‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 16, Episode 5 recap: ‘For you I’m all the way down’

This recap brought to you by me singing “A.S.M.R Lover” on a loop

Rare is the RuPaul’s Drag Race episode that turns the competition on its head. Because of how Drag Race structures its finales, the show edits all the finalists as both major characters and potential winners—as if to avoid a Sasha Velour situation again, where the winner’s edit all season was practically invisible. That means that for better or worse, and whether we realize it or not, we’re actually watching three to four queens’ journeys all season long. Everyone else is a supporting character: they can have breakout moments, but the season is not about them.

As a result, underdog maxi-challenge wins have become increasingly uncommon. During Season 15, the only time a queen outside of the eventual top five won a challenge was Aura Mayari in the girl groups task—and that result was so wildly under-edited that the episode was more about season champion Sasha Colby than it was Aura. To take it a step further: that episode, plus Snatch Game (which fifth-placer Loosey LaDuca won), were the only two all season long in which a member of the top four was not a winner.

The last episode I can remember really feeling the status quo shift on original recipe Drag Race was Season 12’s branding challenge. After a season of watching the same two queens consistently win—Gigi Goode and the inevitably disqualified Sherry Pie—the competition was in desperate need of a shake up. That came in the form of fan favourite Heidi N Closet, perpetual runner-up Jackie Cox, Ru and fan fave Crystal Methyd and eventual winner Jaida Essence Hall all scoring high in the challenge, with Heidi taking home a surprise victory. That both Gigi and Sherry scored low for their efforts only emphasized how drastically the vibes had changed, and the season was much better off for it.

This season brings us a perhaps even more shocking, game-changing win, as three queens who have so far been hanging out in and near the bottom—Geneva Karr, Megami and Mhi’ya Iman Le’Paige—all win the girl groups challenge, alongside previous ball winner Nymphia Wind. They surprise the hell out of their fellow queens by delivering a great Rumix of “A.S.M.R Lover” (one of Ru’s greatest bops, it must be said), with tight, dynamic choreography. And the only question that remains after their victory is: with all the underdogs safe, who the hell is going home tonight?

While most of Sapphira Cristál’s group performs admirably, Q is the standout struggling queen of the episode Credit: Courtesy MTV

 

Let’s back up a bit first, though. We start this week with Q really leaning into her Jan-ening by lamenting once again not winning. Future Drag Race queens: this is a trap. If you have come close to winning but fallen short, your answer when asked by either a fellow queen or production is that you’re just happy the judges are recognizing your work, and you’re excited for the next challenge. Never cry over scoring high! It’s just not going to end well for you, and it certainly doesn’t for Q.

Plane Jane gets a jab in at Q for this, and it’s the most I’ve agreed with Plane all season long. But Amanda Tori Meating uses this to further stoke the fire of her issues with Plane. As Amanda says the next morning after scrapping with Plane once again, “Whenever I’m in a conversation with Plane Jane, the rage takes over.” As we’ll see in a fight later, this episode is where Amanda vs. Plane really comes to a head, marking the climax of the first major “arc” of the season.

Our teams for the girl groups challenge, in which queens will perform in three separate Rumixes of songs from Ru’s Black Butta album, are as follows: Sapphira Cristál, Dawn, Morphine Love Dion and Q get “Star Baby,” Plasma, Amanda, Xunami Muse and Plane get “Courage to Love,” and the aforementioned underdog team gets “A.S.M.R Lover.” We get all the usual tropes of girl groups episodes this week, including an extended choreography segment that sees Plasma give her team too-complex choreography and Nymphia reveal that, despite statements to the contrary, she very much can dance. Sapphira clocks this, and it reminds me of how the show edited Willow Pill back in Season 14: not only is she strategic, but the other queens comment on it.

The choreography segment reveals that Q is in real danger this week. Her “robot arms” while walking leave Nymphia in stitches on the side of the stage, as she notes that the Kansas City queen will finally not have to worry about coming in second—she’ll be in the bottom instead. Q is just entirely too stiff, and can’t keep up with the rest of her team despite the relatively simple choreo. It’s a bit shocking to see someone who has been so consistently polished all season long struggle this mightily.

Q struggles with her multiple close scrapes with a win, but the other queens aren’t impressed Credit: Courtesy MTV

In the werk room on elimination day, Q confronts Plane about her previous comments. Despite being, in my opinion, mostly in the right on this, Plane mostly backs down—until she uses the opportunity to say she respects Q to also say she doesn’t respect Amanda. This sets Amanda off, as she fires across the werk room, “Why are you such a cunt?” It goes off like a shotgun, and theirs is no longer a passive-aggressive battle. Amanda is mad. As Morphine puts it in confessional while speaking in Spanish: “The gringos are fighting!”

Plane’s argument here is that her criticism of Amanda is of Amanda’s drag, not her as a person. And as an entertainer putting herself out there, Amanda should expect that criticism. However, as Sapphira notes when trying to talk to Plane about her approach, her bluntness means that distinction isn’t clear. While I think Plane is right about queens needing to be ready for critiques, I do think there’s an argument to be made that said criticism shouldn’t come from your season sisters—and certainly shouldn’t be so blunt and relentless. At the end of it all, Sapphira has the right take: Plane has the right to say what she wants, but she should remember that others have the right to take it any way they want.

Okay, onto the main stage for the performances. The “Star Baby” group is the clear worst of the lot for me, owing to pretty simple choreo and Q’s episode-worst performance. One person being so clearly behind the beat makes them all look disjointed as a result. The “Courage to Love” group does better with their choreo, but a few choice shots of Amanda’s hair falling onto her face—intercut with Michelle Visage reactions—indicates trouble for Ms. Meating.

Finally, we have our winners, and this is just a smash. Basically everyone but Q is really good this week in the performance aspect of the challenge, but these four queens in particular are incredibly sharp and polished. Their choreography is complex, their verses are great and they feel like a genuine girl group. Their impressive performance really gags the other queens, who are suddenly left to wonder if they’re in danger.

After a quick drag mini-challenge, the top 12 queens await instructions for the girl groups task Credit: Courtesy MTV

After a Faster, Pussycat! Wig! Wig! runway category (everyone thank Monét X Change for her impact!), the “A.S.M.R Lover” group is declared the winning team, and all four of them are sent back to Untucked. Through critiques, it becomes obvious that Q and Amanda are our bottom two, the former for her performance and the latter for her looks both in the challenge and on the runway. But nevertheless, Ru wants to stir some shit, so he asks: “Who should go home tonight and why?”

Sapphira says Amanda, and notes that while she’s growing, “This is not the place to grow.” Morphine co-signs that, while Q throws both Amanda and Xunami out for not yet having a standout moment. (This clearly irritates Xunami, and irritates me on behalf of Xunami.) Dawn, Plasma, Amanda and Xunami all say Q based on that night’s performance, while Plane says she’s considering overall performance in her recommendation of Amanda to go home.

In the end, those two land in the bottom, and must lip sync to Icona Pop’s “Emergency.” This is a fun lip sync, and I think Amanda actually wins it, but it’s a bit of a moot point. While Amanda hasn’t been struggling in the competition, the judges’ comments on her makeup, padding and overall “drag aesthetics,” as Ru puts it this week, make clear that she’s marked for elimination. Q, on the other hand, has been runner-up every week but this one. Barring a disaster, Amanda is going home.

And indeed she does, bringing hers and Plane’s story to a close. While I’m sad it’s Amanda, the victim of Plane’s attacks, who goes home first, I do think it would be far too early to lose our villain—even if, as a villain, I question her effectiveness. Amanda’s a clear star, and I hope to see her back on our TV screens someday soon. But for the rest of this season, our meetings will no longer be mandatory.

Untucking our final thoughts

I’m not sure I can remember a “Previously On” segment that felt quite as defensive as this one. The entire back half is structured so as to once again make the argument for Mirage’s elimination, including Plasma’s confessional about her not knowing the words. It almost feels a bit like protesting too much, honestly.

“Plane’s such a cunt, but I live.” Xunami, speaking for whole swaths of the Drag Race audience.

I assumed Plane went by Jane, which is why I referred to her as such in the last three recaps, but she tells Amanda this week that she goes by Plane. “Well, it is plain,” Amanda retorts, to the delight of her fellow queens.

Showing how far this show has come in terms of challenge design, a former maxi-challenge is this week’s mini-challenge, as the queens must do photo shoots and come up with titles/concepts for their memoirs, inspired by Ru releasing his own. Sapphira wins this one, earning another $2,500 and a signed “first-edition” copy of Ru’s new book.

Some of the choreography in this episode turns out well, but in general I’m not sure it’s the best use of anyone’s time to have extended scenes of the queens creating choreo. The show has budget to bring in experts for the Rumix challenges—why not do it for girl groups as well? (The one time I think having the queens create their own choreo really paid off? The Frock Destroyers in Drag Race UK’s first season. I can’t think about “Break Up (Bye Bye)” without thinking of their dance moves.)

Morphine starts doing choreo while the rest of her team is just trying to figure out where to start, leading to a cute moment of Dawn reacting: “Oh, oh? Oh! OH!” Morphine later calls herself the Abby Lee Miller of Season 16, and that’s a spin-off I would watch in a heartbeat.

Sapphira’s contribution to Plane’s fight with Amanda is effectively to point out that she’s being mean, and to ask if there’s anything she can do to not be mean? I’m reducing it a bit, but it’s truly incredible how she phrases her questions for Plane.

I do think Plane’s main point—that when an entertainer puts herself out there, she opens the door to criticism—is a fair one. (Of course I do, I’m writing an analytical recap of RuPaul’s Drag Race right now.) However, what she seems to be missing is that the issue isn’t with criticism, it’s how that criticism is delivered. She says her issues with Amanda are with her drag, not with her as a person, but she fails to see how her blunt delivery does not make the distinction clear. Until she does that, I think she’ll just continue to make enemies as she has “a blast living out my shady bitch fantasy.”

A couple of format breaks in this episode: Ru for the first time in my memory does not start the judges’ introductions with “Welcome to the main stage …”, instead saying “It’s girl groups night here at RuPaul’s Drag Race!” Then later, instead of saying “Silence!” while clapping to cut off the judges’ conversation, he instead says “Chop chop!” This one really confuses Michelle Visage, who playfully mocks the host for the change.

Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo, best known as Icona Pop, are our guest judges this week. They seem to have a lot of fun! Owing to the almost universally positive critiques of queens who are supposedly in danger of elimination, they don’t get to dig into the performances much, but I’m glad they had a good time.

Not the winners having to split the $5,000! After taxes, that’s less than $1,000 a queen! Splurge a little, MTV!

✨ As Season 1 champion and OG America’s Next Drag Superstar BeBe Zahara Benet noted, this episode aired on the 15-year anniversary of Drag Race’s series premiere. I can’t imagine any of the people who worked on that season could’ve imagined it would still be not just around a decade and a half later, but an Emmy-winning cultural monolith. For all my quibbles with the show, I cannot imagine my life without it, and I cannot imagine pop culture without it. And to echo BeBe, a toast to those first nine queens to take the journey all those years ago. The show is what it is now because they took that leap.

The next episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race will air Friday, Feb. 9, 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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