Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars

In the season premiere, RuPaul promised twists on twists in All Stars 4 and while the first—the heavily promoted return of Latrice Royale and Manila Luzon—hardly qualified, the season’s second surprise is genuinely intriguing. In a welcome break from the Drag Race routine, Ru reveals that the top eight queens will not be participating in a traditional Snatch Game, but instead the re-vamped Snatch Game of Love, a Drag Race take on the ‘60s game show The Dating Game. The queens will be broken into two sets of four, each set competing for the affections of one of the episode’s guest judges, Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy and actor and musician Keiynan Lonsdale. Snatch Game is a fan favorite challenge and it always separates the wheat from the chaff, requiring preparation, creativity, and quick thinking from the queens. It’s a blast when it goes well and a disaster when it doesn’t, and either way, it’s reliably entertaining. However much like the Reading Is Fundamental challenge, heightened scrutiny and expectations have led to a certain amount of diminishing returns and shaking up the formula, particularly for these returning queens, is a smart move.

Several of the queens this season have notable pasts with Snatch Game. Manila, Trinity, and Valentina acquitted themselves well, though not particularly memorably, but Monét was fantastic in her season as Maya Angelou and Latrice, Naomi, Gia, and Monique have a lot to prove. Gia and Monique got eliminated after their first go-rounds, Naomi was up for elimination, and Latrice struggled (to put it mildly) during the disaster that was the season four Snatch Game. It’s interesting to see who are eager for the opportunity to redeem their past performances, who have learned from their previous performances and come in prepared, and who are shockingly under-prepared.

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Monét is very aware of how hard it will be for her to recapture Snatch Game magic, and perhaps that nervousness feeds into some of her more questionable choices. Her look for Whitney Houston is great and she has some of Whitney’s rhythms down, but the decision to play her as increasingly sweaty is foolish. It fits the character, but can easily go wrong; at best it’s a fun gag, at worst it highlights her failure and reads as flop sweat. She never nails down a specific character and, at least in the clips chosen for the episode, lists facts more than embodying and finding humor in Whitney’s diva persona. Valentina has the same trouble. She clearly knows Eartha Kitt and does a terrific vocal impression, but isn’t able to turn that into anything funny. She’s trying and she gives herself much more to work with than she did in her season’s Snatch Game, but nothing lands.

Much more successful are Monét and Valentina’s partners in the first Snatch Game of Love, Naomi and Trinity. Naomi has done very well so far this season and is making a strong case for herself as a final four contender. She nails Wendy Williams here, look, voice, and performance, and plays well off of the other queens. She finds her moments and takes full advantage, down to her end-of-sketch pratfall, which sends her offstage with the audience laughing and engaged. The clear winner of the round, however, is Trinity, who is fully in character throughout, her Caitlyn Jenner acting as an elder stateswoman, keeping the whippersnappers in line and re-energizing the room after some of the panel’s less successful volleys. Trinity has come a long way since her early, tentative steps into comedy and her in-character jabs at Valentina and Monét work well to keep things moving. It’s a shame she wasn’t in the second group though, because oof, did they need help.

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Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars

Monique delivers a serviceable and fun Tiffany Haddish and Manila’s Barbra Streisand is the closest the second group comes to a confident, clear winner, thanks to her ability to stay in character and her attempts to right the ship (a role more suited to Haddish than Streisand, but one Monique chose not to take on). It’s hard to say too much about Latrice’s Della Reese because she’s derailed almost immediately by Gia and while she tries initially to stay in character and adjust, she quickly gets fed up and loses all ability to play, shutting down just as she did in season four. She should know by now that Ru and the producers are not going to intervene and she needs to power through, but for whatever reason, once she’s out of character, Latrice isn’t able to recover. Which takes us to Gia.

Yes, Gia came to All Stars expecting to do Caitlyn Jenner for Snatch Game, but not prepping a backup character is pure hubris. Jenny Bui is an interesting pivot and an absolutely workable choice for Snatch Game, but Gia stops her (granted, last-minute) preparation at the accent. There’s doubtless plenty of footage on the cutting room floor, but Gia doesn’t mention nail art or bling once in the clips shown, and Jenny Bui is the Queen of Bling, known for using Swarovski crystals. She’s survived terrible tragedy and strife and built a successful business from the ground up. Latrice may have dropped character, but Gia never went into character in the first place; all her awkward, momentum-stalling answers and interruptions are ill-considered “jokes” Gia would tell (and has, in previous episodes).

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Both this episode and Gia’s season seven Snatch Game appearance have shown that while she absolutely has other talents and can serve fierce, flawless runway looks, she is not funny, at least not in this context. Not only that, but when she struggles, Gia’s instinct is to lash out at others, playing on their insecurities and drawing attention to their potential weaknesses in an attempt to save herself. Snatch Game is the hardest challenge Drag Race has; plenty of amazing queens have a hard time with it. Gia shouldn’t feel bad about struggling at this difficult challenge, but what she should consider evaluating is her instinct to attack and her confidence that she could play Bui without any meaningful prep.

Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars

It’s clear after the Snatch Game of Love that Gia will be in the bottom and deserves to go home; it’s less clear whether that will happen. Ru and the judges heap praise on Trinity, Manila, and Naomi (though they don’t love her Boots the House Down look), declare a relieved Monét and annoyed Monique to be safe, and save Latrice from potential elimination perhaps out of pity for having to deal with Gia. That leaves Valentina and Gia. The judges are surprisingly kind to everyone on the bottom and guest judge Gus Kenworthy makes sure to mention how meaningful Gia’s place on the show is, as a trans woman competing for the All Stars crown. Michelle’s comments about Jenny Bui will hopefully inspire viewers to look her up—her story really is incredible—and there’s a strong sense that the judges know these queens are better than they showed themselves to be.

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That thread continues when the queens retire to deliberate, Trinity and Manila tasked with eliminating either Gia or Valentina. Given how much of a foregone conclusion this elimination should be, the queens (and producers) wring a substantial amount of drama out of the process. Manila’s strategic thinking comes across as wily rather than vindictive, underlined by the queens celebrating Valentina’s lip sync performance at the top of the episode, and the shift in Valentina when Trinity tells her Manila may send her packing is palpable and incredibly entertaining to watch. She works that empty cocktail glass and straw for all its worth, giving plenty of gif-able reaction shots, and the stage is set for a battle royale should Trinity, Manila, and Valentina wind up in the finale. Most importantly, however, Gia has a breakthrough moment talking with Manila, counterbalancing (though not erasing) her bad behavior by giving viewers a glimpse at what may be fueling some of it. Her discussion of drag as not only her passion and chosen art form, but a tangled mess of emotions rings true, as does her baggage associated with the show.

Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars

In the end, Manila wins the lip sync (Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know”), as the Gods of Suspense dictate she must, and she sends Gia home. It was definitely her time to go, but Gia’s last conversation with Manila will hit home with members of the audience. She’s far from redeemed for her behavior towards Farrah, but it’s nice to know there’s some level of awareness and reflection within Gia. The Gia of that conversation is completely different from the unrepentant pot-stirrer of the rest of the season; it’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of her.

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Stray observations

  • I am not particularly familiar with Caitlyn Jenner, so I can’t speak to Trinity’s impersonation. As a general presence on the panel, she was excellent. Sound off in the comments with your thoughts on her performance as Caitlyn specifically.
  • Gus Kenworthy and Keiynan Lonsdale join Jenifer Lewis as fantastic guest judges this season (though Jenifer still takes the cake). They were game and fun, and both clearly having a wonderful time. Add them to the list of hopeful future returnees.
  • Splitting Snatch Game into two shorter segments with four queens each worked really well. There was less opportunity for queens to get lost in the crowd (for better and worse) and more opportunity for the stronger queens to shine. The Dating Game conceit gave a theme and direction to the questions and allowed for longer answers, as well as more banter with the guest judges. I don’t know that I’d want Drag Race to abandon the Snatch Game format overall, but for All Stars, this works.
  • Trinity and Monét’s reads over each other’s lip sync looks felt lifted directly from the comments. This is the kind of shade Drag Race fans love, and I for one hope we get a Trinity and Monét lip sync showdown soon.
  • Line and delivery of the episode: Monique’s, “And then y’all should go to commercial right there.”
  • Speaking of Monique, her runway look was fantastic! Those boots were definitely my favorite of the night, though I haven’t loved her makeup since the premiere. And Manila, bunny hopping in those heels? Damn.

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