• Tue. Jul 16th, 2024

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Recap, Season 16 Episode 4: ‘RPR Live’

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Recap, Season 16 Episode 4: ‘RPR Live’

Now comes the time for me to ask a question I’m almost scared to ask: Is this season about to be … really good? Any TV show, reality or not, is likely to be hitting similar notes by its 16th season, and that’s certainly the case here. There aren’t any new archetypes, and the challenges are largely Drag Race mainstays. Still, every character is playing their role really well, to the point where by the end of this episode there are only, by my count, two queens left without a clear story line. The chemistry is there, too, with all the girls bouncing off each other in interesting ways. And the challenges, while not particularly original, have all been good to very good, giving the queens the opportunity to kill it or flop hilariously each time. The twists have paid off by not dominating the narrative but instead serving it. What more could we ask for at this point?

Adding to the good stuff is that this week’s episode kept me on my toes: A girl I expected to make it at least relatively far got sent home, the girl I thought would get emotionally destroyed by the Drag Race system won the challenge, and, most importantly, I understand how both things happened. I can’t remember the last time I felt a season was this set up for success four episodes in. They could still ruin it, but I’m going to be the optimist here and say that I have faith in season 16. It’s shaping up to be good.

The show returns to the RDR Live! format this week, which first showed up last year on All-Stars eight. I am totally down for this to become a staple. It’s nowhere near as painful as your typical improv challenge, and the “one shot” nature means we don’t have to sit through both a rehearsal/filming section and a performance section. It’s a streamlined acting challenge, giving us more time with the queens, and because it’s one take with a teleprompter, the lows are lower and the highs seem higher as a result.

Plasma is the big story of the week, and it’s a deserved spot. She’s a queen who is perfectly designed to get on my nerves, which she does, but I’m still so happy she’s here. Up until now, Plasma has largely thrived as a narrator — she’s the queen who reads out the rankings, who asks the other girls basic questions about their reactions to things, who reminds the audience what the challenge is. She talks with a level of enunciation and precision that constantly reminds the audience of her theater training. She sells herself as an underdog but has yet to give a challenge performance worth rooting for.

This episode, Plasma takes center stage, showing off an impressive set of neuroses while asking for the wrong part, monologuing about Barbra Streisand, and whining about getting a role she didn’t want but is perfect for. Then, she wins the challenge. And it’s warranted! She is magnificent as a Barbra stan during the sketch challenge, totally and confidently controlling the entire segment. I assumed she was a competent performer before. I didn’t imagine she had star quality.

But the exciting part of watching Plasma’s week is not her self-imposed underdog success story. No, it’s the gap between how she sees herself and what actually unfolds. When she fights with Dawn for the role of the news anchor, Dawn keeps hammering home that Plasma’s argument makes no sense. Dawn wants to be the news anchor to work with her friends. Plasma should be the Barbra impersonator because it makes the most sense for her, an obsessive Barbra stan. I have a hard time seeing Dawn as the mean girl in this situation, which appears to be how Plasma sees it, and when Plasma ends up winning, that doesn’t prove Dawn wrong at all. It actually proves her right — there’s no way Plasma would have won in Dawn’s role. Plasma is a talented queen, no way around it, but the fun comes in with her lack of self-awareness. However: Her Cher look required a neck piece to make that neckline look better. Cher had one, and that’s why we trust in Bob Mackie.

The flip side of Plasma’s big week is a terrible week for Mirage. Look, I imagine the internet will be pretty pissed about Mirage’s elimination. I get it. I did not walk into this episode expecting Mirage to go home. When she ended up in the bottom, I thought she’d lip sync her way out of it and start next week with an increased fire under her ass. That is not what happened. Likely the most controversial part of her exit will be the degree to which RuPaul was wildly offended by her Cher look’s anachronism. I get that. The fact that RuPaul’s reference points run perpendicular to the reference points of most of the queens that are actually competing has always been an issue for Drag Race. Ru would not have given one singular shit if somebody wore the wrong era of Gaga hair on a Gaga runway. Plus, Mirage looked better than the other members of the bottom by a country mile. It’s annoying.

Still, I’m hung up on Mirage actively campaigning for her role as the host then immediately retracting after actually getting the part. She showed a severe deficiency of nerve this week, something that is not an issue when she’s performing on her own terms. (There’s a reason her song from the talent show is still going viral.) But Drag Race is about being pushed out of your comfort zone, and Mirage attempted it then ultimately fell down. Her performance in the challenge this week was weak as hell — devoid of charisma, wooden, and underconfident. There were a multitude of other parts she could have asked for if she didn’t have it in her to bring it on the one that requires her to work alone and take center stage. Then comes the lip sync, where she moves like a goddess but doesn’t know any of the words, which compounds the “Mirage doesn’t know anything about Cher” narrative. Nobody wanted to see this fun queen go home second, but, even for all RuPaul’s RuPaulisms, I think the writing was on the wall.

The episode begins with the fallout from Plane and Amanda’s Untucked fight last week. It’s notable how quickly and easily Amanda stands up to Plane — she’s wittier than her opponent. But I think it’s time that this feud either gets some new kindling or dies out. By the time it came back around in Untucked this week, I, seemingly along with Plane and Amanda, was a little bored of it. If they end up working together in a challenge, that could still be fun, but in the meantime we need a breather.

Plane gets herself another top week, cementing her place as one of the frontrunners. She basically cops the voice from SNL’s “Pornstar” sketches, but I’m not one to complain about drag queens having clear references. I’m finding it a fun twist that the villain of the season is a comedy queen. On the runway, I learned that Plane is extremely striking with black hair. Meanwhile, it’s high time that Amanda pushes herself into the top. She was safe in the ball last week by the grace of God, but an SNL-based challenge should have been right up her alley. She does well in the newscaster role, and I might have thrown her in the top over a girl I’ll get to in a second whose performance I did not enjoy, but right now she’s floundering in safe. Either the judges will see the charisma that I see, or they won’t be able to look past the messy looks. On the runway, it is clear that Amanda’s face needs bigger hair, but I still love her kind “B-movie drag queen” looks, despite myself. Is it good drag? Not sure. But it sure is entertaining.

Dawn is another queen who still needs to distinguish herself to the judges. She’s super fun when interacting with the girls — much shadier than I expected — but I’ve had her pegged for the top four of this competition since she walked in, and she has yet to prove me right. Her makeup is always gorgeous, her looks are reliably strong, including this week’s Cher look, and she has yet to whiff any challenge. But when has she blown me, or the judges for that matter, away? She’s good, but I’m expecting Dawn to be great.

Q continues to get positive feedback and is the only girl who’s wound up in the top every week she was eligible, which is impressive. But the annoyance at being overlooked for the win is clearly starting to creep in. She’s salty toward Nymphia at the start of the episode, and she’s clearly disappointed by the end of this episode. But now the question becomes, did she ever deserve to win? In my estimation, no. Sapphira beat her handily in that first lip sync, Nymphia produced one of the best garments ever seen on the show, and I don’t think she should have even sniffed the top this week. She does her best with the Weekend Update “First Brick Thrown at Stonewall” role. She commits hard and never breaks character, but her delivery is off and the voice is annoying. Sorry. She then gets critiqued as being “comedian-level funny,” which is not true. Look, it’s a good week for her, and commitment is really all that can and should be expected of these girls, but we don’t need to be so effusive. It is true that Q’s Cher look is miles better than Plasma’s, which has got to be annoying. In fact, Q’s look might be the best in the bunch! Either way, I like Q but not enough that I’m offended by the win-deprivation tank she’s stuck in. It’s good TV!

Morphine gets some good screentime this week when Plane is shady toward her, and she takes it as a play by Plane to not be overshadowed. I am glad she is interpreting it as a compliment, because I think that it is better for her mental health. I do not, however, believe that Plane was worried about being overshadowed by Morphine in a comedy challenge. Her Cher look is cute.

Sapphira plays this week well, opting to give up the host role in favor of a role that shows off her singing ability and allows her to collaborate. She’s right when she says that Mirage’s issues are not her problem. Her Cher look is incredible.

Nymphia gets a cooldown episode, which was sorely needed after last week’s Nymphia-palooza. She does fine (not great) in the challenge, purely by being committed. Her Barbra impression is awful, of course, but it’s not enough to land her in the bottom. Her Cher is great.

Other than Mirage, the bottom is made up of Geneva and Mhi’ya, both for the second time. They both do incredible work in the category of “insane impressions that make me question their sanity and vocal cords,” but Geneva has the bad luck of doing it in the challenge. Why would she choose to take on a role that she knows nothing about? Geneva ekes through this week by the skin of her teeth due to Mirage not knowing a single word to “Dark Lady,” but I think the show would have happily sent her home if Mirage did even passably. Mhi’ya, meanwhile, gets saved for a second time because she’s at least listening to the judges, even if she’s not giving good performances yet. For what it’s worth, while the girls are shocked to see Mhi’ya saved, I thought her work in the challenge was serviceable. No, there wasn’t an arc, but she was also on screen for approximately 15 seconds.

Meanwhile, Xunami and Megami are both, while not exactly invisible, lacking any semblance of a story line. With Xunami, in particular, I’m hoping for some more personality at some point. She’s Kandy’s daughter, she must have some fight in her.

• Like I said up top, even Amanda and Plane seem to be over their fight. Mirage downing that cocktail was concerning, but it’s nice to know that she truly didn’t know the words, because it would have been sadder if she’d just choked. SMG comes in and, while I love her, the sooner we can abolish this part of Untucked, the better.

• Mhi’ya’s Cher impression really did make me snort-laugh.

• My favorite bit of the episode, however, is the extended Plasma confessional about Barbra that ends, only for Plasma to be lecturing Sapphira and Nymphia about Barbra anyway. Really good stuff.

• Trauma makeup corner: Xunami and Geneva bond over being DREAMers. Mirage talks about doing Indigenous Pride in Vegas.

• Predicted top four: I’m holding strong with Sapphira, Nymphia, Dawn, and Plane. Smart money is probably on Q over Plane or Dawn, but I’m not fully sold yet.

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Photo: Gay people (via Jason Frank)

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