When I heard that Drag Race would once again devote a full episode to throw the girls a reunion, I was nervous. The Between Two Ferns vibe in All Stars was so stilted and largely uninteresting (can you recall a single moment?) that I was worried we’d see much the same from this lot. But boy was I wrong! This, in many ways, felt like the first time we were seeing these girls drop the shiny reality-TV masks they wore for most of the season, and really act like, well, drag queens.
Thankfully, this reunion does not dedicate an entire segment to each girl, doing away with the convention seemingly for good after season seven. It’s just the highlights instead, and while it certainly leaves many queens with little or nothing to say — I’m looking at you, Jaymes Mansfield — it keeps us away from any awkward one-question interviews with Ru. The producers also do a pretty great job of picking out the moments from the season that we actually want to talk about, even if they felt somewhat slight in the actual episode.
A perfect example of this is Alexis Michelle’s seeming inability to be read. It was a relatively minor blip in the show, but I think it’s when fan resentment finally began to overwhelm the online discourse about the New York queen. Alexis continues to dig her heels in on her defense of “I thought body talk was off limits,” and with this infamously friendly crew of drag queens, you might even think they’d let her get away with it. But after one cartoonishly big eyeroll from Farrah Moan, it’s clear things are a little different. All the queens at some point or another jump in, and you’d almost feel a little bad for Alexis if it weren’t, you know, Alexis.
Best of all, Ru decides to open up the library for all the queens on the stage. What we get is by and large much better than the actual reading challenge we saw during the season. The interplay between Trinity and Eureka — and later on in a segment devoted to Eureka — is especially fun and it makes you realise what we missed out on not having these two around all season. Aja is right: A Trinity vs. Eureka lip-sync would have been a sight to behold.
Ru moves quickly onto the three “shocking” eliminations, and here is where things really start to get cooking. Charlie’s elimination felt so long ago at this point, it took me a moment to realise it was included in the “shocking elimination” category. He once again repeats a few excuses that have been bantered about online since the fateful day he left the competition, along with a few fresh ones which are news to everybody. Apparently, he couldn’t lip-sync because he doesn’t make sushi, but Trinity does make sushi (every day), and unfortunately this is a sushi competition, so if you can’t make sushi you gotta go home. All of which, of course, makes complete sense to everyone. Charlie doesn’t really acquit himself here very well at all. As Trinity points out, he should have picked one of his many excuses and owned it. Even with an array of excuses, the queens don’t buy it and Shea and Sasha especially seem to go for the jugular. Perhaps it’s the power of being top four or the last couple months of social-media stardom, but all four finalists seem particularly willing to speak their minds in ways they weren’t in the season proper. It’s a wonderful change to see someone like Sasha be a little bit of a bitch for once.
Eureka’s segment ends up being the most purely sentimental moment of the reunion, which is a relief. I don’t have much more to say about it, but barring a Trinity win, it would be a delight to see these two compete in a future All Stars season. Who knows? With All Stars season three filming immediately following season ten, anything is possible!
The one true shocking elimination of the season is left for last. Attention is turned to Valentina for the first time and this whole portion of the reunion is goddamn delicious. You suddenly realise how long ago these queens filmed the season, as Shea comes for Valentina, even dropping references to their most recent tour. Almost all the queens have something to say to Valentina and she keeps it together with the same Valentina sheen we’ve seen all season … until things pivot to her fans behaviour on social media.
The moment Valentina compared herself to Selena, it was all over for me. I think Valentina is an amazing queen who represents a community that is not often seen on this show, but the slight shift in Peppermint’s face when she made the comparison is all that needs to be said. Valentina is clearly very into having fans. As queen after queen confronted her about their treatment of the queen’s online, it’s interesting how little Valentina has to say in response. She claims to be a social-media Luddite, but Shea quickly calls this out — not that she needed to, because anyone who has been following Valentina on social media can recognise she knows what she’s doing. Valentina eventually agrees to ask her fans to stop sending death threats, but does so with little or no enthusiasm or conviction.
At this point, there is only one story line left to close out and it’s that of Nina Bonina Brown. Unfortunately for us, much like her tenure on Drag Race, it is frustrating, it goes on for too long, and it is ultimately pointless. Nina refuses to really participate in this conversation and once again refuses to name specifics about any of the whos or whens about her claims of victimhood. It’s a real shame because anyone who follows Nina knows that she is essentially omnipresent on Instagram Live and has spilt some serious tea about her time on the show and other contestants. I assumed she’d bring some of that energy with her to the reunion, but alas. It’s a lot of mumbling and deflection and not much else. It’s clear that Nina was not well treated by the Atlanta drag community, and seeing how frustrated the other queens on that stage are with her, you worry it might happen again.
It didn’t feel like there could possibly be anything left to talk about, so I was surprised there was so much time left in the episode. They throw us a few never-before-seen clips, which were either really fun (Michelle’s lesbian nail moment) or really sad (roughly three seconds of more Kudrow), and then move on to an impromptu round of Toot It or Boot It (eponymous borrowing from the World of Wonder webseries hosted by Raja and Raven). Nothing especially interesting happens here, as most of the girls toot and boot in agreement with the judges, with the exception of Shea’s rainbow dress that gets unanimously booted. It really does feel like the producers were paying special attention to everything I cared about this season, because disagreements about that damn rainbow dress (which I still stand by as one of the best looks of the season) nearly tore my friend group apart.
Finally, before things are settled, Ru brings forward Cucu to relieve her of her Miss Congeniality duties. Poor Cynthia didn’t get a lot to do during the reunion, and really even less to do here, because the sash and accompanying prize are swiftly handed over to Valentina. This shocks few people, as Miss Congeniality is voted on by the fans and Valentina has those in spades, as we’ve learned.
It seems like things might wrap up rather uneventfully, until Aja does something magnificently unprecedented and challenges the verdict. This is the kind of thing most queens in the past would have waited to tweet about as the episode was airing, so it’s a nice twist that we get to see it all play out in front of us in real time. I can’t believe I ever doubted World of Wonder because this moment alone makes it the best reunion of the series.
Aja basically starts an avalanche of commotion as nearly every queen jumps in with their opinion on the crowning and I can’t say I disagree with any of them. Was Valentina a great queen, a front-runner, and someone who very likely deserved to win? Sure. But was she congenial or likeable or even sweet? Harder to say.
Farrah Moan in particular seizes this moment to pull one of the all-time great reality-show-reunion moves: asking your friend why they stopped texting you back. You have to feel for Farrah, too. It doesn’t just feel like a stunt, and Valentina’s dismissal of her all but confirms the truth of her statement. Aja wasn’t a ton of fun to watch on her season, but here she begins a “fan favourite” chant that all but changes the name of the prize and robs Valentina a little bit of her moment. In these last minutes of the reunion, Valentina is absolutely electric. You see the dam break, you see the Tracey Flick begin to shine through, and suddenly the real Valentina is revealed.
Listen, you’d have to be stupid to think you know the real anyone based off a handful of edited clips from a reality show, but that being said, I think it’s clear from the handful of edited clips on this reality show that Valentina is 100 percent an unrepentant fame-hungry monster. More than anything Valentina herself does in the reunion, you can tell from the way the other queens on that stage treat her. Valentina is the one true villain of season nine.
Or I don’t know. I did a lot of prescription drugs before I watched this episode, so maybe chalk these opinions up to the the pharmaceutical companies that sedate me on flights. Either way, this reunion was a ton of fun to watch. I wish they would have brought even half of that fire to the workroom this season, but I’m glad we got a taste of it here.
Before sending us off, Ru reveals the new finale-elimination format: It’s a lip-sync tournament! This is exciting news, and although it isn’t how I want every season to be decided — imagine how that elimination format would have changed things in seasons six and seven? — I’m excited to see all of these girls lip-sync, even if it does seem to favour almost every queen but Sasha. My bet? They’re pushing for any excuse to give Peppermint the win. I am almost definitely wrong, but I want to put it in print just the same. Either way, we’ll find out next week.
This article originally appeared on Vulture ©2017 All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.