RuPaul’s Drag Race is many things, but above all else, it’s entertainment. When the needs of Drag Race the talent competition conflict with Drag Race the TV show, the latter always wins. One of the many challenges the producers face is stitching together these two aspects of the show, editing and seeding the episodes with appropriate talking heads so that the show’s progression feels earned. Having the best queens stay as long as possible makes for good TV, but occasionally, the producers decide the results need a little help. Enter rigga morris.
For those unfamiliar, Drag Race All Star Alyssa Edwards coined this term back in All Stars 2 as a uniquely Alyssa twist on the results being rigged. One of the more entertaining pastimes for Drag Race fans is spotting the rigga morris, when creative editing or questionable judging attempts to mask Ru’s thumb on the scale. “Madonna: The Unauthorized Rusical” is an engaging, fun episode, and the entire season has been tweaked in post due to Sherry Pie’s elimination. However, the results this episode are some of the most blatant rigga morris in a while, telegraphing where the season is headed and which queens are unlikely to get a fair shake this go-around.
The episode begins by underscoring the artifice coursing through the workroom. The queens return after Aiden’s elimination and both Heidi and Widow call bullshit in their talking heads as Brita, of all people, expounds on her love and respect for Aiden. The bad blood from the previous Untucked boils over into this episode, with Heidi and Widow calling out Gigi, Jackie, and Sherry for their comments. Widow even introduces a new term, “apolo-lie,” responding to Sherry’s non-apology apology, and it seems likely these tensions will linger.
The next day, Jan remarks on the mood in the room and tries to cheerily brush past it, with no success. Eventually, RuPaul saves the queens by entering the workroom to announce the next maxi challenge, “Madonna: The Unauthorized Rusical.” For this season’s Rusical, they’ll be recording their own vocals, with each queen embodying a different stage in Madonna’s career. They’ll need to lip-sync to their vocals while executing some of Madonna’s iconic choreography. Michelle Visage will be helping the queens record, with composer and producers David Benjamin Steinberg and Erik Paparozzi, and they’ll be choreographed by Jamal Sims. There’s no mini challenge to determine casting, however, so the queens will need to agree as a group.
Everyone rushes to the couch to listen to the tracks and pick their roles. About half get their first picks—Jackie, Jaida, Widow, Heidi, and Sherry—and the rest are talked into the remaining parts. Gigi and Jan seem the most hesitant about their songs, but they’re determined to make the best of them. As the queens quickly realize when they go to record, putting by far the best singer of the bunch up first, Jan, was not a great choice. She sets a high bar for the rest, one they ultimately can’t live up to. The edit sets the audience up for a crash and burn of a Rusical, but Michelle gives the queens good notes and they mostly manage solid vocals, at least after post-production. It’s great to see her coach the queens. She’s a smart, experienced performer and this more supportive side of her is rarely seen on Drag Race.
In a nice change of pace, the editors don’t over-egg the choreography rehearsal. Widow has some trouble due to a knee injury from the premiere, but mostly, the queens with dance experience deliver and the non-dancers struggle. Jan and Heidi are great, Jackie is an awkward mess, Gigi is clumsily getting in her own way, and Brita may be entertaining, but she has a way to go with her choreography. The reactions of the queens and coaches throughout are a blast. There’s a clear sense of where the queens are at, and while some are in better shape than others, they’re all focused and in the zone. The stage is set for a strong performance.
As everyone prepares for the challenge, the topic of conversation turns to Madonna’s advocacy for LGBTQ causes, and Heidi talks about her uncle, who died from HIV/AIDS when Heidi was young. He was a warm and supportive presence in her life, and that loss made a tremendous impact, particularly at Heidi’s young age. Crystal also opens up, talking about her father’s Parkinson’s diagnosis, and how his illness has impacted him and her whole family. For all the drama between the queens this season, they’ve managed to maintain a supportive environment in the workroom when preparing for the runways, sharing their stories with each other in ways that feel honest and genuine.
On the main stage, Ru struts out to banter with Michelle and Carson about Madonna, then welcomes guest judges supermodel Winnie Harlow and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They’re both exciting guest judges, but the highlight of Ru’s pre-Rusical chat is the announcement of the runway category: Night Of 1000 Michelle Visages. Michelle was clearly kept in the dark about this and she’s thrilled that the queens will be paying tribute to her looks over the years.
After a quick, campy introduction from Michelle, the Rusical begins. Jan is up first as Early Madonna. She slays the vocals and choreography and is a blast to watch. Her song is repetitive and goes on a bit long, but Jan is so strong it’s hard to mind. Jackie is second as Boy Toy Madonna, channeling “Like A Virgin.” She looks great, but as hinted earlier, she misses the tone and subtext of the song. Next is Gigi as Unapologetic Madonna, and she does well, particularly considering she didn’t want this role. Her back handspring, previously busted out in the bees mini challenge, feels out of place, but Gigi nails the main, iconic choreography for her song. It’s a strong showing from a non-singer and non-dancer, though not quite Jan’s slam-dunk.
Brita comes out next as Cone Bra Madonna and while her dancing is underwhelming, she has some of the funnier vocals and she gets a strong response from the judges. After a questionable recording session, Jaida pulls through as Sexy Madonna. She’s confident and commits fully to the mostly spoken-word song. Sherry goes for the comedy as Movie Star Madonna, with solid vocals and good timing, though very little choreography. Crystal pops up next as Enlightened Madonna. Her vocals are not good, but they’re silly and she embraces her awkwardness in the choreography. It’s easy to see how this performance would be re-edited into a loser if Ru and the producers wanted to send her home, and Crystal’s eventual placement in the top is a complete surprise.
Widow is next as Fempire Madonna. She’s high-energy and full of swag, and seems like a shoo-in for the top three. Heidi comes out last as Madonna Forever. There’s not much to her vocals, but she’s terrific at her choreography, as expected. Her performance could definitely be more Madonna, but she executes what is asked of her and has the right stage presence and charisma to sell the role. She should be safe. The Rusical closes with a big group sing, and the cast are pretty together. As a whole the Rusical is charming and fun, and even the weakest queens are a pleasure to watch.
The runway is similarly strong. Jan is campy and delightful as Glamazonian Airways Michelle. Jackie nails the details as All Stars Michelle. Gigi sets herself apart as S.O.U.L. S.Y.S.T.E.M. Michelle, the only blonde look on the runway. Brita is in her element as Season 10 Finale Michelle in a very Brita blue gown. Jaida looks great as All Stars Icon Michelle, all leather and studs. Sherry also stays close to her brand with Kitty Girl Michelle. Crystal looks terrific as RuPaul Show Lady In Red Michelle, rocking a fabulous red coat. Widow’s look is simpler, but she also looks great as RuPaul Show Starry Starry Michelle, and Heidi is up last as On The Set Of TOWIE (The Only Way Is Essex) Michelle, in a subdued purple dress and cape, but tall, over the top hair.
For the first time this season, the judging is a surprise. Sherry, Widow, and Jaida are safe. It becomes clear that Jan, Gigi, and Crystal are in the top, while Jackie, Brita, and Heidi are in the bottom. Jan feels like a lock to win this challenge, and Gigi did surprisingly well as Unapologetic Madonna, so fair enough. But Crystal? Then there’s the bottom three. Jackie did the worst in the Rusical and Brita has been struggling for episodes. But Heidi? For the most part, the queens all did well, particularly with their runways. The critiques are going to be nit-picks. However, the judges don’t have much specific praise for Crystal, besides that they love her. This feels like a top placement focused on spreading the love and bucking up a producer favorite. As for Heidi, she’s in the bottom for one reason: To send Brita home.
Here’s where the rigga morris kicks in. Jackie’s runway look is fantastic, but after that Rusical performance, she belongs in the bottom, and Brita belongs down there with her. However, Brita has shown herself to be solid in the lip-syncs, and Jackie is an unknown quantity. Ru has apparently learned from the Valentina and Nina Bo’nina Brown lip-sync back in season nine, and she’s not willing to risk promising queen Jackie up against solid, but under-performing Brita. Instead, Heidi, a strong dancer and lip-syncer, gets placed in the bottom and Ru saves Jackie. It makes for entertaining television, but as one of the hearts of the season, it’s frustrating to see Heidi used in this way. Similarly frustrating is Ru’s decision to give the win to Gigi over Jan. Gigi is a sickening, incredibly talented queen, but Jan won this one and if Ru won’t recognize her here, she’s unlikely to get a win all season.
The lip-sync, “Burning Up” by Madonna, is one of the better non-premiere lip-syncs of the season, with both Heidi and Brita pulling out dance moves and comedy. Heidi is more confident and cool in her performance while Brita flags in her energy toward the end, so Heidi deservedly gets the shantay and Ru sends Brita back to New York. Brita has not had the most illustrious tenure at Drag Race, under-performing her own expectations and getting the dreaded not-self-aware edit. She can serve a look though, and the judges consistently praised her charisma, so she’ll undoubtedly be back for All Stars, hopefully with a clearer head and a touch more perspective.
- The reading mini challenge is surely coming, but are we done with mini challenges otherwise?
- Both Heidi and Widow have great talking heads this episode. Widow’s cold butter knife comments at the beginning of the episode are gold.
- I really like Jackie, but I’m right there with Widow when she cackles over the karma of Jackie having to take on a dance challenge—one of her weak points—immediately after criticizing the other queens for not being more prepared for Snatch Game, a challenge that played directly to her strengths.
- For such a young queen, Gigi is surprisingly up on her references, so I was genuinely shocked she didn’t know Patti LuPone. Hopefully that moment will prompt younger viewers to go seek out the fabulous Ms. LuPone, who, among many other recent credits, was great last year on Pose.
- The guest judges this season have been terrific. Winnie Harlow and AOC are good additions to that roster, but it’s a little strange to have them in the same episode. Both give good notes, but Harlow is overshadowed by AOC, who the queens are understandably floored to meet. As for Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, she’s charming and very excited to be there. She’s not a Leslie Jones or Nicki Minaj-level guest judge, but she shows herself well.