Challenges come and challenges go, but the Snatch Game is eternal for a reason. From season to season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, it has the power to confirm frontrunners, establish dark horses, expose one-trick ponies, and torpedo look-dependent queens’ hopes. And it’s not only a fan favorite, it’s every contestant’s favorite too. It’s the mirror image of the dreaded sewing challenge, in that the ones who know they can’t sew dread that challenge’s arrival and hope they can fake their way through it. No one dreads the Snatch Game because no one thinks the ability to make RuPaul laugh is a particularly difficult skill. She brings it to you every bump into or out of a commercial break! Like Alfred Hitchcock’s bomb theory, the difference between the sewing challenge and Snatch Game is the difference between queens who see the oncoming train wreck and queens who get utterly blindsided.
Of course, this season’s Snatch Game comes with the asterisk of knowing that the queen who stood as good a chance as any to knock it out of the park and rewrite the entire season in her own name was just given a leave of absence. The lack of Eureka in the workroom is deeply felt—or at least it’s deeply felt by Farrah Moan, who’s still honking great tears of despair. Tears that she lost the queen who helped her through the sewing challenge to the extent that she at least didn’t have to lip sync. Tears that she was forced to lip sync, and to a song, adding insult to injury, by Meghan Trainor. Tears that she saw the fire of enthusiasm and encouragement in Ru’s eyes when she was critiquing Nina Bo’nina Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 2½ Brown, an enthusiasm that Farrah believes simply wasn’t there when Ru critiqued her, though that could just be all the highlighter reflecting up into her eyes. Farrah has taken being given the unique opportunity for neither her nor her lip-sync adversary to go home with head bowed and still made it all about herself, which doesn’t immediately make sense, but the longer this week’s episode goes, the more obvious it is that what she’s most terrified by is being given a second chance.
As with most Snatch Game episodes, Ru spends extra time in the workroom feeling out the queens’ impersonation selections. Broadway baby Alexis, fresh from a frustrating near-win and all too ready to see some of the cast’s fat get trimmed, has chosen Liza Minnelli and it’s a toss up which is more shocking: how perfect Alexis’s instincts are, or how it’s taken nine full seasons for anyone to tackle Fraulein Sally Bowles. Nina, who we learn is 34 and still lives at home, is feeling the pressure to be more assertive and own her stardom. And so she throws caution to the wind by playing a previous Drag Race contestant, a move that sent Max home in season seven when she botched Sharon Needles, and nearly sent Roxxxy Andrews packing during All Stars 2 when she failed to channel Alaska. It’s always a tall order to out-drag a drag queen, but Ru seems satisfied that Nina’s choice of Jasmine Masters is a shrewd one, in part because it’s a rude one. Channeling Jasmine’s take-no-prisoners attitude ultimately lets Nina vicariously beat down the imaginary haters and allows her to get banjee as she so desperately wanted last week.
That fine line between shrewd and straight up overthinking it shows up when Ru checks in on Sasha Velour, who can’t quite decide between playing Marlene Dietrich or feminist philosopher Judith Butler. Ru, speciously noting that Germans aren’t particularly known for being funny, asks to hear Sasha’s Judith. Following roughly 10 minutes of humanities-course mumbo jumbo from Sasha about hot dogs and phallic symbols, Ru cracks, “I’m glad you’re doing Marlene Dietrich.” And so are we, once the Snatch Game gets underway.
Sasha’s IRL tendency toward oversharing and over-empathizing (the workroom confessional cutaway shot to Sasha’s concerned face the moment another queen pours her soul out is quickly becoming a season-nine motif) are counterbalanced beautifully against Dietrich’s icy detachment. Her makeup is perfect, and Sasha wisely chooses to go Borsht Belt with a Lili Von Schtupp accent. It manages the feat of being both under- and over-the-top, for now justifying Sasha’s position alongside Drag Race’s previous art-school comediennes like Jinkx Monsoon and Ben De La Crème, though by the end of the challenge Sasha’s long-winded answers do seem to be wearing Ru down.
Alexis’s Liza proves an ultimately safe choice, but what it lacks in surprise and innovation it makes up for in ebullience and familiarity, and I don’t mean the latter in a derogatory sense. Alexis camping it up may never stray from the safe zone, but her ability to weave through the signposts of a well-mapped career and still find openings of recognizable character is no small achievement for a queen that only last week finally separated herself from the middle of the pack with her equally spot-on Kris Jenner. Maybe she ought to stick with short bobs from now on. Perfectly canted shoulder pad aside, Nina’s Jasmine is a step behind Alexis and Sasha, but the marked improvement in her level of confidence carries her to the top of the class.
Performer for performer, this year’s Snatch Game boasts more good than bad, which is amazing given how many of them are playing models and beauty queens. Trinity doesn’t set anyone’s purse on fire with her answers as Amanda Lepore, but her ad libs from behind a perfectly Botox’d poker face sure do. Shea Couleé, who I curse every week for forcing me to look up where the accent mark goes, manages to make Naomi Campbell more than a one-cellphone-throwing-joke caricature. As Miss Colombia, Valentina doesn’t stray beyond the joke of being dethroned, but she does find enough variations on the theme to make it play. And Aja, playing Alyssa Edwards, at least earns points for trying, though the question of intentionality hangs as much in the air for her as it does her scatterbrained subject.
The queens who fall the hardest are the ones who, given the chance to display their acting chops, instead opt for what they perceive to be their preexisting strengths. Peppermint, so good with her eye-popping interview-room asides, struggles to summon up TV personality NeNe Leakes’s considerable attitude. Farrah, who wiped out relying on pretty last week, doubles down playing YouTube personality Gigi Gorgeous; she winds up trapped inside of puzzle box of mirrors…and can’t stop looking at herself in the first one she sees while everyone else acts circles around her. And Cynthia Lee Fontaine, apparently expending all her energy to avoid saying the word “cucu” playing Sofía Vergara, falls back on mush-mouthed Spanglish stream of consciousness. In other words: Sofia Lee Fontaine.
She does, at least, stumble (literally) upon an apt visual metaphor for her performance when she steps out on to the runway challenge and promptly slips on her own cape. Poor Cynthia is down for the count, but at least she’s not among the four queens who find themselves wearing someone else’s runway outfit for Drag Race’s second take on “Night of 1,000 Madonnas,” following last season’s four-kimono disaster. For the records, Nina and Trinity both show up in Madonna’s checkered Met Gala 2013 attire, and Peppermint and Shea are both caught living out their “Material Girl” fantasies. Alexis looks breathtaking as Dick Tracy’s Breathless Mahoney, and Sasha fierce as the whip-cracking Dita from the “Erotica” video. And Valentina wins this season’s Carmen Carrera butt-floss-and-a-smile award for coming out as Madonna’s black-barred highway hitchhiker from the Sex book.
It almost seems as though Ru’s preparing to announce two Snatch Game winners for the second time, but alas, Alexis just edges out Sasha. And it almost seems as though last week’s lip-syncing pair are about to have a rematch, but Farrah’s ornate recreation of Madonna’s Super Bowl Cleopatra just barely saves her. Instead, Poor Cynthia has to pit her cucu up against Peppermint, who in the workroom sequence announced her identification as a transgender woman. Normally, the way this season’s been setting up its eliminations, the tearful confession would portend poorly for Pep in the lip sync. But Poor Cynthia is on a cold streak, and she’s shown digging into the exact same bag of tricks she culled from last week. Peppermint imbues Madonna’s “Music” with some robot poses, earring ingestion, and loose-limbed gawk, and if it’s not a barnstormer, it gets the job done. The scolded-puppy look all over Poor Cynthia’s face as Ru sizes them up says it all. She’s reached as far as her merits and her “cucu” will take her on the show. Now, please, let us never speak of the word “cucu” again.
For more recaps of RuPaul’s Drag Race, click here.