RuPaul’s Drag Race season 8 has been a return to greatness for the series after a lackluster season 7, and “RuPaul Book Ball” is a prime example of why. First, the contestants: We’re down to the final five, and it’s a diverse group of queens representing a variety of backgrounds both in and out of drag. Everyone has a strong story, and those narratives are highlighted in tonight’s challenge, which has the queens exploring their drag evolution via three different runway looks with accompanying autobiographical voiceover narration.

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The challenges this season have been on point, especially when they’re entirely focused on runway performance. That’s what we get this week, and in addition to three different Book Ball outfits, the queens perform a tribute to Strangers With Candy in Jerri Blank drag. It’s a challenge tailor made for guest judges David and Amy Sedaris, and their familial bond comes into play when the queens channel their mothers for their second ball looks, giving producers and judges the opportunity to prod at an emotional soft spot for all of the queens. It’s a fantastic challenge that takes full advantage of the guest judges’ talents, and there’s nothing quite like watching five drag queens dressed as Jerri Blank lip syncing and dancing to a Strangers With Candy tune sung by Amy Sedaris.

“RuPaul’s Book Ball” is a 90-minute episode, which means more time to flesh out rivalries, explore backstories, and spotlight the jam-packed runway. Much of the extra time is spent on the tension between Derrick and Naomi, which explodes when they get each other for this season’s #EverybodyLovesPuppets mini-challenge. It’s only been two weeks since the queens visited the library, but they’ve grown more vicious as the stakes have gotten higher, with Derrick and Naomi taking some especially low blows.

Derrick has a lot of difficulty throwing shade in a way that isn’t mean-spirited, so even though she has some solid reads for Naomi, there’s nothing pleasant about her puppet show. Naomi may not have much variation in her voice, but at least she can set up a joke, like this hilarious exchange commenting on Derrick’s trouple. “Derrick, does it hurt having my hand inside you?” Naomi asks, to which Puppet Derrick replies, “No, I’m used to sitting on two dicks at one time.” That is some grade-A shade, thrown with poise and confidence and minimal venom (but still a little venom), and the playful delivery just intensifies the impact of the read. Everyone but Derrick is having fun because this is a puppet show, and Derrick’s bitterness motivates her behavior for the entire episode.

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When I spoke to Derrick at the season 8 premiere party in Chicago, she spent most of the conversation talking about the drag community’s bias against celebrity impersonators, and it’s obvious why she’s pushing that message after seeing the episode in which she’s eliminated. Bias against celebrity impersonators isn’t what sends Derrick home today. Her inability to be a satisfactory drag queen is to blame, and she has little interest in elevating her drag above its Britney Spears foundation. This show isn’t looking for America’s Next Celebrity Impersonator Superstar, and if Derrick isn’t able to create a drag identity for Derrick Berry, then she has no place going any further in this competition.

Derrick probably shouldn’t have gotten this far, but she gave RuPaul a project to work on, which kept her in the game. RuPaul has seen Derrick perform as Britney and wants her to bring that same kind of passion to her own drag persona, but Derrick’s baby steps to self-realization are putting her far behind the competition. Derrick was told to carve out her face last week, but instead of really thinking about how to give the judges the kind of dramatic drag make-up they’re looking for, she fixates solely on her eyebrows, which is just one part of a much more demanding process. The queens gang up on Bob for her make-up this week, but she has an understanding of the basics while Derrick is still learning, which is unacceptable at this point in the competition.

“If I have to change my face to be myself, then I’m not really being myself,” Derrick says, and Bob’s face crack perfectly reflects my reaction to her bone-headed comment. Bitch, this is a drag queen competition. The entire point is to change your face, which you already know because you change your face for a living when you pretend to be Britney Spears. You’re not being yourself when you’re being Britney, Derrick, so stop deluding yourself and learn how to paint your goddamn face. Derrick’s final make-up on the runway is heinous, especially the demented eyebrows, and she guarantees her position in the bottom two when she glues some book pages to a corset for her third look, once again showing no ambition with a construction challenge.

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Derrick and Naomi’s drama gets the most attention this week, but Derrick’s drama with Bob has been an ongoing thread all season, so it’s only appropriate that they would face off against each other in a lip sync for their lives. It should come as no surprise that Bob does the best Jerri Blank impersonation, but she’s not as successful on the runway. Her final look fails to satisfy the demands of the challenge when Bob ditches her skirt, the only part that contains any book pages, and while the bodice looks fine, it’s not as impressive as what Kim, Naomi, and Chi Chi construct.

With three wins under her belt, Bob isn’t going to let Derrick send her home, and she dominates the lip sync by embodying the coolness of the music. Derrick has choreographed movements for all the lyrics, which makes her performance more frantic and less full than Bob, who uses this opportunity to show off just how strong the character of Bob The Drag Queen is in performance. Derrick is playing catch-up the entire time, following Bob around the stage in hopes of catching some of that spotlight but never claiming it for herself. Focused, jubilant, and full of personality, Bob’s lip sync performance makes her an even bigger front-runner, and although she’s in the bottom this week, she establishes that anyone facing off against her will have a huge challenge.

The other three queens fare very well this week, with Naomi and Chi Chi continuing to grow while Kim reinforces her position as this season’s premier fashion queen. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Kim Chi is phenomenal at embodying characters in her runway looks, and that talent is what wins her this week’s challenge. She’s the only queen that gives her three runway looks a narrative throughline, telling the story of one drag queen sprout’s desire to blossom despite the influence of a restrictive mother. Each look captures the spirit of its respective stage in the story, with the first and last outfits taking a literal approach to the floral concept while the second outfit makes a strong tonal shift by showing a stern, severe Kim in a pristine hanbok, bringing Kim’s cultural heritage to the forefront of her performance.

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The judges love Kim’s second look, and Ru and David Sedaris are fascinated by all the layers of emotion Kim conveys in the combination of her clothing, make-up, facial expression, body language, and voiceover content. There’s a lot of baggage to unpack with that relationship, and it’s clearly captivated Ru, who is invested in getting Kim to open up with her mother. It’s also a very valuable story for LGBTQ youth struggling with coming out to their families, and I really like Bob’s comment about how Kim not being out to her mother is denying her of knowing who Kim really is as a person. There is the very real risk of Kim’s mother pushing her away because of this, but there’s also the possibility that Kim’s mother will accept it, especially if its paired with the national recognition of being a successful reality TV star.

Both Naomi and Chi Chi have strong connections to their mothers, and they nail their second looks, with Naomi showing a very delicate, conservative side of herself while Chi Chi goes loud with a floor-length leopard-print dress. You get a great idea of who these queens’ mothers are and how they relate to them, and there’s a lot of love radiating from the runway when Naomi and Chi Chi are on it. Unlike Derrick, both of these queens are listening to the judges and using those critiques to go further with their drag, and the Book Ball showcases how much they’ve grown in the last few episodes.

Chi Chi and Naomi’s constructed outfits have similar silhouettes to the ensembles they made for the “Wizards Of Drag” challenge, but not so similar that that they look repetitive. The paper also considerably changes the final product, and Chi Chi in particular really steps her game up when working with an unconventional material she already has experience with. Her third outfit is much cleaner and bolder than her past Dorothy dress, and using the paper as an accent around her face is a smart move that shows Chi Chi’s imagination.

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The judges also really enjoy Chi Chi and Naomi’s stories, with Chi Chi getting extra props from David Sedaris for her honest script and charming delivery. They’re two queens that show immense promise, and while I’m convinced that Bob and Kim are making it to the finale, I’m still not sure who is going to seize that third spot. I’ll be happy with either one, though, and the optimism I have at the end of this episode is a very different feeling than what I was experiencing this time last year when Katya was eliminated. This season hasn’t had any of those kinds of glaring bad decisions, which makes me very excited to see if the final episodes will stick the landing after such an impressive run.

Stray observations

  • How many phone calls from moms are we going to get in this week’s Untucked? Chi Chi already got one, so maybe Bob? Although I could see them having Derrick’s mom reconcile with her son on the air.
  • Thorgy’s story with losing her mom would have made this episode really intense for her. I wish we had the chance to see that instead of getting more Derrick, but that was never going to happen so no use wishing for it.
  • I loved everyone hawking their books when Ru introduces the judges’ panel. Amy and David’s books have much more creative titles than Ru, Michelle, and Ross.
  • Bob is playing this game so well. Heartstrings are tugged hard when he breaks down talking about his mother’s chronic pneumonia.
  • What happened to the Shade Tree? Use all the tools presented to you, queens!
  • Baby Drag Realness is so silly but it’s wonderful.
  • Amy and David Sedaris are amazing guest judges and they should be on this show many more times.
  • “For the love of god: don’t forget to tuck your bookworm!”
  • “Oh Chi Chi, you’re still here.”
  • “Jokes jokes jokes jokes jokes jokes!”
  • Chi Chi: “So what are you gonna do when you run out of jokes?” Puppet Bob: “I know what I’ll do: walk into the club purse first BAM! Walk into the club purse first BAM! New York baby!”
    “I never lose a challenge.”
  • “And Derrick has thin…hair.”
  • “Good luck you boozers, losers, and users. And don’t fuck it up!”
  • “I don’t think your make-up is terrible. It just doesn’t look like you have any.”
  • “My name’s Bennett and I’m not in it.” Chi Chi is just adorable.
  • “These are the most octaves I’ve ever heard Naomi speak. You get her excited, girl, she’ll become Mariah Carey, honey.”
  • “When’s dinner?”
  • “I’m seeing tremendous effort and fearlessness. And on the other hand, I’m seeing someone’s dad do drag on stage for the first time.”
  • David: “There are 54,000 words in this.” Ru: “If I could only read!”
  • “It’s mostly pictures. Illiteracy is hilarious!”
  • “And I didn’t get to plug my book: Workin’ It.”
  • Amy: “In depends.” Ru: “She still has poise.”
  • “Seamen lover.”
  • “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?!”
  • “Make me wanna take my rings off!”
  • “She needs to edit the outfit.”
  • “Hope you like short stories.”
  • “She has a spastic semicolon.”
  • “‘Feces’? What’d you say? You hear what you want to hear.”

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