Over its 12 seasons, RuPaul’s Drag Race has honed and solidified its stable of challenges. This lends consistency to the series and is one of its great strengths, but it also makes things a touch predictable, for the contestants as well as the audience. Luckily the producers shake things up for “Choices 2020,” pulling out a political challenge, à la season four’s “Frock The Vote!” and season eight’s “Shady Politics.” Rather than putting on yet another roast, why not marry the skills RuPaul and the producers are looking to test—improv and stand-up—with a topic close to RuPaul’s heart, political engagement? Given the red, white, and blue styling for the season and the omnipresent voter registration plugs, it feels like a natural fit, and one the show will hopefully return to in the future.
The episode begins with an appropriate pairing of material and costuming, as the remaining queens eulogize the dearly departed Jan in their black wedding finery. They also take a moment to celebrate Heidi, who is on cloud nine after her win, and for Gigi to reflect on her poor showing. She’s shaken by the judges’ critiques and far less confident of her position. High off of their strong showings, Heidi and Crystal come skipping into the workroom the next day, ready to take on the top seven. There’s just enough time for some shade from Sherry before Ru comes in to announce the mini challenge. The queens will be getting into quick cat drag to hawk PrettyLitter, a brand of color-changing health monitoring kitty litter. As has been the case all season, the queens impress with their quick drag. They’re surprisingly polished, for 15 minutes, each with a distinct look and personality. This mini challenge is delightful, funnier and more creative than the entirety of the “World’s Worst” improv challenge, and it shows how much more comfortable everyone has gotten as they’ve settled into the season. The queens are game and they all do well, but Jackie takes the cake with her Eartha Kitt impression and deservedly gets the win.
After a few more puns, Ru adopts a serious demeanor to announce the maxi challenge. In honor of the upcoming 2020 elections, it’s time for a political challenge. The queens will be participating in a debate as they run to be the first drag queen president of the United States. They’re warned not to take themselves too seriously, though, with the debate pitched as comic relief for the hardworking candidates and organizers watching at home. The queens will need to come up with a character, a campaign slogan, and be ready to improv and debate off of prompts from the moderators as well as their fellow queens. This is a chance at redemption for the queens who struggled during Snatch Game, and it will be interesting to see who approaches it this way, versus as a straightforward political or comedic challenge.
Some of the queens seem a bit lost, uncertain how to tackle the challenge. This is the first curveball of the season, the first unexpected challenge where the queens are being asked to come up with their own characters and talking points. Fortunately, Ru returns to the workroom for a quick walk-through, bringing along with Drag Race All Star and fan favorite Raven. They start with Heidi, who has some quality material prepared and throws out more prime slogan material without even realizing it. Ru draws her attention to it, laughing yet exasperated, and to her credit, Heidi quickly scribbles it down. She may not always realize quite what she has, but at least Ru doesn’t have to tell her twice. Next is Gigi, who acknowledges she doesn’t keep up with politics, as it makes her anxious. She’s ready with quips, but could easily struggle to keep her material relevant to the context of the challenge. Gigi’s also in her head about her low placement in the previous episode, and if she doesn’t shake that off, it will impact her performance.
The same is true of Widow, who seems off her game. Raven drags her for her shoes and her mentality, but their good-natured sparring doesn’t stir much out of Widow, who has some ideas, but doesn’t know how to make them funny. Jaida is more confidence-inspiring. She may not have debate experience, but she cites her pageant background and translates this challenge into something she’s more than comfortable with, arguing. She should do just fine. As for Jackie, Ru clocks correctly that she is a close follower of the political scene. She feels at home in this challenge and after her mini challenge win, expectations will be high. Last is Crystal, who talks about her experience living in a very conservative area. Where she lives, just being herself is a political act, and both Ru and Raven encourage her to embrace that rather than trying to come up with belabored puns. There’s a theme to Ru and Raven’s advice: Keep it stupid and silly, play to your strengths, and don’t take yourself or the challenge too seriously. Some of the queens are listening, but several aren’t in the headspace to hear that advice, and will need to loosen up if they’re going to succeed in the debate.
As the queens prepare at the mirrors, they talk about their relationships with politics. Jackie has been personally impacted by Trump’s Muslim ban, and talks about it movingly. Crystal’s parents are active Trump supporters, which comes as a surprise, given how supportive they are of her and her drag. Widow makes a point not to frequent establishments with primarily straight patrons and avoids entire areas of her city because she doesn’t feel safe. Jaida talks about reaching out to her family, being ready with information for them, should they ask. The queens are empathetic toward Gigi, understanding her desire to back away from the anxiety and stress of the current political climate, but the message of the segment is clear. Disengaging is a luxury that the country cannot afford.
On the runway, Ru walks out in a flowing pastel dress and announces that Michelle is away on assignment and won’t be joining the judging panel this episode. There’s a quick cutaway to Michelle (and Dahlia) covering the debate in downtown Tuckahoe, then Ru introduces guest judges Rachel Bloom and Jeff Goldblum, and it’s time for the debate. Bloom and Goldblum moderate the debate, riffing off of the queens and effectively grounding the sketch. Bloom is particularly strong. Her improv background comes through in her performance, whereas Goldblum mostly reacts, bemused, to what the queens throw out. The energy through the debate is playful and snappy, helped by tight editing, and the whole segment is a pleasure to watch.
While the debate is a lot of fun, the queens’ performances run the gamut. Crystal is lighthearted and whimsical, focusing more on drag references than political ones. She does well, a charming presence on the stage if not the most memorable. Heidi goes full Southern belle, playing up her gap and a handful of prepared lines. She also makes a meal of her reactions to the other queens. It’s a wonderfully silly—and effective—approach to the challenge. Widow goes the opposite way, committing fully to the political aspect of her character but losing sight of the comedy. Heidi feints over Widow’s sharp remark to Goldblum and Gigi shows off her strut, but Widow passes up a golden opportunity to rip off her skirt and shablam the house down, too stuck in what her no-nonsense character would do.
One of the season’s most politically informed and improv-adept queens, Jackie should excel in this challenge, but she goes off track early. Playing into her Canadian citizenship, Jackie’s character is a Canadian who keeps slipping up and referencing Canada in her answers instead of the United States. It’s a solid starting point, but it doesn’t build to anything interesting. Instead she hits the same beat over and over, to diminishing returns. Gigi is similarly underwhelming, hampered by her lack of political knowledge. She whiffs an easy prompt about mechanization and jobs and never builds on her early tease that she may be a robot. Jaida may not have the most defined character on the stage, but she is the best at adapting to the needs of the debate. She’s quick on her feet, seizing on the confused laughs she gets with her flailing, “Look over there!” response to a prompt and turning it into a bit, before tying it in to a previous answer. Both Jackie and Gigi would likely have done better with more prep time, but putting the queens on the spot is part of the point of this challenge, and it’s an aspect only a few of the queens successfully contend with.
On the runway, category is: Stars and Stripes Forever. Crystal looks chic in a mismatched blue ensemble with a red, star-spangled hat and jacket. Heidi sparkles in a sequined, Betty Page-inspired look, with thigh-high red boots, a red wig, and a blue, white, and silver mini dress. Widow takes the challenge another way, celebrating black culture with her black and white dress, three oversize silver stars, sparkling hoops, and a sparkly Afro. Sherry is going for a protest-inspired look, but as Ru clocks, it comes off more British punk than American. Jackie makes a statement with a simple, but powerful look, wearing a red striped caftan and blue hijab, decorated with 50 silver stars. It’s a risk to go so minimal on Drag Race, but it pays off here. In her description, Gigi says she’s going for the Quaker Oates mascot, but her gorgeous red velvet military-inspired look reads as a British redcoat. This look is similar to her fabulous entry look, but as that never walked the runway, there’s no harm in going back to the well. Last is Jaida, who comes out as a sexy drag superhero in a sheer blue body suit with strategically placed red, white, and blue accents. It’s impeccable, yet another fantastic look from Jaida, who it should be reiterated makes all of her own garments.
On the whole, the judges are positive towards the queens, commending their debate performances and runway looks. Sherry, Widow, Jackie, and Gigi get some pointers from the judges, with Widow and Jackie getting the harshest critiques. Jackie takes hers in stride; Widow, not so much. She’s at the end of her rope, exhausted and frustrated, and unsure how to dig her way out of her negative mindset. All she can hear is that she’s not enough. After deliberations, Ru declares Sherry, Heidi, and Crystal safe and names Jaida the winner. There’s a brief tease, but Gigi also gets saved, putting Jackie and Widow in the bottom.
Their song is Katy Perry’s “Firework,” and Jackie wisely draws focus from Widow right away by going comedic at the beginning. Widow showed in the previous lip-sync that she is a force to be reckoned with. Had Jackie tried for a straight sing-off, Widow could have blown her out of the water. Instead, while Widow is selling earnestness, Jackie is kooky, getting the judges laughing and interested in her performance. Then she flips a switch at the refrain, pivoting to sincerity and joy. Both Widow and Jackie do well, but Jackie ekes out the win with her motion, energy, and more dynamic performance. It’s not the powerhouse battle that ended “Droop,” but this is a heartening, celebratory lip-sync, one that moves a surprised Goldblum to tears. Both queens are good, but given their trajectories this season, it’s Widow’s time. Ru saves Jackie and sends Widow packing, and she becomes the latest eliminated season 12 queen certain to return and slay in a future All Stars season. She may not have had the season she wanted, but she showed herself well in several of the challenges and owned the talking heads. She’ll be missed. Only five eligible queens remain, and with Sherry and Gigi’s recent missteps, the top four looks more open than ever.
- Tatianna’s “Choices” is one of my favorite Drag Race sound bites, so I was very happy to see it return for the debate.
- With Widow gone, Heidi will likely have the talking heads to herself. Hopefully some of the other queens step up their interstitial game.
- Ru and Raven hand out slogans left and right during the walk-through. “What is the Crystal method?” “Fuck the GOP, get into the g-a-p.” I was surprised not to hear more of these and other slogans during the debate, but it seems likely there was quite a bit of material left on the editing room floor. This wasn’t the queens’ best outing, but it was a lot of fun, and I would love to see an extended version of the debate.
- Rachel Bloom co-created and starred in the brilliant Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. If you enjoyed her here and haven’t checked out Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, do yourself a favor and seek it out. She’s another season 12 guest judge I’d be happy to see return.