RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars embraces scandal and finally finds its footing – The A.V. Club

Illustration for article titled iRuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars/i embraces scandal and finally finds its footing

Photo: VH1

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Whether due to adjusted expectations or a genuine improvement from all involved, All Stars season five finally finds its feet with “SheMZ!”. The show’s focus is still very much on the behind-the-main-stage drama and social game, but the queens deliver solid performances in their improv challenge and present creative and fun looks for the runway, making this the strongest overall episode of the season. It may lack the wow factor of the premiere’s lip-sync, but “SheMZ!” is a heartening move in the right direction. If the queens can maintain this level of performance, and the editors stop slicing and dicing the lip-syncs, perhaps season five will at last build up some momentum.

The episode begins with the queens reacting to Mariah’s elimination, and the revelation that both Mayhem and Alexis voted for Shea. Shea is rattled, surprised to have been one vote away from going home. Fans of Shea will enjoy watching Mayhem squirm a bit, as Cracker certainly does, but Alexis seems comfortable with her vote. The dynamics will undoubtedly shift each episode, but right now there’s little consensus over how to vote, and anyone’s fair game.

The next day, after bidding a fond farewell to Mariah and bantering over the queens’ oscillating placements—India went from winning to the bottom, as did Shea—the queens head over to watch a scandal-themed RuMail. RuPaul heads into the workroom and announces the maxi challenge: The queens will work in teams, performing improv scenes based on a TMZ-style celebrity gossip show. India and Mayhem will be playing a celebrity shoplifter and the clerk who catches her. Jujubee, Blair, and Cracker will be embroiled in a celebrity college admissions scandal. That leaves Shea and Alexis paired, playing reality TV frenemies who are spotted out at lunch. India, Mayhem, Blair, Jujubee, and Cracker seem happy with their teams, but there’s palpable, delicious tension between Shea and Alexis. If the show is going to center on backstage drama this season, these producer-chosen teams are the way to go.

The queens settle into their groups and quickly get to work. India and Mayhem are excited for their scene, and India shares that she used to shoplift and ended up in court over it. She’s not proud of this, but she’s paid her debt and moved on. Mayhem is worried about the challenge, having been eliminated in her season on an improv challenge. She’s determined to go big and commit this time, showing Ru how she’s grown since season 10. Shea makes an ominous remark about her prior teammates’ record of being eliminated, but Alexis is having none of it. They both play up and into their tension and embrace the awkwardness, showing the other queens how to handle a reality beef while still getting the job done.

Over on the couch, Jujubee is ready to dive in, but Cracker pauses the proceedings to clear the air with Blair. Cracker claims that Alexis intimated that Blair and perhaps Mayhem had schemed over how they could push Cracker out of the competition. This is news to Blair, who denies ever plotting against Cracker, and the two hash it out. Meanwhile Jujubee is soaking in the drama, glancing back and forth between them and acting as an audience surrogate. She wants to get to work, but she’s also very much here for the interpersonal conflict, serving up a pitch-perfect talking head interview and reaction.

The episode wastes no time getting to the challenge. Each of the three sketches is bookended with Carson and the queens in boy drag, playing the dude-bro SheMZ office crew. These interstitials are ridiculous and a hoot, worthy of inclusion if only for Carson’s outfit. The first sketch is Shea and Alexis’ lunch date. They’re eating outside at a restaurant when Ross walks up as a SheMZ cameraman, looking for dirt. Shea and Alexis are fun here, playing into their broad characters and working well with Ross. Neither particularly stand out, but the sketch is entertaining enough and a few moments, like the wig reveal, stand out.

Illustration for article titled iRuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars/i embraces scandal and finally finds its footing

Photo: VH1

Next are Jujubee, Blair, and Cracker, who have the strongest sketch of the three. There’s more substance here for the queens to play with, and they take full advantage. Jujubee makes a meal of her attention-seeking, over-involved drag mom, playing well off of teen influencer Blair and cameraman Ross and building a strong rapport with admissions officer Cracker. Cracker is good too, though she occasionally looks like she’s waiting to respond, rather than fully in-character throughout. Blair is a bit one-note, as she later mentions, but she delivers that beat well and holds her own next to Cracker and Jujubee’s showier performances. They’re the team to beat.

Last are India and Mayhem. Their sketch suffers from its location—the middle of the street—and its disjointed arc, pivoting from accusations of India shoplifting to Mayhem’s previous work on The Bitchler to India and Mayhem’s licking compulsion back to shoplifting and finally, back to licking. While the other queens could draw on their characters’ previous shared histories, India and Mayhem are playing strangers, and that leaves them with much less to work with. Plus why is Mayhem telling India to clean up broken glass in the middle of a road? While both Mayhem and India deliver solid performances, theirs is the weakest of the three sketches, and they’ll have to wow on the runway to save themselves from the bottom.

The next day in the workroom, it’s time to prep for the runway. Shea still doesn’t trust Alexis, but they had a blast working together, and that has helped start to smooth things over. As the queens paint, Jujubee asks whether anyone has any scandals and gossip in their past, and Blair talks about TMZ digging up her past DUI the weekend she was eliminated from Drag Race season 10. This prompts Mayhem to open up, and she shares that she has two DUIs. Fortunately, no one was hurt by her actions, but Mayhem was arrested and wound up serving time. As she discussed with Jujubee and Blair in the previous episode of Untucked, Mayhem has a difficult past with alcohol and drugs, and it’s something she’s still struggles with. Both Jujubee and Cracker are shocked, and the queens thank Mayhem for sharing. This is the most vulnerable Mayhem has been on Drag Race and hopefully her honesty will help some viewers at home.

On the main stage, RuPaul comes out in a black and graphic print dress and welcomes guest judge Sarah Hyland. Category is: Camo Couture. First out is Jujubee, who’s in a green camo mini-dress with a fabulous beige and camo cape and red hair and shoes. It’s a fun double-play on camouflage, and she looks great. Next is Cracker, who stomps out in a pop diva camo look, wearing a studded bra, panties, skirt, and puffed shoulder jacket with tall boots and a long blonde ponytail. Blair goes a different way, camouflaging herself as a tree in high-waisted brown pants and an unexpected green, massively puffed sleeve top, with butterflies resting in her leaves and fiery orange hair.

Shea comes out in a blue shift dress and latex leggings and garters. She’s carrying a watering can and sporting a ’60s-inspired wig, ready to snoop on the neighbors as she works in her garden. It’s less memorable than the others, but still fun. Alexis stands out in a bright white coat, wearing winter camo and faux fur, along with a white wig and paint. She looks dramatic and definitely makes an impression, working her coat throughout her walk. Mayhem’s pink and olive camo leotard is less striking, but she still looks great. India goes for a darker look, wearing black leggings, gloves, and a wide black belt to cinch her green camo coat. Her bright red hair and her paint adds severity to the look, and she rounds out the best overall runway of the season so far.

Once the queens are all assembled, Ru declares Shea and Blair safe, and they head to the back. Jujubee and Cracker are in the top, with the judges praising their comedic timing and creativity. The judges also love Cracker’s look, and she is declared the top All Star. Alexis gets mixed reviews. The judges love her runway, but ding her for talking over Shea and Ross in their scene. Mayhem and India both get positive feedback on their looks, but their scene is criticized for losing momentum after a strong start and meandering too much. Ru declares Alexis safe, and that leaves Mayhem and India as the bottom two for the episode. Back in the workroom, Cracker is thrilled to have her first win of the season, and Shea and Blair are surprised that Mayhem and India are up for elimination. Mayhem doesn’t think she deserves her low placement, and she’s clearly frustrated. Rather than fighting to stay, she withdraws. India has been in the bottom three times now, but she actively pleads her case. Based on their conversations, Mayhem has one foot out the door. This feels like Ongina take two, albeit less emotional, and if Mayhem won’t fight for herself, why shouldn’t the queens vote for her?

With voting complete, it’s time for the lip-sync. The queens are excited when the assassin is revealed to be Drag Race season two and All Stars season three queen Morgan McMichaels, who looks terrific in a white bodysuit and cape. In a nice bit of symmetry, Cracker’s also in an icy blue look. The song is Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been,” and Morgan starts out strong, working her cape through to the first dance break before tossing it aside. Cracker starts slower, focusing more on face and mood, but she quickly picks things up. Both Morgan and Cracker pull out flips and body bends, interacting with each other for dramatic and comedic effect. While Cracker goes for a fun peak-a-boo moment at the back of the stage, a delightful fit with the lyric, the standout moment is when Morgan completely overshadows Cracker’s leg spin move by jumping rope over her leg. This is an entertaining battle, but Morgan edges out Cracker for the win. RuPaul doesn’t agree, though, declaring them both winners and threatening a double-elimination, depending on who is on their lipsticks.

However, as Ru undoubtedly knew, they both have Mayhem, and so only one queen goes home. Mayhem may be frustrated with her feedback and placement this season, but she’s done well on All Stars. She’s opened up more and given viewers a better sense of her personality, she’s been in the top on challenges as well as the bottom, and she’s served up some memorable runways. Given her headspace at the end of the episode, it’s her time to go, and based on her conversations with the other queens, she leaves All Stars in a much better place than she left season 10. With Mayhem eliminated, we’re down to the top six and nearing the midpoint of the season. The whole trajectory of the season may come down to the next episode, whether it builds on the momentum of “SheMZ!” or slows back to the crawl of “Get a Room!”. How fitting, then, that it’s time for Snatch Game. Here’s hoping the top six can pull it out.

Stray observations

  • I previously declared Cracker the narrator of the season, but more and more, it’s looking like it’s Jujubee. Her talking heads are gold throughout.
  • Speaking of Jujubee, I would have given the previous episode win to Blair, but I would have given this episode to Jujubee. I was genuinely surprised that the judges connected more to Cracker than Jujubee in their sketch.
  • It would be nice to get more time with Alexis. Maybe the producers are trying to position her as an antagonist, but for now she’s coming off as a strategist, and it would be interesting to get more of her perspective on the workroom dynamics.
  • Carson may have been my favorite part of the entire improv challenge, and that surprises no one more than me.