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Season 11 is full of entertaining, talented queens. With such a large class, however, it took a while for the episodes to focus in and give a good, close look at the contestants. One or two particularly strong moments were enough to stand out from the crowd. Now, with only a top seven left, each of the queens are getting plenty of time and while they remain engaging, it’s hard not to be disappointed at the overall level of the competition. “Dragracadabra” is a prime example. This is an episode centered around putting on a show, something these queens should be confident with. Yes, there’s magic, but most of the challenge is performing and hosting, with a side of comedy. Regardless of their magic chops, every queen in the top seven of RuPaul’s Drag Race should be able to hold the audience in their hand and sell a bit. Instead, only one queen shines, and a few others skate by. It’s not a good sign for the episodes to come, and portends a disappointing, or heavily produced, final run.

“Dragracadabra” begins as the queens react to Plastique’s elimination. Vanjie is frustrated and at her wit’s end, and understandably so. The judges give nothing but positive feedback about her personality and sense of humor, then they critique her for embodying that in the challenges. Elsewhere, Nina’s a bit hurt that Brooke has not acknowledged the help she got from Nina that put her in the top. This can be a tricky talking head tightrope to walk, expressing disappointment in a teammate without coming across as jealous or bitter. Nina threads the needle, and seeing how this informs her choices moving forward will be interesting. This is a competition, and while helping your teammates is essential in group challenges, Drag Race has never rewarded self-sacrificing queens.

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The next day, Ru heads into the workroom for the mini challenge and quickly summons the Pit Crew, who are trailed by season three alumnus Delta Work. Like many of Drag Race’s blatant product placement mini challenges, this one centers around ogling the Pit Crew in their Dirt Squirrel underwear. The challenge is Balls to the Wall. Each queen is paired up with a Pit Crew member and randomly given two body parts and a type of ball they must balance between them to deposit in a sack across the room (ear-to-ear, face-to-abs, butt-to-butt). The queen who works with their teammate to deposit the most balls in the shortest time will be the winner. Delta is nominally there to be the ball girl, but she mostly serves up reaction shots and personality. The queens are varying levels of distracted and in the zone, two equally entertaining options, and the Pit Crew members seem game. Vanjie does particularly well, getting three balls in, but Silky has the most memorable moment, picking up her Pit Crew member and carrying him, with the ball they need to balance pressed between them, over to the sack. As expected, this mini challenge is absolutely ridiculous and a whole lot of fun.

Ru declares Vanjie the winner, so she is tasked with choosing teams for the maxi challenge. The queens will split into two teams and put on magic shows in front of a live audience. Each queen will need to perform one illusion and participate in a group number, and they’ll also need to build a cohesive act, with dialogue connecting each segment. Vanjie quickly pairs herself with Silky, A’keria, and Yvie, leaving Nina, Brooke, and Shuga on the other team. The queens get right to work, and immediately, Team Vanjie is feeling optimistic, dubbing themselves Da Black Magic. They are Team Personality and they’re confident this will take them to the win. Meanwhile, Team Nina is getting the deer-in-the-headlights edit. As Brooke, Nina, and Shuga each say, they have a tendency to second guess and get in their heads, and if they don’t decide on a path and get going, they won’t be ready in time.

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Before long, Ru returns to the workroom to talk with the two teams. Ru tries to stir up some drama between Brooke and Vanjie, as Vanjie didn’t choose Brooke for her team (much like Brooke didn’t choose Vanjie last episode). This flops utterly, though. Both halves of Branjie have their heads screwed on straight. They’re here to compete, and they’re not going to be distracted by their fledgling relationship. When this doesn’t go anywhere, Ru pivots to discussing how drag and magic intersect, focusing on illusion and transformation, and really hitting the theme of the challenge home. Ru gives such a hard sell that it winds up feeling like over-compensation, trying to justify the challenge. Thankfully, there’s also some discussion with both teams about what pitfalls to avoid. As with “L.A.D.P.!,” the producers’ hands are heavy here. Based on the interviews, Shuga will either win the challenge or be lip-syncing, and the same is true for Vanjie. Time and again, when Ru has talked with the struggling queens, they’ve been aware that they need to step up, but unsure of what to change. The conferences are worthwhile, and seeing that Shuga and Vanjie both know they need to deliver is valuable. But when Ru asks the same question episode after episode, “What are you going to do differently?” and the queens never have a decent answer, it’s time to change up the question.

After more planning time, the queens head to the main stage to learn their magic tricks. Magician Kyle Martlett walks them through each of their illusions, making sure to leave out anything that would tip their hands to the camera. The queens’ reactions are delightful. A’keria and Nina are particularly fun, A’keria left speechless and Nina full of wonder. This part of the episode goes pretty quickly, leaving plenty to be revealed during the magic show itself. Just as with the choreography rehearsals this season, not everything in the magic lesson makes it into the final acts—Brooke swaps out her levitating playing card for something much easier. Most of what viewers are shown does make the cut, though, and this is where the narratives of the episode start to change. The previously confident Da Black Magic are thrown by the polished banter of Team Nina and when they get back to the workroom, Yvie pushes, with Vanjie, to more firmly script their act. A’keria pushes back, wanting to keep things loose. Cracks are showing on Team Vanjie, and if they don’t get on the same page, they’re in trouble.

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The queens enter the workroom on elimination day and immediately, the dynamic shifts that started the night before are confirmed. Team Nina practiced all last night, worked out the kinks, and they’re feeling great. Da Black Magic didn’t pay close enough attention to the brief (to give a PG-13 magic show) and Standards and Practices made them rewrite their entire act, as it was too raunchy to air on VH1. A’keria is clearly thrown and the queens have a hard time focusing on anything else, even their oh-so-produced magic-themed banter. Shuga and Vanjie do have good answers for how they’d use magic to help them in this competition, though: Shuga would travel back in time and burn her troll look and Vanjie would travel back in time to make sure she packed something other than swimsuits for her runways.

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Speaking of the runway, it’s magic time. Ru introduces guest judges Katherine Langford and Gina Rodriguez, and we’re off to the first act, The Mighty Tucks. Brooke and Shuga get off to a good start, introducing themselves and doing a brief bit with a door so that Nina can appear. As soon as she pops in, though, Nina takes over. She full-on slays the challenge, bringing charm, goofiness, and the right level of campy self-awareness to the proceedings. Her illusion, involving summoning bottles of merlot for everyone, works well and she nails her presentation and banter. Shuga is up next, and her trick is fine, conjuring tucking panties out of an empty tin. She’s not nearly as magnetic as Nina, but she keeps things moving and does alright. Brooke goes last, doing her best to sell the barest of tricks, palming a marble. Her presentation is good, but the illusion itself is the least memorable of the group’s. Their final trick is the Reverse Shangela, putting Brooke in a box and then having Brooke instantly change places with Shuga, who’s standing on top of the box. The whole act works well, and after The Mighty Tucks say goodbye, it’s time for Da Black Magic.

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Right away, Team Vanjie is in trouble. Their opening banter isn’t nearly as comfortable and relaxed as Team Nina’s, and everyone feels just a little on edge. After swapping A’keria for Silky, then having A’keria re-appear, it’s time for their individual illusions. Yvie’s up first, conjuring a bra out of nothing. This doesn’t work particularly well, if only because the bra itself is small and hard to see. Making it appropriately drag-sized would have ruined the trick, but perhaps making it a bright color would have been more high-impact? Yvie’s delivery doesn’t help. She walks through her steps, but doesn’t connect with the material at all. Next is Silky’s illusion, disappearing milk from a pitcher into a piece of curled up paper. This works like gangbusters, due somewhat to Silky’s delivery and more to the quality of the trick. A’keria is similarly successful, swallowing a long balloon “sword.” Again, this is a dramatic, very visual illusion, so it’s much more effective. Vanjie’s trick, sleight of hand involving ketchup, mustard, and a brown paper bag, lacks the visual punch of Silky and A’keria’s, so while she does a good job telling her story, the final reveal—crumpling the empty bag—lands without particular fanfare. Their group trick is levitating Vanjie and while it works alright, it lacks the specificity of The Mighty Tucks’ Reverse Shangela. Nina’s team is definitely the stronger of the two, and Nina deserves the win. Brooke does well, Shuga is fine, and any of Da Black Magic could potentially be up for elimination. Even with late rewrite, there’s a lack of polish and cohesiveness across the board on Team Vanjie that one expects much earlier in the season, and not so much post-Snatch Game.

On the runway, Category is: Caftan Realness. The queens each saunter down the runway, confident with their garments and overall, they look good. Silky’s three-ball wig is the highlight of her look, Yvie does some more contorting to go with her monk-inspired look, and A’keria interprets the category loosely, taking a risk on a butterfly-themed catsuit with caftan-inspired wings. Vanjie goes full cheetah print, a look after Michelle’s heart, while Brooke works her plum garment with gold accents to within an inch of its life. Shuga starts in a thick red and black coat-like caftan before revealing two more looks, one a much lighter, short caftan with a fruit print and the second a swimsuit cover-up, and Nina looks fabulous in a straightforward pink and silver caftan.

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In the end, the judges declare Nina the winner, singing her praises for her look as well as her performance, and they also love Brooke, who is safe. As the weakest member of her team, Shuga is up for elimination, and while the judges had plenty of notes for all of Da Black Magic, Vanjie is once again up for elimination. Michelle loves her look, but she’s tired of Vanjie’s default persona and her unwillingness or inability to adopt a new character in the challenges is costing her. The lip-sync song is Mary J. Blige’s “No More Drama” and that’s something both Vanjie and Shuga can connect with right now.

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Shuga serves face throughout and goes big with her emotion, but Vanjie has a more nuanced take, channeling her frustration with the judges into her performance and delivering anger, power, pain, and more. As so many of the queens functionally tied in this challenge—only Nina really shone—the judging feels rather arbitrary. Silky or Yvie easily could have been in the bottom for their performances. For the lip-sync, though, the winner is clear. Vanjie lives to compete another day and Shuga, who has so often flown under the radar this season, is sent packing. Top seven is nothing to sneeze at, and Shuga has served up some memorable performances and looks. This was not her season, but she acquitted herself well. She’s certainly in the running for Miss Congeniality and with some more seasoning, she could easily come back and do well in All Stars.

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Stray observations

  • It’s a treat to see Delta Work pop in. I’ve really appreciated the alumnae cameos this season.
  • Drama on the runway! Yvie calls out her team for not wanting to write anything, but Vanjie definitely did write her material and tried to bring A’keria around as well. They make up on Untucked—how nice is it to be screaming-free on Untucked once again—but Yvie is wrong here. Also, points to Vanjie for keeping a lid on her anger and responding much more maturely than she did earlier this season.
  • I enjoyed both Katherine Langford and Gina Rodriguez, but I would have liked to have a magician on the panel, to give some insight into which of the queens did better with the illusions.
  • I’m Team Vanjie, so I’m definitely biased, but I would be frustrated too if I were her. The judges have no problem with Silky always playing Silky in the challenges, but they’re calling Vanjie out for this same thing. Michelle and the other judges should either critique Silky as well or be more specific in their comments toward Vanjie and really pinpoint what they want her to change.
  • I loved Ross’s commitment to the purity of the caftan. A’keria, you look wonderful, but I’m with Ross. That, ma’am, is no caftan!
  • Nina finally gets her due! She’s been doing great and flying under the radar most of the season. It’s about time she got another win, and one that’s not overshadowed by a six-person lip-sync.

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