Well, we’re almost there! We’re nearly at the final moment of this big overstuffed season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and I suppose my big question is the same as it always is when we reach this episode: Will anything that happens here even matter?
The final stage of competition feels at once like the highest-stakes moment in any given season, but it also has a tendency to feel a bit arbitrary without a real winner or traditional bottom-two lip-sync. It’s hard to argue that performance in these final challenges actually matters when Ru has sent so many deserving queens home somewhat inexplicably. In many cases, Ru’s top-three decision deflates what would otherwise be an exciting horse race between equally deserving queens. I’m looking, of course, at Pearl and Naomi’s inclusion over Kennedy and Chi Chi, but you could make this argument as far back Yara Sofia’s elimination in season three. (This may be a dumb opinion on my part, but trust me it is just the first of many to come in this recap.) Only Darienne Lake stands out as an obvious outlier, because, years later, I’m still shaken to my core that she made it to the top four to begin with.
That’s not to say the episode is boring, though. There’s something soothing about the familiarity of what used to be the penultimate episode of the season, now bumped back to make way for next week’s full reunion episode. Even with a few swaps, the energy still feels very much like the closing of a circle. Instead of the annual Tic Tac lunch with Ru — something that was conspicuously missing from season eight — the girls sit down to chat with Ru and Michelle on their celebrated podcast, What’s the Tee? The effect is mostly the same, though instead of a Tic Tac on a plate, the queens are now presented with a squatty potty, which is maybe a metaphor for the changes the show has gone through over the years, but honestly, I’m not going to eat up a bunch of this recap to go into it.
These chats are only sometimes illuminating, and here we don’t learn a whole lot of new information about anyone, save for Peppermint. Her fears about being a trans woman in drag aren’t completely unexpected, but it’s a complicated issue that the show has struggled to get a handle on in the past. Peppermint handles herself with the same grace and charisma that’s made me fall in love with her over the course of the season.
The other big shake-up is the lack of a new RuPaul music video. Instead, the girls are tasked with writing a rap verse for RuPaul’s “Category Is” along with learning a choreographed dance. This is another component seemingly ripped wholesale from All Stars season two, but I think it’s a welcome one. The writing component adds an extra layer to what otherwise amounted to a choreography challenge in previous seasons.
This episode also seems to answer the question I’ve been asking all season: Who is the new Lucian Piane? Wouldn’t you know it, it’s none other than erstwhile All Stars judge Todrick Hall, whom I low-key despised in his previous gig, but in a shocking twist really enjoyed in his new role here. He brings the same balance of helpful snark and yas-queen reverence of his predecessor, but he has the good sense not to tell his Instagram followers to drink bleach. Todrick’s lateral promotion seems like a good fit, and although I’ve never not once needed to see Disney Princesses reenact the “Lady Marmalade” music video on YouTube or whatever his thing is, I would happily see him back next season teaching the girls to sing some thinly veiled song about anal fissures.
This part of the challenge goes about as well as you’d think for everyone involved, with the one standout being Peppermint. Although her previous work this season does not necessarily point to her being successful as a rapper — and let’s be honest, we’re grading everyone on a curve — the legend pulls it out and gives the most fun rap of the four. Shea does well too, and the only criticism I can muster is that she maybe seems a little overambitious with her goals, but it still felt cool and current.
Anyone who’s seen the cringeworthy C.L.A.T. video (Alexis Michelle saying “theater” haunts me still) knew what we were going to get from Sasha. That is, of course, not rap at all but spoken word. The parameters of the prompt seem a bit vague, so it’s not as though she broke any rules, but guys, this was not good and I did not enjoy it. Neither did I enjoy Trinity’s version, a rap which makes “My name is Roxxxy Andrews and I’m here to make it clear” sound like Nicki Minaj’s verse on “Monster.”
While both Peppermint and Shea continue to excel in the choreography session (Todrick doing double-duty it would seem, I hope she’s getting paid!), Trinity and Sasha flounder a bit. Midway through this episode, it almost feels like they’re both getting the loser edit. Of course, this means Sasha is almost certainly being set up to get the boot by episode’s end, though we all know how that turns out now.
If any of these struggles played in studio, it’s hard to tell because the whole thing is edited in such a way that everyone walks away acquitting themselves rather nicely. The performance is one of the best-produced segments of the series, the transitions from Peppermint to Sasha to Trinity feel smooth and, as the kids are wont to say, “lit af.” There’s also a bit of drama in the direction that you rarely notice in similar performances from seasons past.
Which brings us to the final runway of the season. Let us, as always, chat about it.
Peppermint: She is giving us head-to-toe “Journey to the Past,” exiled Russian royalty realness here and I love it. It’s definitely one of Peppermint’s best looks this season, but I wish we could have seen some of that detailing from the top in the skirt. It’s not a choice that detracts from the overall effect of the look, but the more I look at it, the more it feels a little unfinished.
Sasha: It feels especially apt that Sasha compares this to Pretty in Pink, because like the pink dress in that movie, this is an ugly letdown. Nothing about this especially screams “eleganza” to me, and it feels especially frustrating that a queen who has brought some of the season’s best looks chose this Designing Women–inspired thrift-shop dress to possibly end her run on the show. It is hilarious that she talks about the gloves and crown being some kind of big “Velourian twist” because M. Night Shyamalan she is not.
Shea: Much like Sasha, this is a bit predictable, but despite being a bit on the nose, it’s still a gag. Sure, it’s not a huge departure for this season’s queen of the swim cut, but it’s still a heightened, elevated version of it. And honestly, why wouldn’t you want to see Shea in some Beyoncé-inspired garb?
Trinity: The look of the night. Trinity has certainly leaned in to the narrative of “She’s a pageant girl … who can do stuff!” this season, but it’s nice to see her return to her roots a bit. It’s a dress that actually screams eleganza, and although it’s definitely something we’ve seen in the past, it was smart of her to save her pageant wear till the end.
Post-runway, the judges go through the motions and foil Michelle’s plan to subtly have some fun with the show’s favorite acronym before watching them all weep through messages to their younger selves and deliver rousing drag stump speeches. One final group lip-sync later, and voila! The series’ third “shantay you all stay” and first-ever top four.
But guys? I have to call shenanigans here.
In every situation where Ru has forgone an elimination, it felt as organic and deserved and vital as a double-save could feel on a reality show. Go ahead and watch either matchup — Raven versus Juju or Tatianna versus Alyssa in their respective All Stars seasons — and try telling me who should have gone home. It’s literally, scientifically, definitively impossible to say. Those unprecedented moves happened because they had to, not because some producer was whispering in Ru’s ear. I’m just not convinced we can say the same of this group. This feels a bit like a forgone conclusion, something that would have happened regardless of who ended up here, all for the sake of shaking things up in season nine.
I like each of these queens individually, but I’m just not sure that they all unquestionably deserve to move on. Peppermint, the favorite to go home before this episode aired, certainly proved herself and then some. By the laws of reality television, neither Shea or Trinity could be sent home at this stage by virtue of their individual wins. But Sasha? Guys, I think it should have been Sasha.
Now, let me state for the record, I really love Sasha. I think she was robbed of a rightful win not just this past week, but the week before that too. She should have come into the finale with the same number of wins as Shea and Trinity … and yet. And yet! I just can’t help but feel like this was not the season for a top four. In this scholar’s opinion, there has only been one season worthy of it and that is season five, and I will take that case all the way to the Supreme Court if push comes to shove.
But season nine? We don’t need all four of them, and based on one dumb spoken-word moment and an underwhelming dress, I think Sasha should have taken a bow tonight — sue me. Sasha is a strong queen, but I’m unconvinced that she is bringing enough “new” stuff to be a necessity. She is, to my eyes, what would happen if Milk and Violet had a child and that child got a gender-studies degree from Oberlin. I say this with love as someone with a gender-studies degree who wishes I was smart enough to get into Oberlin.
Luckily for you, the team at World of Wonder gives exactly zero shits about what I think and did not consult me before making any of these decisions. We’ve got a top four. Sure, it does little to diminish the horse race between front-runners Shea and Trinity, but I wouldn’t be shocked by a Peppermint win at this point. I’m even low-key rooting for it. She doesn’t have the wins this season, but gosh if she hasn’t become one of the most charming presences that’s ever appeared on the show. Either way, we’ve got two weeks until we find out. Next week, we’ll be treated to a reunion that is sure to be, um, cordial at worst. Can’t wait!