Dwindling down to the final four, RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 13 stopped hinting at the idea that all of Drag Race is a stage with the queens merely players, reduced to efficient caricatures in service of the overarching story arc, and flat out stated it. In the main challenge, a film parody called Henny, I Shrunk the Drag Queens, the five remaining contestants were asked to reduce themselves to archetypes: the smart one, the dumb one, the funny one, the whiny one, and, of course, the villain. This nested storyline comes at an interesting point in the season, where the three finalists—Symone, Rosé, and Gottmik—have been clear for some time. But because the story arc demands it in a season that seems reluctant to send any queens home, Olivia and Kandy were left competing for a chance to lose the crown despite having been operating beyond their capabilities for quite some time, when sending them both home would obviously be the kindest thing to do. Since that is clearly not happening, it came down to a battle of tropes; could Olivia’s fine-but-forgettable confused kindergartner schtick outstay Kandy’s villain with a heart of confection story arc?
This plotline is harkening back to the classics, going all the way back to Season 4 when the real competition was between Sharon Needles, the quirky/creepy future of drag, and Chad Michaels, the consummate professional who never made a wrong move but also never made a particularly surprising one. In that season, Phi Phi O’Hara moved into the finals mostly because she lived to antagonize Sharon, a move based much more on producers’ attempts to rattle Sharon’s cage than, sadly, any standout talent on Phi Phi’s part. The decision was mean-spirited, even if it was difficult to feel sorry for Phi Phi, especially since her antics deprived us of seeing Latrice in the top three where she belonged. This year, in the role of Sharon we have Symone, who has consistently served challenging looks and performances in a series where it sometimes feels as if we’ve seen it all. On the other hand, Rosé does everything right, and her unscripted workroom one-liners have become a major selling point of a particularly witty season. Her “You ate your twin” observation at Symone’s having sent Utica, her partner in the makeover challenge, home had me howling this week, just as she dependably has every week for a while now.
The roles each queen chose for the Henny challenge mostly followed what we’ve come to expect: Liv wanted to play dumb, Rosé wanted to play funny, Kandy wanted to stick to the villain role she embraced and then eventually released earlier in the season. Only Symone wanted to switch it up, perhaps tired of the role she’s been given as the cleverest, most capable queen of the season. It would have been interesting to see what she could have done with the villain role, though Kandy lacks the performance ability to play a part beyond the one she’s been given—a fact she seemed to sense, as her argument was that Symone is good at everything and she is only good at one thing, an argument that eventually won her the part but landed her in the bottom. Only Gottmik, cast as the “complain-y” queen, turned the role assigned to her into a silly, over-the-top course correction, making herself the “dumb” one instead and easily outstripping Olivia’s bland effort, making her this season’s wild-card and leaning into her status as a fan favorite—more of a Willam than a Dida Ritz, if we’re still doing the Season 4 comparison.
After Scarlett Johansson popped by for some transparently PR-team-planned image rehabilitation and some ham-fisted promotion of a forthcoming Black Widow film, offering helpful advice such as acting is “making a situation that feels unreal feel real,” the queens tried their best with the material they were given to varying degrees of success. On the runway, the category was “Haute Pockets,” and the top three all presented glamourous yet delightfully tongue-in-cheek variations on the theme while the bottom two inadvertently put their weaknesses on full display. For Olivia Lux, that weakness is a tendency to rely too heavily on sweet sincerity, not understanding that Betty White is a comedic powerhouse because the audience is constantly waiting for her to break character by turning sour, not simply savoring the sweetness. Kandy, on the other hand, once again refused to cover up her panties despite also not making them a part of the full look, a lack of forethought and messy ignoring of nuance that has been a recurring weak spot in even her best performances.
Last week’s baffling win for Kandy in the standup challenge when Gottmik was the clear standout seemed to be foreshadowing for the showdown between Kandy and Olivia, producers making a last-ditch effort to convince the audience that the Race is tight when two performers have so clearly been left in the dust. Kandy and Olivia tried their best in a painfully earnest lip-sync to Cher’s “Strong Enough.” But even still, I was distracted by the more fun performance Symone and Gottmik, clearly the bigger Cher fans, were giving upstage. And once again, despite the fact that Olivia gave the better performance, Kandy, bafflingly, lives to Race another day, when the better television would have been to simply leave this season’s real contenders to sort themselves out.