‘Drag Race’ hits midseason stride

A promotional poster for 'RuPaul's Drag Race.' Via VH1 press.

Hey, kitty girls! We’ve officially reached the midpoint of the 11th season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” It feels like just yesterday Branjie was just a twinkle in VH1’s social media marketing eye, and ‘opulence‘ was only an SAT word. So far, season 11 has exceeded this writer’s expectations, delivering sickening looks, a new injection of creativity to the challenges and a varied cohort of supremely talented queens. More pertinently, this season has presented genuinely engaging storylines and some very fractious drama, allowing each of the queens to show multiple sides of their personalities. Not since season 2 has “Drag Race” brought us what feels, quite simply, like a diverse set of people who all have divergent motivations and differing opinions of each other.

Our most recent episode featured the show’s best-known challenge, Snatch Game. For season 11, the challenge was revamped amid calls that the mock game show/celebrity impersonation contest was getting stale. Ergo, we were blessed with the Snatch Game at Sea, which accomplished the herculean task of being essentially the same as its landlubber counterpart with a few nautical motifs added to the decor and some porthole/glory hole puns thrown in for good measure. The finale, though, featured a lip sync for the herstory books between frontrunners Brooke Lynn Hytes and Yvie Oddly to Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry.” Hytes leaned into her professional dance background, while Yvie showcased her backbreaking contortion skills to earn season 11’s first double shantay, keeping both heavyweights alive.

At this stage, A’keria C. Davenport, Brooke Lynn Hytes, Nina West, Plastique Tiara, Shuga Cain, Silky Nutmeg Ganache, Vanessa Vanjie Mateo and Yvie Oddly remain in the race to be America’s Next Drag Superstar. Earlier in the season, Ra’jah O’Hara seemed to be shaping up to be the season’s villain. This storyline was shaken up by her establishment as the lip sync assassin when she sent Mercedes Iman Diamond and Scarlet Envy packing. However, the season’s second design-from-scratch challenge, a farm-to-runway extravaganza, did in the Dallas queen on episode seven.

Season 11’s fresh set of challenges has been one of its greatest strengths so far, partly due to the reintroduction of more design challenges. On earlier seasons, at least three design challenges was the norm, but acting challenges have become increasingly prevalent as “Drag Race” has gotten more mainstream. The daunting design challenge’s return to prominence is welcome news for longtime fans, allowing the queens to flex their creative muscles and reminding us of the staggering amount of talent that it takes to thrive on this show.

In those design challenges, Brooke Lynn Hytes has claimed the title of queen to beat; she’s won two of them. Hytes snatched the top spot on episode one with a stunning latex Detox-inspired jumpsuit and with her Monster Ball lewks on episode five. Hytes is also one half of “Branjie” — the first onscreen couple in “Drag Race” herstory. Lovebirds Hytes and season 10 returnee Vanessa Vanjie Mateo have charmed fans with their budding relationship. Cynics will say it’s all for the cameras, but it’s quality gay content. In any case, it’s been gratifying to watch Vanjie show a more holistic persona following her brief-but-iconic stint on season 10; she’s been navigating her newfound beau and struggling with charges of repetitive runway looks from Michelle Visage.

This season has also introduced some never-before-seen challenge formats, such as episode six’ “Draglympics” challenge. The episode, which featured an uproarious cameo from the queen of protein powder Love Connie, split the cast into teams representing Tuckpantistan and Glamazonia for a choreographed set of athletic drag feats. The Draglympics garnered A’Keria a deserved first win and also provided a major point of contention in one of the season’s main conflicts between Silky and Yvie.

Yvie Oddly has a whimsical, often macabre take on drag that has won her legions of admirers on social media and on the judges’ panel. She has butted heads with some of the queens due to her bluntness in providing advice. This attitude, which could have been edited to make her out to be a young and arrogant queen, has been complicated by Yvie’s revelation of her struggles with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a tissue disorder that could end Yvie’s drag career prematurely. With that in mind, Yvie has maintained that her critiques are borne of respect for her competitors, as she doesn’t want anyone to waste their time on “Drag Race.”

Conversely, Silky has been adamant about remaining true to herself and her ebullient personality in the competition, even going so far as to discount the judges’ advice in some cases. This confidence has earned her two challenge wins, but some have called Silky out for cockiness and spotlight-hogging.

When Yvie suffered a minor ankle injury in the Draglympics, Silky suggested that, in the next episode, Yvie should be the next to go, a-la Eureka in season nine. Yvie pointedly shaded her back when Alyssa Edwards showed up to choreograph a line dance for the farm-to-runway challenge. The bad blood spilled over into “Untucked,” where, after a charged exchange, Yvie insinuated that Silky had no talent. This erupted into an every-queen-for-herself shouting match that got heated enough for Brooke Lynn to build a protective cushion fort to hide in. As of the Snatch Game, Yvie has taken the initiative to apologize, but Silky has remained wary, expressing unbridled glee when Yvie landed in the bottom two.

Interwoven between these larger arcs have been a number of smaller narratives, such as Mercedes’ experience as an immigrant and the show’s first Muslim contestant. Plastique has opened up about her Vietnamese family’s unfamiliarity with drag and the difficulties she has gone through trying to hide it from them. Plastique’s openness even earned her a warm hug from the notoriously icy RuPaul, who in that moment may as well have written “I’d like another Emmy, please” on his forehead.

Season 11’s greatest strength has been in variety. It features the most queens in the show’s history, yet it has not attempted to place them into camps like season five’s pageant vs. comedy enmity or season seven’s veterans vs. newcomers friction. Instead, a more organic storyline has played out on season 11; it now showcases a set of eight über-polished queens who, as any people are wont to do, have acted, spoken and thought in different ways at different times for different reasons. The result has been wildly entertaining, and the producers should take note: this is how “Drag Race” should be done in its mainstream era.