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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars finally lives up to its name with its playful, collegial finale

Illustration for article titled iRuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars/i finally lives up to its name with its playful, collegial finale
Photo: Courtesy of VH1
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Whether due to particularly high expectations, the bad luck of following one of the strongest overall casts in Drag Race herstory, or simple franchise fatigue, much of All Stars season five has been underwhelming. The much-anticipated return of fan favorites Jujubee, Miz Cracker, and Shea Couleé—among others—promised a season of exciting challenges and memorable runways. Instead, All Stars stumbled out of the gate with a mediocre talent show, an utterly forgettable girl group challenge, and that misfire of a hotel hosting challenge. Yvie Oddly returned to kick the Lip-sync Assassin twist off with a bang, but none of the other lip-syncs managed to recapture that energy, with a respectful nod to Roxxxy Andrews and both Thick and Juicy. In what should have been an all-out brawl of a season, most of the performances and runways felt safe, with interpersonal drama carrying the weight to keep viewers engaged. Thankfully, the season picked up some steam in the second half and wound up with a compelling final three in Jujubee, Cracker, and Shea. All three deliver in the finale and their strong performances and camaraderie, along with just enough time with the returning queens, makes for a satisfying finale that at last lives up to name All Stars.

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The episode begins not with the queens reacting to the previous lip-sync or Blair’s elimination, but to their placement in the top three. They process the moment, speculate on that ominous main stage phone call, and celebrate before confirming the vote: Two for Blair, one for Jujubee. After a bit more reflection on their past finale experiences and some delightful banter and silliness—“Titty fight!”—the queens de-drag and get ready for their final challenge. The editors play up their friendly exchanges using slow motion, voice modulation, and epic, dramatic scoring, cross-cut with trash-talking heads. The game is finally on and the top three are ready to battle.

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The next day in the workroom, the eliminated queens are the first to enter. They sneak in, complete with cartoon tip-toe scoring, and hide behind a giant glory hole in the middle of the room. There are some hilarious shots of various queens peeking out through the hole as Cracker, Jujubee, and Shea enter the workroom, take in the wall, and continue to the mirror. They read Blair’s lipstick message and chat about the season so far before quickly pivoting to the glory hole. The hidden queens’ reactions to the top three are great, and the producers get a surprising amount of comedy out of the setup before Ongina tips things by flashing a little tongue. This pushes Shea and Jujubee to push Cracker to go check it out and that sends Blair and the rest of the queens rushing out from behind the wall.

There’s an immediate surge of energy and warmth as the queens greet each other and reconnect. As the surprise wears off though, tension creeps in for the top three as they wonder why the eliminated queens are back. Cue RuPaul, who fills them in. The queens are back for moral support, and a quick reunion to wring some more drama from the various controversies this season. For the final challenge, the top three will be writing and recording original verses to RuPaul’s new song, “Clap Back!” and working with choreographer Todrick Hall to put together a full routine for the song. They’ll also guest on Ru and Michelle’s podcast, What’s The Tee?, walk the runway, and lip-sync not against a Lip-sync Assassin, but each other. Then Ru will determine which queen will win the crown, the $100,000 prize, and join the All Stars Hall Of Fame. It’s a lot, but each of these queens has the charisma and creativity to succeed at this challenge. All finalists are excited and ready to dive in, but before they can, it’s time for some tea.

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Illustration for article titled iRuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars/i finally lives up to its name with its playful, collegial finale
Photo: Courtesy of VH1

The queens head over to the couch and dive right in. Mayhem kicks things off with the season premiere’s Derrick/India conflict, which is at least superficially squashed by India apologizing to Derrick. The conversation then moves to Ongina and Mayhem’s self-elimination votes, and here things get more interesting. Both Ongina and Mayhem stand by their votes, but it’s nice to see the already eliminated queens react to their reasoning. Mariah’s talking heads are terrific, putting a specific face to the remaining queens’ frustrations after Mayhem’s self-vote. She may be in her feelings about it, but Mariah and Mayhem are clearly still good, and Alexis moves the conversation to the drama bomb of the season, India’s claim that Alexis and Mayhem campaigned against Shea.

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This is nothing new to the top six queens, but watching the others find out is delicious. Mayhem in particular is flabbergasted, and not thrilled to have been pulled into it. She backs Alexis completely, who revels in her vindication in the confessionals. India is in trouble, having overplayed her position. She didn’t like Alexis claiming to have voted for Shea purely to save her friends, when she felt Alexis’ vote was driven by wanting to eliminate a top competitor. But India jumbled that into an active campaign against Shea, one which the other queens all concur did not happen. Given the consequences of such an allegation with the more toxic corners of the Drag Race fandom, consequences India should know can linger, watching her squirm as the situation is clarified is incredibly satisfying.

There’s one more twist to all the drama as Shea asks Mayhem why she voted for her, prompting Mayhem to reveal her and India’s premiere deal. The reactions from the queens are great, particularly Derrick, who is in pot-stirring heaven. Shea ends the moment with somewhat of an apology to Alexis and Jujubee commends the queens for speaking their minds and being willing to get into confrontations if needed, rather than holding in resentments. More than a quarter of the way through the finale, the top three have not yet begun their work, but there’s been comedy and drama to spare. Folding in this kind of mini-reunion is one of the best moves of the season, and hopefully a development that will return for future All Stars seasons.

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The top three finally get to work on the challenge and the episode wisely skips right past the writing and recording segments. Instead it cuts right to the main stage, with Jujubee, Cracker, and Shea ready for their dance rehearsal with Todrick Hall, and the rest of the queens along for the ride. Todrick jumps in and immediately Jujubee is in trouble. She’s definitely the weakest dancer. Cracker is following the choreography, but struggling to feel the beat, while Shea is more or less comfortable. Jujubee may not be the best dancer, but she does manage to work a rehearsal miracle: Rather than prompting stern glares, she manages to reduce Todrick to a puddle on the stage, laughing as she asks for help. This is the most good-natured Todrick has been in a dance rehearsal in ages, and it’s all down to Jujubee.

Illustration for article titled iRuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars/i finally lives up to its name with its playful, collegial finale
Photo: Courtesy of VH1
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After some obligatory tension building with Shea—oh no, her rehearsal isn’t going smoothly, will she possibly be ready in time?—the episode moves on to the interview portion. Recent episodes have leaned heavily on Shea’s experience coasting through season nine only to get eliminated in the finale, emphasizing how devastating the loss was for her. Interestingly, while Jujubee has made the finale twice only to be eliminated, this has barely been brought up. Instead, the producers want the audience to focus on how she’s rebuilt her life after deciding to live sober. Her interview with Ru and Michelle centers on this experience, while giving her plenty of time to show off her personality and humor.

Cracker’s interview is more tied to politics, with Cracker connecting to Ru’s passion for drag as a method of healing and bringing people together. The narrative for Cracker has been the same as hers in season 10. Will she be able to get out of her head and live in the moment? That continues here, with Cracker ascribing making the finale to her ability to finally do so. As for Shea, her interview continues this season’s threads. She’s recovering from her previous loss, having found a clearer, more mature view of herself and her work, but she’s not quite there yet. After these conversations, the finale has set up clear win conditions. Jujubee and Cracker have already won by rebuilding their lives and getting out of their heads. Shea needs this win to complete her journey.

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It’s the final day in the workroom and the easy chemistry between the final three is lovely to see. They take a moment to breathe and feel the import of the day, then they’re joined by the rest of the queens, who will be participating in the performance. They bring an air of celebration, rather than tension, to the final workroom preparations. It’s another smart move by the producers and a change that will hopefully stay in upcoming seasons.

On the main stage, Ru heads out in a nice orange and purple dress and bright orange wig, welcoming Todrick and the rest of the judges before sending the episode to the big finale production number. The producers reuse sets from throughout the season, most notably the girl group challenge and Snatch Game Of Love, and while “Clap Back!” isn’t the most interesting track, it’s at least fun and catchy. Jujubee’s verse is up first. She does well overall and her vocals sound good, but she isn’t tasked with particularly challenging choreography. Cracker opts for a rap rather than singing and her lyrics are solid. Her choreography has some cute moments, but like Jujubee’s, it isn’t all that thrilling. She does a skirt reveal into a leotard, but her performance is on par with Jujubee’s. Shea’s section is the clear standout. Her choreography is much more distinct even before she cartwheels from one backup dancer’s neck to another’s. Her vocals are clear and feel rhythmically distinct, and while the performance definitely could be more polished, it’s much more impactful than the others.

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Illustration for article titled iRuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars/i finally lives up to its name with its playful, collegial finale
Photo: Courtesy of VH1

The judges are thrilled and the queens head to the runway. Category is All Star Eleganza. As a final surprise, each of the queens gets to walk the category. With the amount of time and money the cast puts into their runways, it’s great that they all get to show off their finale looks. Derrick is first, in a silver gown and white hair. She looks gorgeous, and it’s neat to see what she can do outside of Britney drag. Ongina is second in a newsprint gown, a play on her season 1 finale look. She looks fabulous, and the trend continues with Mariah, who walks in a two-toned blue petal dress and blue hair. Mayhem saunters down the runway next in a blousy, oversize, tangerine jumpsuit. It’s chic and unexpected, and she looks amazing. India calls back her entrance look with a mint green and nude illusion dress, and Alexis goes full glamour in a black and white striped gown with silver and black accents and red hair. Blair is the last of the eliminated queens, in a pink and silver look, part gown, part armor, and a blonde wig, complete with braided crown.

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The bottom seven queens turned out that runway, making one hell of a final impression. However, Jujubee raises the bar when she walks out. Her finale look is stunning, a tribute to the depictions of the Hindi Buddha she grew up with. She’s in a golden and nude illusion body suit with a bold orange sash and train and a golden headpiece with the sun rising behind it. Next is Cracker, who nods to her Russian and Jewish heritage with her pink dress accented with pearls, her pink headpiece dripping with strings of them. It’s another striking look, and a clearly personal one. Last is Shea, who is a ’60s dream in a massive pink dress, complete with puffed sleeves and gloves, beehive, and a big pink bow. She’s feminine and sweet, and like Jujubee and Cracker, Shea was inspired by her background, in this case her mother’s prom dress. The judges are floored, and rightly so. It may have taken way too long, but the All Stars season five queens left everything on that runway, and did Mama Ru proud.

The judges’ critiques are glowing for all three finalists, as they usually are. Jujubee gets a slight read from Michelle for looking a bit overwhelmed at the start of her “Clap Back!” performance, but otherwise, every note is positive. They love the looks, they shout out season highlights for all three queens, and they celebrate their journeys. No one is looking to make Ru’s job any easier. Jujubee, Cracker, and Shea each thank Ru for giving them the opportunities that have come with Drag Race, and Ru reflects on the impact they and the other queens are having. The queens head off to Untucked, and the judges deliberate, but once again, they’re little help. When the finalists return, Ru asks all three to lip-sync. Three person lip-syncs do not have a good track record on Drag Race, but this time, the queens manage to stay more or less out of each other’s way and they each serve up entertaining performances.

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The final lip-sync song is Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel,” and Jujubee, Cracker, and Shae each take different approaches. Jujubee, in yellow, focuses on face and energy with some floor performance. Cracker, in green, goes for a bit of a stunt, sending glitter out of her cone bra, and she hits a number of spins and twirls. Shea, in blue, has the most dynamic performance, starting out as a robot and getting more animated over the course of the song. This performance is night and day from last episode’s “Fancy,” and ends the competition on a good note. All that’s left is the crowning, and while Ru tries to build suspense, the finale does have a clear winner: Shea Couleé.

Both Cracker and Jujubee have done well this season, and both did well in this finale, but in a performance and dance challenge like this, Shea was always likely to edge them out. She’s a deserving winner and an excellent addition to the All Stars Hall Of Fame. This may not have been the best or most memorable All Stars season, but after that finale, it’s likely to linger fondly in fans’ memories. More than anything, audiences tune in to All Stars for spectacle and truly remarkable performances from their favorite stars. The queens managed it in the end, sending Drag Race into what is likely to be a lengthy hiatus with sparkling crown in place and scepter held high.

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Stray observations

  • Congratulations to Shea for a job well done, both in this finale and over the course of the season. I tend to root for Chicago queens, but Shea is a particular favorite.
  • If Ru hadn’t burned the All Stars tie last season with Monét and Trinity, I’d have been all for a tie here between Shea and Jujubee, if only so their Flava Flav and Eartha Kitt could sashay into the Hall Of Fame together.
  • Jujubee may not have won the crown, but she definitely won the confessionals.
  • There were a lot of great, memorable lines this episode, including Jujubee’s “Surprise, you have herpes!”, Shea naming her inner saboteur, and the queens’ responses to Ru’s initial workroom, “Don’t fuck it up.” Jujubee: “Please fuck it up.” Cracker and Shea: “No, you fuck it up.”
  • I liked the group performance sections of “Clap Back!” much more than I expected to. It’s no “Read U Wrote U” or “Kitty Girl,” but the fun of it builds on repeat viewing and it’s definitely a step up from “Super Queen.”
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