Girl, call Tilda Swinton. Because we need to talk about Nina Bo’nina Helen Gurley Brown. And, because really only one significant thing happened in this week’s episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race (namely, one of the most tragic lip-synch misfortunes in human record), be aware that spoilers are higher up in this rucap than usual. Having said that, we really need to talk about Nina Bo’nina del Rosario Mercedes Pilar Martínez Molina Brown.
For a while, Nina’s story arc felt like the result of the same producer interference that Phi Phi O’Hara memorably called out during last season of All-Stars. Invariably, Nina would approach a challenge with perhaps a touch of the worldly cynicism and lack of patience more commonly associated with her sister-in-name Nina Simone. She would kick up some drama during rehearsal segments. She would perform, if not as effortlessly as Shea Couleé or Eureka or Valentina, at least above the expectations set up by the show’s ruthless editors. More often than not, she’d turn out a runway outfit meticulous in detail and impish in execution. And then she’d get read the house down for her attitude even though none of it manifested in the challenges themselves.
And then, for a while, it looked like this pattern that the show was subjecting Nina to was all a more laborious-than-usual setup for RuPaul’s much beloved redemption arc of which sulking thirst-trap Pearl was most recently the beneficiary. This despite the inconvenient fact that Nina snatched the season’s first win. Which, fine, these are all facets of the price of entry into the meta world of Drag Race. That the show embraces its own machinations, even as it pushes further into the sort of confessional bonding sidebars that confirm RuPaul as the drag world’s Oprah, has always been the freshest aspect of a series that more or less ripped off the best aspects of Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model and put lip-synching contests as the cherry on top. The show’s exaggeration of both artifice and authenticity has been its secret weapon, and incidentally its strongest tie to camp.
But what to make of the shocking results of this week’s episode? One of the season’s indisputable fan favorites goes home following her legitimate first stumble throughout the entire run, and the fact that she was even put in the position to be eliminated in the first place rests largely on the shoulders of her Eeyore-ish challenge partner, Nina. If it wasn’t clockable before, it seems crystal clear now. Drag Race has it out for Nina, and is going to make a villain out of her if it takes her to the final three. And maybe the show’s right. She is her own worst enemy. And there’s nothing like leading a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter to drive the point home.
This week’s challenge begins as one of those free-form “pair up” propositions that always isolate the lone wolfs in the pack. Ru tells the seven remaining queens they’re going to pair or trio it up to shoot a sizzle reel for their prospective sitcoms. It’s a pretty lazy challenge this late in the game, forcing the queens to come up with not only their own concept, but their own scripts, voiceovers, and looks. In other words, it’s a challenge that forces the queens to size up the chops of their competition and bank on shared “charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.” Shea and Sasha Velour, joint winners from early on, gravitate toward each other (setting up what looks to be a storyline that will carry through to the final episode, when bosom buddies realize only one can be the victor). So, too, do Trinity Taylor, Peppermint, and Alexis Michelle, business-end queens banking on competence from their teammates. That leaves two odd queens out to join forces: Valentina, the golden girl whose winning attitude, unlike virtually everyone else in this cast, hasn’t had to suffer a reality check thus far, and Nina, who sucks at life.
Two teams prepare for their moment in front of the cameras, boringly but competently. Nina and Valentina, bluntly, do not. They fake their way through their scenario—To Wong Foo by way of Swamp Diamonds— without a script, on the sheer force of their personality. As directors, Carson Kressley and Michelle Visage are nonplussed by the lack of professionalism but, maybe on Valentina’s behalf, attempt to spin their flailing as an attraction in and of itself, a critique that somehow makes its way to the judges’ deliberations. Their uncharacteristic charity, though, can’t disguise how badly Nina and Valentina have failed as a team though.
Even a fairly pointed turf war between Peppermint and Alexis over creative control of their clichéd but amusing “Republican mothers of gay sons” premise (a shade shadier than What’s the Matter with Helen?) takes a backseat to the shocking display of Valentina being dragged down, quite literally, by Nina’s demons, like Alison Lohman in the final scene of Drag Me to Hell. That leaves Shea and Sasha to skate to a second shared win. (And leave it to Sasha to turn a subject as wild and wooly as club-kid couture into this episode’s somber workroom history lesson.)
So it comes to pass that Nina and Valentina wind up in the bottom two. And as Alaska Thunderfuck and Blanche Devereaux would say, stunned is the only word to describe how stunned Valentina is. Nina, meanwhile, has resigned herself to paranoia. “I already knew it. Call me Miss Cleo,” she says in a cutaway interview clip. Nina’s fate seems sealed, but then the unthinkable happens. Valentina, who hit the runway wearing a only negligibly club-kid matador outfit that features a spangled kerchief across her mouth, doesn’t remove the obstruction from her face as she and Nina lip-synch for their lives. RuPaul, in an unprecedented move, shuts down the performance and tells Valentina she needs to take that thing off, and Valentina begs to be allowed to leave it on. Ultimately, though, she acquiesces, and as the two once again battle to motor-mouthed Ariana Grande’s “Greedy,” it’s immediately clear that Valentina doesn’t have a handle on the song’s lyrics.
As much as one’s heart breaks for any E.S.L. queen forced to perform pop songs with laser precision, there’s something sadly poetic about Valentina’s fall from grace. The season’s been leaning awfully hard on the deus ex lipsyncha device, and as much as Valentina’s failure to learn the lyrics rests upon her cute, slender shoulders, the show builds a case that Nina’s drama addiction is what landed her in the bottom two in the first place. If up to this point, Nina was the one who put a target on her own back, the show just tattooed it there permanently.
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