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Before the Ru-venge, an apology: Caught up in the whirlwind of Lil’ Poundcake’s return, I forgot to congratulate RuPaul on her much-deserved Emmy win last week, so this review is also going to function as an appreciation of RuPaul’s genius. “Revenge Of The Queens” shows why RuPaul won that Emmy. Drag is all about exaggeration, and RuPaul is always trying to figure out how to go bigger. RuPaul can’t control the scope of the contestants’ drag, but she can control the scope of the competition, and the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars has ramped everything up because it has personalities that can go to that next level. (Except for Adore, who quickly realized she wasn’t mentally fit for this intensified Drag Race.)

The new rules regarding elimination have heightened the tension among the queens, and the teasers of revenge at the end of each episode have kept viewers in suspense regarding how the eliminated girls will fight back. We finally find out tonight, and the Ru-venge event begins in force with “the face crack of the millennium” when the eliminated queens appear behind the workroom mirror in the middle of Phi Phi’s bitch session. Phi Phi is caught completely off guard and the cameras savor her facial expressions in the moments after the reveal; she just got caught in the act, and when Alyssa later responds to what she just heard, Phi Phi reverts back to her aggressively defensive season 4 self. The editors milk the Phi Phi and Alyssa drama for all it’s worth, and it’s hard to imagine a cut that doesn’t make Alyssa look like the bigger person.

Over the past week, Phi Phi has made a very public split from RuPaul’s Drag Race, announcing on social media that she would not be attending the reunion finale this season because she did not feel that the show or its creator had her best interests at heart. Now there’s certainly a lot of editing magic that goes on with this show, but the editors wouldn’t be able to give Phi Phi a villain’s cut if she didn’t provide them with the material. Throughout this season, Phi Phi has been trying to get her competitors to second-guess their decisions under the guise of helping them, and while she may actually believe that she’s being helpful, she doesn’t understand how her actions can be perceived and construed by others. This season of All Stars is Advanced Drag Race, and the other contestants have wised up to the dangers of the cameras while Phi Phi is still clueless.

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Alyssa is right when she says Phi Phi is squandering her talent by constantly questioning herself: Is she going to be liked? Will the fans receive what she does? Is she getting the redemption story? These are all questions that are distracting Phi Phi from focusing on winning the competition, and they make her vulnerable to the exact type of drama she’s trying to avoid. If she’s going to play the bitch, she needs to own it. The Drag Race audience will respect her for being ruthless if she makes it clear that’s what she’s willing to do to win the game, but instead Phi Phi is trying to deflect blame for things she’s done and is acting like she’s being attacked. I understand where Phi Phi’s coming from with her frustrations about Alyssa and how the judges evaluate her on the runway, but the reason Alyssa is able to coast on being Alyssa is because she owns that character, flaws and all, and always projects total confidence when she gets on the stage or runway.

Alyssa has a character to fall back on whereas Phi Phi has been relying on the visual appeal of her cosplay drag to build a fanbase, and Phi Phi is struggling now that she’s back in a competition that requires a bigger personality for success. Her ongoing social media meltdown suggests that, like Adore, Phi Phi probably wasn’t ready for the stress of going back to Drag Race and the public ridicule that comes after episodes air, but I think Phi Phi really believed that the show would treat her differently this time around despite not giving the editors a reason for that treatment. Phi Phi comes across as especially immature in this group of All Stars, taking everything personally when her competitors are just doing what they need to win. It’s obvious that the producers and editors are exaggerating the group’s reactions to Phi Phi’s behavior with cutaway commentary, but she’s still providing that material all through this episode, like when she starts criticizing winning queens during deliberation instead of fighting for her spot in the competition.

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The main challenge this week is an especially painful one as the queens are asked to perform stand-up comedy for a live audience full of Drag Race alum, with the added twist that the eliminated queens are paired up with one of the surviving contestants. The twists keep coming when RuPaul’s reveals how the elimination will go down: the eliminated queens from each winning pair will lip sync for the right to return to the competition and eliminate one of their remaining competitors. It doesn’t get much sweeter when it comes to Drag Race revenge, but somehow RuPaul makes it even better in the final moments of this episode, saving both winning queens and giving them both the opportunity to eliminate one of the bottom two.

As is Drag Race tradition, the “All Stars Drag Queens Of Comedy” showcase is not very funny. As the one queen flying solo (thanks, Adore!), Roxxxy is the MC for the evening, and starting off with an apology is the best thing she does. She fumbles over a Michelle Visage gloryhole joke and never regains her footing, although she is unintentionally responsible for the biggest laugh of the show. “I’m not the funniest,” Roxxxy says as she realizes she’s losing the crowd, and when the audience laughs at her confession, Detox shouts: “You killed that one, sis!” Detox deserves a win for that comment alone, but she really wows the judges when she hits the stage with Tatianna. Putting the queens in pairs pushes their performances away from stand-up and into sketch territory, which works well for Detox and Tatianna as they play Lydia Ladybits and Beatrice Backdoor at the Babies Battling Bulimia benefit. They have the best jokes and fill their script with innuendo and alliteration that the crowd gobbles up, and even though its not proper stand-up, it makes the audience laugh and that’s all that really matters.

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Phi Phi and Coco also do something more akin to a sketch, but it’s awkward and unpleasant to watch. Coco did very well in her season’s stand-up challenge, but she’s unable to recapture the magic as she and Phi Phi perform a strange scene that Katya calls an “Off-Off-Off-Off-Broadway theater production of Hookers At The Point.” There’s one solid bit where Coco crushes up some Cheetos to do Phi Phi’s make-up, but that easy joke is the only one that lands. As a visual thinker, Phi Phi relies on her pregnant “ghetto chola” drag for comedy, but that look makes for an especially sad performance when combined with the unfunny dialogue.

Alyssa and Alaska’s routine puts most of the pressure on Alyssa to sell the comedy, which isn’t so much joke-based as it is Alyssa-based. This is a prime example of Alyssa coasting on being Alyssa, and while I don’t find the “jokes” very funny, it looks like the audience and judges enjoy what they see. The editing feels especially generous here as each joke is followed by raucous laughter, but I have no doubt in my mind that the crowd responds better to Alyssa and Alaska than Phi Phi and Coco. Alyssa and Alaska are the other winning team, but I personally find Katya and Ginj’s bit to have stronger material. It’s all built around Ginj being plus-sized and Katya being a dirty Russian hooker, but that turns out to be a solid foundation for jokes that have more focus than Alyssa’s observations.

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Katya ends up being safe while Roxxxy and Phi Phi rightfully end up in the bottom, and Roxxxy guarantees her survival in the competition during deliberations. Phi Phi doesn’t want to beg to stay in the competition, but Roxxxy begs and breaks down in tears, an emotional reaction that confirms just how badly she wants to be stay. Phi Phi tries to stay emotionally detached, and it makes sense why she would do that for her own mental stability. Putting up that wall will lessen the pain if Phi Phi is eliminated, but putting up that wall is also that thing that makes it look like Phi Phi isn’t as passionate about keeping her place in the competition. Ultimately the thing that dooms Phi Phi is unnecessary criticism of other queens, and she seals her fate when she tells Tatianna that Detox didn’t do very well in the challenge. After giving Alyssa so much grief, Phi Phi should realize that Tatianna is the person who could save her, but then she goes and bad mouths Tatianna’s partner during their conversation.

Alyssa and Tatianna face off in this season’s first Lip Sync For Your Life, and it’s a fantastic showdown set to Rihanna’s “Shut Up And Drive”. You can feel their hunger to stay in the competition, and although Alyssa has flashier dance moves, Tatianna holds her own by giving everything she’s got. The two performances are actually very complementary, and their matching costumes give the impression that they’re working together to wow the judges and potentially both make their way back into the competition. That’s probably a stretch, but the harmony in their performances makes for an very entertaining lip sync, intentional or not.

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The performances are so good that RuPaul does keep both of them, and then she follows that twist with another twist when she tells Alyssa and Tatianna that they will both be eliminating a queen. It’s another smart move that increases the tension in the final moments of the episode, making Roxxxy’s salvation and Phi Phi’s elimination all the more dramatic. From beginning to end, RuPaul makes this episode a surprising, suspenseful event unlike anything previously attempted on Drag Race, and her willingness to go bigger and bigger is what keeps this show engaging season after season.

Stray observations

  • Last week I mentioned that two-in-one looks have an inherent theatricality that makes them fun to watch even if the quality isn’t great, and having all the eliminated queens reenter the workroom in their two-in-looks is an easy way to give their reintroductions extra impact.
  • I am so happy that the producers decided to drop some money on bigger lip sync tracks this season.
  • As good as this episode is, it wastes Chelsea Peretti by using her as a stand-up coach and not having her on the judges’ panel.
  • RuPaul is serving sequined bathrobe realness on the runway tonight.
  • Lil’ Poundcake got her own single! It’s exactly as ridiculous as you’d expect (and very NSFW).
  • Roxxxy tries to have herself a Lil’ Poundcake moment by bringing back Tasha Salad, but there are some problems with that strategy because Tasha Salad and her salad puns are horrible.
  • “I smell a stunt.”
  • “I picked Detox to be my partner because she’s funny, she’s dirty, and she’s not Phi Phi or Roxxxy. Choices.” I love Tatianna’s emphasis there.
  • “Your strengths are off-the-cuff buffoonery.”
  • Detox: “They love ’ades! Lemonades, limeades, orangeades.” Tatianna: “Hearing aids?” Detox: “Of course!”
  • “That’s not the first time she’s gotten clap from a room full of people.”
  • “I used to have braces.”
  • “If you’re gonna play a game, girl, play it right.”

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