After a non-elimination episode and a COVID-19 special, we're finally back to eliminating queens on RuPaul's Drag Race. That's a sad thing because this season's cast has proven to be incredibly entertaining and enjoyable, but it's also a relief, since whittling the cast down to one drag superstar is ultimately why we're all here. So now that we're into the back stretch of the season, we thought we'd take stock. Who's got the inside track on taking the crown? How have this season's format adjustments gone over? And when will Nicole Byer be named as a new permanent judge?
The show's first pandemic-produced season was always going to require some big changes. After the Season 12 finale was taped remotely — a production challenge that saw the queens performing their final lip syncs at home and glam-squad-less host RuPaul in a face mask — all bets were off for how they'd go about filming Season 13. As last week's COVID-19 special showed, RuPaul's Drag Race went to great pains to produce a competition that could be safe and allow the queens to go through their usual paces without wearing masks. But that didn't change the reality of an outside world where bars, clubs, and most of the other outlets where Drag Race queens have historically been able to leverage their time on the show were now closed. Which puts the Season 13 queens at a real economic disadvantage relative to past participants. Which is why one of the major changes to the competition for this season was so welcome. The lip sync extravaganza season premiere, which saw every Season 13 queen put into a Lip Sync For Your Life battle with another queen, with winners and losers sent into distinct groups, was a great way to goose the drama for the premiere, but it also meant that no queen went home over the first three episodes. As a result, each and every queen this season got the kind of exposure they'll need to get the gigs they weren't able to book in clubs and bars this winter.
The downside to this — much as we love the queens — is that for a good stretch this was a reality competition without eliminations, and waiting until the end of episode four for Kahmora Hall to be the first elimination felt like a very long time. Add to that the non-elimination after Symone and Kandy Muse lip-synced against each other, followed by the COVID special, and we've gone nine full episodes to only eliminate four queens.
This question seemed more rhetorical a few weeks ago, before Symone fell into the bottom 2 after the Rusical challenge and had to lip sync for her life against Kandy Muse. But even that moment of relative struggle for Symone seemed to underline how borderline untouchable she is this season. Even in a lip sync where Kandy Muse didn't do very much wrong, it was out of the question that Symone might be eliminated. And for good reason! Over the first six weeks of the season, the L.A. queen did everything flawlessly, from music, to comedy, to personality, to looks upon looks upon looks. Judging by the first half of the season, nobody seems to be on the same level.
So is the season over?
While previous seasons have also seen queens like Sharon Needles, Bianca Del Rio, and Bob the Drag Queen break into early leads and ride them all the way to the win, this hasn't always been the case. Just ask Season 9's Shea Coulee or Season 10's Gigi Goode what being the early-season steamroller did for their prospects for winning. But if there is going to be a late-season challenger for Symone's crown, who could it be? Thus far, the other most-decorated queen has been Olivia Lux, whose wins in the Disco and Bossy Rossy challenges made her the season's first double champ. She's taken the role of the lovable underdog, which has definitely served queens well in past seasons, but at the same time she seems far less polished than Symone. Someone like ice-skating Chicago queen Denali certainly has the drive and the talent to make it to the end, but it's hard to tell whether her early-season struggle edit is meant to lead to a narrative of overcoming obstacles or if the judges just don't see it in her. We've seen moments of greatness from fashion queen Gottmik and quirkster Utica, and certainly both are reminiscent of past-season queens who who've gone on to win (Gottmik with Aquaria, Utica with Jinkx Monsoon). But the real threat might actually be musical-theater queen Rosé, who has yet to land in the bottom on a challenge, and who just got her first win in the Rusical. She may be peaking at just the right time.
Aside from Symone's general excellence, the best thing about Season 13 has been the lip-sync performances. Given the all-lip-sync premiere episode perhaps that's no surprise, but we've since been treated to moments like Denali's floor-burning routine to "100% Pure Love" and LaLa Ri picking up dollars and single-handedly reviving the joy of in-person drag shows on "Fancy." The Season 13 queens came to perform, and they have delivered on that front and then some.
On a regular Drag Race season, we usually get two extra special guest judges per episode, pulling from the realms of film, TV, music, social media, politics, and general camp excellence. This season, in order to keep things nice and safe, the guest judges were limited to a small rotating panel that to date has included Nailed It! host Nicole Byer, internet personality and activist Ts Madison, comedian Loni Love, and choreographer Jamal Sims. This has been an unqualified success. While the less curated rosters of guest judges in the past would bring with them the thrill of uncertainty — will they be on point, a disaster, or a dud? — this year's panel has felt like a revolving door of all-stars. Jamal Sims has been a steady hand and an insightful critic of the queens, Love and Madison have brought personality and a genuine love for the queens, and all of the above have been found in Nicole Byer, whose judging has been so smart, silly, and sophisticated that she could probably snap up a permanent spot on the panel next season and everyone would cheer (all apologies to Ross Matthews and/or Carson Kressley).
So what's the State of the Drag Union in March of 2021? For Season 13 of mothership Drag Race, we've got a talented cast of queens working hard in a challenging environment. Once eliminations ramp up heading into the finale, this could end up being one of the best seasons in years. And it better be, because the Drag Race universe continues to compete with itself. Over on WOW Presents Plus, the second season of Drag Race UK is streaming to its own acclaim. There's also an upcoming Australian offshoot, RuPaul's Drag Race Down Under due later this spring, and Paramount+ recently announced that All-Stars 6 will premiere on the streaming service later this spring. The drag universe is ever-expanding, so it's good that the queens on the main stage right now are serving for as long as the spotlight's on them.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.