate episode is that, for arguably the first time in the entire series, it’s entirely unclear who’s going to snatch the crown. Talk about deferred gratification.
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