BY Eric Rezsnyak
This episode was a goddamned delight. My appreciation for Season 16 has been slowly growing over the past few episodes — and it started out strongly to begin with — and this episode I repeatedly found myself musing about enjoyable I’m finding this season, and this cast especially. They’re talented, they’ve got loads of personality and charm, and they’re FEISTY. But not in a way I find ugly or negative. It’s an incredibly difficult balance to achieve, and I think it’s remarkable that this show has managed to do it so well 16 years into its existence. That is seriously impressive and uncommon in reality television.
We started things off with a mini challenge in which international icon Charo and two Spanish flamenco dancers came in to teach the queens flamenco, and judge them in a dance off. This gave us a delightful segment in which many of the queens served up some memorable moments, even with wildly different approaches to the challenge. Especially attention-grabbing was Xunami Muse, who was wonderful to watch. And rightfully, she was named the winner of the challenge, which included a trip to actual Spain. That is a stunning prize for a mini-challenge, so good on you, Xunami Muse. I fully agreed with Q last week that you hadn’t made a mark in the competition, but she sure did here.
The main challenge was part design, part branding, as the queens all had to create an original garment in the work room, as well as a miniature version for a doll of themselves that they had to then sell to the judges. It brought to mind the “Face of Cakes” challenge from Season 3, the “Draggily Ever After” fairytale sidekick character challenge from Season 9, and the Season 5 “Little Miss Drag Pageant” minichallenge that gave us the notorious Lil’ Poundcake.
I don’t know if any of these S16 dolls are straight-up motherfucking dickpigs, but in my heart, I hope some are.
Anyway. There were no curveballs with the materials on this challenge, the queens just needed to do a good job picking the fabric and notions. Plane Jane immediately realized that she did not, and set about trying to beg/borrow/steal fabric from her two current targets now that Amanda Tori Meating is gone: Geneva Karr and Plasma. Neither Geneva nor Plasma were particularly interested in Plane’s entreaties, but Plane was able to grab enough of Plasma’s light-blue stretch to suit her needs while Plasma was distracted with her sewing machine.
The Struggle Crew for this episode included Geneva, who basically restarted completely after trying to put together two fabrics that brought out the worst in each other; Mhi’ya Iman LePaige, who doesn’t sew (and also has no taste) and requested significant help from Sapphira Cristal; and Nymphia Wind, who repeatedly claimed to be in crisis while her competitors called her out for what is now a predictable pattern: she claims to be bad at something, and then magically produces an amazing result. That’s honestly true. In most of the episodes thus far, Nymphia has either claimed to be terrible at something she later aced, or appeared distracted/lazy and then came out of nowhere with some amazing finished product. Is it strategy? Maybe. But I can see why her competitors, and I fear some viewers, may be getting exasperated by it.
Speaking of exasperated, Q — who went from consistent Top 2/3 to Bottom 2 last week — was absolutely determined to not lose another design challenge, and she and Dawn both focused on knocking this one out of the park.
As the gals were preparing for the runway, we got some interesting context on Plane Jane’s background. She grew up with a disapproving father who aggressively worked to force out any kind of feminine behaviors Plane would model. Plane explained this was very typical of the Russian immigrant community in which she grew up, and that the inherent severity now informs her own outlook on drag, and why she’s so hard on drag artists she doesn’t feel are up to par. It’s an explanation that makes sense of her cutting behavior, although it certainly doesn’t excuse it. Plane said this episode that she’s trying to be less dismissive of her sisters, but none of the girls believed that’s really true. I would concur. Not because I think Plane is a bad person or anything. But a) you can’t just change that engrained behavior overnight, and b) Plane is giving Production exactly what they want this season, and she would be stupid to stop now. And Plane is not a stupid queen.
The guest judge for this episode was Law Roach, former celebrity stylist and one-time regular judge on both “America’s Next Top Model” and “Legendary.” I have taken issue with Roach’s judging in the past, finding it wildly unpredictable, varying in criteria from episode to episode, contestant to contestant. But I thought Law was terrific here, a great balance of critical eye, reassuring compliments, and absolutely cutting reads. I wouldn’t object at all to Law becoming part of the rotating judge seat with Carson Kressley, Ross Matthews, and TS Madison. This was great work.
Overall I think the queens did a great job with this challenge. I was surprised by the queen who placed Low, but seeing all the looks again in “Untucked,” there was really only one Safe I could have possibly swapped them with, and there was a justifiable reason that queen was spared. Only two of them really bombed it, and there were several Safe queens who did very well. I want to give a special commendation to Megami, who has been getting a lot of negativity thrown her way by the fandom this season. I thought she looked wonderful this episode; that outfit was super polished and I thought her runway presentation was charming. Morphine Love Dion continues to win me over little by little each episode; I appreciated her little self-owns in the runway delivery, it shows she’s not taking herself too seriously (as I thought she did initially). Nymphia did ultimately pull out another excellent look, but I wouldn’t have subbed her out for anyone in the Top 3. They all deserved their spots.
The real interesting story was Sapphira Cristal, who served up a totally solid, if unexciting, gown — she talked about doing an additional opera coat, but ran out of time, implied to be due to her helping Mhi’ya with her look. Sapphira also took a very strange direction in the voiceover explaining her doll, going for an old-school radio announcer thing. It was all a bit odd. And apparently she felt so uncertain, and was so rattled by the inscrutable judges and whispers of her sisters (*cough*Plane Jane*cough*) that on the runway, she went ahead and used her immunity potion, rendering her safe this challenge. I should say, she wasted her potion. While she wouldn’t have won the challenge, there was a 0% chance she was anywhere near the Bottom 2, and almost certainly not in the Bottom 3. The fact that she got so in her head in this challenge, this early on, is worrying.
But let’s talk about the tops. Plane Jane, Dawn, and Q were all successful this challenge, and the latter two produced top-tier design-challenge looks. I have to say, i was particularly impressed by the way Plane played to the judges both in terms of her doll voiceover/branding, and in the actual critiques. Like her or not, Plane is sharp, and she knows exactly what she’s doing. But this was a two-way race between Dawn, who softened the elf make-up and lost the ears and gave us a cool futuristic gown, and Q, who gave us a copper-colored busted fairy look that was absolutely jawdropping. I consider it a Top 5 all-time design challenge look, up there with Utica’s sleeping-bag coat. The fact that she produced something that expensive looking, that refined, in a matter of hours is seriously fucking impressive. Genuinely in awe of Q’s talent as a designer.
On the other end of the spectrum, Plasma, Geneva Karr, and Mhi’ya Iman LePaige were the Bottom 3. Plasma was really only there by default; it was a very clear Bottom 2, but there has to be SOME mystery, and Plasma was, I would say, the worst of the Safe queens. She even got some good critiques, along with some negative feedback about fussing with her headscarf that kept calling back, and overselling the jokes in her doll write-up. Both fair. I could have seen swapping Xunami and Plasma for the bottom, but Xunami really did an excellent job making her doll absolutely identical to her own look. So I get it.
The real tension of the episode was whether the judges would continue to Jan/Loosey Q by giving the win to Dawn. And there was a moment where I thought it was really going that direction. Dawn winning wouldn’t have been some crazy Jorgeous-esque BS — she made a great look — but I think Q’s look was SO good that the judges had no choice but to give it to her, and so yes, Q finally got her challenge win. ALL of the queens applauded for her, as did everyone in my viewing party. And if you’re reading this Production, I just want to point out: it’s actually so much more satisfying for the viewers to give these kinds of queens wins when they are deserved, instead of torturing them by keeping the wins *just* out of reach. I promise, we are just as happy to see them succeed (when deserved) as we are when they lose their minds.
Which left the obvious Bottom 2 of Geneva Karr and Mhi’ya Iman LePaige, both of whom have been struggling for most of this season, and had a brief respite last week. I think Geneva has a lovely personality and she’s likable, but she has very much been stuck in first gear this entire competition — and yes, that is an intentional bad car pun. Mhi’ya is the queen I have the hardest time connecting with this season. She is SO reserved as a personality, and her fashion sense is SO terrible — truly, I think she has some of the worst garments I’ve ever seen on this show — that I’m just not understanding what she’s doing there.
But I sure learned why she’s here in this lipsynch, set to “Control” by Janet Jackson. We finally got to see the flipping that Mhi’ya has been talking about the entire time, as she threw down trick after trick, flinging her body all over that stage. If anything, she may have done more tricks than she needed to, but she also gave us some playful moments that were firmly in the vibe of the song. It was impressive, I’ll say it. But will it still be impressive after the second, third time she’s in the B2? Did she show us all the tricks she has up her sleeve? I’ll be curious to see.
For her part, Geneva did what she could — she’s just not a dynamic lipsyncher — and I think to some degree, it was a relief to be eliminated. In “Untucked,” Geneva said that she felt peaceful once she was in the Bottom 2. I think some of that really was just being grateful that this was all coming to an end. It has to be hard to come in with big dreams and having so much success in your first episode, only to almost immediately crash and burn, ending up in the bottom three out of the 5 episodes you participated in. In fact, I believe Geneva has a legendary track record of either being in the Top or Bottom 2 in every single episode she appeared. Versatile queen! Geneva took her elimination with tremendous grace. She seems lovely and I wish her the best, but it was absolutely her time to go.
Next: it’s the Rusical, this time patterned after “The Sound of Music.” And maybe we’ll get the answer to, “How do you solve a problem like Mhi’ya?”