And so it is that RuPaul’s Drag Race recappers like me are tasked to write about the season finale on the first night of Pride celebrations. I shouldn’t complain though. Chad Sell, who’s more or less the official or at least most high-profile illustrator drawing from the Drag Race well, was forced to celebrate his honeymoon while the show was on because of its later berth this time around. I know, I know. Very first-world problems. But dammit, these are exactly the type of rights we fought for nearly 50 years ago. Right?
In any case, before getting on with some of the highlights of tonight’s episode itself, I figured I’d correct any perceived injustice I may have committed recapping episode 12, the “Category Is” challenge. Because that episode was so structured around the closeness of the race and the draw season nine’s remaining quartet seem to be in, with no breakaway favorite, let’s take a look at their strengths and weaknesses in the season thus far. Category is…
Strongest Challenge: Easy, the Michelle Visage roast. Unlike the other three competitors, Peppermint has just one win under her belt, and it was for her classy but ruthless performance reading Michelle to filth. It didn’t hurt that she followed Farrah Moan’s “sashay away”-worthy efforts that week.
Strongest Runway Look: Again, easy. She knocked it out of the park with her club-kid tribute to Lee Bowery, dressed up literally like a big peppermint confection.
What Letter Michelle Gave Her: C, for charisma. As everyone is quick to note, ain’t a soul around who doesn’t love her personality.
What Letter She Didn’t: T, for talent. Personality goes a long way, but Peppermint did swing and miss plenty of challenges along the way.
Stop Relying On That…: Trademark scream.
Strongest Challenge: The sitcom challenge was a high-water mark for Sasha, doing what Katya was so reluctant to do on her original season by breaking out the Russian accent. With a Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously wig and some truly clever writing, this was one landing stuck.
Strongest Runway Look: She came out of the gates hard in episode one, with a pitch-perfect recreation of the smeared Lady Gaga Artpop Pierrot clown makeup, with some impressively fierce runway stomping to boot.
What Letter Michelle Gave Her: U, for uniqueness. I’ll allow it, given the context of this final four, but—all T, all shade—in some respects she’s refining what weird queens like Max, Milk, and Ongina presented before her on the show.
What Letter She Didn’t: C, for charisma. While she consistently surprised, tell me you didn’t at least once during the season start dosing off during one of her gay history lessons.
Stop Relying On That…: Partnership with Shea Couleé. All of her challenge wins came in tandem with her, and it wasn’t the same the other way around.
Strongest Challenge: She didn’t officially “win” it, but damned if her verse in “Category Is” two weeks ago wasn’t one of the highlights of this or any season: spitting sick fast flow, looking gaggy in her baseball-inspired cat suit, dropping it and pirouetting in heels. Flawless.
Strongest Runway Look: Any of the other queens who threw shade at her Village People look are just jealous. I don’t know how you make a wife-beater, flannel, and yellow-hard-hat look couture af, but she did it.
What Letter Michelle Gave Her: Nerve, for “it do take nerve.” And even though that feels like a Michelle-picked-Shea’s-letter-last move, anyone who’s heard her episode of the Feast of Fun podcast, in which she pitilessly dismantled white privilege and cultural appropriation, knows it’s also true.
What Letter She Didn’t: U, for uniqueness. She’s a full-package queen, but the fact that it took a few episodes to really latch onto her fierceness indicates she’s playing in safe territory.
Stop Relying On That…: T spilling. Like Valentina said, Shea has a lot of opinions about other queens.
Strongest Challenge: The judges never stopped talking about Stanky the Starfish, but I preferred her truly image-shattering performance playing the wanna-be MILF in “9021-HO.” Any queen who gets two members of the pit crew to lift her legs over her head in the background of a shot deserves two snaps up.
Strongest Runway Look: As much as I want to redeem her underrated rainbow-pride bondage mash-up, the club-kid-venereal-disease bodysuit showed, like the MILF performance, how much more Trinity had to bring beyond pageant realness.
What Letter Michelle Gave Her: T, for talent. Can’t argue with that, though being multifaceted as she was throughout, some of the plates she was spinning did occasionally slow down and wobble here and there.
What Letter She Didn’t: N, for nerve. I dunno, I picked Trinity’s un-letter last.
Stop Relying On That…: Tuck. For the love of Maude, my balls can feel how tight that thing is halfway across the country.
The new gambit for the finale this time around is that the four queens, instead of presenting choreographed victory-lap numbers, are supposed to go head to head in sudden-death Lip Sync For Your Life battles. Many have speculated that this is RuPaul’s way to atone for a season that involved so many legendary LSFYL fuck-ups. Or maybe it’s just the only way to have four final queens and still keep things moving. Not that that’s what happens, because it takes two thirds of the episode to actually get to the first face-off.
Up to that point, it’s back to Finale Interviews 1.0, which is to say highly edited and polished, in contrast to last week’s bitchfest. Except that all but the final four queens are sent to fill seats in the auditorium. Which is too bad, because it seems evident that the show’s producers blew their budget fixing the girls up with outfits, wigs, and makeup. Ain’t no way Cynthia Lee Fontaine owns that plastic sensation, or that Aja did that makeup. (Okay, maybe it’s possible. It’s been a year since the season taped.) Each queen gets a shot to get stunned, except for Sasha, who doesn’t seem incredibly turnt to have Katy Perry as her pre-taped celebrity. And, once again, Winter Green steals the show. Clearly, Drag Race has found its own little Edith Massey. The interviews are solid, but all anyone cares about at this point is who wins.
Once the game-show wheel has been spun, it’s Trinity (looking like Jane Fonda in Barbarella) versus Peppermint (looking like Farrah Moan dressed as Madonna in her Super Bowl half-time performance) in the first showdown, set to Britney Spears’s “Stronger.” The extra twist is that Trinity, being the one whose name was spun, gets to choose who she lip-synchs against. And for reasons that defy all but the audience’s desire to see best friends Shea and Sasha do battle, she chooses lip-synch assassin Peppermint. They both have a reveal, but Peppermint’s was more dramatic, even it if takes her a lot longer to get to hers. She upsets Trinity to advance.
That leaves Shea (looking like classy trash) and Sasha (looking like trashy class) to spar over Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional.” Sasha throws rose petals around like someone who shouldn’t hate American Beauty, while Shea keeps her immaculate jacket on and tries to sell the song’s sentiment. She really upsets Shea for the win. Going into this evening’s episode, I would’ve put my money on Shea and Trinity over Sasha and Peppermint, so maybe it’s the live-show element, because tricks are winning out over, ahem, emotions.
And so it all comes down to…Whitney Houston. Because Ru has the two face off to her “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”—the pile-driving Thunderpuss remix, that is, not the original album mix, which excuses Sasha bringing out the crazy a second time against Peppermint getting electrocuted to the beat. And, in what I would term an ultimate upset, the lip-synch assassin ends up falling to the one who never had to lip-synch for her life once during the entire season. Sometimes, being consistently above average and staying on script with your head down pays off. Sasha entered with an ear-piercing scream, and exits miming screams. Likely to the accompaniment of thousands of Shea, Trinity, and Peppermint fans in gay bars across the country uniting in a collection of happily surprised and bitterly disappointed screams. No matter how this cookie crumbled, that’s entertainment.
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