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Illustration for article titled iRuPaul’s Drag Race/i brings DIY charm and surprising polish to its werk-from-home finale
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race
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If Drag Race fans will pardon a lift from another reality favorite, it’s make it work time. Faced with a global pandemic, can Ru and the Drag Race team put on a finale spectacular with no crew, no live audience, and minimal cameras and lights? The producers, crew, and cast of season 12 pulled together an impressive long-distance reunion, but the challenges of a remote reunion are entirely different than those of a lip-sync extravaganza. Like the reunion, however, the finale gets a leg up thanks to a few smart production choices. Expectations are high for this finale, but the queens are unfazed, and all three finalists ultimately rise to the challenge.

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The finale begins with Michelle announcing each of the season 12 queens, who take to their rooftops, backyards, and living rooms to model their finale looks and make one last impression. Everyone looks great, but Jan’s Edward Scissorhands look is particularly memorable and Aidan’s Queen of Hearts ensemble represents biggest jump in polish from entrance to finale looks. Crystal is the first finalist introduced, and she’s thought inside the box for her finale look, dressing as a piñata. Gigi puts a spin on her premiere helmets with a Madonna-style cone bra and helmeted up-do. Last is Jaida, whose look is space-themed, with giant puffed cosmic sleeves, a black skirt, and plenty of stars orbiting her.

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The same cannot be said of Ru, who sticks with a black and silver facekini, black cape, and black hat for his ensemble. It’s a disappointing look, but one that is at least more striking than his reunion hoodie. Ru kicks the episode off by thanking the production crew and explaining the format: the queens will tackle a group close-up battle and individual lip-syncs as a preliminary round, with Ru eliminating one queen before the top two compete side-by-side for the crown. It’s a straight-forward enough structure, and one that should allow for plenty of new content to go with the filler that can easily bog down a finale. Ru introduces the judges, who banter a bit and make some solid quarantine jokes, and then throws to a video of celebrity well-wishers. It’s self-indulgent, sure, but why not? Season 12 has earned a few kind words.

After a quick message from Whoopi Goldberg, the finale interviews get under way. Crystal is up first, wearing an unusual pink ensemble–part body suit, part ruffles—and a bright pink face. While her asymmetrical eye make-up is distracting, going with such vibrant colors should help with the close-up lip-sync. She never gets far enough back from the camera to allow a clear glimpse at this look, but it’s distinctly her. Their conversation is charming and comfortable, with Crystal’s parents and her abuela dropping in for a few words of encouragement. Crystal makes the case for her distinct, boundary-pushing style of drag and Ru transitions out of the segment with a thank you video for essential workers, featuring the queens of season 12.

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Gigi’s position as the reference queen of the season remains intact when she pops up for her interview. She’s copied Ru’s look from MTV’s Spring Break 1993, down to the details. It’s a cute nod to Ru and as with Crystal, it’s a look that should help Gigi in the close-up lip-sync. After commenting on her confidence and asking about her childhood, Ru plays a message from Gigi’s mom. She’s called in to thank Ru and wish Gigi well in the finale, and she’s just as warm as Gigi’s frequent references to her this season indicated. Gigi’s relationship with her father has been more fraught, and that’s the theme of Gigi’s message to young Samuel. Her confidence pops back up, though, as she teases her individual lip-sync set design and makes her own pitch for why she deserves the crown.

Illustration for article titled iRuPaul’s Drag Race/i brings DIY charm and surprising polish to its werk-from-home finale
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race
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For Jaida’s interview and close-up lip-sync ensemble, she chooses a look RuPaul immediately connects to one of his favorites: Diana Ross. Jaida looks great in animal print with big hair and gold accents, her face beat, as always. Ru asks about Jaida’s experience growing up in a rough part of Milwaukee and her family’s reaction to her work on Drag Race. Her brother and father have both sent in videos, encouraging her and celebrating her accomplishments. Her father even invokes her grandmother, which leads to a touching moment as Jaida describes how her relationship with her grandmother has informed her drag. Crystal, Gigi, and Jaida each do well in the interview portion of the finale, but Jaida in particular nails it, bringing a mix of vulnerability and strength to the conversation that Ru appreciates.

Before the lip-syncs get underway, the finale takes a moment for a quick PSA from Heidi about hand washing and social distancing. This is absolute filler—waiting until the half-way point to hold the first of five lip-syncs is a Tati-style Choice—but it’s hard to begrudge the show just a bit more time with Heidi. The lip-syncs finally begin with the close-up round, as the queens lip-sync to Ru’s new single, “Bring Back My Girls.” Crystal is the most effective at using her horizontal space and drawing attention with some head turns, but Gigi and Jaida are a bit clearer with their mouthing of the words. Gigi serves face well and is particularly effective with her eyes, while Jaida wisely encroaches on the camera for a zoom effect at various points, playing with depth. All three queens do well, but Gigi and Jaida have a slight edge over Crystal.

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After the close-up battle, Ru takes a moment to celebrate Jacqueline Wilson, a longtime producer on the show who died shortly after filming wrapped for season 12. The segment features moving tributes from queens from across the run of Drag Race, including many of the show’s biggest stars. It’s a lovely inclusion, sincere and heart-felt. This is followed by a video on one of Ru’s favorite topics, voting. Filmed in the style of Madonna’s 1990 Rock the Vote video and starring the season 12 queens, it’s cheesy and fun, and just earnest enough to get its point across.

The second round of the lip-sync battle is next. Crystal chooses Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like A Bird,” and goes all in, playing a blue bird singing first to an egg, then a chick. It’s completely unexpected, but also very on brand for Crystal. She puts her made-up head through an opening in a sky backdrop, operating a puppet as the lower half of her bird body. Crystal emotes through her face, flutters her wings, and adds some delightfully bird-like head motions, giving a performance that’s cute and wholesome, and a good match with the song. While Michelle may not have appreciated Crystal’s Momma bird regurgitating food to her baby bird, it’s exactly the kind of moment one expects from Crystal. Unfortunately the performance is a bit repetitive after a while, but then again, so is the song.

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Illustration for article titled iRuPaul’s Drag Race/i brings DIY charm and surprising polish to its werk-from-home finale
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race

For her solo lip-sync, Gigi goes full ’80s with A-ha’s “Take On Me.” It’s bold to choose one of the most iconic music videos of all time, but that’s Gigi, isn’t it? After Crystal’s colorful and textured approach, Gigi’s pristine black and white backdrop and look feels cold, but Gigi wipes away any doubts about her performance when she pops from her white with black text look into its reverse, helping her stand out from her background. She also incorporates a well-timed prop in the middle, adding depth and some movement to her performance. Whereas Crystal’s performance hits a wall, Gigi’s starts a bit slow then gains momentum.

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Jaida is last, with Ciara’s “Get Up.” Rather than disguising her home like Crystal and Gigi, Jaida embraces the restriction, using it as a set. She makes full use of the space, dancing her way through the song. Jaida also makes more distinct use of editing and video effects, playing with lighting and filters. Hers feels the most like a traditional music video, and achieving that in such a limited space and under the circumstances gives her performance a very different feel to the others. It’s going to be tricky to judge these lip-syncs. They are completely distinct and they capture the strengths and personality of each queen.

It’s a bit irritating, though not surprising, when after the judges’ comments, Ru decides not to eliminate anyone. At this point, Gigi and Jaida have snuck out ahead of Crystal. Ru is very fond of Crystal and she’s a talented, worthy queen, but putting a third queen through to the final lip-sync didn’t work well for season 10 and it’s unlikely to be a good move here, when the queens will already be at a disadvantage, unable to move as they would on stage. But this is Ru’s show, so all three queens make it through to the final round.

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Viewers will need to wait, though, as the action stalls yet again for a bit with season 11’s Miss Congeniality, Nina West. It’s nice to see Nina back, and with the iconic Dolly Parton no less, but given where it’s placed in the episode, the sketch goes on too long. Nina eventually pops into the reunion episode to announce season 12’s Miss Congeniality, Heidi. There’s little suspense, but it’s gratifying nonetheless to see Heidi recognized by her fellow queens. On top of the $10,000 prize for Heidi, Nina announces that the sponsors for this segment, Pantene Nutrient Blends, are also giving each of the season 12 queens a $2,000 tip. It’s nothing like the bank they’d be making if they could tour right now, but it’s something, and they’ll take it.

Illustration for article titled iRuPaul’s Drag Race/i brings DIY charm and surprising polish to its werk-from-home finale
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race
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There’s just time for one more video package, starring season 11 winner Yvie Oddly, who speaks about her experiences as the reigning champion and wishes her successor well. And with that, it’s time for the final lip-sync. To limit variables, and help out the editors, all three queens were sent identical packages and instructions on how to set up their final lip-sync stage. It’s another smart production move from the Drag Race team. Crystal, Gigi, and Jaida assume the position, Crystal in a brightly colored green, orange, and purple look, Gigi matching her “Take On Me” palate with a grey and white dress and dark hair, and Jaida in a vibrant orange cloak that screams reveal.

The final song is Destiny Child’s “Survivor,” a fun choice that should give the queens plenty to play with. As is expected, all three queens do well, but comparatively, Crystal lags behind. She ends up twirling quite a bit and her movements lack the impact of Gigi’s more stationary approach and Jaida’s dance moves. Gigi takes advantage of the limited space, focusing on acting the song and playing up a sarcastic read of the lyrics. There’s a jarring cut in the song and she matches an outfit reveal to this, tearing away her sleeves and boots and flipping her dress to reveal Dorothy drag. It’s effective, changing to color from black and white not only to evoke The Wizard of Oz but to heighten her look without needing a different silhouette. Jaida’s reveal is far less interesting, but her final look is terrific, and a good match for the song. She’s by far the most hampered of the three by the space limitations, her split much less impactful than it would be in person and her other moves constrained significantly by the dimensions of the space and the decorations. To this eye, Gigi won the lip-sync, but Jaida would have in the usual venue.

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In the end, however, it’s all down to RuPaul, and in a welcome surprise, there’s no equivocation and no tie. The winner is Jaida Essence Hall! All three queens were deserving, and this is one of the rare seasons where any of the finalists winning would have been a satisfying and compelling conclusion. However, given Jaida’s consistency and the show’s tendency to overlook pageant queens, it does put a particular smile on this viewer’s face to see her crowned. There’s a quick montage of reactions, spliced into memorable crowd shots from other recent finales, and the season is over.

It’s been a real pleasure to follow Drag Race this season, and not just for the welcome distraction it’s provided during a challenging time. The production team has handled a lot very well, and the queens have come through with personality, talent, and humor. Season 12 will cast quite a shadow. Perhaps it’s a good thing we’ll have to wait for season 13. For now, bring on All Stars 5.

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Stray observations

  • For more with the queens of season 12, check out The A.V. Club’s interviews with the queens, all in their finale looks.
  • Speaking of finale looks, Jan’s was great regardless, but she gets extra points for incorporating a face mask in her look.
  • While I was initially disappointed with it, I was surprised how quickly I acclimatized to Ru’s look. Wearing all black, so as not to draw the eye and to keep the attention on the queens, worked well. Also, Ru’s interview look, the all-black facekini in the purple eyeball cutout, gives a very Scorpius feel and I’ve decided to believe it’s an intentional Farscape reference.
  • If this is what Crystal Methyd and Gigi Goode can pull off in their homes during quarantine, just imagine what they’ll be doing in a few years, should they opt to return for All Stars.
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