I said last week that the top seven queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4 were so unbelievably evenly matched, every cut from here on out would be tough. I just couldn’t imagine exactly how brutal this first one would be.
This episode was a tough one, with relatively little fun to go around and a lot of heavy hearts. I don’t think it bodes poorly for the rest of the season, but it is the first All Stars 4 episode to disappoint me — and I’m not even talking about the eliminated queen yet.
This week, RuPaul challenges the queens to compete in a Judge Judy-style improv challenge, Jersey Justice, aptly titled for its lead character, Judge Michelle Visage. The challenge is a complex one: create a cartoonish Jerseyite in look and voice, execute the actual story of the case in pairs (or in one case, as a trio), and make it all funny. Simple, right? Heh.
Somewhat surprisingly, Manila Luzon and Latrice Royale don’t team up for this challenge, with Latrice instead joining the ultra-close Monique Heart/Monét X Change duo and Manila pairing with the free agent of the season, Naomi Smalls. Though this isn’t a paired season like All Stars 1, Team Latrila has been close in spirit and energy, so I’d have expected them to work as a team. You have to imagine Latrice regrets her choice when Monique and Monét immediately start riffing, leaving Latrice all but cut out of their dynamic.
Each team gets a different legal scenario: a suit over a cake, a suit over a celebrity impersonator, and a suit over a botched makeover job. I like these improv challenges — including The Bitchelor in All Stars 3 and Bossy Rossy in season 10 — because they’re faithful to the core spirit of Drag Race. The most interesting thing about Drag Race as a competition has always been the sheer scope of skills that it requires. You can’t just be a fashionista. You can’t just be a comedian. You can’t just be an actor, a singer, a makeup artist, a writer. You have to be everything. The improv challenges adequately test for a wide range of skills. If you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere.
Appropriately enough, everyone fucks up somewhere this week, even when their performance is otherwise stellar. Winners Manila and Monique are both very funny in the challenge, riffing with Michelle particularly well, but Manila’s curves and swerves runway look underwhelms and doesn’t quite nail the prompt. Monique gets major praise for her runway look, which, yes, is structurally impressive. But it’s yet another brown cow look, no matter how stunning it may be. And her voice in the challenge is irritatingly shrill, which Michelle does note (though ultimately doesn’t care).
Valentina seemingly comes in third, if my interpretation of judge impressions is correct. She absolutely slays the main challenge as “the OG Snooki,” nailing both the character and the comedy. Judging solely based on the challenge, I’d have placed her in the top with Monique. However, she goes a little too high-concept for the runway, serving a deconstructed look that’s more interesting in concept than execution. (It also doesn’t quite fit the runway prompt for the week.) Guest judge Erica Ash rips into the look with a sharp “I don’t get it,” which inspires some, ahem, strong words from Valentina. More on those in a bit.
In a break from how she’s been doing so far, Trinity the Tuck, Not the Taylor mostly fails to impress. She teams up with Valentina, keeping the season 9 alliance together, but for the first time is fully outshone by her sister. Trinity actually forgets her character’s name at the start of their scene (a truly awkward moment) and otherwise essentially plays straight woman for Valentina. Her runway is incredibly strong, though, with one of the best wigs I’ve ever seen on Drag Race. That seems to keep her firmly in the safe group, where Naomi joins her after receiving her first real criticisms of the season. She couldn’t quite keep up with Manila in the scene, and a strong ’50s housewife look on the runway doesn’t help her. That said, I did love Naomi’s season 2 shout-out: Her Nicole Paige Brooks impression while yelling “cherry pie” is flawless.
That leaves Latrice and Monét in the bottom two. Neither Latrice’s elegant runway nor Monét’s Kim Kardashian-allusion look can save them from being utterly flattened by Monique in the challenge. The one who clearly belongs in the bottom is Latrice; Monét isn’t great in the challenge, but I might’ve put Trinity in the bottom instead. Nonetheless, this is the bottom two we get, and it feels like a goddamn funeral the second Ru announces they’re up for elimination.
Latrice is a beloved icon, and the idea of her even possibly going home makes the air in the room thicken like soup. She monologues emotionally about spending 25 years doing drag, and expresses dismay that she’s not able to fulfill a “prophecy” for herself on Drag Race. Back in season 4, it was almost universally understood that Latrice was cheated out of the top three in favor of season villain Phi Phi O’Hara — never mind that Phi Phi did legitimately beat Latrice out in the final challenge, and Chad Michaels out-lipsynced Latrice at the last second. It was a robbery in fans’ minds, as was hers and Manila’s loss on All Stars 1.
Something about this has clearly taken hold in Latrice’s mind. She believes she deserves this crown, even if her performance record so far hasn’t indicated that to be true. This separation between expectation and reality makes deliberations a nightmare. Manila is absolutely devastated by the idea of Latrice going home, throwing herself onto her best friend while sobbing and pledging to keep her safe in the lip sync. Monique is wrecked, clearly wanting to keep Monét, but worrying about the implications of sending Latrice home. She knows how much fans love Latrice, because she is one of those fans. She even outright states how much Latrice means to black queers and queens in particular — something that’s unmistakably true, but rarely stated on the show itself.
Trinity, meanwhile, has no problem saying Latrice deserves to go home. And honestly? It’s a bad look! In fact, Trinity comes off as kind of an ass all episode. She all but lectures Manila for even considering sending Valentina home at the start of the episode. Later, when Valentina indicates she’d have a hard time saving Trinity over Latrice if they were the bottom two, she gives a dramatic confessional that feels either faked or just plain whiny. Then, she moans about “morals” when Manila and Monique weigh whether or not to save Latrice. It’s all quite obnoxious, like the best student in the class protesting about the rules when the kids she sees as below her don’t act the way she wants them to. No one likes that kid, Trinity.
What’s especially perplexing is that Trinity clearly doesn’t mind being cutthroat — she’ll eliminate beloved legend Latrice if she has to — but only likes her form of being cutthroat. Eliminating a strong competitor? That’s immoral to Trinity. In Big Brother, which this season reminds me of more than any other Drag Race season, they call someone like Trinity a “game bot.” She’s too fixated on her own game and can’t see outside of it. It’s likely going to take her very far in this season, but will also likely make her unpleasant to watch if she keeps the unpleasantness up.
The season 9 girls both behave strangely this week. After she gets some criticism for her runway look, Valentina throws what seems like a joking fit about it during deliberations. It seems too exaggerated to be honest, but also not funny enough to be a very good joke. Worse, she chooses to unleash right after Latrice and Monét emotionally plead to be kept in the competition. Monique rolls her eyes and all but tells Valentina to calm down. To quote Trixie Mattel, “That’s a lot of emotion for safe.”
It illustrates the main problem I still have with Valentina, who has otherwise been such a delight this season: She’s still not behaving like a human being. It’s clear she had a plan to be funny and have a diva moment this week, but couldn’t read the room and realize it would play horribly in the emotional moment. For better or worse, Drag Race is won by those who can, at least once or twice, let their guard down and be themselves. We’re not getting that from Valentina right now. I remain skeptical about whether she can actually go all the way in All Stars 4.
Ultimately, all the hissy fits in the world can’t distract from the ultimate choice: Latrice or Monét? Manila, like Trinity last week, makes her intentions known (“After all these years, I am still Team Latrila”), while Monique holds her cards closer to chest. After an evenly matched (and, admittedly, somewhat low-energy) lip sync to Tina Turner’s cover of “The Bitch Is Back,” Monique wins. Does she win mostly because there’s no narrative tension to Manila winning? Perhaps. Does she win because she keeps her hair on for the first time? Also perhaps! Regardless, win she does, and through tears, she eliminates Latrice.
Latrice Royale is, next to Alyssa Edwards, my all-time favorite Drag Race queen. She is a living legend. Her final speech to RuPaul on the runway in season 4 ranks among the best moments in Drag Race herstory. It sucks to see her go home in 7th place. But I cannot deny that she was the worst in the challenge, and didn’t stun on the runway. Her going home is an entirely fair call. That doesn’t mean it can’t feel like shit, because it does. But Monique made the right decision.
One can only hope that Latrice will find her way back into the competition during whatever inevitable comeback challenge is on the horizon. All Stars 4 should be a chance for every queen to prove they’re sickening — even if it takes a little bit longer than we expected.
Drying our tears with some final thoughts:
• I’ve alluded to it in this and other recaps, but it intrigues me that, despite this not being a teams season, our remaining queens have mostly settled into pairs. Monique and Monét are united, as are Valentina and Trinity (though I wouldn’t put it past Valentina to eliminate Trinity if she gets the chance). With Latrice gone, and Naomi unaffiliated, I wonder if the two fashion queens will team up moving forward. They could each use an ally right now.
• Record check-in: Manila and Trinity each have two challenge wins, with one lip sync win each, and neither has hit the bottom two. Monique has two challenge wins and one lip sync win as well, but hit the bottom two once. Valentina won one challenge and one lip sync. Monét X Change also won one challenge, but has not won a lip sync. Both have hit the bottom two once. Naomi, queen of safe, has never won, nor hit the bottom two. My guess is she does not stay safe for another week — either for good or for ill.
• Manila bowing to Trinity’s dominance during Snatch Game, but insisting that she’ll still be listed as the winner of the episode on Wikipedia, is delightfully nerdy.
• The main stage critiques are edited strangely this week, with a ton of shady noises thrown in even when the judges give positive feedback. Monique’s entire critique sounds like the judges are trashing her simply because the sounds are wrong.
• Love Monique, but I can no longer defend her getting praised for brown cow callbacks when Monét got trashed for doing sponge callbacks. It’s an absurdly unequal standard.
• Strange that the show specifically uses the Tina Turner cover of “The Bitch Is Back” for the lip sync while emphasizing that it’s originally an Elton John song, no? While most Lip Sync for Your Life/Legacy songs are by women, there have been plenty of songs with at least some male vocals: “Love Shack,” “Macho Man,” “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” every RuPaul song, etc. Might’ve been a rights issue, though considering Elton John himself appears in a pretaped message to say “don’t fuck it up,” I doubt that.
• I don’t care how fake-mad she was, Valentina calling MadTV alum Erica Ash “that judge with the bun” is disrespectful. That entire staged hissy fit was so ill-advised. And Val’s been so charming and enjoyable so far!
• Even though Stacy Layne Matthews’ cameo shots as the court reporter were clearly not shot on the Jersey Justice set, I still like seeing her pop up with reactions. More Henny!
• Speaking of: While I don’t entirely agree with her critique of Valentina’s look, Erica Ash is otherwise a good guest judge this week. She gives insightful notes and appropriately drags Trinity for blaming her reserved performance on trying to make room for Valentina. Zoe Kravitz is a good bit quieter as a judge, but still gets some good notes in. (Perennial reminder that Jenifer Lewis remains the best guest judge of the season.)
• Best guess for the next queen out the door: Monét. Could be Naomi if she doesn’t get a win soon. Although the person I’d maybe be the least surprised to see go next? Valentina.
The next episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4 will air Friday, Jan. 11, at 8 p.m. Eastern on VH1.