Review: RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9, Episode 9—”Your Pilot’s On Fire”


A front-runner leaves in a shocking episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race as the true contenders separate themselves from the also-rans.

Okay, maybe the word “shocking” should be put in context. It’s not like anyone spontaneously combusted. What happened tonight was much worse. Valentina, a unique queen who’d been giving off serious winner vibes since she first entered the workroom, went home after a dismal lip sync performance of Ariana Grande’s “Greedy.” Not only did she not know the words, but she started out by trying to hide her ignorance behind a literal mask, which forced RuPaul to stop the lip sync mid-performance and demand Valentina take it off. “It’s a lip sync. What part of that do you not understand?” It was the most uncomfortable lip sync on show since…well, since Charlie Hides bombed the Britney Spears song a few weeks back.

The thing is, Valentina was always a bit of a cipher. We knew she was beautiful, and stylish, and funny and charming and talented. But she came across as a little above the fray and out of reach. That only enhanced her mystery, but it looks now like it was also covering for some feelings of self-doubt. She may have forgotten the words to the song (or just never knew them), but she still could have tried to give us some energy. Instead, she had a minor breakdown on stage.

It’s uncomfortable to watch that kind of thing on TV, but it also makes for taut drama. There’s no denying this was an exciting episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Valentina’s elimination may become the moment fans remember most when they look back on this season. I’ll miss her and the little something extra she brought to the show. See you on All Stars.

Valentina’s bottom two placement was in the cards from near the beginning of the episode. This week, the queens had to team up to write, direct, and star in their own pilots. It’s a nice and loose all-purpose performance challenge that was always going to be exactly as good as the queens were willing to make it. Valentina, who paired off with Nina, didn’t seem interested in going all the way.

Valentina pays careful attention to her runway looks, so I was surprised when she suggested that she and Nina improv their lines for the show. Predictably, that goes south. The result is Nina and Tina, a formless pilot that’s both too complete (guest judge Noah Galvin was right when he said that their tale of prostitutes turned drag queens played more like a movie than a TV pilot) and severely underthought.

At the same time, I think the rapport between the pair could have worked in a different context. Nina, in particular, came alive in certain spots. You can’t say she didn’t throw herself into the scene where she and Valentina were putting makeup on each other, right down to her epic pratfall. It wasn’t right for this challenge, though. They needed a script, or an outline, or an idea that bore even a passing resemblance to something solid.

“Solid” is a pretty apt description for Mary, Mother of Gay, the faux-sitcom cooked up by Trinity, Peppermint, and Alexis Michelle. Picture it: a small, midwestern town. Two mothers aghast to learn their sons are gay, and the no-nonsense nun who has to bridge the gap. I can hear the synthesizer now.

The judges gave Mary some grief for being “cliche,” but I dunno — is originality the goal here? These three were clearly trying to ape the traditional 30-minute sitcom, and I thought it was pretty on point, particularly when Peppermint frowned at the camera during the opening credits — it was like a failed ABC pilot from the early ’90s come to life.

And like all sitcoms, there was a breakout star. As Sister Mart Koont, Trinity stole every shot she was in, much like she did in the 90210-Ho acting challenge. She went all the way with the elder makeup. She threw herself on the floor and started convulsing during the choir bit, and her screaming (“Just pray, dammit!”) had conviction. Between this and her runway look, Trinity had a terrific night. She was creeping up the ranks even before Valentina left, and now I’d be shocked if she didn’t make it into the top three.

Also, Mary had the best tag line of the night: “Tune in to see if tolerance goes balls deep!” C’mon, now.

But the best pilot of the night was hands-down Teets & Assky, Sasha and Shea’s campy cop drama. Peppermint, Alexis and Trinity had things under control with their script, but Sasha (as ex-commie Russian mommy Nathasha Assky) and Shea (as super glamma mamma-jamma Teets McGee) were having fun. Marrying blaxploitation and Soviet-era James Bond isn’t just a funny idea — it’s something that plays directly to the strengths of these two performers. There was no bickering over lines like in Trinity’s group — you got the idea that Sasha and Shea were both thrilled with their characters.

On top of the chemistry and the solid premise, Teets & Assky pulled ahead of the pack for the simple reason that it had the best jokes. I’ll leave some for Random Ruflections down below, but here’s a sample:

  • Natasha after Teets takes away her shoulder pads: “How else can I make myself look like strong woman?”
  • Teets: “Vote, bitch.”

Plus the joke about Shea’s cliffhangers. And Sasha’s perfect announcer voice, which sounded entirely different from her voice as Natasha. This just worked, and earned the pair their second duel-win.

On top of the entertaining pilots, we had one of the more interesting runway themes in a while: Club Kids, aka dress like a freaky ’90s party monster. Let’s run it down:

  • Sasha Velour: This was one of the more visually coherent looks — it consisted of a blue sparkly gown down the length of Sasha’s body and a pink puffy clown getup above the bust. It was a little muted compared to the other looks, but I liked the thought that went into it, and Sasha sold the mime angle.
  • Shea Couleé: The base of this costume is a swimsuit, which is kinda dull, but when you pile on the gaudy royal jacket and Deadpool-meets-jewel crab face mask, it’s more than forgivable.
  • Nina Bo’Nina Brown: I didn’t think the judge’s gave Nina enough credit here. Her Skeletor makeup was, obviously, top notch, right down to the fins jutting out of her head. And it took nerve to come out topless, and to pair a boy chest with a frilly tutu. Lots of fun contrast happening here. Also: “Nina Bo’Nina Brown is the first to walk backwards on the runway, so…sue me.” I don’t know if that’s true, but the confidence is nice.
  • Valentina: Valentina’s flame-red matador look read a little more Flamenco than Club Kid, but it was still striking. I especially liked her elongated fingers. You can’t not look creepy with elongated fingers.
  • Trinity Taylor: I’m not sure what I enjoyed more: the explosive use of color on Trinity’s outfit or her jerky robotic movements on the runway. Also those lashes. Dear god, those enormous lashes.
  • Peppermint: Okay, so this is clearly the best look of the night. And not because it’s “on-brand,” as guest judge Noah Galvin said. Even if Peppermint wasn’t named Peppermint, her peppermint-themed costume would be a marvel because of how cohesive and well-constructed it is. The proportions were a blast, from the giant circular shoulders to the coffee table skirt to the candy cane tumor on her head. You might think that a Club Kid runway would lead to chaotic visuals. This is a great example of an outfit that’s off-the-while wild but still very controlled. Don’t count Peppermint out yet.
  • Alexis Michelle: This, on the other hand, was just fine. The pancake makeup and hair loaf were neat, but the outfit itself is a patterned body suit and a corset. It was a strong runway overall, but this was the low point.

The season has lost one of its most intriguing competitors, and that sucks. But strong people remain, and there’s plenty of opportunity for drama on the horizon. With her complaints on the runway about the division of labor, Alexis is becoming more and more grating, which is fascinating/irritating — and that goes double for the backstage drama on Untucked. And Nina, poor Nina, can’t seem to break free of the feeling that everyone’s out to get her. “I could swear I’ve heard certain girls kinda talking…not saying my name, per se, but I feel like they were kind of talking about me.” Okay.

It’s sad to watch someone as talented as Nina psych herself out of being fully present, but maybe it’ll leave room for Peppermint, who’s been on a roll these past couple episodes, to pick up the slack and show us what she can really do. Whatever twists it has left, season 9 still has plenty of fire.

Next: Five Questions we have about The Handmaid's Tale

Random Ruflections

  • Sasha: “Farrah was just eliminated. I’m gonna miss the whining. It was so charming.” Gotta agree with her there.
  • Peppermint with a twist on a Charleton Heston quote: “[Alexis] is gonna have to pry this part from my cold, dead manicured hands.”
  • When directing Shea and Sasha, Carson Kressley kind of dated himself with that Moviefone reference. And he was coughing the whole time. Are you okay, Carson?
  • Peppermint thinks Nina is laboring under the delusion that there’s “[s]ome kind of drag conspiracy” plotting against her. Now, see? That would have been a good idea for a pilot.
  • Not to pile on Carson, but his eyeliner at the judges table wasn’t doing him any favors. I know he was going for a Club Kid aesthetic, but when it comes to that kind of look, half-measures do no good for anybody.
  • RuPaul on Alexis’ look: “I see her bridge and tunnel.” That’s the second time this season when Ru’s cracked a joke and (almost) no one laughs. Are we headed for a judge’s revolt? The show could probably get a good makeover episode out of it.
  • Based on her hilarious fury when drilling that guy about the espadrilles (“Bitch, I’m talking to you! I said where are the espadrilles?”), I’m going to guess Shea has the most acting experience of all the girls.
  • Nathasa Assky on an unfashionable perp: “Wearing white after International Day of Labor? If you were my mother’s daughter, she would drown you in river!” Come through, infanticide jokes!
  • Dud joke of the evening came from Nina and Tina: “”I thought a death drop means you really die.” Dud of the evening.” Ooof. But it’s not like it was a total disaster. I liked the capper line: “You can catch Nina and Tina on Channel Zero at 4:00 a.m.”
  • RuPaul on Mary, Mother of Gay: “Listen, it was cliche and not that original — I think the show’s gonna be a big hit.”
  • Nina when she finds out she’s lip syncing: “I knew it. Call me Miss Cleo.” Someone jot that down to do on Snatch Game later.
  • Trinity: “Nina needs to call Patti LaBelle cause she needs a New Attitude.” That’s as good a place as any to end things.