This is an extremely tough episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, not because the result is particularly devastating or because of an emotional reveal about a queen’s inner life or because Vanessa Hudgens speaks and the gay community winces. It’s tough because it makes us doubt whether or not the All Stars format is really working. And so, we ask the following question out of genuine stupefaction: Can a reality competition show about drag queens jump the shark? Perhaps years from now, our queer historian-androids may look back on this episode and proffer it as evidence to say, “Yes it can, darling.”
There are many camps out there that each want different things from Drag Race. They all want to be entertained, but what counts as entertainment is its own issue. Personally, we are firmly in the camp that most enjoys Drag Race when the content is focused on the drag queens as drag performers and not as reality-TV personalities. But there are people out there — and we respect them! — who want to watch the world burn, or who at least enjoy the elimination format of All Stars. They are, as the youngs say, Messy Bitches Who Live for Drama. In this episode RuPaul decides to entertain that latter camp, and that’s Ru’s choice! But it feels defining in a way that makes us roll our eyes and ask why we should accept it as entertainment.
There’s an uneasy feeling in the room after Aja’s elimination, perhaps because everyone knows she should still be in the competition. If she really did have to leave, it feels strange that it was up to them. Alas, they are both warden and inmate in this glittery prison game, because that’s All Stars, baby. Eliminations come down to minutiae at this point, and the queens have a brief conversation about “where they all stand” in terms of who’s leaving next. The clear answer is Kennedy, who has the worst track record, but of course she disagrees. She mutters something that amounts to, “The best person shouldn’t necessarily win.” If the other queens continue to dance around Kennedy out of sheer reverence, she could Vecepia Towery this whole thing and take the crown, leaving everyone saying, “WTF? Vecepia!? Okay…”
The next day, RuPaul challenges the girls to audition for a new pop supergroup, the Kitty Girls. Each queen will create their own specific girl-group persona, like the indelible members of Little Mix, and perform a number that gives each of them the opportunity to slay a special verse they’ve written. The twist? All of the eliminated queens are back to compete as well, and one of them will return to the competition for good.
If you read that last paragraph and accepted Little Mix as an example of a girl group with memorable personas, seek treatment. We hope you are humiliated right now. The challenge is obviously inspired by the legendary Spice Girls, and as an extra-special gag, the guest judge is none other than the iconic Baby Spice herself, the original Antoni-of-the-group, Emma Bunton. Little Mix. Yeah the fuck right.
Before we can enjoy Trixie’s very cute excitement over Ms. Bunton for too long, the girls have to gather ‘round to relitigate past eliminations and cry about being done wrong. But this whole mini-reunion pales in comparison to the All Stars 2 mirror reveal that ended in Phi Phi getting dragged. Whereas that was a focused, freshly acrimonious affair, this season’s bring-back convo is unfocused and, for lack of a better word, lame. Who’s ready to not have fun?!
Thorgy and Shangela try to arrive at some sort of closure regarding the infamous lipstick message and the Posting of the Note. Trixie, somewhat implicated, tries to quash the conversation before it becomes too heavy, but of course Thorgy wants to keep talking about it as a card-carrying member of the Messy Bitches Who Live for Drama camp. It’s pretty quickly swept under the rug because it was largely motivated by slightly bruised egos and overreaction. Great, moving on.
There’s a rougher conversation between Ben and Morgan that’s so redundant, confusing, and long that by the end of it we’re dehydrated. Morgan has a point in saying that Ben was hypocritical in eliminating her when she said she would oust the girl with the worst judges’ critiques, which was Chi Chi that week. That said, Ben argues that she did personally feel Morgan gave the worst performance in episode one, and there is a subtext here that Ben, a strong queen, felt threatened that Morgan was forthcoming about her elimination strategy: to knock out the strongest queens given the chance. But for Morgan to act like her elimination was unfair or not predicated by her own failures is silly. She could have (a) been better in the challenge and/or (b) not broadcast her entire strategy, so let the record show that Morgan messed up, not Ben.
We mercifully move on to Aja and BeBe, and the conflict is simple: Aja would like an apology from BeBe about not getting credit for helping with BeBe’s most recent runway outfit, but BeBe doesn’t give her that. No one ever said this was RuPaul’s Best Friends Race. Moving on!
Milk wants an explanation from Kennedy, who is game to give her that. Her feelings are very hurt by Milk knocking her drag, and she also really didn’t care for Milk’s performance in The Bitchelor. Teary-eyed, Kennedy then says what a lot of the queens are thinking: Milk acts like her shit don’t stink and looks down on everyone else. This makes Milk cry gorgeous, Demi Moore–in-Ghost tears as she realizes she has alienated the other girls. We’re gonna go ahead and guess that many more gays will comment on how Milk is beautiful when he cries than sympathize with Kennedy, and we suggest that all those gays go kick rocks because, in this moment, we are Messy Bitches Who Live for Drama.
Thorgy takes us out back and shoots us in the goddamn head by ending this conversation so they can get to preparing for the challenge. Our queens separate into Remaining and Returning girls to put together their respective numbers. The top five deal with a beaten-down Ben, who is extremely distracted and “shook” (the word of this episode) following the Morgan confrontation. Ben is decidedly not a Messy Bitch Who Lives for Drama. She bemoans that the competition is no longer about talent, and we get the sense that in becoming woke to the reality of the reality show she is on, Ben loses some nerve. The girls select a persona, with Ben settling into an emo-goth type to fit her current mood, which is classic Ben in that it’s pretty genius.
In the studio, the contestants are coached on their verses by Adam Lambert and his sparkly jacket. The eliminated queens are first, and Morgan takes to the mic as Bimbo Kitty. Her performance is bland and contains yet more lyrics about how drag queens have penises, except this time it references All Stars 2’s Tatianna. Such artistic growth. Milk does well at the mic, and Aja destroys a rap that sounds damn near professional.
The top-five girls receive an edit that suggests they have a harder time, but a trained viewer can see plainly through it. Adam purposely gives a couple girls a harder time than they deserve, especially Trixie. Have you ever introduced two friends and watched in real time as their chemistry just tanks, even though you really like them both? That’s Trixie Mattel and Adam Lambert. We know they’re both trying to be lighthearted, but they just don’t speak the same language and it ends up reflecting badly on Trixie, who does not have the power in this situation. Ben gets a similar digging-in from Adam, but this show cannot fool us into thinking that BenDeLaCreme isn’t going to slay her performance. Her takes in the studio aren’t bad. Do you hear that, show? You cannot fool us.
In the workroom before the main challenge, Ben and Morgan are able to apologize to each other for past wrongs, with Morgan admitting that she can be confrontational to a fault and Ben hinting that this whole thing just isn’t for her. Prior to the announcement of this season’s cast, it was rumored that it was hard to nail Ben down for the show, especially after giving interviews in which she derided the producers as manipulative and uncaring. We think, in these moments, we’re seeing that same uneasy Ben, one who just really isn’t here for the drama that is Drag Race. She came to show how fierce she was. Having done that with such frequency, perhaps there’s not much left for her to do …
Both girl groups are excellent to watch. The eliminated queens start slow with their performance of “Sitting on a Secret,” as Chi Chi’s Cajun Kitty is unspecific and Morgan’s Bimbo Kitty is average, but once Aja takes center stage, it’s on. Her Lil’ Banjee Kitty is energetic, spirited, and simultaneously feels very Girl Group Member and very Aja. Thorgy gives likely her best and most memorable performance on the season thus far as Cardio Kitty, complete with the shoving of a “secret” right up her own kitten. Milk surprises with a very fun verse, and while it’s not super clear what Milky Kitty is, we’re entertained. Make no mistake, the only two queens who should be in the conversation to return are Aja and Thorgy.
The top five come out to perform “Drag Up Your Life,” starting with Trixie as the nymphomaniac mathlete IQ Kitty. She looks amazing (we, for two, love the hair) and executes her hilarious character quite well. Ben proves us right by slaying her character and committing the whole time. She smartly made the decision to aesthetically contrast with the rest of the girls, which makes her pop even more. The same cannot be said for Shangela, who is essentially Shangela-lite as … Sparkle Kitty. You know, because her thing is sparkles? Kennedy as Diva Kitty is good, but you have to imagine a lot more could have been done with someone whose brand is diva. Where’s the big hair? Where’s the attitude? Where’s the spice? Then, what BeBe does as Jungle Kitty is unreal. Standing ovation. Most of her verse is comprised of made-up words, so we live for her.
The judges call a spade a spade: The top five win the challenge and Kennedy and Shangela are critiqued fairly. Ben and BeBe must lip sync for their legacy, plus the chance to eliminate one of the top five and replace her with an eliminated queen.
Nothing unexpected happens in the workroom. Chi Chi isn’t down to return, which is nobly self-aware. Kennedy doesn’t feel she should leave, despite being the only person who truly deserves to. Milk, Aja, and Thorgy are hungry for the chance to compete again, and Ben squirms at having the power to eliminate yet again. She claims it is impossible to send one of the girls home, despite it being very possible, actually. When the queens take to the stage, we have a feeling we know where this is all going.
But then BeBe absolutely slays the lip sync to “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” by Deborah Cox. Put her performance in a gay club and the children would scream until the bottles of Absolut Açaí shattered. Ben clearly doesn’t know the words to parts of the song and gives nothing extra in her interpretation. Categorically speaking, BeBe wins that lip sync.
Except she doesn’t. Ru inexplicably chooses Ben, and we have to guess it’s because of BeBe’s wig removal being a disqualifier. It’s the worst moment of the season for how obviously manufactured it is, even while we as an audience are fully aware that this is a produced reality show. It’s a nakedly low moment, and perhaps an inflection point for the series that might begin prioritizing stunt-y drama over talent. Not since Pearl defeated Trixie Mattel in season seven has there been such an obvious disregard for truth, and we may very well have the O.J. trial of RuPaul’s Drag Race, we still feel cheated out of seeing a fair, square competition play out for the remainder of the season.
Ben’s savior complex kicks in and she selects Morgan McMichaels to return. She then eliminates herself, driven mad by the stakes, unable to send any of her sisters home. Forget that she has done it all season long. She’s had enough, and proudly walks away. RuPaul feigns annoyance as if she wasn’t aware it was happening, and BenDeLaCreme, an unprecedented five-time challenge winner, leaves the competition by choice in a debatably cowardly move. All we’re left with is phallus-obsessed Morgan and a plot of scorched earth.
Can a drag-queen reality-competition series jump the shark? No. We don’t think so. The episode establishes its tone right away when the three queens who were back to compete were suddenly joined by the missing two, who were “late.” RuPaul cackles villainously and then suddenly asks whether she left her iron on in her dressing room. This show is knowingly and purposely stupid, because it’s drag. But there is a question to be asked about whether or not the show is providing the best entertainment possible when it’s focused more on shenanigans than the work and art of drag. We miss that about the regular seasons, and are even more eager for season ten to start now that this has all gone down.
Ru, we’re gonna talk directly to you right now: Stop with the nonsense. You stop it with this manufactured fakery and hokum. We want to see the best of the best compete for the crown. Do we even want an All Stars 4 now that it’s possible and probable that Delta Work will beat Shea Couleé over some tomfoolery? We just don’t know anymore.
(Ru: Keep up the great work, bitch, this episode is gonna make people cry. Ugh, gosh, we are Messy Bitches Who Live for Drama!)
SAID THE BITCH: A Weekly Quote Spotlight
Aja: “BeBe is taking her wig off, and I’m like, ‘Girl, I don’t see no flowers, I don’t see no glitter, I don’t see no gag. You ain’t no Sasha Velour, bitch. Keep your wig on.’”
… SAID THE BITCH!!! This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Aja gets the last word on her beef with BeBe, and it’s a lethal one.