RuPaul’s Drag Race
How do you solve a problem like Nina Bo’Nina Brown? For good or ill, that’s been the central dramatic question of this season, at times even superseding the actual question the show exists to answer — who is America’s next drag superstar. I’m sure you’re familiar with the complaints by now, that this season has been more like RuPaul’s Best Friend’s Race than the shady, cutthroat competition viewers have grown to crave. This is in part due to the frequent, now ritualistic gatherings around the work table to try and coax some semblance of self-confidence out of a taciturn Nina fresh out of the bottom, or even more paradoxically, when she’s fresh off a win.
But just as every gay man/cool ally have hit their absolute limit with these fruitless little pep talks, the queens hit their limit, too. And while anyone who has ever spent a minute around someone who is struggling with Nina’s brand of demon can relate to their frustration, Nina isn’t wrong here either. She never asked for the constant fluffing she’s been receiving from queens like Sasha and Shea and it feels almost counterintuitive keep it up. Everyone is right! Nina is impossibly bleak and it’s no longer engaging to watch her, but everyone else’s harping is also really annoying. Leave her be, eyes on your own paper, move on. Which is essentially the conclusion everyone lands on. Even Peppermint, the sunniest among a season of sunny, happy, fun-time queens, throws her hands up in frustration and officially gives up custody of Nina’s well-being.
At this point in the competition, the playing field has dwindled to such a degree that everyone is feeling the heat, which makes it the perfect time to drop a makeover challenge on them. These challenges are pretty divisive: Some fans look forward to it with glee, while others groan and tear at their clothes because, let’s face it, some of these challenges have been really hard to watch. It takes much of the power out of the queens’ hands, forcing them to work with someone who may or may not be game to do drag in the first place. But this year’s theme isn’t about randoms plucked from a Craigslist ad. It’s a hodgepodge of the show’s own crew.
When I saw this was the twist for this season’s makeover challenge, it initially didn’t register as anything especially exciting. However, what felt like a vaguely generic “make this gruff straight into a drag queen” challenge actually blossomed into the most compelling makeover episode yet, and I feel like a real dummy for ever questioning a show that previously gave us the Little Women of L.A. Do a Broom Dance.
The crew makes for uniquely great TV because they already know the lay of the land. It’s clear from the moment the challenge is unveiled that the queens, all happy squeals and face slaps and big smiles, are genuinely delighted — and they have good reason to be. These guys have all been with them on this journey from the beginning. Drag Race has featured fans of the show in the past, but even if they come in with a passing knowledge of the drag or the show, they don’t know these queens, they don’t know all the various stories that have been weaved, and they certainly aren’t as comfortable as most of these guys appear to be stepping into drag for the first time.
Gone is any trace of the straight-guy hand-wringing we saw back in season six during the disastrous wedding-makeover challenge. For these (presumably straight) guys, this is just another day at work, albeit on the other side of the camera for the first time. But if this challenge had any of them shook, they hide it rather well as each crew member seems uniformly at ease.
Shea and Sasha are given the arduous task of pairing up each queen to a crew member, and I believe Shea when she says there are no shenanigans in the choosing. In part because everyone seems to be paired up with someone who has an approximate family resemblance, and also because Shea colossally shoots herself in the foot in selecting the PA who would eventually transform into Bae Couleé.
While I just spent a paragraph lauding these dudes for how comfortable they seemed with the task at hand, my praise stops just short of this handsome flop. He seems like a slam dunk: He’s tall, beautiful, and seems game. But from the moment he cited Natalie Portman as his drag inspiration, you knew this pair was in trouble. It’s not that Natalie doesn’t have any drag-worthy looks — I would love to see some Amidala drag pop up on the runway — but the actress herself? He might as well have said his drag inspiration was a very pretty glass of milk. A further compounding issue is the walk. The makeover challenges usually provide us with some fun montages of men learning to walk in heels for the first time, but Bae seems almost willfully bad. I could almost believe he was plucked from an alternate timeline where everyone wears flats and no one has back problems, but his job revolves around watching men walk in heels every single day, so we know this is not the case.
Sasha fares considerably better, landing the stern patriarch of the Drag Race crew, AD Duncan. While Rizzo (who we’ll get to, don’t worry) seems like the most obvious trade in the lineup of swarthy crew members, Duncan is unequivocally the hottest and sweetest of the bunch. You can tell he cares about this job, and he is in the unique position of being able to coach Sasha right out of her head and into two stunning runway looks. Sasha continues her streak of having fun and doing well, and with a design heavy, Pride-themed Drag Ball coming up next week, it’s hard to imagine Sasha not making it to the top four.
What seems like the biggest strategic misstep on the winning pairs’ part is handing twinky Rizzo to front-runner Trinity. Trinity has had a surprisingly motherly vibe all throughout the season and she works some of that magic again here. Rizzo is extremely willing to go balls-to-ass-cheeks for Trinity, so by the time they hit the runway, they are the clearly the duo to beat. Which is great, but Rizzo is hard to take in the workroom scenes. Just imagine going on a Tinder date with Rizzo, only to have him explain gender to you before the apps arrive. As much as I love to tease, it’s telling when he eventually freaks out as a cameraman (his co-worker!) tries to sneak a peek at the involved tucking process he undergoes before the runway. Who knew it took that much tape to tuck one single penis between someone’s ass. Drag is magic.
This is by far the most workroom time we’ve seen this season and the episode is better off for it. There’s a palpable sense of camaraderie between the queens and everyone seems to be doing well, except for Nina, of course. You’d think that a makeover challenge would be an area where Nina, with all her makeup skills, would thrive. But leave it to Nina to decide this close to the finish line to challenge herself to sew when she has absolutely no sewing experience. It’s wild that after her many outbursts, she still turns to her fellow competitors for assistance here — and it’s even wilder still that they help her. It’s all too little too late, though: Nina is forced to scrap her original plan, leaving her scrambling for a replacement.
Nina has been on the receiving end of so many pep talks this season to the point of tedium, but there was something refreshing about seeing her sweet, sensitive art-department drag daughter try one last ditch effort to stop Nina from getting in her own way. Where were you three episodes ago, Ariana?
Anyway let’s talk about this runway.
Trinity/Glittafa Days: A strong look and deserved win. Their family resemblance is incredible and drag is clearly something that has always been inside of dear sweet Rizzo. The padding is a little lumpy though, no?
Shea/Bae Couleé: Well, thank God it isn’t another bathing suit, I guess. Shea does look fantastic here, but Bae is admittedly a top to bottom mess. The wig mishap is one of the most infuriating things I’ve ever seen on the runway. This man truly knows nothing.
Alexis/ Rye Ann Stardust: Alexis is saddled with one of the sturdier crew members and it works out rather well. It’s very boring, but cleaner than Shea or Bae.
Nina/Ariana Bo’Nina Brown: This is the cheapest Nina has ever looked. It’s a real damn shame. I’m not sure she’s ever managed to clear the high bar she set for herself in episode one, and this looks like something you make at camp.
Sasha/Donatella Velour: I thought this was a much stronger look than Trinity’s, but it would appear that the lip-sync performance may have given Trinity the edge. Still great!
Peppermint/Winter Green: These looks are very bad and once again Peppermint lucks out by virtue of someone else doing worse. On the bright side, Winter Green was genuinely very charismatic and funny. Her back and forth with Kesha was one of the best moments of the night.
So Trinity is bequeathed a trio of dresses designed by a “celebrity dress designer” which, point of order, if you’re a celebrity dress designer, rarely is it required to specify before your name that you’re a celebrity dress designer, but I guess it’s a better prize than a free Blue Apron subscription or whatever two-bit reward is waiting down the pike for next week’s winner.
It’s always interesting to see the judges bicker and fight, and while much of it has the distinct hint of producer interference, Ross and Michelle’s conflict on the judges table this week felt very real to me. Despite Ross’s best efforts, Shea is sent to the bottom to battle Nina one last time.
While it’s almost impossible to imagine a scenario where Nina stays, it truly feels like anything could go down after Valentina’s disastrous performance last week. That is, of course, if you don’t know what a strong lip-syncer Shea Couleé is. Even to a relatively sleepy song and in a movement prohibiting dress, Shea slays and — in a full circle, narratively satisfying moment — is the one who sends Nina packing.
It’s sad to see a queen with such potential so thoroughly and consistently mess up her own chances, but I’m not sure even Nina’s biggest stans wanted to spend another week watching Nina battle her inner demons. Reality television is built on the backs of the anxious and insecure, but it’s clear that Nina is struggling with issues deeper than a group of drag queens or Mama Ru herself are equipped to handle. All that aside, let’s hope that Nina gains a little perspective in time to join Valentina on All Stars season three.