I have long held that there are three truly excellent seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race: Season 2, Season 5 and All Stars 2, with Season 5 being the best of the lot. There are other very good seasons—Season 6 and Season 9 immediately come to mind—but those three are the forever elites. Tapping into that club means producing a near-perfect season.
So it is with no small amount of gravity that I say this: Unless there’s some steep drop-off in quality in these last three episodes, Drag Race UK’s first season will join that top echelon. This week’s episode is a grand slam: A triumph of killer performances, stunning runway looks, sharp-but-fun critiques, and just the right dose of drama. But unlike recent series-best episodes like Season 11’s “Snatch Game at Sea,” or All Stars 4’s “Snatch Game of Love,” “Girl Groups” doesn’t feel like an aberration from the rest of the season. It feels perfectly a part of it, and a peak that sets us up for a roller-coaster drop in the final few episodes.
As you might guess from the title, this episode is all about girl bands—in the great British tradition of the Spice Girls, Girls Aloud, Little Mix and more. Two teams of three must team up to battle it out on the same song: “Break Up (Bye Bye),” which is an absolute banger and stands tall in the echelon of Drag Race group songs. I’ve already listened to the winning team’s edition on Spotify five times. But wait, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself: First, we have to actually choose our teams. And how do we do that? The Reading Is Fundamental mini-challenge!
This is a great edition to the reading challenge, thanks largely to how good-humoured every girl is about their reads. This cast is top-tier in a variety of ways, but it’s their willingness to have fun with each other that I love most. Baga Chipz looks just about ready to piss herself at half the reads about her. Crystal wins, but I think it could’ve gone to Divina de Campo or Cheryl Hole too. No one does poorly; everyone gets some big laughs.
Crystal wins the ability to pick her team for the challenge, and quickly chooses a strong singer—The Vivienne—and a superior dancer in Cheryl. That leaves Blu Hydrangea with Baga and Divina, and almost immediately it feels like Crystal misplayed. Yes, you want to pick strong performers, but you also want to pick people who you won’t be overshadowed by. A team with Blu and Cheryl might’ve been more effective, though I understand why Crystal wanted to separate Baga and Vivienne.
In this week’s cold open, the mean girls duo further establish that they think they’re superior. They bristle at Blu’s suggestion that they didn’t deserve a tie win, and indulge in some hopeful banter about being the top two. Again, however, this mostly comes from Vivi; Baga mostly feels like an indulgent accomplice. I’m trying to parse what’s happening with their collective edit, as eventually they’ll have to separate. Part of me thinks Vivi is being set up to take the fall, but another part wonders if Baga will become Vivi’s sacrificial lamb.
At this point, a top two made up of the two of them feels unlikely, simply because of how many underdog edits we have going on. To watch the two top dogs of the season rule the roost at the end is not really Drag Race’s bag. Production likes a bit more variety. And so it is perhaps no shock that they use the team separation between the pair this week to give one a lift and knock one down.
Crystal, The Vivienne and Cheryl name themselves “Filth Harmony,” and get off on a strong note in their recording session with the funny and encouraging British singer MNEK. Vivi’s got a naturally solid voice, while Cheryl finds a way to talk-rap her way through her verse. It’s Crystal who struggles mightily: She has none of the swagger needed to sell a rap, while her singing voice is basically nonexistent. Still, one bad performer in a group is hardly something to panic about when the rest of her group can carry her, right?
That might ordinarily work, but it won’t in the face of “Frock Destroyers.” That’s Blu’s name for her group, and she is a surprisingly effective vocalist. Baga is a genuinely good singer and Divina is a vocal champion. The latter pulls out a Mariah Carey-esque whistle tone that knocks MNEK’s socks off, and sets Divina up for a very good week. That only continues in their choreography session, as Divina reveals herself to be a thoughtful instructor. She comes up with deceptively complex steps, but never fails to check in with Blu and Baga to make sure they’re keeping up. Compared to Cheryl’s more domineering style in Filth Harmony’s reversals, Divina looks like a professional.
When the groups reunite after, they engage in enough playful-but-bitchy smack talk to fill a gay bar. This is the kind of shade I love on this show: The queens are competitive enough to drag each other over and over, but not so mean as to get personal. You can feel the love in the room even as they get bitchy. It’s exactly the right tone for this show. It reminds me of the way queer friends actually talk to each other! And it also sets us up for a true battle of the groups on the main stage.
After introducing Graham Norton and Michelle Visage (“Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be part of a popular girl group?” Damn, Ru!), as well as guest judge Jade Thirlwall of Little Mix, we see Filth Harmony take the stage. Cheryl, girl band fan that she is, absolutely kills her portion of the number. Crystal tries her hardest, but this is not her skills’ optimal arena. But the big shock is that The Vivienne slips while lip-syncing early, and never recovers. It is by far her worst performance; Graham notes during deliberations that she previously seemed “invincible.” But this, combined with a somewhat standard runway presentation, puts her in real jeopardy.
The Frock Destroyers, on the other hand, absolutely slay their routine. Each verse is strong, with Baga’s probably being the best, while Blu best executes Divina’s punchy choreography with aplomb. They all pull out amazing “Day at the Races” runway looks, too, each interpreting the prompt radically differently. Blu goes with a horse head. Baga gives herself a hat of roses. And Divina makes herself into both jockey and steed, whipping herself down the runway.
It feels too close to call between the three for the win, which makes Ru just give them all the win instead. My instinct is to bristle at another tie win—this one a three-way tie, a first in Drag Race herstory—but honestly, I have no clue who I’d have awarded among the Frock Destroyers. It may be a lot of wins for the week, but it’s a truly earned tie, unlike in Snatch Game. I do love Ru’s warning about the rapidly dwindling number of available RuPeter Badges, though. “Supplies are running out, girls,” he says. “Get them while you can.”
Wouldn’t Baga, Blu, and Divina make for an excellent final three? They all have something special to offer in the realm of U.K. drag, but not in the exact same way. They’re strong performers who also bring it to the runway. And while Divina is my preferred winner of the three, all of them have the track record and storyline to justify the crown.
If The Vivienne went home this week, I’d suspect that would indeed be our final three. But her triumph on the lip sync (to Little Mix’s “Power”) makes me think we haven’t seen the last of her dominance. She runs circles around Crystal, who doesn’t know all the words and does a thirsty wig reveal halfway through the number. I’m not saying Ru would ever have considered sending Vivi home; I think this was more of a wake-up call for the frontrunning queen. Whether it works remains to be seen.
All in all, this is an exemplary installment of not just Drag Race UK, but Drag Race as a whole. I truly worried after the last few regular seasons that the Drag Race format might be broken beyond repair, sucked of what once made it such a wonderful gem on Logo. But this season is proving that in the right hands, Drag Race still has plenty of magic to do.
💋 “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day in the workroom, and I’m ready for another week of me doing mediocre.” Cheryl is great, y’all.
💋 She may not have won the reading challenge, but Blu furthers her reputation as a secret shade master by responding to MNEK’s praise of her voice with “Well, I’m not RuPaul.”
💋 Speaking of MNEK, Drag Race’s American variant needs to bring him over to work on the singing challenges as soon as possible. He’s a blast throughout the recording sessions, having just as good as time as the girls are. His dancing along with Cheryl is adorable.
💋 Jade Thirlwall makes for a great guest judge. Her fandom for drag and the show comes through, and she makes concise, smart comments without drowning out or contradicting the experts. And her note that Divina’s high pony hairstyle looks like “Ariana Grand National realness”? Flawless.
💋 There is one strange moment involving Jade, as Ru asks her about Simon Cowell’s judging. Ordinarily, this would make sense, as Cowell has judged many a season of The X Factor, the show that Jade’s group Little Mix originated from. However, Cowell didn’t actually judge Little Mix’s season; Gary Barlow took his place. Just a lil’ fact-checking for your nerves.
💋 If I could make one critique of the episode, it’s that not everyone needs to have a very special moment of breaking into tears on the runway. Only Crystal and Divina don’t this week, and Crystal still gets hers in during Mini-Untucked. I get how emotionally draining it is, but I do think there’s something to be said for keeping your shit together during judging, at least.
💋 Sorry for the avalanche of quotes this week, but this from The Vivienne slayed me: “Primary school wasn’t wasted on me, was it? Now I’m wearing ladies’ clothing and can’t spell ‘break’.”
💋 One good note for Vivi, and yet one bad: Her note that she’s ready to “fucking destroy” whoever’s in the lip sync next to her comes across pretty strong. I’ll chalk it up to her being a strong competitor, but damn, Cheryl and Crystal are right next to her!
💋 Responding to Ru’s “Shine bright like a diamond” with “Fuck diamonds, try Crystal”? The Canadian queen saved her best read for her last moment.
💋 Just a quick heads up, in case y’all didn’t know: Shantay? It means stay!