Oh man, you guys. I didn’t write a recap last week because there’s literally no way to retell a conversation that doesn’t devolve into “she said this, then she said that!” But now I’m straight-up shook because I have to post something about the finale, but nothing I create could ever be as good as this episode.
To be honest, things got off to a weird start. Like, we have to acknowledge all the contestants, but we also already interviewed them at the reunion, so they march the runway and then… just sit in the audience for the rest of the show, never to be mentioned again. (Except Valentina. If Ru doesn’t say her name at least twice an hour, a horde of teenagers appears to crush the internet under the weight of a billion emojis.) Everyone looks fine, and some of them looks expensive, but I wouldn’t say that anyone looks phenomenal. The final four, on the other hand, all slay it. Each of them delivers a statement that is quintessentially them on a larger scale than anything we saw on the show.
But no one serves like Mama Ru. Her performance literally consists of slowly walking and then standing still while backup dancers do all the work. And even that minimal contribution feels like a showstopper. She is the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, the Bunny and the Raven. No matter how phenomenal these competitors become, they are forever in her shadow as Ru girls. This is her empire, and she started building it with her own two hands before some of these kids were even born. Bow down.
Since previous finales have lacked suspense because it was already blatant who would be crowned, Ru and her creative team announce a shake-up in the formula. Tonight, for the first time, the final four will enter a lip-sync tournament, and the winner of this spectacle will take home the ultimate prize. I’ve heard many audience members complaining that this system isn’t fair because the person who won the most challenges might then go home without the crown. To that I say: there is no “fair” in drag. You can’t scientifically prove who the best drag queen is. Literally every moment up to this point has been decided by our supreme leader: she picks who comes out on top and who goes home, and we have known all along that we have to accept her judgment. Now all of a sudden we get to the end and you think it should be different? It doesn’t matter who won the most previous challenges, because Ru decides who won the previous challenges. There is only one voter in this election, babies. And besides: ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?
But the full-blown gladiator deathmatch won’t happen until we get through some perfunctory interview segments. It can’t all be fun and games. The chats run as expected. Everyone has some sort of support in the audience: the charming Reverend Coulée, Papa and Johnny Velour, superstar talent Trace Lysette, and the man who gets to untuck Ms. Taylor. Everyone also gets a video greeting, some good (Peppermint’s message from Laverne Cox, Shea’s message from Blac Chyna) and some not (Trinity’s message from Bobby Moynihan, Sasha’s message from Katy Perry). No one cries, though we have a couple close calls. It’s all cute, but it’s just the bread basket holding us over until the meal arrives.
And we’ve still got some empty calories to get through before we can chow down on some actual performances, this time in the form of game show nonsense. Ru carts out a giant wheel with four names on it and spins to select Trinity. Trinity then gets to pick who she battles against, and shows some real ambition in pointing to Peppermint. Then Peppermint gets to decide between two boxes (carried by two members of the criminally underused Pit Crew), which will determine the song they do. None of the complication adds much value, but it’s hard to milk an hour of TV out of the announcement of one name.
The first showdown, to Britney’s “Stronger,” is a close call. Trinity is a better dancer, and the hunger in her eyes is so palpable that the front row is probably afraid for their safety. Peppermint is more charming and effortless, and has a dramatic reveal. (Though let’s be honest: neither version of the dress is particularly cute.) It could have gone either way, but you know how Ru loves a wig under a wig, so she opts to cut Ms. Taylor. Our departing queen takes it like a champ, walking out with the poise and composure we’ve come to expect from her. Though she didn’t win tonight, she proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that “pageant queen” is a fucking compliment.
I don’t even know how to talk about the “So Emotional” battle. Let me start by saying that Shea turned out a performance that, if witnessed live, would have set any club jumping. Unfortunately, she came to slay while her opponent came to change the damn game. Rather than embracing the pop sensibility of the song, Sasha digs deep into the lyrics to consider how she might express being overwhelmed by feelings. Following the deconstruction of the rose in her hand and a couple well-timed bursts from her gloves, she deals a fatal blow by creating an instantly iconic moment: as her face broadcasts shocking intensity, she slowly removes her wig while a waterfall of petals cascades from within it. The auditorium explodes. People are on their feet screaming. We’re talking mayhem. The music continues, but let’s be honest: this sync is over. The Lady Coulée did her best, but frankly I don’t think anyone on this planet could have outdone that flower shower.
After the commercial break, we also get a quick comedic bit from our current fucking reigning. (And props to Bob for her regal African attire: she was never going to outdo Violet’s gown from last year, so she went for a creation that Ms. Chachki couldn’t dare wear.) The finalists also had time to change into their battle armor. As a nightlife legend, Peppermint has taken inspiration from drag’s roots. Her gown, with its opulent array of feathers, stones, and sequins, supplies all the oversized drama one could want from the old school. Her opponent, the Wedding Cenobite, has traded the accessible and expected for stranger, more challenging details. Spiked, masked, and monochromatic, she’s not OK, but she is right.
We return to Whitney for the final showdown. It ends up being another tight race, but Sasha has momentum on her side. The anticipation she builds as she slowly disassembles her mask adds power to her unique syncing style, which can best be described as “sexy nervous breakdown.” Embracing her position as the weirdo of the season, she throws herself at the song (and eventually the floor) in a way that none of the other contestants would have thought to do. Peppermint is a confident and compelling queen, and I struggle with the idea of her losing a lip sync battle, but the truth is that America’s Next Drag Superstar needed to create a moment. For all the times we’ve mocked the Brains from Brooklyn for being too cerebral, too focused on art, too stuck in her own head: it served her unbelievably well tonight. She thought very carefully about how to prove she’s a winner, and that’s why she won.
Congratulations to Peppermint for getting this far. Her win would have been historic, but hopefully her outstanding showing throughout this competition will change the minds of some of the assholes who say that trans people shouldn’t do drag. (If you’re one of those assholes: don’t try to fight me. This isn’t an argument with two sides. Water is wet, the sky is blue, and women, including trans women, can and do perform as drag queens. It’s not an opinion up for debate; it’s a fact.)
And now we enter a new era of Queen Velour. I hope that her focus on individuality and rule-breaking carries over not only into the minds of up-and-coming queens who will embrace more creative options, but also into the minds of the showrunners, who have the opportunity to cast future seasons more diversely. I’d love to see bearded queens, drag kings, ladyqueens, and all sorts of other gender outlaws vying for the crown. Let’s break some more rules! The future of drag is just beginning.