Credit: Courtesy VH1
RuPaul's Drag Race
19 min

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars’ Season 5 finale recap: All in the family

A largely celebratory finale provides a nice cap on a rocky-but-revelatory year of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’

I get a real sense of finality with the wrap-up of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 5. Not because the Drag Race franchise is winding down—hardly. Canada’s Drag Race is currently underway (Logo will begin airing the series in the U.S. on July 27), and a new spin-off, the six-part docuseries RuPaul’s Drag Race: Las Vegas Revue, is coming out in August. But in terms of the flagship franchise—the RuPaul-hosted, Michelle Visage-judged seasons—we’re at the end of a line. The All Stars 5 season finale is likely the last episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race we will get this year.

RuPaul’s Drag Race UK was renewed for a second season, and got partially into filming before COVID-19 shut down production. Ru and Michelle have not yet returned to finish filming it; so barring some rapid production and post-production, that season will not air as planned this year. Additionally, while the rumor mills of Reddit are a-churning about the filming of Season 13 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, it also won’t air until 2021 at the earliest.

It’s been a remarkably steady stream of RuPaul’s Drag Race since All Stars 3 in the spring of 2018, with Season 10 airing immediately after, All Stars 4 five months after that, Season 11 right after that, Drag Race UK four months after that and the double play of Season 12 and All Stars 5 starting this past February. We’ve not had a single six-month period in the last three years without a season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. (And I didn’t even mention Secret Celebrity Drag Race!) Now we’re on a break for the foreseeable future, with Canada’s Drag Race as our only salve.

To many, I know this will come as welcome news—there’s definitely been an outcry among fans for a break. But I’m feeling reflective; this finale marks an end of an era of sorts. If Seasons 1 through 3 were the OG years, Seasons 4 through 6 were the golden age and Seasons 7 through 9 were the breakout era, this feels like the end of a period of mainstreaming for the show. I’ve no doubt RuPaul’s Drag Race will continue to grow when it does return, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the series feels different when we see it next. In fact, I very much hope it does.

As a finale for this season, “Clap Back!” is a good episode—it features a solid challenge, some fun reunion shenanigans with the whole cast and results in the crowning of a truly deserving winner. As a finale for this era, though, it’s a bit lackluster. But then, this episode was never meant to carry the weight of being the last RuPaul’s Drag Race episode for the foreseeable future, so perhaps holding it to that standard is unfair.

This episode is meant to showcase our top three and the cast as a whole, and it succeeds on that front. While I’m disappointed that Jamal Sims did not return for the Rumix challenge, the trio’s performance to “Clap Back” does succeed at giving them all a chance to shine. (Sims’ absence and the fact that Todrick Hall is here for this challenge but wasn’t present during the regular season makes me wonder if something changed between the filming of All Stars 5 and Season 12.) Choreography-wise, this may be my favourite of Todrick’s Rumix performances on an individual level. Each queen has a routine perfectly matched to their abilities, with Shea Coulée given the toughest routine as the most experienced dancer.

The actual song “Clap Back” is serviceable, but nothing momentous. The shadow of “Read U Wrote U” continues to loom large over all of these performances—what most crucially defines that iconic song for me is just how much time each All Stars 2 queen had for their verse. I like all three queens’ verses in “Clap Back,” but they’re too short. That means the choreography is the primary focus here, and Shea absolutely smashes hers. Miz Cracker does well, too, but her difficulty level is noticeably lower. You can see Juju’s discomfort with her routine, but she manages fine and powers through it.

The top three are backed by the eliminated queens during the performance, and this family reunion is my favourite part of the finale. Since this season lacked a returning queen challenge—a change I actually appreciated—we didn’t get much time with queens like Mariah Paris Balenciaga, Ongina and Derrick Barry. Their return gives them all a chance to shine, both in the challenge and on the runway (more on that runway in a second), but also in a group kiki about the season’s drama.

After popping out from behind a glory hole (a silly little contrivance for the eliminated queens to eavesdrop on the top three, inspiring a “Do we all sound this fake?” from Alexis Mateo), the queens get into their drama. Derrick versus India Ferrah is quickly dropped after India apologizes to Derrick, while Mariah expresses her annoyance with both Ongina and Mayhem Miller for voting to eliminate themselves. Mariah is most irritated that her close friend Mayhem eliminated herself to save India. “I understood if it was for me!” Mariah explained in a confessional. “But girl, you just met this ho!”

And while we’re on the subject of dramas: I would like to formally complain one last time that we never got any kind of resolution for whatever Alexis said that Blair St. Clair and Mayhem were trying to stir up behind Cracker’s back. Although if you’re wondering about Blair and Cracker’s beef, I highly recommend Blair’s Entertainment Weekly elimination interview, in which she sheds light on what happened behind the scenes. Anyway, I digress.

The meatiest drama of the season is, of course, Alexis vs. India in The Case of the Campaign Against Shea. India finally fesses up to the fact that Alexis and Mayhem approached her about voting for Shea after the vote was already done, not before. That’s a pretty substantial misrepresentation on India’s part, and Shea seems to realize she shouldn’t have distrusted Alexis. She apologizes, and while I understand completely why Shea felt the way she did, I’m glad she takes the opportunity to make amends. It’s the first of many occurrences this episode of Shea saying the right things, and taking the time to be considerate.

All 10 queens get to walk the runway in their “All Star Eleganza”—which I’m translating as “best drag”—and it is a sight to see. Everyone is stunning, particularly Alexis in a look that really elevates her pageant style into something fashionable and modern. The top three are on another level, though, and immediately prove why they made it to the end. Juju goes with an interpretation of the Hindu Buddha that is gorgeous beyond measure. Carson Kressley is hyperbolic in his praise, and rightfully so: It’s Juju’s best look ever.

Cracker wears a stunning Russian-inspired gown as tribute to her heritage, while Shea debuts an absolutely breathtaking pink dress that serves as an homage to her mother’s senior prom dress from 50 years prior. Shea describes her mom’s dress in reverent detail, and her love comes through in her runway presentation. (All season, Shea has done such a wonderful job expressing her feelings through fashion.) It’s a true moment—the whole runway is full of moments, and it’s exactly what a final runway on Drag Race should be.

Credit: Courtesy VH1

But that’s nothing compared to what comes next, as Shea launches into a tribute speech to Ru. I’m going to quote the whole thing, because it’s really extraordinary:

“My drag in its purest form is a love letter to Black women. And honestly, Ru, I would be remiss if I did not tell you how much I appreciate you and everything you’ve done. You are a constant inspiration. You are an example of continuous love. And I thank you for helping me make my dreams come true. I’ll never be able to repay you for that. But if you give me your Venmo, I can send you some installments, and I will sure as hell try.”

I want to write a thesis about this speech. It’s perfect. Shea starts with a declaration of the meaning of her drag, transitioning from a story about her love for her mother. She pays tribute to Ru’s role in giving opportunities to Shea and other queens, as well as his role bringing drag into the mainstream. Shea ends on a joke, lifting everybody up after making them cry; it’s the model of a final Drag Race speech. And I know the praise for Ru, who is an incredibly controversial figure, will likely ruffle some feathers. I do think Shea knows what she’s doing here, kissing the ring in a way Ru may not outwardly expect but certainly appreciates.

However, I believe Shea’s feelings are genuine. RuPaul’s Drag Race changed her life forever. It will continue to change her life. Even the queens most critical of Ru will acknowledge how profoundly he—and the show that bears his name—have revolutionized drag and launched or amplified the careers of many queer artists.

Is Drag Race flawed? Undoubtedly. Is it, at the end of the day, a force for good in so many people’s lives? I believe so. I wouldn’t dedicate so much time and energy to writing about it if I didn’t believe that. But I’m hopeful that, in the upcoming hiatus, both the show and Ru can reflect on the past and figure out how to be even more inclusive in the seasons to come.

Awarding Shea this crown is a hell of a start. It wasn’t so long ago that Black queens routinely lost at the final hurdle of Drag Race, even after dominating the competition all season long. But after All Stars 4 saw Monét X Change enter Drag Race Hall of Fame (becoming the first Black queen with that designation), the show has since crowned Yvie Oddly, Jaida Essence Hall, and Shea Coulée. And I can’t forget to mention a Miss Congeniality title for Heidi N Closet! But those wins don’t erase Drag Race’s racism problem, as professor and writer Jon Higgins wrote for Xtra last year. BIPOC queens continue to report rampant harassment from the fandom, and that won’t change with Shea’s win.

As this era ends, after a year of twists, spin-offs, disqualifications and Zoom finales, we all have a real chance to reflect. That goes for the show and its fans, of course, but also those of us who write about the series, those who run fan communities on social media, those who book the queens in bars and clubs (or, at present, in virtual drag shows) and so on. What can we do better? How can we be more attentive to problems of racism and exclusion, and more solution-oriented in how we tackle them? How can we grow to see the queens as people first and foremost, not TV characters? How can we write about the queens with empathy and kindness, even when their edit isn’t favourable? How can we all work together to make the Drag Race world better? If this era was about the show becoming more mainstream, hopefully the next can be about all of us progressing forward as a community.

This show has tremendous power. It has changed the lives of those on it and those watching it for over a decade. And as Ru says every week on All Stars: with great power comes great responsibility.

💄Love Blair learning everyone’s choreography in rehearsal. She’s fully ready to pull an Anna Kendrick in Camp. “She’s fucked, I’m ready and the goddamn show must go on!”

💄Derrick can’t help but love all the drama that she’s not involved in. “I just get to relic in it,” she says, then realizing her mistake. “I said relic, didn’t I? Is it relish? It is relish?” God, Derrick Barry really is a gift to reality television.

💄The glory hole introduction may have been too silly for the returning queens (I identify strongly with Cracker taking one look at it and saying “Okay, moving on”), but it does inspire a great line from Shea: “Honestly, what a nice gift for RuPaul to give the top three. I mean, she really knows her daughters.”

💄Speaking of, I love Shea calling her position in Season 9 “third-adjacent.” We never did figure out a great way to determine who got third and who got fourth in Seasons 9 and 11, did we? (Then again, you could say the same about who got second and third in a lot of other seasons, including this one—but at least we can call them all “runners-up.”)

💄Note that in Untucked, Alexis says “apolo-lie” before Widow Von’Du does in Season 12, but since Season 12 aired first, it airs the other way! Honestly, I hope we get seasons in production order from here on out. This Drag Race year has been chronologically confusing.

💄I need some time to sit with it, but my initial instinct is to rate All Stars 5 around the same as I do All Stars 4, just outside of the top 10. Both seasons had strong casts and some fun drama, but ultimately were hampered by their formats. If we keep the Lip Sync Assassin format going into All Stars 6, my greatest hope would be that the queens are encouraged not to vote unanimously. The agreement week after week (with one notable exception, which produced the best drama of the season) hampered what should’ve been an unpredictable season. All Stars 2 remains the clear champion among the AS seasons.

💄Ru says Juju is the kind of queen people love to root for, “even when you were first in this competition, I think it was right after World War II.” A decade in Drag Race years is a hell of a long time! I’ll have more to say about Juju in tomorrow’s power ranking, but even though she doesn’t win, she’s made a pretty incredible impression.

💄Kind of a bummer not to have Trinity the Tuck and Monét X Change there in person, no? I wonder why the scheduling didn’t work out to have them on set. Their video message is cute, but not quite as impressive as having Chad Michaels, Alaska and Trixie Mattel all there in person for the crowning in All Stars 4.

💄This year in RuPaul’s Drag Race has been unprecedented in so many ways, and writing about it has presented its fair share of challenges. But what has always been wonderful is the responses from all of you. The conversations both before and during our Facebook live streams have been illuminating and exciting—even (and especially) when we don’t all agree! I’ve said it before, but it remains true year after year: Getting to bond with others over a TV show this fabulous and frustrating, agonizing yet amazing, inconceivable but iconic, is my favourite part of this job. Thank you all so, so much for joining us for Season 12 and All Stars 5!

💄The year in RuPaul’s Drag Race may be over, but Canada’s Drag Race is very much just getting started! If you’ve not kept up-to-date yet, the show premieres on Logo next Monday, and we will continue to recap the show in real time. Accordingly, our Kiki With Kevin live streams on Xtra’s Facebook page will also press on! Join us Friday at 4 p.m. EST to talk about Canada’s Drag Race—plus we’ll answer your burning questions from the All Stars finale.

The American TV premiere of Canada’s Drag Race airs Monday, July 28, at 8 p.m. EST on Logo. Here’s our recap and ranking of that episode—spoilers if you haven’t watched yet! You can catch up on all four Canada’s Drag Race episodes so far on Crave, or by subscribing to WOW Presents Plus in the U.S.