This is a phrase we tried to retire years ago because it became a total cliche in most television reviewing, but this was what they call a “table-setting” episode. It’s an episode where the actual challenge and the outcome of that challenge matters less than giving all the queens the opportunity to let us know who they are and what they can do. For whatever reasons, Drag Race seems more aware than usual that they’ve got a crop of relatively unknown, slightly rough queens here. If we wanted to spin out a theory, we’d suggest that Drag Race now operates on the assumption that every season will produce a crop of drag stars who will go on to bigger and better things, which means it takes the task of introducing queens and weeding out weaker ones more seriously than it ever has before.
An acting challenge so early in the competition means there are so many players on the stage that there’s pretty much no way for the viewers at home – and possibly even the judges themselves – to determine the quality of everyone’s work. But that’s not really the point of it. With 14 queens fighting their way through five minutes of shitty dialogue, the only thing you’re going to get out of it as a viewer is:
1) Oh, she’s one to watch.
2) Girl, please. You’re a mess. Go home and come back later.
In addition to a barely-worth-assessing challenge, this episode featured an unusually long bitch session at the makeup mirror. This was, we’d argue, the entire point to the episode. In other words, the challenge was meh, but by the end of the episode we got a pretty good handle on who had promise, who’s not ready yet, who’s got an attitude, who’s got insecurity issues and who’s going to be the attention whore of the group. Everyone gets a placecard for the spot at the table.
So what have we learned, kittens? We learned Scarlett and Plastique are not just a couple of look queens. We learned that Yvie is a troublemaker. We learned that Silky is way more aware of who she is than she lets on (and that Ru seems to favor her). We learned that Ariel’s got opinions but at least she’s not two-faced. We learned that Ra’jah isn’t here for nonsense. We learned that Kahanna is definitely not ready for this and we learned that Mercedes Iman Diamond has been through some shit.
Oh, and we learned that Vanjie is a goddamn star. Not that we didn’t already suspect, but literally every word that drops out of that queen’s mouth is hilarious. Who does your eye go straight to in the above shot? She’s a star, bitches. We’re just not sure why Ru isn’t exclaiming that every week.
Anyway, that’s it. That’s the whole point of this. The storylines, personalities, expectations and relative talent levels have all been effectively set up for the rest of the season. And the runway portion gave us a much better idea of the lewks-serving talent of this crop than last week’s homespun trash drag. Some of these queens are more than we thought and some of them are … sadly a lot less.
So congrats to Scarlett and Yvie! Can’t say we disagree with the choice.
No one truly aced this acting challenge (and we’d argue part of that came down to a couple of really bad skits), but she did the thing the judges love to see most in these challenges: she committed to it and kept it up all the way through. No, it wasn’t a comedic tour de force or bravura theatrical accomplishment, but she did the damn work and surprised everyone with her consistency. Her runway look was equally as surprising because we hadn’t seen any indication that she could do this sort of fantasy drag. She’s definitely a girl to watch.
Ditto all that for Yvie. She didn’t exactly make us howl with laughter, but like Scarlett, she kept it up all the way through and didn’t flub a line or break character. For all the complaining the queens do about how hard the acting challenges are, they’re almost never won on artistic accomplishment but merely on technical consistency and the bravery to be a little ridiculous. And just like Scarlett surprising us with her fantasy drag, we did not think Yvie had it in her to produce a look as jaw-dropping as this one.
And then there are the middle girls:
Shuga, you need to step your pussy up, girl. You are fading into the background way too quickly.
Plastique’s runway look was a stunner (no surprise there), but she turned out to be a pretty engaging and gung-ho actress, even if we were once again treated to an Asian queen doing Asian dragon lady stereotypes. It’s not really for us to denounce it, but it’s certainly gone past stale at this point. Then again, the show routinely asks the black queens to indulge in some pretty old and cliched “ghetto” stereotypes all the time. We don’t know… we’re too white to have a say on this. We’re not offended or insulted; we’re just surprised it’s still happening.
Great look, but we can tell we’re going to get tired of her makeup real quick. It’s harsh and it doesn’t seem to change much from look to look.
Her looks are certainly eye-popping and Instagram-ready, but this is the second week in a row we thought the body work was questionable. Her looks are stunning, but not flattering. When you get off Instagram and onto the runway, you’ve gotta serve it from tip to toe, honey. She worked hard in the sketch challenge, but that was part of the problem: you can see how hard she’s working to prove herself. We don’t mind the bitchiness in the Werk Room. Let’s face it: Silky really is annoying. And we have to admit, there’s so much local Jersey Girl attitude in her that these two Philly boys can’t help but smile in recognition.
The rest of the queens were sent backstage without so much as a comment or a decent shot of them, but we’ll say this: Vanjie’s drag is MUCH higher than we gave her credit for. We don’t know why she was waved through, but she served one of the most stunning looks on that stage. The fact that every time she opens her mouth she sounds like a plumber doing a poetry slam on open mic night is merely the cherry on the top of her drag sundae.
Mercedes served up truly awful drag. And while perhaps we should grant her some leeway for being a literal African Queen, it seems really odd to us that any black drag queen would have trouble referencing the most legendary lines from Paris is Burning. If you can’t handle “YOU OWN EVERYTHING,” then we’re not sure you understand what Drag Race is looking for. But she had a real moment of vulnerability on the main stage and Ru loves that shit.
We’d say both of the bottom queens turned it out for the lip sync, although there’s a line that separates “epic lip sync” with “desperate queens freaking out.” Everyone gets to decide where that line is for themselves, but we, snippy judgmental bitches that we are, tend to have a fairly low tolerance for the kind of mugging and gurning both these queens pulled. To us, a lip sync is an embodiment of the illusory quality of drag and if you’re in a lip sync competition, the point shouldn’t be how wild you can get, but how much of a performance you can offer while still maintaining the illusion that you’re singing the song.
If you’re flipping and dipping all over the place, that illusion is lost. And while the editing does a pretty good job of obscuring this fact, it’s really obvious if you look closely that these queens were barely hitting any of the words. They were just opening their mouths over and over while they dipped or cartwheeled or ripped off their wigs.
As for Kahanna, this seemed like a no-brainer. Her drag has been rough as hell and in this case, downright hideous. That dress is ugly and that chest glitter is sad. We can’t say with any honesty or accuracy that she definitely gave the worst performance in the sketch challenge, but there’s no denying the girl just isn’t ready for this competition.
And now your weekly reminder that we two mercenary whores are writing a book about Drag Race, due out next year. Please make a note of it with a maribou-feather pen in your pink sparkly appointment books.
[Stills: VH1 via Tom and Lorenzo]