‘RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4’ Recap: “Win, and Beat Me”

The Lip Sync for Your Legacy format is broken. Of that, there is little doubt; it inspires fairly lackluster lip syncs and fails to conjure up the kind of drama one would hope sending home a fellow queen would. RuPaul and the RuPaul’s Drag Race production team designed Lip Sync for Your Legacy to make All Stars more strategic, but on the whole, it doesn’t work that way.

Until Manila Luzon gets her hands on it, that is.

Manila and Trinity

I am of very mixed emotions regarding Manila: I usually don’t love her performances in Drag Race‘s challenges, and her runways — while usually stunning — can’t close the gap for me. And while I think her “MacArthur Park” lip sync in season 3 is one of the all-time greats, her follow-up efforts have been far less impressive.

What I do think Manila is fantastic at, however, is being a reality TV character. She is immensely watchable, and is terrific at driving story without self-producing. Her instigation skills are without peer — without her, the Heathers vs. Boogers arc in season 3 likely never heats up as much as it did.

So I’m thrilled to see her win the challenge this week (although I do think that win is somewhat dubious) and immediately get to scheming. What follows is the best deliberation session since Alaska’s temper tantrum in All Stars, and some of the very best TV of the year.

Snatch Game of Love

This week’s challenge is Snatch Game with a twist: This time, it’s the Snatch Game of Love, kind of a cross between Match Game and The Dating Game. Considering how the traditional Snatch Game format has gotten somewhat tired, the change of pace is welcome. Unfortunately, the format is a little wonky. The eight queens are split into two groups, each vying for the heart of a different celebrity: Olympian Gus Kenworthy for group one, and Love, Simon‘s Keiynan Lonsdale for group two. This split means we’re deprived of some characters interacting, and because of one particularly bad performance in group two, three other performers don’t get much of a chance to shine.

Trinity the Tuck (née Taylor) and Gia Gunn have both brought the same character for Snatch Game: Caitlyn Jenner. One might call this a fool’s errand, since Sharon Needles’ Caitlyn Jenner from the Battle of the Seasons tour is a pitch-perfect parody already. But nevertheless, the two queens spar over who should take it. Gia insists that, as a trans woman, she’d be the correct choice. The other queens thoroughly shoot her down, and instead encourage her to do Jenny Bui, Cardi B’s nail technician. (If you didn’t know her before now, don’t worry, I didn’t either.)

Gia’s shit-stirring the last two episodes really comes back to haunt her this week. The other queens form a united front against her, verbally pushing her away from Caitlyn and into Jenny. It’s clear manipulation on their part, a bit of strategy and alliance-making that’s rare on Drag Race, even for All Stars. Gia does make the swap, but not before taking a swipe at Trinity, telling her as both Caucasian and having “a fucked-up nose like her,” she’ll fit Caitlyn much better.

Snatch Game of Love

Trinity knocks it out of the park as Caitlyn, and is the clear winner of the week. She plays Caitlyn as a crotchety old grandma, and sits with her legs cartoonishly parted in a white suit. Most impressively, she utterly dominates group one in Snatch Game of Love, grabbing every possible joke and riffing with her competitors, RuPaul, and Gus Kenworthy. Gus winds up picking her as his bachelorette because she’s the funniest, leaving Naomi Smalls’ terrific Wendy Williams (complete with faint), Monét X Change’s underwhelming Whitney Houston, and Valentina’s misguided Eartha Kitt loveless.

Group two is some “romper-room fuckery,” to quote Latrice Royale circa season 4’s Snatch Game. Monique Heart’s Tiffany Haddish is just Monique, although admittedly she fires off some good jokes. Manila’s Barbra Streisand, complete with rather large nose prosthetic (in questionable taste, in my opinion) and heavy Barb accent, is funny enough, but a distant third to Trinity and Naomi. The true disaster is Gia’s Jenny, simultaneously not humorous and constantly talking. She sucks all the oxygen out of the group, and especially throws off Latrice Royale.

As the late Della Reese, Latrice seems mostly like Latrice, but we never get much chance to see her fully embody the character, because Gia keeps stepping on her. Gia-as-Jenny also calls Latrice fat and says she looks like a man, which especially upsets her. It’s disappointing that a queen as funny and talented as Latrice has now done poorly as three different celebrities — as Aretha Franklin in Snatch Game season 4, as Oprah Winfrey in All Stars 1‘s ill-advised Gaff-In!, and now as Della. It clearly weighs on her, too; you can see it in her face both on the challenge stage and on the runway during critiques.

Latrice Royale

After a fun boots runway — in which Manila knocks it out of the park as an S&M bunny, and Valentina gets knocked by judge Michelle Visage for a nude bodysuit that doesn’t quite fit right — Manila, Naomi, and Trinity land in the top, while Valentina, Gia, and Latrice wind up in the bottom. I’d expect Naomi and Trinity to win the challenge, but it seems the judges dock points because Naomi wore gladiator sandals instead of boots. Manila wins instead, giving her her first win of the season and fifth in her Drag Race career. (I’d argue she deserved one, maybe two of those wins, but I’m trying to be nice today.) Gia winds up in the bottom, sitting next to an unlucky Valentina. Latrice seemingly gets away with Gia being blamed for her performance, and avoids the bottom two.

And here is where the episode transforms from a solid one into a legendary one. Right at the start of deliberations, Trinity calls Manila over to the side to chat about the decision they have to make. Trinity insists that the choice of who should go home this week is obvious. Gia was the clear worst. Manila doesn’t disagree, but also doesn’t see that as the only reason to send someone home. She thinks this could be a chance for her to send home a strong competitor in Valentina. This panics Trinity, as Valentina is her ally and season 9 sister.

Manila and Gia have a heart-to-heart, Gia admitting that she didn’t realize competing on Drag Race as a trans woman would be so difficult. “I just wish there was another way for me to do this,” she says, starting to cry. “To show you can be whoever you want to be as a trans woman.” She shares further in confessional that while drag used to be an outlet for her to feel in touch with her real identity, now it’s frustrating for her to be in this competition. She also expresses major regret for personally insulting Latrice in the game. It’s the most authentic Gia’s been all season, and thus no surprise it’s also the most compelling she’s been all season. And it clearly resonates with a tearful Manila.

At the same time, Trinity meets with a very relaxed-looking Valentina. She’s in the bottom next to Gia; she knows she won’t be going home. Until Trinity warns her about Manila, that is. Valentina’s whole persona shifts as she leans forward. “So you think that i could go home tonight?” she asks. Her voice shakes a little on the last word. She seems both petrified and primed to attack. It’s a fascinating transformation, seeing Valentina go from cool cucumber to focused strategist. She takes that attitude with her to meet with Manila — and inspires an amazing 90-second tête-à-tête.

Valentina drink

Manila starts strong, complimenting Valentina as one of Drag Race‘s strongest competitors. But, she admits, “That scares me, because I think, ‘How can I keep up with these young girls?'” Valentina’s response? Sipping her drink. Manila says she has Valentina in a corner, and admits she’s very much considering sending Valentina home. Valentina says she thinks she’s done well on All Stars, and she wants to stay,. So, Manila says, let’s make a deal.

“How about this: Can you promise me, if you ever land in the top, and I’m in the bottom, [to] show me grace?” she asks. “For an old-ass bitch like me.” The way she poses after making this offer could best be described as “Ursula after telling Ariel she just wants her voice.” It’s delicious.

Valentina immediately turns the deal down, saying she’d never ask Manila to promise the reverse. Instead, she offers Manila a challenge: Keep her in the game, and beat her fair and square. “Can you handle it?” she asks. As she puts it in her confessional: “Win, and beat me, bitch.”

Valentina as cunning strategist is the kind of thing we’d never see on Drag Race‘s flagship series, but All Stars‘ format is perfectly suited for. It’s not her drag skills that help her this week, it’s her social game. It’s Big Brother in heels and wigs. And as a Big Brother fan, I’m certainly thrilled by this development.

Manila Luzon

Manila and Trinity face off in the lip sync to Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know,” giving Whitney a fourth lip sync song on Drag Race and tying the record held by Paula Abdul, Britney Spears, and Madonna. The two queens give one hell of a battle to commemorate the occasion, with Trinity frenetically bopping to the energy of the music and Manila giving a full acting performance as a young lover. Trinity’s very good, but Manila is spectacular, finally matching the promise of “MacArthur Park.” Most impressively, she kills the lip sync without a single split, trick, or anything. She just fully embodies the spirit of the song, and delivers on every front.

Unlike most Lip Syncs for Your Legacy, this one actually has some real tension. We know Trinity won’t send Valentina home, but Manila just might. So Valentina looks mildly petrified walking to the front of the stage with Gia, who seems far more resigned to her fate. Manila ramps up with a big speech — she wants this more than any of the other girls, and has been competing for longer, too. It really does seem in the moment like she’s going to pull the trigger — but instead eliminates Gia. Valentina gets off with just a warning shot.

It’s farewell to Gia Gunn, a contestant I don’t have much love for, but can still have compassion for. I can only imagine how psychologically taxing it is to compete in a drag competition as a trans woman, and especially to be pummeled with hate online. While I wish she’d come into the competition with more strategy than mere villainy, I trust she’ll continue to succeed outside of the werk room.

So here we have our final seven! Truly, it’s anyone’s game; everyone but Naomi has a win (if you count Latrice’s Reading Is Fundamental mini-challenge win), and she’s been in the top three every single week. Every cut from here is going to be deep. Fasten your seatbelts, ladies, gentlemen, and non-binary folks: It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Show grace for some old-ass thoughts:

• Though Snatch Game of Love wasn’t quite the right fix, I do hope Drag Race continues to experiment with the Snatch Game formula. It’s been the same for so many years, and it really does need freshening up.

• Manila is smashing the runway in a fashion unparalleled by anyone else this season. Naomi’s looks are usually strong, but missing the prompt on the boot this week was a major unforced error. Trinity and Valentina could rise up to challenge them if they really pull out the stops in the next few weeks. Latrice’s runways are too basic, Monét and Monique’s aren’t quite refined enough.

• Naomi nails Wendy Williams’ faint perfectly. I’d have given her the win for it alone, shoes be damned!

• Trinity gets off plenty of great jokes in Snatch Game of Love, but saying that Gus Kenworthy looks “like a Democrat and broke” might be my favorite.

• RuPaul’s runway look this week is amazing, a short, sparkly cocktail dress with killer hair. (I won’t mention the shoes, out of respect.) Her legs look killer, and she sashays down the runway like she knows it. I’m happy to see she’s stepping outside of the long gown and high blonde hair combo she’s become so accustomed to in recent seasons.

• Gia Gunn is now the first and only queen to go home on Snatch Game twice. (No one on this season won their original Snatch Game, so there was no potential to match BenDeLaCreme’s two-win record.)

• Though they both look good this week — especially in wrestling garb — I’m iffy on both Gus Kenworthy and Keiynan Lonsdale as guest judges. Keiynan just doesn’t keep up with the quips on the runway, and has not much insight to add during critiques. Gus is a bit better, but says something clumsy about how important it is for Gia to represent for trans women — well-meaning, but inadequately expressed. Jenifer Lewis’ best guest judge of the season title goes unchallenged for another week.

• God bless Valentina, who strikes a pose even when facing potential elimination in the bottom two. She really has come into this season ready to play the telenovela character to the hilt.

• To address an elephant in the room: Yes, this episode was leaked online in its entirety last Friday. In some countries outside the U.S., RuPaul’s Drag Race streams on the WOW Presents Plus app. Seemingly, the episode was mistakenly uploaded to that app, and was captured and reuploaded across the internet. It’s a rare instance of such a leak, especially from such a notoriously secretive show. That said, no leak can change what an excellent episode this is. To me, it’s the best All Stars episode since “Revenge of the Queens.”

RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars returns next Friday — in fact, next year! — on January 4, at 8 p.m. Eastern on VH1. Have a fun and safe New Year’s Eve!


 

Kevin O'KeeffeKevin O'Keeffe

Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer and 'RuPaul's Drag Race' herstorian. He covers film and TV for INTO, and writes the movie review column "But How Gay Is It?" every Friday.

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