‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 16, Episode 14 recap: An open book

A “House of Hidden Meanings”-inspired memoir challenge gives us one last elimination

If I’ve had one critique of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 16, which has largely been a return to form for the show, it’s that the challenges have felt a bit too easy. No unconventional materials in design tasks, no singing in the Rusical—this cast, while quite talented, has definitely been playing on a lower difficulty than we’ve seen in previous seasons. Only the three design challenges felt like a gauntlet, and even in that case, this cast (save Mhi’ya Iman Le’Paige) was well-suited to thrive in them.

So you’ll understand if I look askance when Ru announces that this week’s maxi-challenge is effectively an upgraded version of a previous mini-challenge: the memoir cover design challenge. We saw this challenge first way back in Season 2, when the top six were tasked with coming up with memoir titles, taking photos for the book cover and participating in a promotional satellite interview with Marc Malkin. (There was also a bit about plugging a new Absolut Vodka flavor, which is how we got Jessica Wild drunkenly telling us how much she loves that drink.)

However, that challenge happened when Ru was not himself promoting a memoir—which he is now. That means they’re taking this a bit more seriously, with the queens actually being tasked with writing material for their books. (Granted, we never see the writing, so it’s hard to judge how much it actually matters.) And instead of a fluffy celebrity interview with Marc Malkin, the queens instead get asked the kind of incisive personal questions we’ve previously seen during the Tic Tac chats by Las Culturistas host Matt Rogers. In other words: it’s a personal vulnerability challenge, a la Pink Table Talk, in a different form.

The result is a new kind of semifinal episode that basically repackages familiar finale elements for a test of the queens’ ability to sell themselves. Ru effectively challenges the girls to connect with the audience as people, not just as drag characters. In a time when drag is more popular than ever, how the queens handle themselves in situations like press interviews and promotional appearances matters. And it’s very notable to see who struggles most with this task, plus who surprises and pulls off the win.

Plane Jane has her worst week of the competition at the worst possible moment Credit: Courtesy MTV

Let’s start with the queen you’d expect to excel in this kind of challenge: Sapphira Cristál. Her natural charisma and easy rapport with Ru make their time during the photo shoot—with Ru coaching the queens as photographer Albert Sanchez takes the shots—a delight. Sapphira wisely leans into Ru’s previous ribbing about her slue foot, titling her memoir, “Slue Foot: Embracing All of Me.” Ru, naturally, loves a queen embracing what some might mock and turning it into a badge of honour. It continues Sapphira’s streak this season of having the finger on the pulse of what will appeal to Ru.

 

During her interview, Sapphira balances being charming and effervescent with refreshing honesty about her relationships with her family. Matt raves about her, saying that for all her polish and poise, she’s remarkably easy to talk to. Combined with a gorgeous look for the “Fan-dango” runway category, referencing Roberto Capucci, and Sapphira recovers quite nicely this week from her previous tumble into the bottom two.

Another queen familiar with the bottom two from earlier in the season, Q produces a mixed bag this week. She has the worst title and cover by far—“Alphabet Soup: Savour Every Bite” sounds more like a Campbell’s slogan than a memoir title, and the cover illustration is so incredibly junior—but her podcast interview is surprisingly strong. You can tell she’s a little uncomfortable in the interview, but she answers tough questions about her mom and growing up poor with an unexpected frankness.

Though we’ve seen more layers of Q in the werk room, when it comes to the challenges she’s usually been most successful doing a broad caricature (think the Brick in RDR Live). Seeing her letting her guard down in the context of a challenge shows a new side of Q, and it’s nice to see. Unfortunately her memoir cover, plus a just-okay orange fan look, isn’t enough this week, and she lands in the bottom two for her second time.

Our final four queens learn what Ru has in store for their final challenge: a memoir task Credit: Courtesy MTV

Joining her down there is Plane Jane, who really swings-and-misses this week. Her cover is enough of an issue, with her showing up to the shoot in a just-okay garment and a truly lifeless wig. Ru does his best to get her to toss it and give it some volume, but no dice. More troubling, though, is how badly she handles the interview. She fails to plug the book properly (Matt has to bring it up at the end), doesn’t reveal anything new about herself, and takes the bait to be shady not only to her fellow queens in the final four, but to an eliminated queen as well. I’ll give you one guess as to who.

Whereas the other queens demonstrate progress in their presentations, Plane demonstrates that she still has some hang ups around showing who she truly is. It’s more comfortable for Plane to be within her character, which is a trope we’ve seen over the years (perhaps most prominently with BenDeLaCreme in Season 6). I’ve no doubt that Plane can eventually get over this hump, but right now, she’s not giving Ru and the judges what they want—which makes me believe she’s going to fall short of the crown.

That’s because her and Sapphira’s last remaining competition after this episode, Nymphia Wind, steps up in a major way this week. She is terrific in her interview with Matt, opening up about how she felt inferior to western beauty standards growing up and reconciling those through her experimentation in drag. She manages to be charismatic, revealing and genuine—it’s the most we’ve learned about her at any point this season. (It helps that she has the only book cover that actually looks like a legit book cover, too.)

After hitting the runway in a gorgeous, distinctly Asian take on Marie Antoinette, Nymphia snags her third win—her first in many episodes. It’s a major boost to her candidacy for the crown at exactly the right moment, and combined with her never landing in the bottom two, she’s heading into the finale with a great track record. Nymphia may have faded into the background narratively for a bit of this season, but you can’t write a better ending for her arc than this episode.

Matt Rogers of “Las Culturistas” takes on the role of final four interviewer this week Credit: Courtesy MTV

Q faces off against Plane in the Lip Sync for Your Life to Tina Turner’s “Better Be Good to Me,” and it is roughly what you would expect of two relatively rhythm-free queens taking on Tina Turner. It’s not a disaster, but neither matches the song well. Plane scores a few points with Ru by playing into the comedy, though I’d say Plane just needed to not actively screw up this lip sync in order to stay. She’s been a main character all season long, and though she faltered in this challenge, it would be strange to have a finale without her.

So Plane stays, and after a teasing pause, Ru announces that Q must sashay away. It’s no doubt a tremendous bummer for Q to make it so far, only to fall at the final hurdle. Adding insult to injury, in any other main season since 2017 save Season 12, getting to the final four would’ve been enough to get her a spot in the finale. Alas, perhaps still reacting to the backlash to so many non-eliminations in Season 14, Ru is committed to a top three this go-around.

That means Nymphia, Plane and Sapphira will face off for the crown in two weeks’ time—but we’ve got a pseudo-reunion episode next week to get through first. Until then, get those fan votes in; something tells me they’ll be more closely-watched than ever this season.

Untucking our final thoughts

In addition to the pause Ru takes before announcing if Q is safe, there are some other ways the show plays into the question of whether there’ll be an elimination this week. Starting with reflecting on last week: the cold open features Plane calling Sapphira and Morphine Love Dion’s “Miss Me More” lip sync the best of the season (hmmm), while Sapphira says she thought Ru would call a double shantay. Later in the episode, Nymphia hopes for no one to go home in a confessional during Plane and Q’s lip sync. It’s interesting how much we see them calling for them all being saved, only for the show to go ahead and eliminate anyway—almost like Drag Race is making a point. Season 15 was obviously more blatant with its consistent eliminations, but this feels like the show saying the age of constant double shantays and twists to keep queens in is largely over.

Q tries to argue that Nymphia has “1.25 wins,” referring back to her girl groups “quarter win” from earlier in the season, but Nymphia quickly shuts that down by saying that would mean Plane and Sapphira both just have 3.5 wins. After that, they quickly agree that Nymphia and Q have two, and Plane and Sapphira have four. As it should be!

There’s a music cue when Ru calls this episode “the semifinals” that’s clearly supposed to indicate something. Sapphira picks up on Ru’s word choice, noting later that she’s never heard Ru call this episode by that name (I believe she’s only previously used it on Drag Race UK?), which means there likely will be an elimination this week. Savvy on Sapphira’s part to note that.

Super cute mini-challenge this week, with the queens having to lip sync to “Kitty Girl” while submerged in water. It’s reminiscent of Season 5’s opening water tank photo shoot challenge, and gives us one last chance to see the queens goof off before the endgame. Sapphira wins, earning a trip to Puerto Vallarta to go along with her over $25,000 in winnings. Not a bad haul at all!

It’s in moments like when Ru tells the girls that for their memoir covers, they’ll have to “pose the Random House down,” that I reflect on how much I love and loathe this show in equal measure. I cackled despite myself.

Plane shades Amanda Tori Meating in her podcast interview, which I’m sure will be ignored by all parties involved on Twitter.

Nymphia admits that despite previous readings of her underplaying her experience as strategic, none of her self-doubt was a strategy. More relatable, but perhaps less impressive when considering Nymphia’s “gameplay” this season.

Ts Madison is on the panel this week, which I believe makes this the first final in-season episode since Ross Mathews and Carson Kressley started their tenures that neither appears. I’m somewhat surprised this isn’t a “just family” episode!

Ronan Farrow returns as a guest judge—fitting to have a writer here for this! Unfortunately, since we don’t actually see any of the “writing,” it’s hard for him to really judge on it. Instead, he keeps most of his commentary to the podcast interviews, which makes sense. Good critiques all-told; you can tell he’s done this before.

Next week’s non-reunion will feature a lip sync tournament, which is an interesting choice. Excited to see more of the eliminated queens, but it does feel like this season in particular could really have benefitted from a reunion.

The reunion episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 16 will air Friday, April 12, at 8 p.m. EST on MTV in the U.S. and on Crave in Canada. Check back every Monday after new episodes for our recaps and power rankings, and subscribe to our drag newsletter Wig! for exclusive Drag Race content delivered straight to your inbox every Tuesday afternoon.

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