I’ll tell y’all a secret to start off this week’s RuPaul’s Drag Race recap: I don’t really like mini challenges. Or rather, I don’t really like the modern era of them. I think they’re mostly too complicated, a little too arbitrary in their judging and not signature enough (save Reading Is Fundamental) to spend so much time on them.
But: I love the underwear mini challenges every week. I love how stupid they are. I love how skill doesn’t matter in them, how it’s all just an excuse to ogle hot boys in tiny briefs. I love how unabashedly gay it all is, at a time when Drag Race does seem to be peeling back to try to target a larger, more mainstream audience. I hope these never go away.
I also love that Vanessa Vanjie Mateo wins this one, a ball-carrying challenge that prevents the girls from using their hands. (Note that a couple of the girls get handsy anyway, something that feels a little disrespectful of boundaries. But, I digress.) This is Vanjie’s first win of anything on this show, and ideally would give her both the confidence boost and strategic advantage to pull off a comeback.
I said “ideally” for a reason, though.
This week’s maxi-challenge tasks the girls with putting on their own magic acts. This sounds harder than it is, frankly; as Nina West points out, this is actually a challenge testing the queens’ ability in producing shows. Lucky for the Ohio queen, that is her specialty!
Despite not being picked for Vanjie’s dream team — Team Personality, as she, Silky Nutmeg Ganache, A’keria C Davenport and Yvie Oddly name themselves — Nina, Brooke Lynn Hytes and Shuga Cain work it out this week. Their act, The Mighty Tucks, is polished, professional and hilarious. It features several well-executed magic tricks, but more than that, it’s just incredibly entertaining to watch.
Shuga and Brooke Lynn both deserve credit: they’re strong parts of the act, with Shuga playing the straight woman and Brooke Lynn playing the ditz. They land most of their jokes and execute their tricks ably. But they’re just the sidekicks, frankly. This show is All About Nina.
I mean, come on. Watching Nina in this challenge is like watching a “grand slam,” as head judge Michelle Visage puts it. She explodes with energy from the first moment, delivers their scripted dialogue with panache and self-assurance and makes her own trick the most delightful part of the show. When she gets to “No stunt has been pulled on the Drag Race stage like this since Valentina said, ‘I’d like to keep it on, please’”? Complete with a voice drop for the Valentina impression? Nina leaves you laughing and wanting more, which is what gets her a hard-earned victory this week — her second of the season.
Team Black Magic, on the other hand, may be full of personality, but they lack in every other department. In their preparations, Yvie cautions that they should prepare more of a script. Silky and A’keria would rather improvise. Team leader Vanjie, despite agreeing with Yvie, chooses to not step on toes and allows the girls to do their own thing.
Unfortunately, this isn’t something where Solomon can split the baby; a lack of proper transitions or banter leaves the girls stepping on each other’s lines and failing to hit any punchlines. Vanjie’s choice is the worst one imaginable; the group needs order, and all it has is chaos. Their show is painfully unfunny, and feels like it lasts forever. Making matters worse is that apparently, the queens are told the night before the show that their act is inappropriate for TV. (To which I say: isn’t this a reality show about drag queens? C’mon, VH1, lighten up.) Still, this is seemingly just another obstacle in their way, not the factor that derails them entirely.
Vanjie is rightfully punished for her team’s lack of organization, though she gets mad when Yvie makes it sound like she was the only queen to prepare any written material. Vanjie objects and says she did write things down, although Michelle aptly notes that her prepared material isn’t the only issue. Every single week, Vanjie is serving the same character: Vanjie. That’s all she has. And that should be enough to send her home this week, frankly.
Somehow, Ru decides this team challenge, in which one one knocked it out of the park and the other fumbled completely, should not be judged in teams. This leaves Shuga in a bad spot, because the judges read her playing the straight woman as not standing out. I honestly think, if she’d gone bigger, they would read her for being distracting. They just want Shuga gone — and more to the point, they want to keep the charismatic queens of Team Black Magic safe. That’s how Silky, despite a lame act with a terrible stage garment, and Yvie, with her lack of punchlines and poor delivery, somehow stay out of the bottom two, while Shuga is placed against Vanjie instead.
This is, to put it bluntly, bullshit. And I am increasingly tired of Drag Race doing this every damn season.
Around the top seven or eight every season, the producers clearly have a top four in mind. This is not necessarily the top four they originally wanted when the season began — look at how Chi Chi DeVayne and Naomi Smalls beat the odds back in Season 8, and how the judges emphasized how unexpected their journeys were in the final critiques. But it’s the one that makes the most sense in the moment.
As of right now, I’d say the producers are looking at queens like Silky and Yvie as strong contenders for that final four. Brooke Lynn feels like a certainty, and they probably want her to send Vanjie out in a lip sync for the drama. On that last point: watch how Ru practically salivates over the drama when she asks Vanjie why she didn’t pick Brooke Lynn for her team in the challenge. The show loves this romance plot, and they’re going to drain every last drop of narrative out of it before they let either queen go.
That leaves us with Nina, the winner; A’keria, who rightfully couldn’t go into the bottom this week after a strong performance; and Shuga, who hasn’t performed up to par so far. Shuga, who would be on her third lip sync. Shuga, who isn’t going to win this competition, but can be sacrificed now to preserve bigger characters. And so, with a set of ill-formed critiques and an individual judging system, the judges send Shuga to her inevitable doom in the lip sync.
Vanjie lives up to her part of the bargain, though. Her “No More Drama” lip sync is one of the best of the season, just behind the “Sorry Not Sorry” girls for me. Shuga, bless her, just can’t win, and she looks like she knows it. When she says being in the bottom “to me . . . makes absolutely no sense,” I can only sadly nod my head in agreement. Shuga is sent home, which was inevitable. I’m really going to miss her exuberant energy.
Reality TV is a production by nature. I rarely mind queens being “robbed,” because I think that’s ultimately subjective, and I think it serves a greater story. But I hate when the machinations are obvious. I hate when I can look at a dubious judging decision and know exactly why Ru and the producers made it. I hate when the show protects queens from lip syncing because they’re worried they’ll Valentina and fuck it up (see also: Aquaria not hitting the bottom two for the makeover challenge in Season 10). We deserve better as viewers; these plain attempts to manipulate events to achieve a more desirable group of finalists insult our intelligence as an audience.
I don’t mean to sound too harsh on this episode; I actually do think this is a good instalment, one that keeps Season 11’s hot streak going. Magic is a great idea for a challenge. “I love drag because of the magical aspects,” Ru says at one point, and I believe him. This is a magical show. But to reference one of the host’s favourite movies, you never want to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. The second you notice what he’s doing, the magic disappears.
💋 A few runway notes: I love Silky and Nina’s hair. Brooke Lynn once again sells a good outfit with an amazing presentation. I am not on board with the judges in loving Vanjie’s, and think it’s at odds with her description of it. Love Yvie’s look, but can already hear fan complaints about it. Shuga indeed should’ve kept the initial caftan on and not bothered with reveals. A’keria’s is absolutely not a caftan, but props to her for bantering about it successfully with the judges. That usually matters more than anything else, if you can take the note and turn it into something enjoyable.
💋 Of all the magic tricks, the only one that truly makes me scratch my head is the levitation gag. I’d love to hear more about how they managed that one.
💋 This is absolutely my favourite RuPaul look of the season. That orange hair is a total dream on him.
💋 Did Miss Delta Work really just come from hair and makeup (where she works as Ru’s hair stylist), throw on a wig, and stand next to Ru for the mini challenge? Yes, she did.
💋 A’keria, on her experience with magic: “I made some men disappear in my day.”
💋 Calling their box trick “the Reverse Shangela” — and having Brooke Lynn yell “Halleloo, I’m back bitches!” as she executes it — is perfect beyond words.
💋 I really liked the exercise the girls do in the workroom, when they ask each other if they could magically change one thing during their run in the competition, what would it be. If I could change one thing about this season, it’d be to start with 12 queens instead of 15, and have a shorter season. Too much chaff to get to this good meaty endgame!
💋 Ross Mathews is back! Carson Kressley remains MIA! Will he be back next week for the makeover challenge? One can only hope!
💋 Katherine Langford is unfortunately kind of a zero when it comes to Drag Race guest judging. She seems excited to be there, which is more than I could say about her 13 Reasons Why co-star Miles Heizer last season, but she just doesn’t have the skill set to judge effectively. Gina Rodriguez fares much better, complete with a drag-worthy ensemble (those earrings!) to match.
💋 Other than Brooke Lynn, I could honestly see anyone going home next. The two-win girls (Silky, A’keria, Nina) seem safer, but then I think about Yvie and how unlikely it would be for her to go home. And the show seems committed to seeing this Vanjie story out until the end. So maybe we’ll see a frontrunner bite the dust next week? I know who fans would prefer to see go — her name starts with an “S” and ends with an “ilky” — but judging by Ru’s love for her, I’d say she’s actually the least likely to go.