Another week, another performance challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race season 7. Things are starting to get very repetitive with this crop of queens, and I’m beginning to feel some of Violet’s frustration over the glut of performance challenges. But why? This is par for the course with this series. Each season starts with a fashion challenge, then focuses primarily on different aspects of performance. With some exceptions (like last week’s episode), almost every episode devotes time to fashion by having the queens walk the runway, so the challenges work out the performance muscles that some queens haven’t tapped into, but need to have if they want to be America’s Next Drag Superstar. So what’s making this season feel different? I’m going to answer that question with a question:

Where the hell is Snatch Game?

The celebrity impersonation game show has traditionally landed between episodes four and six for the last five seasons (not including All-Stars), and it’s typically the point where a clear distinction is drawn between the competition front-runners and the queens trying to keep up. Snatch Game typically arrives after a few group challenges, putting all the pressure back on the individual queens to impress RuPaul, and revealing which contestants have the wit and malleability required for a great comic impression. This season really needs that at this point. Some queens thrive on their own, and straight weeks of group challenges prevent them from reaching their full potential. They’re learning how to work with others, a valuable skill when interacting with the larger drag community, but this title is only going to one queen, and I want to see more of what these girls can do solo.

This week’s challenge isn’t Snatch Game, but it does give the queens the opportunity to do impressions as they act out three different versions of the story of “What Happened To Merle Ginsberg?” for “Ru Hollywood Stories.” Each group of three is assigned the viewpoint of Merle Ginsberg, Michelle Visage, or RuPaul, and each queen plays one of the players in the conflict that led to Michelle replacing Merle as Ru’s right hand gal on the judge’s panel. It’s a fun way of tackling one of the big questions of Drag Race history and brings Merle back to play for an episode (I miss you, Merle!), but it’s definitely no Snatch Game.

To start, any queen that gets Merle is immediately at a disadvantage because she doesn’t have a strong personality like RuPaul or Michelle. Katya does best in the role, making Merle the good, naive girl that is beaten into submission by Ginj’s hilariously over-the-top Michelle. Katya doesn’t really capture Merle’s personality because that’s pretty hard to do, but she makes a smart character choice, knows her lines, and has good comic timing. “Smart character choice” is the key there, and while Max makes a bold character choice playing Michelle’s interpretation of Merle as the mustache-twirling villain of a melodrama, it reads very awkwardly on camera.

And then there’s Miss Fame, who uses this challenge to show her vulnerability with a confusing breakdown in the middle of her group’s performance. Her frustration reads as very disingenuous when placed next to the very real anxiety radiating from her costar Jaidynn, and Fame just isn’t good enough a performer to make us believe that she’s in crisis mode right now. It comes across as her very much in her head, trying to control her narrative on this show while finding an excuse for not knowing her lines very well, and she stays in her head when she’s on the runway. When RuPaul asks Fame “How’s your head?” for the second week in a row, the joke completely eludes her and once again Michelle needs to deliver the punchline. Miss Fame isn’t the sharpest knife in the season 7 kitchen, and as Ru tries to tell her that she needs to calm down and listen to others, Fame cuts Ru off so that she can keep talking about how she’s self-sabotaging herself. She’s trying so hard to exude vulnerability when it’s not appropriate that instead she’s actually coming across as extremely self-centered, which is completely against the point of her strategy.

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The queens playing RuPaul don’t do particularly well either, even though they have a much bigger character to work with. While I don’t agree with Katya describing Kennedy’s RuPaul as “the weirdest fucking thing ever,” it is definitely a strange characterization that doesn’t have a strong root in the real RuPaul. Kennedy has a lot of trouble with her line delivery, and she doesn’t land any of the jokes in the script with her stilted performance. Jaidynn has a lot more passion in her portrayal, but she can’t remember her lines and lets this hurdle crush her spirit. Kandy also doesn’t have her lines down and has a very stiff performance, but her major sin is messing up the look with a rough hairline for her wig and the return of her contoured beard. That last one is probably the thing that ends up sending her home, because you cannot give Ru a five o’clock shadow and expect to continue in this competition.

Michelle is the easiest character to play because the queens don’t have any problem exaggerating her personality (and her breasts), and everyone in the Michelle role shantays to safety. Ginj is the clear winner, and while Violet and Pearl struggle to find Michelle’s character beyond the look, they show that they’re getting more comfortable with the performance element of this series. That’s something they’ve both struggled with in the past, and improvement is very attractive to the judges. Although I still fail to see the massive change the judges claim is happening with Pearl. She’s not quite as drowsy as she was earlier in the season, but she’s also not wowing me with her personality and performance. She’s becoming more and more competent, but the judges shouldn’t want competence from America’s Next Drag Superstar. They should want excellence.

While the challenge half of this week’s episode isn’t particularly inspired, the runway half is excellent. Merle is back on the panel, which leads to a lot of digs at Michelle Visage, and superfan Ariana Grande is absolutely delightful in the other guest judge seat. Ariana says that this is the best day of her life (“I’m not lying”), and she is totally engaged in her role as judge, making valid critiques and interacting well with the rest of the panel. The theme for the runway is “Death Becomes Her,” and the queens need to present a look that shows how their drag persona meets her eventual end. As Ginj says, that concept is very open to interpretation, and the best runways looks are cheeky, clever, and tell a relatively simple story.

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Katya is rightfully the winner with her nautical “eaten by shark” look, which features a stuffed animal shark devouring her left leg. It’s one of the funniest ensembles to ever go down the Drag Race runway, and she really sells it with her body language and facial expressions. Ginj offers a more glamorous take on the “killed by animal” theme with a hooded bearskin cape over an elegant black dress, and their interpretations of this idea reflect their different personalities, with Katya going in a sillier, “Tara Reid in Sharknado”-inspired direction while Ginj does clever but classy. They do leagues better than their teammate Kennedy Davenport, who confuses the judges with a look that is part horse, part chicken, and all nonsense. The story of Kennedy’s death involves her getting attacked after a night of hooking, then being thrown into a fire where she crystallizes into a Glamazon. It’s totally absurd and doesn’t read at all from her look, but because she’s part of the winning team, she’s able to slide to safety despite a lackluster performance and runway look.

In terms of awe-inspiring looks, Violet delivers a stunner with her anorexic realness, cinching her 18-inch waist super tight to leave the judges speechless. It’s disturbing but it stands out, and is a lot more impressive than Pearl’s vague, similarly skimpy look, which can be interpreted as death by plastic surgery or death by car accident. The judges are torn on Max’s all-white ensemble, with Ross and Ariana applauding her dedication to her aesthetic while Michelle is getting irritated that Max isn’t listening to them and showing them anything new. She’ll always have gray hair and a white face with a dot on it, and Michelle is getting bored. I am also getting bored, and think that Max needs to be forced outside her comfort zone in order to become a better queen. There will be plenty of time for Max to do her own thing after this show is over, and it’s not inappropriate for the judges to ask for some versatility.

Miss Fame’s “knife through the head” look is very appropriate considering her major flaw in this competition, and while it’s a typically polished look, it does bug me that the knife isn’t straight. Jaidynn’s look also ties in to her major struggle this episode, and the breaking out of prison imagery fits very well with her narrative of not being out to her family. They know she does drag but don’t approve of it, and she fears that she’ll be disowned by her mother and brothers when they find out her true sexual orientation (I doubt they’ll be surprised). This kind of internal pressure can have a big impact on how a person performs, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Jaidynn considerably improves after her revelation this week, plus being forced to lip sync for her life for the very first time.

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Jaidynn faces off against Kandy Ho, whose vampire look falls flat with the judges, and it’s a fantastic lip sync. Ariana Grande’s “Break Free” is one of my favorite pop songs of last year, and it makes for the perfect tune to rouse intense performances out of the two queens. Ariana Grande is having the time of her life watching these queens slay her song, and the two queens just get more and more passionate as they try to outdo each other. But Kandy has been in the bottom three times while Jaidynn is a first-time visitor, so Kandy was doomed from the start. Ru sees the potential in Jaidynn and likely puts her in the bottom as a wake-up call, and I can see it working wonders because she lives up to the “fierce” in her name when she really puts her heart and soul into it. Jaidynn has that spark of talent that could be cultivated into something bigger, and hopefully she starts realizing her potential now that she has a weight off her chest and a fire under her ass.

Now please bring on the Snatch Game.

Stray observations:

  • This week has the obligatory “lots of very fit men standing in their underwear” challenge, which has little connection to drag, but offers plenty to ogle.
  • Miles looks good with a mustache. He could rock that look. (I would have loved for Shawn to make a cameo appearance in the ‘Ru Hollywood Stories’, but his tattoos would be a glaring continuity error.)
  • Ariana Grande doesn’t exactly exude personality as a performer, but her appearance on The Tonight Show a few weeks ago and her enthusiasm on tonight’s episode have revealed a surprising amount of charisma. It’s nice to see her breaking out of her baby Fembot thing.
  • Max’s protestations against vulgar, sexually charged conversations make me think that Max wouldn’t be very fun to hang out with.
  • Violet’s look as Michelle Visage reminds me of Maya Rudolph as Beyoncé. That’s not a bad thing to be reminded of in a comedy challenge.
  • “Every size and color, it’s like Epcot for the thirsty bitches.”
  • “I have no ideas what the rules are of this game. I don’t care what they are. Just when do I get to blow them?”
  • “Pearl, this may be your chance to finally get that necklace.” All the laughing men sound like a studio audience after this joke.
  • “I can almost see her now. So soft. So wise. So blurry!”
  • “Ginger is gonna be the evil villain. Which is perfect, ‘cause she’s playing it like Ginger Minj as Danny DeVito as Tony Soprano as The Fonz as Michelle Visage.”
  • “Who’s gonna play RuPaul?” I’m really liking Ross Matthews on this show. He’s fun!
  • Kandy: “Mother does not play!” Ross: “That.”
  • “I feel like I’m dating you!”
  • Merle: “Ru, my world’s been empty without you.” RuPaul: “Did my restraining order expire?”
  • “She’s bringing bear back.”
  • “Is she a chicken or a horse?”
  • “The last time I’ll eat at Benihana.”
  • “Only Judy can judge me!”
  • “I am so excited! Bodily fluids spraying out of every orifice.”
  • Michelle:“Nobody’s asking her to change. Just try something different.” Ross: “That’s exactly what changing is.”
  • RuPaul: “Would you ever do gray hair?” Ariana: “If it was in a ponytail.”

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