When planning the 2020 season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, there was no way for RuPaul, producers, or hell, any of us, to know that by the time week five rolled around, the entire world would be trapped inside their homes, living off canned beans Monday through Friday, and rationing their week’s wine to budget a third glass for a weekly dose of reality TV to cure our cabin fever. That being said, as conventional wisdom states: if one stays ready, one doesn’t have to get ready. A poorly written and executed Grey’s Anatomy parody would have felt like a placebo in the best of times, and in the worst times, viewed like the television equivalent of snake oil.
The episode began with more of Brita’s deflecting blame for her shortcomings onto Aiden Zhane and the oft-repeated defense that she’s a star in New York, setting the audience up for more conflict to come. Producers didn’t waste any time on a mini-challenge and instead had the queens draw pills to decide who would be casting the maxi-challenge roles in the aforementioned homage, titled Gay’s Anatomy. And while Nicky and Gigi had the honor, either they’re shadier than they’re letting on or the real intrigue of this lackluster concept was a producer-prompted mise en abyme that forced Aiden Zhane and Brita within spitting distance of one another for their scene and anchored Nicky to the tit of Widow Von’Du, a position that has nurtured neither of their talents in challenges past.
But while tethering reality show contestants to their enemies is pretty expected, the entire challenge was seriously miscast, wresting it of any potential for fun in service of potential for drama. Jaida floundered in the role of “Rhonda Shimes,” hospital chief of staff, possibly because, as the judges suggested, no one seems to have thought to explain what medical terms like “hematoma” mean so that she may have been able to identify the humor in puns like “homotoma.” Or maybe she thought the connections were tenuous and didn’t see any connections between the puns and the character, which is fair! Jackie would have been better in the role, as she got lost as Meridith Gay next to Gigi Goode, a standout as “Dr. Tizzy Stephens” and, unfortunately, Sherry Pie, who went all-in as Meridith’s chain-smoking, narcissist mother.
Full disclosure, despite having a decade and a half of opportunity to watch an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, I have heretofore declined to capitalize on that particular good fortune. Perhaps these jokes are hilarious to those more well-versed in the show’s mythology than me. But as an outsider, it seems like Jan could have easily done well in the role of Meridith one, and Crystal, in her clown paint, could have made a really excellent joke of Michelle’s criticisms of her paint by being the “hideous” Meridith two. Meanwhile, Heidi and Jaida would have had excellent energy as an amorous nightclub act impaled on a fork. And Nicky would have probably been a better choice than Aiden in the sexy ghost role, as it had simpler lines while offering the potential to display the big personality Nicky brings to the confessional but not to the stage. Aiden took the Mae West directive much too literally, but unfortunately misunderstood Alaska’s legendary Snatch Game performance and presumably believes Mae West was a hired goon in a B-movie about Depression-era gangsters. Boo indeed, but in the other sense of the word. Widow did fine, and there’s nothing Brita could do to please me at this point, but also there was nothing in her medical yelling to indicate she possesses any more knowledge of what Sandra Oh’s Grey’s Anatomy character was all about than I do.
In the workroom, Jackie revealed that, much like Kim Chi, her mother does not know about her drag career, and Widow tearfully explained that her own mother had died in a car crash before she could come out. These mirror confessions are sometimes mocked on Twitter, and on one hand, I do understand criticisms that the once spontaneous-seeming stories now feel prodded by producers to add gravitas to the competitors while running the risk of exploiting their heartbreaking stories. However, these stories are real and highlight the struggles and realities of many people watching, and as such, they feel vital as long as the queens are willing to share them. Also, if Heidi does not win the congeniality award for putting her own makeup down to run triage between her crying competitors, I will light something on fire in protest.
On the runway, Ru experimented with a cowl-necked number in an iridescent acid-green shade on which Michelle declined to comment like it was her job because, as Ru’s hype women, it is. The guest judge seat was filled by Normani, who seemed a little lost in the shuffle.
On the runway, the category was Planet of the Capes, though only a few queens demonstrated a full understanding of what, exactly, constitutes a cape. Jaida’s giant beehive coupled with a coral confection of a cape was the best execution of the concept, followed closely by Gigi Goode’s tribute to Troop Beverly Hills. It was Jan’s moment to give us a superheroine number but instead, she bafflingly went for some sort of skydiver story I couldn’t quite follow. Widow Von’Du’s pastie-dotted watermelon look seemed like a direct response to Brita’s halfhearted pineapple from last week, and it was daringly seedy in the best sense of the word.
In the final cut of the disjointed Gay’s Anatomy, editing made it seem as if all the queens were being fed their lines through earpieces on a two-second delay, and perhaps the final footage was just that bad. However, it seems more likely that in light of Sherry’s disqualification and the current global medical crisis, the hospital-themed episode had to be recut for sensitivity, and the final result was a sad mess of everyone’s worst takes.
But producers couldn’t edit out Sherry’s win. And the bottoms were left to the dreaded task of naming which of their competitors deserved to go home. The consensus indicated Nicky Doll. For her part, Nicky acknowledged that she was most likely in the bottom for the same issues that other non-native English speakers on the show have run up against before—it’s hard to joke around in a language that is not one’s own. And instead of discussing that on the runway, Ru rushed Nicky into offering up another competitor in her stead. Heidi was ultimately relegated to the bottom as well despite the fact that there were much worse performances than her own because, as I predicted last week, she’s a rural performer whose runway looks are not as sophisticated (or expensive) as those of queens coming from major cities. In the beginning of the episode, Ru and the other queens dogpiled on Aiden for saying that she’s at a disadvantage coming from a small town without a ton of resources, but the truth is, she’s right. And while Jaida is correct, the name of the game is not RuPaul’s Excuse Race, both of these competition handicaps send excellent queens home before their time and deserve to be acknowledged, even if there is no ready solution.
What followed was an absolutely thrilling lip-synch performance on Heidi’s part, making her a potential assassin to watch. What she may not have in wardrobe, she more than makes up for in stage presence. Her dancing, dips, and sheer fucking delightfulness all but obscured the also-charming Nicky, who did not appear to know all the lyrics of Kim Petras’s “Heart to Break,” on the stage. Nicky failed to show the judges the personality they asked for with her long-limbed gyrating, but more than that, she fell victim to one of the greatest defensive moves I’ve seen in recent memory: Heidi rhythmically projecting her body backward down the center runway, sharp bootheels forcing Nicky to the side and out of the spotlight in a fair-play but truly inspired strategy that was the antithesis of Brita’s poor sportswoman-like body blocking from last week. Even a loose wig could not make Heidi’s performance less endearing, and rightfully, she remains a much-needed bright spot in the competition. She probably has no chance of winning, and now neither does Nicky, but I am very much looking forward to rooting for both of them in all-stars.
As much as it pains me to admit it, the past two episodes of Drag Race, perhaps by virtue of the necessity of editing in light of current events, have been dreary at a time when we really need them to serve a bit of relief from what ails us. Next week is the always highly anticipated Snatch Game, which will hopefully leave us gagging because now more than ever, we need Ru bringing it to us every ball.