Every once in awhile, an episode of a reality-based competition show comes along that really shakes you to your core. You can probably conjure a few of those moments in your mind immediately, moments like Tyra’s infamous “we were all rooting for you” speech or Jonny Fairplay lying about his dead grandmother, or that one season of Big Brother with all the racists. I humbly submit to you today that generations from now, people in the dark corners of gay bars across the world won’t long discuss RuPaul’s Drag Race before uttering the words: “Take off your mask.”
But this episode is a standout because of more than just that final moment. In many ways, it feels like a return to form for the show. The challenge is fun, the remaining girls are all contenders, and the interpersonal drama finally seems to be bubbling up above the surface. A lot of you queens think I’ve been too hard on this season and many more have given up on the show, but I think we can all come together and agree that this was a top-to-bottom gem.
The challenge itself is fairly simple: In three groups, the girls must write, produce, and star in their own television pilots (or what essentially amounts to three-minute sizzle reels). Without many parameters beyond that, the only real obstacle for most of these girls is collaborating with a group of people who, at this point, are all clearly exhausted with each other.
Of course, that’s not true for all the matchups. The chance to select your own team on shows like Drag Race is a gift to the two or three people who still want to work together. In this case, that duo is the BFFs of season nine, Shea and Sasha. At first glance, this seems like a surefire slam dunk for both of these queens. They’ve won as a pair before and neither queen has seen much time in the bottom. But Drag Race historians know that past performance and personal chemistry do not always a winner make — previous BFFs Katya and Ginger barely managed to register in their All Stars stand-up challenge — and I’m sure once the producers saw these two pair up, they salivated at the opportunity for a fallen front-runner narrative.
But they actually collaborate about as well as two drag queens on this show could, coming up with a premise that is cogent, structured, and has a strong stylistic point of view. Not only that, but it also manages to be slyly funny: Both the espadrille joke and the final suicidal-toe bit (a subtle read of Naomi Smalls, perhaps?) go beyond the sort of broad humor we normally get out of these skits.
While Shea is the obviously the front-runner in everyone’s mind, she also seems to bring out a more fun-loving side of Sasha that we haven’t seen enough of this season. The accent is a ballsy choice for the queen, if only because she doomed herself to endless comparisons to Katya, an all-time fan favorite. Not to say that the All Stars 2 runner-up has a copyright on Russian accents, but I can’t imagine I was the only one thinking it.
Of course, others didn’t enjoy such a seamless collaboration this week. (Otherwise, why the hell would I give it five stars?) The lone threesome manages to squeak out a fun, if muddled concept for a pilot and the main source of drama centers around casting of the voice-over, and of course the person who is concerned about this is Alexis Michelle. I don’t know, were they told something we weren’t about those fucking voice-overs? What universe is Alexis from that she thinks the voice-over is the key role here? That it might somehow make or break her in the grand scheme of things? Granted, Peppermint did go hard to be the voice-over too, but nothing about these exchanges did much for Alexis and her already rough image.
Overall, each of their performances in the actual sketch were fairly good. Peppermint finally wakes up and gives us more Nene in her character than we saw during Snatch. Trinity too is always willing to give it 100 percent and while this challenge doesn’t work for her without strong material, she throws everything she has at the wall — and it all works in her favor. I have grown to love Trinity a lot, but her uneven performances indicate to me that she is stumbling toward the top three. She doesn’t always seem to have the strongest grasp of what makes her good or funny, she’s just figuring it out in real-time. There isn’t a lot to say about Alexis’s bland performance and that’s sad. These are the challenges Alexis should knock out of the park, especially something as over-the-top as this one. Instead, she fades into the background and stays there, only popping when she needs to give Peppermint notes on her voice-over performance.
I hesitate to knock her too hard for this, because as we all know, a lot of shady editing goes into creating a reality show, so who knows — maybe this kind of ad hoc note-giving is the norm and all the queens are raising their hands and giving notes they think Carson and Michelle missed. Maybe they’re only showing us this one instance of it to further add to Alexis’s season-long narrative as a theater girl. But I doubt it. I bet Alexis is just that girl who constantly gives thinly veiled critiques disguised as questions.
All of this drama aside, the threesome manage to pop out a polished little pilot, which isn’t really how you could describe the Nina/Valentina disaster of 2017. Credit where credit is due: Both Valentina and Nina seem to have an innate charisma, as Michelle notes during judging, which makes the final product work better than it has any right to. This is actually a fun idea for a show — Connie and Carla the television series! — but unfortunately, the snippets we’re privy to leading up to the final cut are some of the hardest scenes I’ve ever witnessed on this show.
Drag Race has asked a lot of many non-comedians across seasons, from funny sketches to stand-up comedy, but never before had I ever considered what drag-queen improv would look like. Friends, I’m sorry to say it is 100 percent irredeemably bad. The tragedy here is that had either of these queens been paired with nearly anyone else, they would have acquitted themselves just fine. But this combo is a recipe for disaster from the start.
Valentina is a very creative queen, but she’s not quite at the stage where she can steer a project of this scope, and Nina is far too deep inside her own head and insecurities to take control. Her attitude this week is both paranoid and self-defeating in a way that makes it extremely difficult to root for her.
If you have been watching Untucked, you know Nina has been an insecure mess from the jump, while Shea has been nothing but an in-your-face, Oprah-like figure, hyping Nina up every time she’s down. Now certainly Nina never asked for this kind of attention, but to turn around and single out Shea as a girl who is out to get her is wild and seems indicative of larger problems. Whatever is going on with her, it’s not a lot of fun to watch.
It is, however, nice to see interpersonal drama return to the forefront of the workroom scenes. After a pedantic and (thank God) brief lesson on the history of the club-kid scene in New York, the focus shifts briefly to the conflict between Nina versus the world, and it was such a relief not to hear another sob story for one blessed week. Anyway, the club-kid primer was probably necessary for the younger audience and sets us up nicely for this week’s runway.
Sasha: Sasha seems like the queen who was most likely to knock this out of the park and is unfortunately graded against that scale of anticipation. This is really great, but it’s overshadowed in my mind by a few other looks.
Shea: I could talk a lot about everything I love about this look, but I’m too frightened about hot glue to the face, and a little surprised she didn’t get any grief for wearing another bathing suit.
Nina: I’m just not sure the makeup is enough anymore. From the neck down, I thought this was pretty bad, and by now you’d think she’d have a better sense of what she could get done in the time she has. The heart and rib cage looked very “my kid is having a birthday party and we hired my sister to do face-painting.”
Valentina: “This is what I would do as a club kid” is a variation on an excuse we hear from contestants across reality shows who do not know what to do with the theme of a given challenge. She very much does not look like a club kid to me (I mean truly what do I know?), but this still looks good.
Trinity: This is the gag of the season so far. Again, this looks like she threw everything up against the wall and hoped it worked. Good golly, I really think it did.
Peppermint: Very fun and striking and Candyland. The only bad thing I can say is it feels very on the nose, but that is me just filling space.
Alexis: Not a whole lot to add that wasn’t said by the judges. From the neck up, it’s good. From the neck down, it’s another mistake.
Carson: I dunno, I felt very embarrassed looking at him.
Shea and Sasha rightfully take home another collective win. We still have a few more episodes this season, and it will be interesting to see how this friendship plays out. I’m sure the producers are desperate to find any excuse to put these two in the bottom against each other, because that’s just good TV and none of y’all can deny it.
And now, the lip sync. Oh my God, what to even say about this lip sync? Nina and Valentina is the kind of matchup you want to see at this point in the competition, but as soon as the judges started talking about Valentina’s mask, you know something is going down. Have they ever stopped a lip sync mid-battle before? This is an unprecedented and truly unscripted moment for everyone involved and that is what makes it so thrilling to watch. I can’t remember the last time a reality show had me so far at the edge of my seat for such a simple goddamn reason: “Take off your mask.”
For a moment, I thought Valentina might leave it on and forfeit the whole thing, but she’s smart enough to acquiesce and continue on. Maybe, just maybe you think she might be able to pull out a win, but the second she stops moving her lips you know it’s all over. Somehow, this moment manages to be ten times more compelling than Charlie Hide’s send-off, as well as ten times more humiliating. Valentina wants this, she wants it bad, and you can tell she thought she had it. Watching her fall so hard and so fast is heartbreaking and cravenly compelling television. It was like watching La La Land lose the Oscar: Nina may have won, but goddamn if everyone isn’t going to talk about Valentina’s loss forever and ever.
Over the years, Drag Race has certainly been victim to plenty of producer machinations. But one thing that has always felt true and right about this competition is that the better lip syncer almost always prevails. No matter your past performance, no matter your star potential, if you can’t serve a fantastic performance, you leave. It’s one of the purest meritocracies in reality TV. It’s an age old topic of debate: Should every queen have to lip sync? (If Bianca or Tyra had to lip sync would they have won?) But ultimately, I trust the system. It may not be flawless, but it’s pure and ruthless and effective. There’s certainly a version of this show where Valentina makes it out a winner (All Stars season three, most likely), but in this case, the system did its job and no one skates through.
More than anything else, Valentina’s dismissal is a big shake-up for everyone, myself included, who saw her as a lock for top three. Her position now needs filling and it’ll be interesting to see who steps up to fill it. Could’ve worded that better, but you guys get it.