Drag Race is always trying to surprise its contestants and (by extension) us. Double eliminations, surprise returns, and golden chocolate bars are just some of the ways WOW has tried to keep the show fresh and keep the queens’ heartbeats spiking to 140 BPM. Sometimes the gimmicks work (All-Stars 2’s “Revenge of the Queens,” this episode’s fart-sound inserts), and sometimes they don’t (season 11’s six-way lip-sync). But Drag Race’s true magic comes in episodes like tonight: when the show surprises the queens, and the queens surprise them right back.
This week marks the season’s first true acting challenge. The queens star in “The Daytona Winds,” an ’80s soap-opera parody exploring the drama and intrigue of three powerful drag families: the Michaels, the O’Haras, and the Davenports. Herstorically, these challenges have gotten a bad rap on Drag Race. The reasons for this are many: They tend to be long, unfunny, a poor showcase of the queen’s talents, and include an encyclopedia of obscure references utterly incomprehensible to all but a hyperspecific subset of media-obsessed Gen-X gay. Pick your poison! However, in recent years, there’s clearly been a concerted effort to beef up these scripts with some real, honest-to-God jokes. However, even solid writing can’t solve every problem with a comedy sketch. Throughout these episodes, we watch the queens read, rehearse, and even film these challenges before finally arriving at the final presentation on the runway. By the time we watch the finished product, the various characters and shticks are kind of already old news. That’s what makes this particular fart twist so ingenious. By not giving us a whiff of the real game of the sketch until the runway itself, Drag Race pulls off a rare double-blind: shocking the queens and the audience in equal measure.
But in a way, this prolonged reveal is a leap of faith. Faith in us, the audience, that we will share RuPaul’s irreverent taste in fart jokes (which I certainly do,) but also faith in the queens. This sketch would simply not work with a cast of girls less able to take direction. (“More long, slow, drawn-out pauses!” RuPaul repeatedly calls for during rehearsals.) Not to mention the fact that it wouldn’t work if the girls weren’t so damn funny! Bosco continues to prove herself a drag chameleon capable of adapting to anything the judges throw her way, Lady Camden has no right to imbue a Drag Race sketch with this much emotional pathos, Willow remains unimpeachable, and Daya Betty breaks through her Crystal Methyd curse to bring us some laugh-out-loud line readings. Sure, Angeria stumbles, and maybe Deja Skye doesn’t quite live up to expectations as “the actress” of the group, but such quibbles fall to the wayside as soon as we’re presented with the final product. Which brings us to the next piece of this lovely episode’s pie: the non-elimination. Kornbread’s untimely withdrawal left not just a gaping, front-runner-size hole in the season’s narrative but also (practically speaking) a scheduling snafu. Networks order specific quantities of episodes for reality TV, so World of Wonder can’t just shorten the season on a whim. There are time slots to consider! Emmys to win! Ad space to sell! Sure, one well-placed double shantay could clear that up, but that itself poses a risk. What if that perfect lip-sync never comes? (Was Jackie Cox vs. Heidi N Closet really double-save worthy? If you can even name the song they lip-synced to without Googling, I’ll give you 500 doll hairs.) So instead, Drag Race seizes the chance this episode presents them with. The result? A perfect storm. Why arbitrarily eliminate one of two queens with much more to show (Angeria and Daya) when we could watch two rising stars (Lady Camden and Daya Betty) battle for a win that could very well propel one of them into the top four? And battle they do. Daya is good, and her stage presence here redeems her flat performance in the season premiere to Pink’s lyrically scant hit “Get the Party Started.” But Lady Camden is just great. I didn’t fully understand the breadth of her dancing abilities from her ballet in the first episode, but I sure do now. The precision of Lady Camden’s movements and the specificity of her physical storytelling reveal years of practiced skill and craft mastery. Which is all to say: She fucking tears. Ru rightfully awards her the win, capping off an excellent 90 minutes of television.
… Or does it? Because the most memorable moment — and the emotional core — of this week’s Drag Race time block ultimately comes in Untucked after Deja Skye asks, “So … has anyone thought about transitioning?” Gender and transness have been a topic of discussion on the show in recent seasons, but the openness of the inquiry itself feels radical. Transness itself is a relatively new discussion on Drag Race (the first openly trans contestant was Peppermint as recently as season nine), and previous iterations of this conversation on Drag Race have mostly come from a place of certainty. “Yes, I am a proud trans woman.” “Yes, I’m a cis man who does drag.” By the time queens are cast on Drag Race, their identity exploration is presented as complete. A neat, defined character trait that can be slotted in as a teachable moment during a pre-runway mirror chat. But here, Bosco and Jasmine present their journey with gender as ongoing, evolving, in conversation with their environment and their lives. Most of all, this candid discussion feels … unforced! As often as Drag Race tries to facilitate vulnerable conversations, it’s refreshing to see one come up organically. It’s incredibly moving to watch Jasmine move the typically unflappable Kerri Colby to tears as she describes her desire to transition and how meeting Kerri affirmed her gender more than she thought possible. I can only imagine twinks across the gender spectrum watching this episode tonight live at some gay watering hole, positively weeping into their tequila-sodas. I stand in solidarity with you all!! It’s a wonderful #DragRaceMoment, and one that doesn’t feel like it would be possible on any TV show but this one.
With that, we can finally wrap up this crazy ride of an episode. It’s a good reminder that as trite as the drama on this show can seem, these queens really are sisters to each other. They’re thrust into the crucible of Drag Race with no one to rely on but each other, and often, that makes for some remarkable TV magic.
Until next week!