RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4, for all its foibles (“Winner winner, two chicken dinners!”), was an innovative season when it came to challenge design. From the Dating Game take on Snatch Game with Snatch Game of Love to the midseason returning queen challenge featuring a record-setting four lip sync battles, the producers seemed game to try new things all season. It didn’t all work, but there was a spirit of throwing shit at the wall to see what would stick.
Nothing was more fascinating an experiment, in my opinion, than the club design challenge in Episode 7. Separated into three groups, that cast of queens had to design themed nightclub spaces, then host a night at said club for the judges. It’s where we got iconic bits like Manila Luzon calling out “non-American singer Rita Ora,” and Naomi Smalls and Valentina repeatedly whispering “Club 96.” That challenge may not have been perfect, but it gave us some truly joyful moments—and best of all, it was a totally new kind of Drag Race task.
Unfortunately, instead of looking at the success of that episode and thinking it means innovation works, the All Stars 5 team instead took it as a reason to just…replicate the challenge with a new name. Instead of being a club, the dolls must design luxury hotel suites. Which makes a lot less sense than clubs in a competition of drag queens! It’s framed as being part of a hotel design show (called Shantay Enjoy Your Stay), but that idea only seems to exist as an excuse for the challenge premise. The results are pretty mixed across the board, with one queen managing to stand out for her comedy, while one group completely misses the mark.
This episode is still a solid one, with plenty of drama and scheming to go around. It just crystalizes for me that All Stars 5 is likely going to be more about the story than the challenges—a reversal from Season 12.
Alexis Mateo kicks things off with a heaping helping of reading this week, as she questions what exactly Miz Cracker’s motivations for getting in Ongina’s head were last week. Cracker does apologize, but Alexis notes that that’s useless as Ongina’s already gone (and, from the looks of her Instagram, Ongina and Cracker have not made amends), and accuses Cracker of playing mind games as a strategy. Mayhem Miller and India Ferrah cast aspersions on Cracker’s denials, while Alexis says she’s taking this opportunity as motivation to get to know and trust everyone in the group.
In her confessional, Jujubee in turn accuses Alexis of starting shit to get to Cracker. I’m of two minds on this: I do think Alexis is pissed at Ongina’s departure and sees taunting Cracker as a way to let out some aggression. This comes up in a later fight, when Cracker is listing off queens she respects and only includes Shea Coulée, Mariah Paris Balenciaga, and Jujubee. Alexis takes this as an affront and asks Cracker to explain what she means, which puts Cracker on the defensive. Alexis seemingly sees Cracker as easy to fuck with, and as evidenced by Cracker’s response in her confessional, her anxiety flares up at the slightest bit of provocation. But that doesn’t negate the authenticity of Alexis’ problems with Cracker. Just because she’s stirring the pot doesn’t mean she’s not genuinely invested in the pot she’s stirring.
Luckily for Alexis and Cracker, they don’t have to work together during this challenge, as an off-screen, supposedly “random drawing” (random my ass) has put Alexis with her “I’m in Love” teammates Jujubee and India, while Cracker is with Shea and Mariah, and Mayhem teams up with Season 10 sister Blair St. Clair. The teams’ approaches to the challenge are all pretty different, with Alexis’ team producing a jungle-themed suite, Shea’s team theming theirs after Ru and Michelle Visage’s beloved Golden Girls, and Blair and Mayhem leaning into the luxury of it all with a gold-plated room.
The latter group winds up “winning,” although the value of that win is diminished considering neither Blair nor Mayhem is designated the individual challenge winner. I’m surprised they take the win, as they largely adopt the “Club 96” joke from last season into a new form. They’re funny enough, and Blair does get a few good off-the-cuff jokes in (when describing the different levels of wealth, she describes one as “daddy rich”), but it’s just not very original. It’s especially silly when you remember the “Club 96” group lost last season, and Valentina went home for it.
Personally, I’d have given Alexis’ team the win. Their “Glamazone” suite is the clearest success theme-wise—it may be simple, but it’s effective. There’s a tiki bar, and an extended joke about a golden shower…head. It’s very fun, and the team is naturally funny enough as a group to sell it. Jujubee wins individually, getting a weirdly muted moment on the main stage. This is Juju’s first challenge win ever—after three seasons on this show!—and her victory is mostly treated as an afterthought. She doesn’t even get positive critiques! Still, Juju is genuinely touched to win, and she deserves it. At least for me, she got the most laughs per line of anyone in the challenge. The rest of her team gets critiqued, and while Alexis is able to skate to safety, India winds up in the bottom three.
It’s a bit surprising to see India in the bottom once again, not only because her team did well overall, but because the Golden Girls team clearly disappoints. They’re initially the most committed to their theme, in their costumes and suite design, but they lack the jokes to pull it off. Maybe the funniest is one from Cracker, about using a landline to call your grandkids and remind them how long it’s been since you’ve seen them. But even that joke is more about the women being old than a joke about The Golden Girls! As the judges note, the end result is just three older women in a hotel room.
As there’s a bottom three this week, you’d imagine that all members of that group would just be put up for elimination. However, it’s pretty clear that these queens would happily vote Cracker off if necessary. Her only real defenders this episode are Mariah, who admits in deliberations that she enjoyed working with Cracker, and Shea, who continues her track record of being a good team member by sticking up for Cracker in her scrap with Alexis. Still, they’re just three votes, and Mayhem, Blair, Alexis, and India would likely happily vote Cracker off. Juju might not choose to eliminate Cracker if she wins the lip sync, but, well, we’ll talk about her in a second.
Keeping Cracker out of the bottom seems like a conscious choice to keep her arc going. As much as I want to be annoyed by that from a competitive perspective, I get it from a production perspective. Cracker didn’t do the worst this episode, so eliminating her would feel more personal than competition-based, and it would instantly drain the season of narrative fuel. Plus, she does pull out a great runway, so there’s justification for keeping her out of the bottom three. Even if Ru does have to bend the rules a bit to do it.
Speaking of the runway: The theme is three-in-one looks, a prompt first used on the first season of Drag Race Thailand. Cracker’s runway is a full telling of the Anastasia story, complete with a Faberge egg look for her initial presentation. She reveals it into a ball gown, then into a look fit for running away. It’s maybe my favourite of Cracker’s runways across two seasons. It’s not quite my favourite runway this week though—that goes to either Shea, who gets mad creative with a rosy maple moth-themed runway, or Alexis, who takes us to the circus with three entirely different looks. Shea gets critiqued for being too “crafty,” which is a silly critique that nonetheless seems to stick in Ru’s mind.
Deliberations are heated this week, as Alexis points out Shea got the worst critiques, while Mariah fights for her place in the competition and India emotionally vents her frustrations over getting bad feedback when she feels she’s finally unleashing the real India. Opinions are very split! Mariah feels like the fairest choice to go home, as the judges just aren’t responding to her, but Mariah also has deep connections among the voters. It’s not a lock that she’ll go home, either at Juju’s or the group’s hands.
We see a lot of the votes, which is a good sign that things are going to be tight. India and Shea vote for Mariah. Mariah votes for India. And then Alexis and Mayhem vote to eliminate Shea. We don’t see Blair or Cracker’s votes, so we’re left in the lurch: If one or both of them votes for Shea, it’s very possible she could go home!
Jujubee lip syncs against Season 10 Miss Congeniality and All Stars 4 co-winner Monét X Change to Lizzo’s “Juice.” It’s a bit of a redemptive moment for Monét, since she went home on Lizzo’s “Good as Hell” in Season 10. She brings it, not relying on tricks or stunts and instead going for a more pure interpretation. Juju, on the other hand, does not know the words to “Juice.” It’s pretty shocking to see from Juju, considering she’s never lost a lip sync on Drag Race before (the only time she so much as tied was against Raven in All Stars 1), but she gets blown out of the water by Monét.
Monét reveals the group vote, and despite Alexis and Mayhem’s attempt to oust a frontrunner, Mariah goes home. It’s a sad ending for the ballroom legend—I was really enjoying her presence this season. But if the choice was between her or Shea, then this was the right one. Mariah is a star, but she doesn’t have the heart to win this whole thing. Shea, to quote RuPaul, will live to slay another day.
💄As seen in Untucked, Ru and guest judge Martyn Lawrence Bullard do walk through the workroom to offer feedback on the rooms, but we don’t see that in the final edit. Wild that with two hours, between the episode and Untucked, there are still major segments of episodes being left on the editing room floor.
💄I’m surprised it doesn’t get addressed in Untucked, but Cracker kinda throws Alexis under the bus on the runway to explain how she’s not connecting with the other girls. Guest judge Nicole Byer rightfully tells her to focus on her own work and not get distracted by what the other queens think.
💄Jujubee reviews nearly her entire lip sync history in Untucked, running down how she eliminated legends like Tatianna, Pandora Boxx, Manila Luzon and Sahara Davenport in her first two seasons. In a lovely touch, she pays tribute to the departed Sahara with a heartfelt “rest in peace” message. I’m in the middle of a Season 2 rewatch right now, and Sahara was truly such a gracious, generous competitor throughout her run.
💄A lot of talk about Manila this week, as Cracker refers to doing well and being suddenly eliminated as being “Manila’d.” Pray that this week is the closest call we get to someone being Manila’d this season—I don’t know if my heart could take it again.
💄Another emotional bit in Untucked comes when Juju talks about staying clean and sober in the competition and reflects on how she’s grown in the eight years since her season. Mayhem talks about her own battles with drugs and her journey with alcohol, and Blair talks about how difficult it is to primarily work in clubs while trying to maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol. It’s touching to hear the queens compare their experiences and lift each other up—a reminder that for all the playful shade this season, this is a tight-knit group amid an incredibly supportive community of alumni.
💄Nicole Byer and Martyn Lawrence Bullard are both pretty good guest judges! They’re very game during the hotel suite presentations, and they give better notes than Ross does. (Sorry, Ross, not your best week.) It’s very fun to have Nicole back in particular—she got a short shrift in her original appearance, which was an hour-long episode of All Stars 3 that was edited within an inch of its life.
💄Finally, I’d like to leave you with what Jujubee shares with us as she makes her elimination decision, transcribed verbatim: “Do you wanna know what’s in my mind? ‘Cause I know you wanna know. I know you’re asking. What’s going through my mind right now is, ‘Oh, I miss my cats.’ They don’t judge me. They do! But they have to live with me. I feed them. I also scoop their poops. I feel like I would be a crazy cat lady if I had one more cat. But two is enough. For now. Meow meow, bitches.”