Drag Race is stuck. The little show that started as a hodgepodge of reality competition shows has now blossomed into a cultural touchstone. But with great power comes great responsibility. Drag Race clearly understands and appreciates its ability to influence millions of young people around the country. From the American flag-themed season promo to the Vote.gov poster boards held up at the end of every episode, Drag Race badly wants to engage with this hyperpolitical climate. But how do you thoughtfully and meaningfully address political issues while at the same time maintaining the spirit of frivolity and ridiculousness that defines Drag Race? Unfortunately, RuPaul has no idea. This episode jumps between the chaotic main challenge and serious social justice issues so rapidly, you’ll get whiplash. If this is the extent of Drag Race’s political activism, then I’m left with a serious case of red, white, and blue balls.
After a brief mini-challenge (because what captures the essence of our terrifying and confusing political landscape more than Cats?), we learn that the backdrop for this political-themed episode is a debate: Choices 2020. This challenge first appeared in season four, where it became infamous for a racist joke from Phi Phi O’Hara (and a subsequent legendary read from Latrice Royale). So if you’re feeling nostalgic for the good old days, you’re in luck! The structure and parameters of the challenge are still just as confusing, and most of the queens still have just as hard a time being funny. Never change, Drag Race!
One of the more interesting wrinkles in this tapestry of an episode is Gigi Goode. As we learn in the walkaround, Gigi is scared of politics. “Politics is not something to be afraid of; it’s actually quite simple,” says Ru. “You simply call the hotline on the ExxonMobil website, and they’ll have someone drilling for natural gas on your Wyoming ranch within two weeks!” (Okay, some of that I made up.) He advises Gigi to stick with fashion, but it seems to do little to calm her anxiety. Gigi struggles in the challenge, largely because, as Carson astutely points out, “to be able to parody something, you need a base knowledge of it.” It’s quite interesting that, given the patriotic promotion of this season, the current front-runner seems to be politically illiterate. While her anxiety is certainly relatable, if the purpose of this season’s marketing is to encourage young people to vote, then is Gigi the best spokesperson for that message? To me, this episode represents a significant argument against the idea of America’s Next Drag Superstar Gigi Goode. On the runway, however, Gigi slays as usual, narrowly escaping the bottom two.
Rounding out the safe queens are Crystal, Heidi, and Sherry. To be honest, I am surprised that the judges connected with Crystal’s performance in this challenge. While Crystal’s jokes about “covering the White House in glitter” don’t particularly tickle me, she manages to make reference to her El DeBarge mullet the requisite number of times to activate Ru’s serotonin receptors, and therefore keeps herself safe. Heidi, on the other hand, fares a little better. As usual, Heidi’s effortless charm is on full display, which is plenty to land her in a high/safe position in this challenge. While she doesn’t demonstrate the same razor-sharp wit that Jaida does, she more than makes up for it with her delightful reactions. Jeff Goldblum even calls her Southern belle gasps “Tennessee Williams-esque,” and I have to agree. The judges have no hateration or holleration for Heidi’s Menagerie, and so she’s safe. Sherry is safe as well. She’s not particularly funny, and I’m exhausted with Sherry’s shtick in more ways than one at this point. However, she is one of the only queens able to riff and improvise with Rachel Bloom and Jeff Goldblum, which keeps her just a hair above the rest of the crowd. On the bright side, the judges seem to be growing weary of Sherry, as well. Her polished camp aesthetic from the first few episodes is losing its luster, and her stable of old-lady characters is becoming monotonous.
Next up, Jaida Essence Hall, the saving grace of this challenge. I was concerned for many of the queens after Ru’s walk-around, but not Jaida. “Have you ever been in a debate before?” Ru asks her. “I’m a real bitch; I don’t debate, I argue.” Jaida replies. A sound bite for the ages. I want it on mugs, tote bags, and enamel pins pronto. In a challenge with unclear parameters and little in the way of structure, Jaida spins straw into gold. Not only does she have the most cohesive platform of any candidate (“Of the bitches, for the bitches”), she also manages to throw out laugh-out-loud rejoinders at every opportunity. Put “I don’t own a horse, but I love riding!” on the back of my “I don’t debate, I argue.” crop top. On the runway, Jaida stuns with a handmade bodysuit and clinches a well-deserved second win, cementing herself as a true contender for the crown.
Finally, let’s discuss this week’s bottom two: Widow and Jackie. The fact that Widow and Jackie end up with the lowest marks is a good summary why this episode doesn’t work. Ironically, the two queens who are most able to articulate their relationship with specific political issues (Jackie with Trump’s travel ban, Widow with police brutality) are the two that end up in the bottom. Widow has been mentally checked out and despondent for weeks now, so it’s unsurprising when she’s unable to deliver in this challenge. She’s prepared a couple of jokes, but when they fall flat she’s forced to improvise. The result is some distinctly non-comedic yelling that only contributes to the general chaos on the debate stage. Despite a beautiful runway presentation — a stars-and-stripes gown in a stark black and white — Widow lip-syncs again this week and ultimately sashays away.
If I had been placing bets going into this episode, I would have guessed Jackie would take the win. A comedy/political debate challenge seems very in the wheelhouse of the Haus of Tracy Flick queen. Unfortunately, Jackie’s debate concept falls flat, and her Canada puns become too predictable to read to the judges as comedy. Despite hints from Rachel and Jeff to switch it up a little, Jackie sticks to her notes and lands in the bottom. On the runway, however, Jackie makes a powerful statement wearing an American flag hijab, paying tribute to her family in Iran and condemning Trump’s travel ban. In a particularly cringeworthy moment, Jeff Goldblum asks Jackie if she had considered that the religious garb she’s wearing evokes misogyny and homophobia. (I can only assume that RuPaul went on to explain to Jeff that it was a CIA-orchestrated military coup that led, in part, to the rise of the Islamic Republic in Iran. I’m sure it was just edited out for time!) Jackie has my favorite runway presentation of the bunch, and I would have thought it would be more than enough to spare her from the bottom. But the judges disagree, and Jackie joins Widow in the bottom two.
For better or worse, this episode is all silliness, so when queens like Jackie try to inject any pathos into this episode’s frivolous escapism, they’re punished for it. Drag Race clearly understands that politics are an inextricable part of the lives of queer people and drag artists, but there’s a looming cognitive dissonance over it all. Whenever RuPaul tells us to be politically active, it comes across a little disingenuous. “You better vote!” RuPaul cries. Well, vote for what, exactly? A Green New Deal proposed by guest judge AOC? Probably not, since Ru, as we recently found out, leases his Wyoming land to oil and gas companies. Trans rights? Sure, but mentioning that would require the show (and RuPaul) to reckon with its transphobic practices in the past and present, which have been called out by queens and fans alike (some of whom RuPaul subsequently blocked on social media). Of course, Drag Race has every right to make an episode that tries to speak to the current moment, but whether it can do so successfully is another matter entirely. But who knows? Maybe my quarantine-addled brain has me reading far too much into this piece of television. As I’m sure RuPaul would tell me: “Don’t make it so serious!” See you next week.
“It DO Take Nerve!”
Quotes that left me mouth agape
• “You’re trying to become America’s Next Drag Superstar. Now … I don’t know what that’s like.” — Raven
Raven was a delightful addition to this week’s walk-around. Her suggestions were generally spot-on, and she was funny as hell, too.
• “Look over there!” — Jaida Essence Hall
I can’t stop shouting this to no one, alone in my apartment. It’s a cry for help!
• “In comedy, you always want some element of surprise, so unless you heightened the absurd, there’s just kind of a plateauing point.” — Rachel Bloom
The Hell’s Kitchen theater may be closing, but Rachel Bloom’s UCB 201 class is still in session, honey! Heighten the game, queen! Raise the stakes, mama!