RuPaul’s Drag Race visits the ’90s in “9021-HO,” the most mild episode of season 9 so far.
Well, that was…nice. This felt a little more uneventful than most episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race this season. The meat of it was an acting challenge — a throwback to Beverly Hills, 90210, a show that was in its third season when Farrah Moan was born. (Ru: “I’m gonna f***ing f**k you up.”) There was also a fun little runway about big hair and surprisingly little drama. It’s kind of hard to believe that, only a couple weeks back, Eureka was being sent home on doctor’s orders and Nina was breaking down on the runway.
As usual, Nina seems to be the first thing I want to talk about. A combustible mix of weathered world-weariness and intense vulnerability, she’s been the most consistently interesting thing about season 9. We’re at the point where I can predict how most of the queens will perform based on the challenge at hand, but Nina is still surprising me. When I heard they were going to have an acting challenge this week, I honestly had no guess as to whether she’d be on the bottom, the top, or in the middle.
Well, she was on the bottom. Playing a riff on Shannen Doherty’s bitchy character in 90210 (“I’m gonna go play a witch on Charmed!”), all of Nina’s line readings fell flat. An example: Shae’s very pregnant character says she’s the president of the abstinence club. Nina: “I can see that worked out.” There was no note of sarcasm in her voice, and the timing was way off. With the exception of a slap fight with Aja during the prom scene (she went DOWN on that fall), nothing about the challenge worked for Nina.
But the real surprise came during her critique, when Nina absorbed the judges’ comments respectfully and offered a reasonable explanation about psyching herself out during filming to explain her poor performance. Remember: Nina was crying on the runway during the “Good Morning Bitches” episode after receiving compliments. Has she developed that thick skin the judges were going on about, or is just pushing her feelings down?
Even her lip sync, to CeCe Peniston’s “Finally,” was more sedate than I was expecting, although she did a respectable bumping and sissying around the runway.
Joining her was Aja, whose mean girl character didn’t come across as nearly mean enough. Aja was more animated than Nina during the lip sync, but it may have been a bit too much visual noise — the eye was still drawn to Nina and her playful cat makeup, complete with the world’s biggest, bushiest mohawk.
Aja actually claimed Nina’s mantle of Most Drama-prone Contestant tonight when she had a little tantrum about playing Grandrea Zuckerwoman, an elderly character that eventually went to Shae Couleé. Put simply, Aja was being a brat. (Alexis: “You’ve got to grow up and accept the challenge.” Aja: “I don’t have to.”) In fairness to Aja, she completely owned up to her behavior later, but it’s still not a great look.
Then there was Aja’s sad little shrug as she sashayed away. If Charlie Hides’ lip sync from a few weeks back could walk off the runway, that’s what it would look like. She was just ready to leave.
In happier news, I think the top three in this episode stand a very good chance of being the top three we get in the finale. Although it wasn’t what she was originally assigned, Shea threw herself gleefully into the role of Grandrea, summoning all kinds of snorts and hacks and wheezes to sell the part of a high school senior there way past her prime. It was the most studied of the performances.
But as the virginal Monna, Valentina got the biggest arc, and she proved she had the range to pull it off. Valentina found terrific comic beats everywhere, particularly when she eagerly downed that bottle of airline liquor (with attendant masculine burp), and when she was stumbling drunk onto her ass at the prom. Valentina has real physical comedy chops, something she also demonstrated during the cheerleading challenge. Also, I want a GIF of the moment where she throws her hands in the air and screeches “Woooooooo!”
But in the end, it’s Trinity who snags the win. She’s helped by the character, a mom who wants nothing more than to live vicariously through her teenage daughter, right down to copying her addiction to speed. But it wouldn’t work without Trinity’s commitment. Michelle is right: she steals the spotlight every second the camera cuts to her, whether she’s popping pills like tic tacs or stealing a drink as she props up a wobbly Valentina at the prom. This was the perfect melding of character and actor.
Generally speaking, you can spot a Drag Race winner coming long before the finale. It was obvious Bob the Drag Queen would take season 8 pretty much from the jump, and Bianca Del Rio was always the clear standout of season 6. This year, no one’s quite marked out that territory yet, although people keep getting close. Shea’s got the talent and Valentina the charisma, but I wouldn’t be mad if Trinity’s fierce work ethic won her the day. Mostly, I’m glad it’s still an open question.
We were down to nine contestants this week, a small enough group for a quick runway rundown:
- The theme was big hair, and Valentina’s was among the biggest. She also knew how to sell it, jumping all over the stage so it bobbed hypnotically.
- Ever the Vegas showgirl, Farrah wore feathers on her shoulders. A pretty look, and the high blonde hair gave it an extra dose of camp value.
- I loved how the strips of fabric that connected the bottom of Trinity’s gown to her sleeves forced to walk down the runway in a statuesque pose. And that huge halo wig…wig of the night.
- Michelle was right: With her high spiky hair and androgynous punk outfit, Sasha did make a nice change of pace. “Like Sid ate Nancy.”
- Peppermint gave Kennedy Davenport realness.
- Nina’s lion makeup was great, as was her presentation, but Michelle is right again: the boots and corset are getting a little predictable.
- Shea looked a little dull, too, with the pink swimsuit and furry jacket, but the big gulp and weave pats gave it a sense of place.
- Alexis: “Helena Bottom Carter.” The dripping eye makeup was fun. Also, I have an Amazon Echo that goes off whenever someone says Alexis’ name. That is all.
- Michelle is right yet again: This was the best Aja has looked. The hoop skirt gave this outfit a sense of shape it might not otherwise have, and the puffy platinum hair contrasted nicely with the black ensemble. Also: cool cagey shoulderpads.
Next week: a roast! It did work awfully well last time they tried it, and nothing stirs drama like a good read.
- I love how matter-of-fact Trinity is after Cynthia’s elimination. “I love her, but bye, bitch.” Why not? It doesn’t make her mean, just realistic.
- We near a snatch of Valentina’s solid singing voice when she’s talking about Alexis’ Snatch Game win. If there’s a singing challenge this year, I feel like Valentina could do really well.
- Sasha showing a fun side when imitating Farrah in the workroom. More impressions of Farrah Moan whining, please.
- Things you won’t see on any other reality show: One man pulling a fake censor bar off another man’s nipples while the second man screams.
- Peppermint on Aja complaining about her role: “So now you look like a bitch playing a bitch in the last scene.”
- First, Kimora Black didn’t know what an adjective was. This week, Farrah revealed that she’d never heard of the word “quirk.” Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse…actually, nothing’s topping that adjective bit.
- Seeing all the girls in a lineup during rehearsals throws into relief how freaking tall Nina is. She towers over the others.
- Peppermint on her and Aja’s makeout scene: “Here comes all of Aja’s tongue in my mouth. We might have to get married after this.”
- Tori Spelling: “We couldn’t tell if [Nina] was angry that we were giving her direction.” RuPaul: “Trust me, she was angry.” Carson: “She’s out there keying your car right now.”
- On a sidenote, was all the sniping between guest judges Tori Spelling and Jennie Garth for effect or was some of it genuine? The girls didn’t seem sure and neither was I.
- Michelle: “I think it’s interesting that she threw a fit about playing the mean girl because she wasn’t really mean and she wasn’t really good.” Ru: “She’s not even a girl.”