Eight years ago, RuPaul’s Drag Race hosted its first political debate challenge. It was a notorious mess, largely thanks to guest judge Dan Savage, who treated it as if it were a serious political exercise, while RuPaul and the other judges clearly were just there to have fun and wanted the queens to be funny.
The result was a pot of confusion: Phi Phi O’Hara went for an overly broad parody of a Sarah Palin-type character, Chad Michaels played a pimp candidate from a fringe party and Latrice Royale’s discussed talking points in a sombre way. Ultimately, eventual Season 4 champion Sharon Needles won—in what felt like a compromise decision more than anything else—for giving a performance that best blended both comedy and seriousness.
There was a political challenge in Season 8, but it was an attack ad challenge and thus very different. So it’s been eight seasons since the last proper political debate task and this season, with its political theme (we’ve seen those Register to Vote props at the end of every episode!), was inevitably going to feature one. But surely in eight years, we can assume the show has figured out how to make this challenge work. Right? Right?
You would, in fact, be wrong to assume that! “Choices 2020” is arguably worse than Season 4’s “Frock the Vote”, thanks to an even more chaotic atmosphere and two additional contestants in the fray. And even though Ru is much clearer that this challenge is a comedic one, some queens still let the political element distract them. Throw in a moderator for the challenge who further confuses things by judging as he moderates, as well as some painfully basic political talk peppered throughout the episode, and you’ve got Season 12’s first misfire of the season. Other episodes may not have been as entertaining, but none was a total whiff like this one is.
It doesn’t have to be this way! The first half of this episode is an absolute blast, from a surreal kitty cosplay mini-challenge to an excellent walkthrough with Raven. I wouldn’t have pegged Raven to be the best fit for coaching in a political challenge—I’d say Alaska or Bob the Drag Queen would be better for that considering they’re both winners. (Then again, fifth-placer Miss Vanjie came back to coach for a challenge she flopped, so all bets are off.) But Raven is masterful as a mentor, well-informed of every queen’s arc so far and hyper-aware of the right advice to give them.
To Widow Von’Du, she advises her not to take it so seriously: “Bitch, you ain’t really running for president.”
To Jackie Cox, after she admits her comedy can be too literate: “Keep it illiterate.”
To Heidi N. Closet, coming off her first win, she gives the ultimate Heidi slogan: “Fuck the GOP, get into the GAP.”
To Crystal Methyd, whose ideas Ru quickly shoots down: “You have to listen to the nods you’re being given.”
That is perhaps the best and most universal advice of all: If Ru doesn’t seem to like something, unless you’re really confident (hello, Gigi Goode in Snatch Game), you best change up your strategy. After all, Ru is the final arbiter.
What’s so great about Raven in this walkthrough is that she’s absolutely hilarious with lines like, “You’re trying to become America’s Next Drag Superstar! Now, I don’t know what that’s like!” Plus, in comparison to Vangie—who was entertaining in her episode, but practically useless as a coach—she’s actually helpful. This crop of queens is very good, but they do need some direction and it’s likely thanks to Raven’s advice that the debate we get even has some funny moments. So thanks to Raven’s advice and thanks to the gift that is Jaida Essence Hall.
Jaida absolutely smashes this challenge by coming in with a strong idea: Politics are confusing, and as a politician, she’s going to use that to her advantage! She avoids every question through increasingly absurd tactics, including passing the question to Heidi and shouting “Look over there!” to distract the moderators. It’s reminiscent of Chad Michaels’ performance in Season 4, as Jaida figures out a way to avoid the trappings of the task by bulldozing through with her own strategy. She earns her second win of the season for her efforts, and unlike some of the close calls recently, this one’s a TKO.
Other than Jaida, however, everyone performs mediocre-to-bad this week, and I don’t think it’s their fault. Be it the editing or the direction of the challenge, the pacing is totally off, too frenetic to get a sense of anyone’s performance for more than a couple of seconds. Widow gets probably the second-most screen time next to Jaida, but she’s hitting the same “angry politician” note over and over. Jackie goes with a joke about secretly being Canadian while running to be an American drag president but admits freely that she’s Canadian at the start, so the bit deflates. All the others fall into some level of meh, from Heidi’s melodramatic reactions without much substance to Gigi Goode’s real-girl-not-a-robot routine that recalls too much of her previous work.
Adding to the chaos is guest judge Jeff Goldblum as moderator. Unlike Rachel Bloom, who gets the comedy of the challenge and the tone of the show, Goldblum seems to think he needs to offer critique during the challenge. He jumps out of his character to knock Jackie for focusing on the Canada joke and swipes at Gigi for reusing her campaign slogan. His energy is off the whole episode, honestly, from his intro on the main stage (which feels like he’s trying too hard with Ru) to a supremely awkward moment with Jackie on the main stage, in which he questions the religious connections of her hijab on her runway look.
That’s the other major problem with this episode: It wants to have a substantive discussion of the issues but slams it all into an episode that’s all about comedic distraction from our current political world. I feel for Jackie, and know her emotion about the experiences of Muslim people on the runway is real. (Goldblum bringing up such a big question that requires such a lengthy discussion in critiques is such a messy choice.) But the issues at hand are substantive and weighty, and she can’t be expected to carry out a proper evaluation of them on the fly. Similar discussions of political issues in the workroom feel too quick and pat, too. Drag Race doesn’t have the time or the interest in deeper conversations, so feigning at having them just feels insufficient.
The end result is the same no matter what the conversations would be, however: Jackie and Widow fall into the Lip Sync for Your Life, with a terrified Gigi just barely escaping the bottom three.
There’s been a subtle rivalry storyline happening with Jackie and Widow this season, from Jackie piling on Widow after Snatch Game to the two admitting they’re not very good friends in this week’s Untucked. I’m not sure if that rivalry fuels them in the lip sync, or if they’re both just hyped up, but the showdown to Katy Perry’s “Firework” is great regardless. The two queens go for entirely different styles, Widow going passionate once again in a harsher version of her “This Is My Night” lip sync, while Jackie camps it up with some literal song interpretation. She even brings an actual plastic bag on the stage to start the song.
I will personally go for a soulful interpretation nine times out of 10 unless the campy take is particularly excellent (think Peppermint’s “Music” or Jinkx Monsoon’s “Malambo No. 1”). So take it as high praise when I say Jackie wins this one for me. We’ve seen this side of Widow before, and it’s kind of a mismatch with the song. Jackie really makes the most of every beat and gives us a lot of different moods in one performance. She wholly deserves her shantay.
So it’s with great sadness that we say farewell to The Widow Von’Du, as Ru likes to call her. I get why this was her time: She’s never quite managed to live up to her excellent first-week performance, and it seemed like the pressure of the competition was weighing her down mentally. She really seems on the brink in Untucked this week. Widow is a dazzling performer and an excellent queen, and I hope she remembers and re-embraces that off the show.
We are down to our top six—and really, thanks to Sherry Pie—our top five! I’m not sure if I’d have predicted queens like Heidi and Crystal would be here weeks ago, but I’m thrilled they are. If they can outlast Jackie, I’d be thrilled to see them next to early frontrunners Gigi and Jaida at the end. But hey, if this lip sync is any indication, maybe Jackie’s got a lot of fight left in her.
✨The bit at the start of the episode where the queens talk about Jan’s high-energy antics is adorable. Widow in particular marvelling at how she was so excited so “early in the goddamn morning!” is lovely. A fitting tribute to a high-octane queen.
✨The CATS-inspired mini-challenge is one of the more bizarre mini-challenges we’ve ever seen on Drag Race, but what else would we want of a CATS-inspired challenge? Jackie Cox really puts her acting foot in it, going for a whole Eartha Kitt impression that weirdly works! She takes the win, marking yet another mini feather in her cap.
✨It must be said: “Choices” is a great name for the election challenge. Honestly, for as much as she contributed to the show in her two seasons, Tatianna gets relatively short shrift when it comes to in-show references. More Tati! Thank you!
✨Best Heidi-ism of the episode, talking about her win last week: “My bank account went from 33 cents to $5,000.33!” Runner-up, talking about Gigi: “Gigi? Cocky? I would’ve never guessed.”
✨“Senate!” “Campaign!” “Russian probe!” I looooove the Crystal/Jaida scene where they’re preparing for the challenge. What an unlikely pairing to be so effortlessly funny together, and yet!
✨Ru says this challenge is meant to find the first drag president. So, was Sharon Needles just never inaugurated?
✨Talking about his advice with Gigi, Ru says, “You don’t want it to come in one ear, you want it to come on your tits.” Consistently thrilling to see raunch return to Drag Race this season.
✨I am floored that Michelle Visage isn’t here this episode, her first miss of a taping since she began judging in Season 3. No idea what could’ve kept her away, but I hope it’s just temporary! That said, at least we get her in a taped bit—one that, hilariously, includes Dahlia Sin the Broc-ally behind her.
✨I know I’ve had harsh words for the “Rhythm of the Night” sample, but its deployment in the debate as Crystal reveals her mullet? Perfection.
✨My feelings on Jeff Goldblum as a guest judge are pretty clear in the recap, but just to add: Rachel Bloom is an absolutely lovely judge, so fun in the challenge (despite the chaos) and so smart in her critiques. I wish she’d gotten to guest judge alone.
✨Well, it’s April 25, and there are three in-season episodes of Drag Race left for Season 12, so I guess it’s time to speculate about what the finale will be. Obviously, despite the Sherry Pie disclaimer cards that continue to state that the finale and reunion are scheduled to film “later this spring,” anyone who’s been paying attention to the stay-at-home orders in California knows that such a shoot is incredibly unlikely. My guess is that the reunion will be subbed out for a clip show à la Countdown to the Crown specials from Seasons 1-7. As for the finale, we could see anything from another clip show to Skype calls with all the queens for a reunion finale in the style of Seasons 4-6 to individual lip sync performances from the finalists à la Seasons 7 and 8. The one thing I would absolutely not expect to return is a Lip Sync for the Crown. It may return in future seasons, when we can gather in groups once more. But for now, the Drag Race finale will be as safe and secure an affair as you can imagine—which, yes, will come at the cost of glitz and glam.