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RuPaul’s Drag Race bounces back with style, silliness, and some shade

Illustration for article titled RuPaul’s Drag Race bounces back with style, silliness, and some shade
Photo: RuPaul’s Drag Race (VH1)
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Improv challenges are hit-or-miss on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Editing can do a lot to spruce up a middling dance routine and goodness knows Auto-Tune has saved many a Ru girl during the recording challenges. There’s not much to be done with comedy challenges, though. Either the queens thrive, power through, or bomb, and where a performance falls between these categories can be highly subjective. The queens do well in their maxi challenge, but for the second episode in a row, the judging feels arbitrary, making for a dissatisfying viewing experience. If the producers and editors aren’t careful, the frustrations of the perennially safe queens may spill over to the audience, souring what’s becoming a strong season.

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The episode begins with Kandy and the other queens reacting to Tamisha’s elimination and Olivia’s win. Kandy has heard the judges and is focused on taking their critiques, while Olivia, Tina, and Elliott bask in finally getting some positive feedback. Elliott also feels uneasy about twice being partnered with queens who went home, which the other queens jump on, citing “The Double-T curse.” Instead of taking the playful jab in stride, it sticks with her. She feels like an outsider among the cast—more on this in the strays—and her isolation during this stressful experience is wearing on her.

The next day, the queens return to the workroom and talk nightmares and eliminations until RuPaul enters, rocking a simple all-black ensemble. He’s perhaps dressed to blend with the shade about to rain down, as for the mini challenge, the library is open. That’s right, it’s time for the reading challenge and the queens are eager to share the zingers they’ve been cooking up. As is usually the case, the results are a mixed bag, but the season 13 queens are definitely above average. Denali’s multi-queen read of Olivia, Utica, and Mik is an early favorite, Mik surprises with his timing and quick retorts, and Symone gets some good licks in as well. Elliott is the only queen to completely stumble, though Rosé’s charming, befuddled reactions do a lot to glaze over the queens’ biggest misfires. In the end, Ru declares Mik the winner, awarding him a $2500 gift card from ISLYNYC.

For the maxi challenge, the queens will need to prove their comedy chops. The Bossy Rossy Show has been Ru-booted as Bossy Rossy After Dark, a trashy late-night talk show. The queens will be teamed up randomly by Ru, improvising their way through one of four scenes. They won’t have scripts, but they’ll need to prepare for the scenario, nailing down a flexible structure for what they want to do. Rosé, LaLa, and Denali will be appearing in the segment, “I’m pregnant with my imaginary boyfriend’s baby.” Gottmik, Utica, and Olivia get, “Breaking my silence: Escape from the cult of Mimeology.” Symone and Kandy are former teen reality stars, reunited for a “Where are they now?” segment, and Tina and Elliott have perhaps the most out there scene, “My best friend’s 600 pound ass is killing our friendship.” These are not the teams the queens would necessarily have picked, but with some imagination, there should be plenty in these setups for everyone to build on.

Illustration for article titled RuPaul’s Drag Race bounces back with style, silliness, and some shade
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race

There’s a range of improv experience among the queens, and in each group. Tina, Utica, and Rosé are all very comfortable with improv, while Elliott, Mik, Olivia, Denali, and LaLa are new to it. Kandy and Symone excelled in the acting challenge so in theory they should be alright, but Symone is skeptical of some of Kandy’s choices, including what may be an over-correction to her energy based on the judges’ recent critiques. Most of the planning seems harmonious, with only Utica and Olivia fighting over their sketch’s flashy mime role. Utica eventually relents, and everyone gets to work.

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The episode cuts right to filming. Ross Mathews is back as Bossy Rossy, now staging a comeback by filming his show at night in his backyard. The producers set up a feed to the workroom so that the other queens can watch each sketch, using their reactions to underscore who’s doing well and who’s floundering. Rosé, Delani, and LaLa are up first. Rosé is playing a woman claiming to be pregnant by her imaginary boyfriend, Jared. Denali is Rosé’s mom, who’s also pregnant by Jared, and LaLa is a therapist Ross hopes can bring them back together who is also, that’s right, pregnant by Jared. Rosé does a terrific job, giving plenty of specificity to her character and playing well off of the non-existent Jared. Denali comes out next and builds on this, complementing Rosé well. The energy dips with LaLa, who is the weakest of the three, but the sketch as a whole works. The improv challenge is off to a strong start.

Mik, Olivia, and Utica are second. Mik is Gloria Allpink, a former mime who’s escaped the cult of Mimeology and written a book about her experience. Olivia is a recent escapee who still has yet to speak, and Utica is Olivia’s overbearing mother. Mik does a great job getting things started, going for a very focused character. Olivia is much more playful when she comes out, taking advantage of not having to speak and giving appropriately outsized physical responses, which Mik must quickly translate. They work well together and Olivia also gets a strong assist from the score—she does a great job, but the segment would play very differently with no soundtrack beneath it. Everything is going swimmingly until Utica comes out as Olivia’s mom. There’s a clear through-line to the first two characters and while Utica’s motor-mouthed mom explains why Olivia was drawn to Mimeology in the first place, tonally, she’s in a different sketch. Utica is pretty connected to Olivia and Mik, and it’s great seeing her in such a different look, but she’s one step too far from the central conceit of the sketch.

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Illustration for article titled RuPaul’s Drag Race bounces back with style, silliness, and some shade
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race

Kandy and Symone are up third, as former teen reality stars. Kandy plays things down as Tiffany, reacting much more subtly to digs from Ross than Kandy would. It is a welcome change of pace for her, but after the previous two sketches, her low-energy approach reads flat. Symone steps things up as Lil’ Deb-Deb Deborah, bringing some props and throwing shade at Kandy. The sketch picks up quite a bit with Symone, ending stronger than it started, but to this viewer, it’s the least successful of the three so far.

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Last are Tina and Elliott, with Tina as a retired rocket scientist with massive butt implants and Elliott as her former best friend from NASA. Tina comes in hot, going ridiculously broad. It works, but isn’t as interesting as either Rosé or Mik’s more pointed starts to their sketches. Elliott’s fuddy-duddy lowers the energy temporarily, but then everything turns when Elliott reveals that she’s gotten massive breast implants and they start slapping each other, then making out for no reason. It’s ridiculous and silly, and both Tina and Elliott are game. Compared with the other groups, though, their sketch is scattered and unfocused. Elliott is the weaker performer of the two and is likely in danger along with LaLa and Utica, and arguably Kandy.

The next day, the queens dance back into the workroom, excited to prepare for the runway. Symone is worried about her sketch and ties her anxiety over the looming critiques to growing up as a people-pleaser. He shares that when he was a kid, his brother committed armed robbery and went to jail and it had a profound effect on his mom and on Symone. He puts tremendous pressure on himself not to disappoint anyone, and the weight of those expectations must be crushing.

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Illustration for article titled RuPaul’s Drag Race bounces back with style, silliness, and some shade
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race

The episode draws a thread between Symone and Elliott’s continuing search for the approval of his peers. Tina talks with Elliott about the disconnect between himself and the other queens, and Elliott shares that he deals with significant clinical depression, and has since he was 13. He overcompensates for this by trying to be up and high-energy with everyone, but it’s reading as false. Tina has experience with depression—his mother struggles with depression and without her pills, he says she’s a completely different person—and they’re able to connect in a meaningful way around this issue. Tina advises Elliott to let down his guard a little, and that if he lets the other queens see the person Elliott is showing him right now, they’ll connect.

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Meanwhile, the queens at the mirror list some of their favorite talk shows and LaLa’s love for Maury devolves into a whole bit, with Kandy as Maury, LaLa as a baby mama trying to get off camera, and Mik and Elliott as the intrepid cameraman and boom operator determined to keep LaLa in frame. It’s hilarious. Where was this energy from LaLa during the challenge? At the main stage, Ru walks out in another fabulous sequined gown, red this time with bright blonde hair. Michelle again looks great in a white dress with some texture and sleek hair, Ross is in a patterned suit, and guest judge TS Madison looks terrific, with a sparkly top, massive jewelry, and a beautifully beat face.

Category is: Bead It. Denali is out first and she looks lovely as a chandelier. The look has shape, movement, and texture, and she’s clearly living for it. Rosé goes for a very different kind of bead, with a colorful plastic bead dress that’s youthful and fun. She’s taken Ru’s “don’t be perfect” advice to heart, going bolder with her makeup and pairing her playful look with a Tinkerbell bun. LaLa is the first queen to channel Mardi Gras, with strings of gold, purple, and green beads forming a two-piece dance outfit she’s paired with a fabulous, giant black wig. The look has movement and personality and she’s ready to celebrate. Gottmik goes a different way with a red latex ensemble. Her dress is ’60s mod inspired, though that design always screams Dalek to this Whovian, and instead of a wig, she has a massive anal bead-shaped headpiece.

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Illustration for article titled RuPaul’s Drag Race bounces back with style, silliness, and some shade
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race

From one extreme to another, Olivia comes out as a young girl with a painted overall mini dress atop a lilac turtleneck and what appears to be Kandy’s wig from “The Bag Ball,” or at least one that’s very similar. She looks cute, and the beaded jump rope is a great choice, but it’s not as memorable as the others’. Utica is much bolder in a strappy bridal look with a red cut-out body suit underneath and red accents in the tulle skirt. She’s a beaded, bloody bride, dripping in pearls. Kandy is next, wearing a fabulous burlesque look and fur wrap, showing off her body and positively dripping with beads from her oversized hat to the strings swaying all the way down to the floor. She looks fantastic, as does Symone, who’s in an African-inspired look. Her black, green, yellow, white, and red beaded collar and breastplate and bikini is made entirely of hair beads. She looks great, and the reveal of her name spelled out in beads in her hair is the final flourish.

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Tina finally diverts from her red, orange, and yellow aesthetic for this runway, but unfortunately has her biggest misstep yet with the category’s second Mardi Gras look. It’s part clown, part burlesque, but the reveal of the tear-away beaded belt and pants does little to improve the look and actually hurts her proportions. The removal of the beaded bra cups is fun, but again, it doesn’t add much. Elliott closes out the runway on a higher note, thankfully, in a flapper-inspired Mardi Gras look. It’s much more memorable than her little black dress from last episode and one of her best looks all season. After the runway, Ru gets right down to results. She asks Tina, Mik, Denali, and Rosé to step forward—wait, four tops?, they and viewers may be thinking—then sends them off to Untucked, safe. There aren’t any Jan-level face cracks, but Tina, Rosé, and Denali are all thrown. Instead, it’s Olivia, Kandy, and Symone who are in the top and LaLa, Utica, and Elliott who are in the bottom.

LaLa is complimented on her runway, though Michelle clocks a tear in her garment, but the judges read her for not matching Rosé and Denali’s energy in their sketch. The judges loved Olivia’s mime and they liked her different take on the runway. As for Utica, the judges appreciate her look, but were underwhelmed by her improv. Kandy’s low-key gamble may not have worked for this viewer, but the judges ate it up, and they love her look. Symone also gets lots of love from the judges for her look and Ross in particular mentions how in the moment she was for the challenge, listening and responding. Last is Elliott, and again, the judges praise her runway. The queens really did deliver on the looks this episode. Unfortunately, they didn’t like her improv, noting the lack of specificity to her character.

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Illustration for article titled RuPaul’s Drag Race bounces back with style, silliness, and some shade
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race

After deliberations, Ru gives the win to Olivia, along with the $5000 tip, and declares Kandy and Symone safe. Utica evades lip-syncing once again, and that puts two of the season’s best dancers up against each other for elimination, LaLa and Elliott. LaLa has already shown exactly what she can do, but Elliott is determined to make her fight. The song is Kelly Clarkson’s “Whole Lotta Woman” and both LaLa and Elliott turn it out. LaLa’s fabulous hair gets in her way at times—she’s doing a lot with her face, but it’s sometimes hard to see—and Elliott does pull out some impressive splits, but the moment Elliott wins the lip-sync is when she points to LaLa and stares down the judges at, “Ain’t no competition.” This is no Denali over Kahmora, Ru has to think a bit, but she tells Elliott to shantay, sending LaLa home.

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LaLa struggled this season, landing in the bottom for three of her six episodes, but she’ll be hugely missed regardless, thanks to her fantastic talking heads and her energy in the workroom. She’s one hell of a performer and did enough in her three lip-syncs for this viewer to consider her prime lip-sync assassin material. Hopefully she’ll be back for another go before too long. As for the safe queens, they’ll start getting feedback one way or the other soon, as the numbers continue to dwindle, and perhaps at that point, the judging will feel a bit more cohesive.

Stray observations

  • For those who don’t follow Drag Race queens on social media, Kandy has alleged recently that during filming, Elliott used a number of microaggressions when talking with the queens of color. Kandy also hinted at transphobic comments from Elliott, but said she wouldn’t elaborate, as she didn’t feel it was her place. Fans watching this episode with that context will have a completely different take on Elliott than those only tuning in to VH1.
  • The judges try to play that Olivia’s role was a big risk, but the over-the-top mime character? That’s clearly a show-stealer. You have to deliver, but of the three characters in that sketch, it’s far and away the showiest, and that’s what always wins challenges on Drag Race. That being said, Olivia took that role and ran with it, against the wind. Before stopping for ice cream.
  • That baseball metaphor slipping through Ross’s fingers was hilarious.
  • I’m not familiar with TS Madison, beyond her reaction to Silky’s Snatch Game performance of her, but she was another terrific guest judge in a season full of them.
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