Photo: VH1

BenDeLaCreme dropped the mic on season three of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars by leaving the competition at the end of the last episode, and while that was a fantastic twist, the show doesn’t do anything with the momentum created by her shocking departure. I applaud BenDeLa’s strategy of bringing back Morgan McMichaels as a way to assuage her guilt and give Morgan more exposure, but this episode reminds us why she was eliminated in the first place. She’s not very good at Drag Race, and she didn’t magically get better. She doesn’t represent any sort of threat to the other four queens, and when she does get the opportunity to shake things up, she goes with the most obvious choices and guarantees her elimination.

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Morgan is only part of why this episode underwhelms. The much bigger problem is the totally scattered maxi-challenge, which has the queens playing characters from prestigious awards movies acting together in a raunchy Amy Schumer-style comedy. The comedy’s title, “My Best Squirrelfriend’s Dragsmaids Wedding Trip,” reflects the random, reference-heavy humor of the script, and it’s pretty awful, even by Drag Race standards. Fart humor is funny to a degree, but go too far and it becomes embarrassing, like the scene with four queens farting a version of “Here Comes The Bride” that turns into a reveille.

At first it seems like this is going to be some sort of political challenge because Ru walks into the workroom with Nancy Pelosi, minority leader of the U.S. House Of Representatives and a major political advocate for LGBT rights. She gives the queens a pep talk and talks about how important their art is, but then she’s gone. Pelosi is a busy woman who doesn’t have time to spend hours on the Drag Race set, but her appearance is out of place in an episode that doesn’t engage with the political aspect of drag in any significant way. There’s a gag in which the judges call their representatives while the queens deliberate, but the main challenge has nothing to do with politics.

It’s an awkward week to have an episode that skirts around the politics of drag given RuPaul’s recent comments in The Guardian regarding transgender contestants on Drag Race. You can read more about this controversy and RuPaul’s history with the trans community in this handy Vox explainer, but it boils down to RuPaul not wanting trans women on the show if they’ve had gender-affirming surgery, which he later equated to athletes doping at the Olympics. There was a huge backlash from the trans community, but also Drag Race queens and fans, who expressed their disappointment in RuPaul’s attitude toward their trans sisters. He eventually backtracked with an apology, but will this be a learning experience that changes his opinions and makes Drag Race more inclusive? We’ll have to wait to find out, but RuPaul has a powerful position in the queer community, and as he says before each elimination, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

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The main challenge is a jumble, the political aspect is undercooked, and the runway flies by in less than a minute. That last one is especially infuriating when the previous episode denied us a runway, and it’s starting to feel like the series is cutting the drag performances to make space for drag drama that is not as riveting as the producers think it is. The runway is when these queens get to show off, and the outfits are informed by what the queens do while wearing them. There’s no time to take in each look when the contestants get 10 seconds each, and seeing them during the judges’ critiques isn’t the same.

Trixie Mattel once again succeeds in a shitty episode, serving up distinct, polished characters for both the challenge and the runway. I’m especially impressed with how Trixie is subtly modifying her makeup to fit these characters without losing the signature Trixie look. She’s maintaining her strong lines and shapes while removing the garishness. She’s in the top contestants, but she has the misfortune of lip syncing against Shangela, who comes out with a gimmick that ruins Trixie’s chances of a win. Shangela takes the stage in a muumuu, and when RuPaul’s “Freaky Money” begins, Shangela rips it away to reveal a fat-suit barely covered by lingerie. The costume lights a fire in Shangela, and she gives a hell of a performance as she strips down and twerks for a cackling group of judges. But between the farts and the fat suit, there’s a juvenile quality to this episode that is at odds with RuPaul’s serious attempts to get viewers politically engaged.

Overkill is Shangela’s game, and nowhere is this more evident than her groan-inducing Game Of Thrones references. She’s so smug as she delivers them, like she’s the first person in the world to compare a reality competition to Game Of Thrones. Playing an Octavia Spencer character in the challenge, Shangela just does Shangela because the part was basically written for her, and Morgan foolishly assigned it to her. On the runway, Shangela wears an extravagant gown that fills up to cover her body in giant inflatable red spikes, and she ends the episode in a fat suit because she’s the definition of extra. Shangela is probably going to win All Stars, and she’s definitely the best at playing the game, but there’s an artificiality to her performance that has kept me from making an emotional connection with her.

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As Drag Race becomes more and more popular, the nature of fame after the series changes dramatically. Some are lucky enough to become genuine superstars, but a lot of queens are going to fall into Kennedy’s category, the afterthoughts who only have a line at the meet and greet five minutes before the end. Kennedy wants to be on the same level as queens like Shangela and Trixie, and she shows real vulnerability when she expresses this insecurity about her career in relation to the others. Kennedy doesn’t do very well playing an Emma Stone character (no surprise there), but she does have one incredible moment in this episode when she mispronounces “meme” during the backstage deliberation. “Girl, get ready,” Kennedy says. “They gonna me-me yo ass to death, bitch.” Shangela corrects her, and everyone has a great big laugh in a moment that is probably going to be memed to death.

Bebe is a Drag Race winner, but she’s not a celebrity on par with the show’s A-list. Where she differs from Kennedy is that she doesn’t care because she doesn’t let other people dictate her self-worth. She’s above all of that. That’s how jealousy and drama happen, and she’s not going to let that affect her determination. She refuses to show the other queens which lipstick she picked at the last elimination because she doesn’t want to create unnecessary tension, and in general she keeps everyone else at a distance so she can watch out for number one. This gives Bebe a bougie demeanor, and Shangela has known Bebe long enough that she feels totally comfortable calling out her condescending behavior.

Shangela’s best moments this week are when she’s impersonating her friend, and there’s no tension when she has to pick between Kennedy, Bebe, and Morgan for elimination. She flat out tells Kennedy that she’s not going to eliminate her, and Shangela wouldn’t get rid of Bebe given their personal relationship and Bebe’s track record. The ending of this episode is inevitable early on, and the returning queen curse claims another victim as Morgan leaves the show for a third time. There’s only one episode left in this season, and it’s looking more and more likely that this round of All Stars is going to be stuck in mediocrity until the end.

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Stray observations

  • All Stars might be a disappointment, but season 10 looks fantastic:

  • Chris Colfer and Garcelle Beauvais are adequate guest judges. Chris gets in a good dig comparing Morgan McMichaels’ Beige Swan to Jodie Foster’s Nell, and Garcelle makes a dirty joke about the inflatable protrusions on Shangela’s outfit.
  • Poor Morgan’s defining All Stars moment is going to be her turn as an uncomfortable quacking swan. Is that better or worse than not coming back?
  • Why didn’t the writers find a way to integrate politics into the acting challenge. Ms. Smith Goes To Washington, perhaps?
  • “If anyone is curious about anything, just know that you’ll be curious for the rest of your life.”
  • “Trixie onstage is fun and bubbly, but me in real life, a lot of the time I’m just like a boring white dude who doesn’t like hugs.”
  • “You would think she is of the royal family of Zamunda, bitch.”
  • “You’re a dirty cop and I’m a whistleblower.”
  • “You were more Helen Mirren, and I needed more yellin’ Mirren.”
  • Bebe: “I feel sometimes when you try to copy some accents, it can be taken as being rude.” RuPaul: “On this program?!”
  • “When it started to inflate, I got a little excited. I’m single.”
  • “So tell me why you made a mess of this whole challenge.”

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