If you’re feeling a little strange thinking about RuPaul’s Drag Race considering the state of the world, know that I’m with you. I’m writing this recap as event-after-event is cancelled: Drag Con, the NBA, every Broadway show, and so on. Quarantine, an idea so absurd it seemed like a joke just days ago, now feels inevitable. So like I did four years ago, I’m turning to a show about drag queens for comfort.
Right before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, All Stars 2 aired. I remember it specifically because my dad died around that time. It was probably the worst period of my life: Dad, then Trump, then a breakup with a long-term boyfriend. But the one true, unmitigated bright spot was Drag Race. That was my first season recapping the show (back then for Mic), and it was an escape for me each and every week. Instead of losing myself in the awfulness around me, I celebrated Tatianna’s “Same Parts” and lost my mind at the “Shut Up and Drive” lip sync. The show was a distraction, sure, but it was also a reason to keep going.
I feel the same now, watching the third episode of Season 12 as the show moves past the Sherry Pie incident and celebrates the rest of this stellar cast of queens. And so I say to you all reading this: If you need to think about men in wigs entertaining us for two hours every week, I invite you to sit next to me and kiki. Let’s enjoy this true gem and pleasure of a show together.
Wit the split season premiere behind us, our 13 queens have finally come together for a proper introduction to Drag Race. Unlike in the previous two episodes, someone will go home this week, and the knives are brought out right away. RuPaul introduces a cast assessment mini-challenge adapted from Drag Race UK, which had the first-episode winner The Vivienne do the same with the full cast in the second episode. Having Jaida Essence Hall and Widow Von’Du assess the cast they didn’t premiere with is an interesting twist, although they wind up stacking the queens in a similar way to the judges. (I think there may have been some comparing of notes off-camera.)
Then, Ru pulls the rug out from under them: The queens they ranked last in each group—Heidi N. Closet and Aiden Zhane—will be team captains alongside them in the main challenge. It’s an improv task, in which the queens are put on a fake talent show called World’s Worst (named for a show Ru himself actually briefly judged, The World’s Best). Smartly, the show prevents the season from becoming a two-sided war between the premiere groups by having them split into four groups. It’s a free-for-all, girls!
The challenge is a goofy one, since it requires the queens to be bad, but funny whilst being bad. It’s one of those that probably looked better on paper as a prompt, but is just a little awkward in execution. The only group that really nails the idea, in my opinion, is Team Heidi, with Gigi Goode and Jackie Cox in tow. The three have the best idea of what improv is on a technical level, and it shows in their performance. They stick to their general concept—they’re a trio of older triplets who perform despite one of their members seemingly dying before their audition—but riff enough to make it their own.
Heidi is the clear winner of the week, in my estimation. She’s very funny in the challenge, busting out in a way that puts the spotlight on her without robbing the other queens of their chance to be funny. She’s also just generally charismatic and charming throughout the episode, bantering well with Ru about her name (she knows she has to play along with the host, which is very savvy) and opening up on the runway in genuine fashion about her Pinnochio-inspired runway look. Heidi’s got a real star quality about her, and her story this week is a compelling one. She beats Jaida’s expectations of her and proves she has a real place in this competition.
She edges out fellow top-placer Jackie for me, as the latter continues to be funny but just a bit stilted in her persona. There’s something off-putting in the way Jackie claims to educate Gigi and Heidi about improv, then later takes credit for their success. I’d have put the very game and impressive physical comedienne Gigi ahead of Jackie at the top, but in truth, their entire team deserved to be there. Sherry Pie gets in the top over Gigi instead, and actually wins the challenge, but her bit with Aiden and Brita (as a trio that pretends they share a brain) doesn’t work for me.
The group of fruits, featuring Rock M. Sakura, Jan, Jaida, and Dahlia Sin, takes on a lot of the narrative focus this episode, but it’s all much ado about nothing at the end of it. Rock wants to be the Apple in the group, as it’s a bigger role, but Jaida holds firm on playing that role. (To her credit, she’s very funny in it.) The real story of the group that is largely ignored until critiques is that Dahlia can’t do anything except trying to be sexy, and it leads to her flopping. She’s joined in the bottom three by two members of a Girl Scout-inspired group, with Crystal Methyd just barely skating by and French sensation Nicky Doll falling into the bottom two with her.
The lip sync is a real snooze, and a reminder that the first showdowns of the season are nowhere near as fun typically as the Widow Von’Du/Gigi Goode battle in Week 1. Which: Let’s just watch that one again. Look at how much both Widow and Gigi do in that lip sync. They’re giving everything they have and then some. Widow is willing to literally risk her life and limb to win the lip sync! That’s what a Lip Sync for Your Life is all about!
By contrast, Nicky and Dahlia just really fail to impress. Their performances are all walking and posing to Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea’s “Problem” (another Ari song!). I’d have sent them both home, personally, but I do agree with Ru that Nicky is the one with more potential. She’s a gorgeous queen who doesn’t always have to try and be gorgeous—to her credit, this episode she very much didn’t want to be the sexy character—so she deserves the chance to show her stuff.
And so it’s a sad farewell to Dahlia Sin, who seems fun and feisty, but didn’t do enough to separate herself from drag mother Aja. She is gorgeous, it’s true, but a look queen cannot simply be that in the modern era of Drag Race. It takes a ton of talent to be America’s Next Drag Superstar, and all the charisma in the world can’t help make up for that.
✨ It’s obvious the show is editing Sherry Pie out of the narrative. She wins this week, but is barely featured in the edit, getting all of one confessional (during the runway). I’m sure editing her out is quite a load of work for the Drag Race editing team, but I admire the responsibility the show is taking to downplay her. That said, it does make the edit somewhat incoherent; the praise from the judges is so muted that it makes her win come from out of nowhere. This is a testament to how good the show’s editing usually is: Even if you don’t agree, the show makes the challenge winners seem justified. If Sherry wins a lot this season, I worry the narrative might suffer for it.
✨ “I enjoy when bitches tell me what their weaknesses are.” I am so totally on board with Widow at this point. She and the first premiere girls wisely choose not to reveal their tensions to the others, who happily air out their dirty laundry. Why would you give away tensions in a competition like this? Crazy!
✨ Ru’s fisting joke in the mini-challenge is one of the cruder jokes of the VH1 era! Was he still feeling a little raunchyy post-Drag Race UK?
✨ Heidi flirting with the Pit Crew in the mini-challenge: “I’ve watched you on TV for a long time.” Thirsty fish!
✨ The Squirrel Scouts’ origin story is that they were left at a bus stop, in a clear reference to Roxxxy Andrews’ backstory. I gotta say, the repeated deployment of Roxxxy’s trauma for jokes on this show is not my favourite thing about it!
✨ Jan yelling “Five New York girls!” at the start of the episode is a reference to when Yuhua Hamasaki greeted Aquaria’s entrance the same way in Season 10. It’s a funny callback! It also is a tell that we should be ready for a…lot…of such callbacks from Jan!
✨ Olivia Munn isn’t necessarily the guest judge I would’ve argued needed to be the only guest judge in an episode, but clearly the show wanted both Ross Mathews and Carson Kressley around for this challenge, so I get it. I would’ve just put Charo on the judging panel with them instead. Olivia’s just a bit dull, but I do like her moment in which she connects with Crystal about not trying to be a people-pleaser.
✨ Can we talk about the runway concepts this season? I’m not saying they’re running out, but “sparkle,” “tulle” and “bows and buttons” aren’t a testament to the show’s creativity at this late stage of the series. I wouldn’t mind if they recycled old runway themes more, since there are some great ones that deserve further exploration: Death Becomes Her, the zodiac runway, and so on. They don’t all have to be rehashed, but that might help fill out a season so we don’t have to rely on so many barely-there themes.
✨ The short shorts on both Rock M. Sakura and Jackie Cox this episode…I don’t like to thirst over participants on a show I cover professionally, but you can catch me fanning myself in the corner.