What’s the point of all star drag queens when the world is on fire? People’s rights are being trampled, the government is barely functioning, and we’re living in fear of a nuclear war ignited by social media. The big TV success story of last year was Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and with each passing day, reality takes steps toward the dystopia depicted in that series. But 2017 also had another show rise in the cultural consciousness. RuPaul’s Drag Race has been steadily growing with each new season, but it became a full-on pop culture phenomenon with its jump to VH1. It’s won multiple Emmys, outlets like The New York Times and GQ are writing features about it, and RuPaul is doing interviews with Oprah and Stephen Colbert to promote the series. Reality might suck, but drag queens can provide an hour of relief we could all use right now.

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The third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars begins with the show’s previous champions, Chad Michaels and Alaska, in a short parody of The Handmaid’s Tale, taking to the streets in red capes and bonnets to talk about how excited they are for the new season. It’s a silly little skit that makes a significant statement about the role of drag and Drag Race in a frightening political landscape. It presents this series as part of the resistance, and as the U.S. government pushes conservative values, Drag Race’s liberal approach to gender performance and sexuality gives it a rebellious spirit.

It makes a lot of sense for RuPaul to do another season of All Stars while the series is reaching new heights of popularity, and this is the first All Stars to take advantage of the expanded viewership of VH1. All Stars becomes more and more interesting over time because the industry around Drag Race is changing so much and so quickly, and even though I wasn’t all that impressed by the line-up when it was announced, seeing these queens interacting made me appreciate the group much more. All star status isn’t earned just because a queen was beloved on Drag Race, and there are contestants who have grown a lot since their first appearances. Milk got a foot in the fashion world as a model, Shangela scored a bunch of bit parts on TV, Trixie Mattel became a webvideo superstar and currently has a show on Viceland.

If a queen’s success on the series was based on how often she’s spotlighted in the cutaway commentary, Trixie Mattel would easily be the frontrunner after this episode. She’s been honing her ability to deliver quick, snarky observations with her work on UNHhhh and The Trixie & Katya Show, and the established relationships she has with the other queens gives her even more fodder when she needs to call them out. When she’s the first person in the room, she takes advantage of this moment of spotlight and starts performing, delivering the season’s brutal first read: “There’s nobody in here! It’s like a Morgan McMichaels meet-and-greet.” As the first person in the workroom, Trixie gets to critique every single queen as they arrive, and she’s basically the M.C. for the all star introductions.

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The producers didn’t reveal the identity of the 10th queen with the rest of the contestants, and while the Drag Race fan detectives figured out that Bebe Zahara Benet would be returning to snatch a second crowd, saving that reveal for the episode gives it more dramatic effect. It’s a big deal that a former winner is now an All Star, but I have no problem with it given the size of the show’s audience now compared to when it first debuted. Bebe is a fierce queen that doesn’t have the name recognition of more recent Drag Race contestants, but she also radiates a warmth and professionalism that makes her feel almost like a RuPaul proxy for the contestants. She wants to win, but she also wants to get to know the other queens and learn from each of them. There’s a reason why they are all stars, and with Bebe, there’s a sense that she’s using this opportunity to reinvigorate her drag. Her opening look is very elegant, and when RuPaul opens the library after introductions, Bebe’s reads are cutting but demure.

The comedy queens fare best during the reading portion, and BenDeLaCreme wins the challenge. Below, a selection of my favorite reads from the library:

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  • “Thorgy Thor: Girl, what the fuck you got on your head? Christmas With The Cranks, honey.”
  • “Big and Milky: Girl, just like the drink, you give me the shits.”
  • “Kennedy Davenport: the only queen who doesn’t have to look both ways before crossing the street.”
  • “Shangela: I always thought her name was Angela and people were just telling her to shut up.”
  • “Thorgy Thor: You know I love clowns. And I never met an unfunny one ‘til I heard you reading.”
  • “Aja: You’re beautiful, you’re gorgeous, you look like Seal.”
  • “Wow, Milk, you put a lot into this look. What? 2 percent?”
  • “Shangela: What if this season put you in a box? Because you’re gonna halle-lose.”
  • “Thorgy, I love this full outfit. I usually only get to see about this much when you’re handing out balloons from that sewer grate.”
  • “Shangela: you have come so far. Initially your makeup was kind of busted and your outfits were a mess, and your personality was super grating. But look how far you’ve come now: you’re much older.”
  • “Thorgy Thor: mother, she looks homeless.”
  • “I’m not going to read Morgan McMichaels. Life already has.”

Ben enters the workroom the same way she did years ago, but wearing a redesigned version of her Miss Congeniality dress. For most of this episode it feels like Ben hasn’t really changed. The other queens have a lot of digs about how Ben has been absent from the drag scene, but when she’s asked where she’s been, she just says Seattle. I haven’t been following Ben’s career, but I assumed that she would be working in Seattle if she’s not part of the Drag Race touring circuit. The other queens make it seem like she disappeared off the face of the Earth, which introduces some interesting questions regarding the expectations of Drag Race queens to follow the career paths of the most popular contestants instead of being content with working in their local communities.

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The winners of the variety show challenge are the two queens everyone is underestimating the most. Ben wasn’t considered a threat because she’s been off the other queens’ radars, and the others wrongfully assume that Aja’s lack of experience with post-Drag Race life would leave her at a disadvantage. Ben gives a burlesque performance that completely captivates the audience and the judges, and Aja goes into a club kid frenzy to reveal a star quality that never emerged in season 9. There’s a visible change in how Aja carries herself after she lands that final jump and hears the roar of the audience, and a fire is ignited behind her eyes, imbuing her performance with intensity as she seductively looks out at the adoring crowd.

Thorgy Thor rolls her eyes at most of the queens dancing and lip syncing to their own original tracks, but they should be using this platform to promote their own singles. When it comes to musical ability, the results vary greatly. Trixie and Thorgy both play musical instruments as part of their talents, and they take different approaches to how they incorporate drag elements into the unconventional musical genres. Trixie sings a very sweet, Kacey Musgraves-esque song while playing the autoharp, and most of the drag energy is in the visual of her exaggerated hair, makeup, and body. It’s an understated performance, and it sets Trixie apart from the other queens, who all go big because that’s what is expected of them.

Thorgy whips out her violin and plays a somber version of “Sissy That Walk” before a dance beat kicks in, and then she struts around the stage and plays some more upbeat material on top of a backing track. She’s adding drag queen theatricality to violin playing, and while the judges like it, Vanessa Hudgens points out that Thorgy looks like she’s holding back on stage. It’s true, and this episode shows that Thorgy is being weighed down by her season 8 experience. She won’t shut up about how annoying Bob the Drag Queen is and she holds a grudge against Chi Chi for taking her spot in the top five. I have the feeling that Thorgy will be so wrapped up in the past that she won’t be able to give this competition her all, and it’s always interesting to see which queens are dragged down because they can’t let go and move on.

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This episode establishes a mother/daughter relationship between Kennedy Davenport and Chi Chi DeVayne, but Kennedy is definitely not showing any maternal qualities. She doesn’t tell Chi Chi that she should wear heels instead of flat, beat-up jazz shoes. She doesn’t tell her to put some padding on her body. She doesn’t tell her to pick a wig that won’t be in her face while she’s dancing. Kennedy isn’t going to hold Chi Chi’s hand, and she shouldn’t. All Stars is not the time for rookie mistakes, and Chi Chi’s performance in this episode comes across as straight-up self-sabotage. Kennedy displays raw talent and sharp technique, while Chi Chi looks sloppy and goofy.

Shangela gets the variety show started with a peppy gospel tune that turns into a very Alyssa Edwards-inspired dance number, and even though Milk’s song is pretty bad, that “touch the fashion, change your life” chorus did burrow its way into my brain. Morgan McMichaels has never lip synced and danced to her own song before, and now we know why. Her track is god awful, an abrasive, amelodic, and awkward dance single that she can’t redeem with her performance. She’s nervous because she feels like she has a lot to prove, but she shouldn’t try to be one of these queens with her own single if that’s not her strength.

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In last week’s New York Times article by Isaac Oliver about the current state of the drag economy, Brooklyn drag queen Charlene says, “Who is good at Drag Race is equated to who is good at drag,” and with All Stars season 
3, queens like Morgan and Ben are open about how their Drag Race performance affected their self-confidence and their post-show careers. I’m fascinated by Morgan’s storyline in this episode, which is rooted in her insecurity over not being a Drag Race fan-favorite but still having a reputation as a killer queen that dominates any club she enters. She isn’t able to transfer that club energy to the camera, so she’s bitchy as a way of making herself stand out. But that bitchiness has a downside, and she dooms herself by being open about how she’ll eliminate her greatest competition if given the chance.

The lip sync highlights the big differences between Ben and Aja’s points of view, with Ben offering a flighty comedic version of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” while Aja plays it straight and sexy. It looks like Ben is out of her depth at the start, but she blooms over the course of the number, bringing out the cartoonish elements of Nicki Minaj’s vocal delivery. The bits where she bursts into laughter are the highlight, and they give her a boost of energy that grabs the judges’ attention more than Aja’s slinky dancing.

Ben is the winner, and she makes a surprising choice for who goes home. The queens are unable to come to a consensus regarding the elimination criteria, and Ben makes it seem like she’ll stick to the judges’ opinions because she’s been so congenial thus far. But she’s also nervous that Morgan will eliminate her if they end up in a reversed situation down the line, so when the time comes to pick a queen to go home, Ben picks the biggest threat. Morgan made her bed and now she has to lie on it, and Miss Congeniality ultimately does the rest of the queens a favor by sending home the mean girl who wasn’t going to show any mercy if she got a taste of power.

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Stray observations

  • Vanessa Hudgens looks absolutely gorgeous in this episode. The hair, the makeup, the dress. It has just the right amount of drag flair, not so much that it distracts from her natural beauty. She also has helpful critiques and is totally game to lip sync against a pork chop on a plate of mashed potatoes. Excellent work, Vanessa.
  • Shangela really wants you to remember that RuPaul had her come back in a box. She can only mention that so many times before it defines her, and she doesn’t want to be defined by a box.
  • I will be so sad if this season doesn’t give us a Trixie Mattel impersonation of Dolly Parton.
  • Some very fun editing in this episode to show that these queens haven’t changed as much as they think they have. When Thorgy talks about how she’s gained all this new focus, we cut to her being distracted by a stray piece of hair, and when Chi Chi says she has it all together, we cut to a shot of her hat falling off.
  • Ben’s serial killer read for Trixie, implying that she locks her audience members in a room and watches them panic, is so much better than Aja saying she looks like Lisa Frank serial killer.
  • I love that moment of Milk pushing Trixie around the workroom on her roller skates.
  • “Chi Chi’s here! And she wore garbage again! And also trash bags.”
  • “That hat is your inner saboteur and I want you to let it go.”
  • “I feel like I’m thanking a veteran for their service.”
  • “I’ve just been sleeping in it and spooning my Miss Congeniality sash and weeping into my Overstock gift certificate over the last four years.”
  • “Oh my god, the look is white noise of ugly. In fact, it’s very Chi Chi. I think Kennedy is Chi Chi from the future, coming back to tell her she’s not going to win All Stars. Bitch, they are the same person!”
  • Ru: “I have one more queen I’d like to introduce into the competition.” Trixie: “Shangela’s right there!”
  • “This was Pearl’s spot, and she skated by, so I’m hoping to inherit that energy.”
  • Thorgy: “Trixie, are you making a porno for your talent?” Trixie: “No, I’m going to play violin. In a red clown wig. It’s kind of my thing.”
  • “Coming in for a landing. Newark, Laguardia, Kennedy Davenport.”
  • “I don’t have enough nipples. I want more nipples.”
  • Michelle: “My goal is not to make anyone cry.” RuPaul: “But is your goal to make someone quit? Again.”
  • Vanessa: “You’re so beautiful.” Ben: “I know, right?”
  • “You heard it here: never take less than a hundred.”

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