‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 16, Episode 9 recap: Goth girls

Another design challenge provides predictable results—except for the elimination

How many design challenges is too many on RuPaul’s Drag Race? Back in Season 3, when the queens were put through four—including two balls—there was a general feeling that there were too many. (It has been cited as the hardest season for a reason!) But in recent years, as we’ve seen seasons come that have just a ball and no separate design challenge, there’s been pushback among fans that just one is not enough. The show seems to have settled into a pattern of two per season, save some international seasons that may not have a design task at all.

But this season, we’ve had three: the Mother of All Balls, the doll design task, and now a neo-goth design challenge. While this cadre of queens does boast a high number of seamstresses—Dawn, Nymphia Wind, Plane Jane, Q and Sapphira Cristál have all placed high on at least one of the design tasks—it also features queens who have routinely underperformed on design tasks. One of them, Geneva Karr, sashayed away on the second; the other two, Mhi’ya Iman Le’Paige and Plasma, still remain.

This results in the same queens scoring in the top and the bottom every time, making this challenge’s results clear before the episode even gets into gear. Indeed, all five queens who have done well in design challenges before get at least some praise, while Mhi’ya and Plasma land in the bottom two. (Morphine Love Dion, something of a victim of circumstance, winds up with a low placement despite a perfectly fine garment.) Any hope of a surprise result, like Adore Delano suddenly scoring a ball win in Season 6 against expectations, is diminished watching it happen. And it doesn’t help that the episode leading up to this result is, well, dull.

I’ve been enjoying Season 16 quite a bit, and I do think once we actually see the garments in question, the episode kicks up a notch. But effectively the entire middle portion of the episode is spent on the same storylines as we see the queens work on their garments: Nymphia doesn’t know what she’s going to make, until she suddenly does. Plane is trying to get into her competitors’ heads. Plasma and Mhi’ya struggle, with Mhi’ya even turning to Sapphira for help making the garment. Dawn wants to beat Q, even as Q quietly works on a jaw-dropper of a garment. It’s all a retread of what we’ve seen before, without even a Ru walkthrough to break up the action.

Nymphia Wind designs an elaborate look for the neo-goth runway category, but her presentation kept her from securing a third win Credit: Courtesy MTV

 

The thing is, even with this repetition, I don’t think it’s inherently the choice to do three design challenges that’s a problem. These tasks are built into the DNA of the show, going back to its Project Runway roots, and even the very first season had two of them in just seven competitive episodes. That’s actually a higher percentage (28.5%) than this season’s proportion (21.4%), assuming no further design tasks. And it’s not the pace, either—we’ve had two non-design challenges between each, meaning queens who don’t excel in this type of task have had plenty of chances to score wins outside of them.

To me, the problem lies in the types of design challenges the queens have been faced with. In every single one, the queens have had access to fabric as their primary material. In the ball, it was menswear, but it was still fabric. We’ve had not one unconventional materials challenge out of these three, meaning every design challenge has seen the same kinds of garments hitting the runway. The styles may be different, but they’re all ultimately from the same fabrication.

In the other challenges, at least, there was an additional element: the ball featured two other looks from each queen, while the doll design challenge was cleverly also a branding and storytelling task. This time around, there’s just one dimension to the prompt: make the best neo-goth look you can out of these fabrics. The results are pretty spectacular, especially from the winner, but it’s hard to be that bowled over when we’ve seen the queens achieve greatness with fabrics before.

So I guess that’s the lesson for Drag Race in planning future seasons: multiple design challenges is totally fine! But if you want the tasks to feel varied, there should always be an extra twist added, unconventional materials required, or both. Otherwise, they just won’t be difficult enough—and as Marcia Marcia Marcia recently noted on Twitter, there’s a notable lack of difficulty in a lot of the challenges this season.

Plasma’s elimination comes as a shock, but after a poor design challenge look and clearly losing the lip sync, it’s the only choice Credit: Courtesy MTV

Okay, that’s enough complaining. Let’s talk about these looks on the See You Next Wednesday runway. (Get it? Wednesday? Like the TV show Wednesday? Named after Wednesday Addams? And it’s Wednesday instead of Tuesday? And “See You Next Tuesday” is a euphemism for—okay, fine you get it.) Among the more middle-of-the-road efforts are Plane in a strappy rocker look—it’s detailed well but it’s lacking wow factor—and Morphine in a velvet mermaid gown. The latter lands in the bottom three, as mentioned above, and I get that the dress is a little too simple. But bitch, the mug? Nothing short of spectacular. Morphine has one of the best beats we’ve seen across 16 seasons, and the fact that she’s able to try something different while keeping it distinctly her is amazing.

Sapphira creates a pretty impressive gown, but even more enjoyable is her runway presentation. She plays her character as a deeply over-it goth, the kind who has been clocked in for her job for too long and is just counting the minutes until she can leave. It’s the kind of glamour-meets-humour that plays really well on this show, and I’d have put her in my personal top three. It’s hard to tell exactly who is in the top three based on how the queens are called after deliberations, but I think Nymphia is probably in the mix there. I like her heavily draped look’s construction, but I actually find her runway presentation a bit distracting. She keeps having to lift her veil, obscuring a really well-done mug, and she also shuffles her feet because the gown restricts her movement. It’s an impressive dress, no doubt, but not my favourite effort from the banana queen.

Dawn once again gets very close to the win, this time with a look that’s as if a dark chandelier came to life. She uses some engineering techniques to structure the garment, and as a result, the silhouette is divine. I’ll admit, I don’t love the headpiece, but that’s a quibble. Any other challenge, and Dawn probably wins this. But of course, Q is here, and she pulls out the most spectacular one-piece coat dress you’ve ever seen in your life. This look is Q’s best yet, and one of my favourite garments we’ve ever seen. The lining! The spider web-like shirt underneath! The stunning mug and bald look she pairs with it! It’s just a showstopper, and the judges are appropriately breathless. She picks up her second win, and there’s no argument it’s deserved.

Finally, we come to our bottom two. Mhi’ya’s latex gown with a lace back isn’t a problem, but it’s pretty simple. She also gets in trouble with Michelle Visage for relying too much on Sapphira for help sewing, and as Plasma interjects (in a Megami-style mid-critiques confessional), Mhi’ya definitely underplays just how much Sapphira helped. But Plasma might want to keep her eyes on her own paper, because her garment is the worst of the week by a mile. She says her look is “2000s does ’70s,” and I am now insulted on behalf of two different decades. The whole thing is misstyled, looks haphazardly assembled, and makes no sense as a collective outfit. Adding to the problem is that she’s wearing Plane’s Cher hair, which just makes it seem like a terrible Cher look. Just a really poor effort, and it very fairly lands her in the Lip Sync for Your Life for the first time.

Dawn’s engineered chandelier look is a highlight on the runway this week, but she falls short of the win once again Credit: Courtesy MTV

This is, of course, Mhi’ya’s third time in the lip sync, which used to be a sign of doom for a queen, but has more and more over the years become commonplace. The two perform Lady Gaga’s “Bloody Mary”—or rather, a version of it, we’ll get into it in the final thoughts—and there’s just no question as to who wins. Plasma struggles to draw any attention as Mhi’ya once again tears up the stage. She literally does a Sasha Velour-style black rose petal reveal, taking off her wig and revealing a beanie. Why a beanie? Who cares! It’s immensely watchable.

Mhi’ya is so much fun in the lip sync that it’s not until Ru declares her safe that the shock of what just happened hits. Plasma, the first queen to two solo maxi-challenge wins this season, on her first time in the bottom two, has been sent home. It’s a tremendous shock, and I imagine there are many out there who are furious at this decision. But from my perspective, it’s a decision that’s very much in line with the point of the Lip Sync for Your Life format. Mhi’ya outperformed Plasma, and no amount of editing could have changed that for the viewers at home. Plasma did not successfully fight for her life in the competition, and thus is sent home.

With apologies to Plasma, I have to say that it’s my favourite moment of the episode. After an hour of relatively uninteresting action, expected placements and dull werk room conversations about their designs, the final moments deliver a true surprise ending. It wasn’t what I expected to happen coming into this episode, and in a competition that has trended predictable a little too often, it’s perhaps exactly what Season 16 needs.

Untucking our final thoughts

Xunami Muse’s elimination inspires some of the saddest reactions this side of Mirage’s elimination. Morphine is especially broken up to have sent her best friend home, but even Plane is really emotional over it! Is the ice queen melting, perhaps?

There’s some quibbling over Plane’s Snatch Game win in the werk room: Mhi’ya thinks Sapphira should have won, and Sapphira herself is frustrated that she hasn’t been able to secure a second win yet. I know there was some disagreement about this online as well, but I’ll stand by Plane’s win on this one. I’ve been thinking about “Beautiful Balkan War survivor” all week.

The mini-challenge this week has a cute concept: spit-takes! Ru gives a little history of the comic move, invoking legendary actor Danny Thomas as the inventor of it, and then lets the girls rip with their takes. It’s a fun idea, but kind of disgusting to watch Ru and the poor Pit Crew get spat on over and over again. Nymphia takes the win, pocketing another $2,500 (totaling $8,750 so far, ahead of Sapphira’s $7,500 but behind Plane, Plasma and Q’s $10,000). I think I’d have given it to Sapphira or Q? Can’t believe there has come a day when I’m disagreeing with Ru on who has the best spit-take, but here we are.

In the werk room, the queens discuss dating. A couple of interesting tidbits: Plasma has never seriously dated anyone—which I get, seeing as she moved to NYC from Oklahoma during COVID and filmed this while just 24 years old. Give her time! Additionally, Morphine has found it difficult to date in Miami since coming out as non-binary, since people are seemingly looking more for hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine figures. Here’s to Morphine, Plasma and all the queens looking for love to find terrific partners!

Actress and model Kaia Gerber is our guest judge this week, and unfortunately she leans into every single thing I hate about modern guest judges. She’s incapable of offering up any constructive negative critique—or any negative critique at all!—and her positive critiques are all bland and unhelpful. If a judge isn’t willing to judge, no matter what a big fan they are (look at Kyra Sedgwick just last week!), they have no business being on the panel. Still a big fan of Bottoms, though! Watch it if you haven’t already!

Plane does not use her immunity potion this week, meaning it must be used next week if it’s going to be used at all. I have a theory or two on what she’s going to do with it, which we’ll discuss in the power rankings.

Okay, so let’s talk about the lip sync song. I try not to catastrophize when it comes to Drag Race, because it’s truly rarely that serious. The show’s as popular as ever, Ru’s not going anywhere any time soon, All Stars is going to continue whether we like it or not, etc. But this lip sync song choice? The sped-up “Bloody Mary” not actually from Wednesday, but from the TikTok trend inspired by Wednesday? This is dismal, y’all. Just seeing the words “(Wednesday Dance TikTok Version)” in the song credits is bad enough, much less having to watch a whole lip sync to it. Mhi’ya makes a meal of it, but I’m certain she also would’ve done so with the actual “Bloody Mary”—a good song! I don’t see the purpose of using a TikTok edit of a song, beyond Drag Race trying to chase the trend’s virality over a year later. It’s an absolutely bizarre choice, and I hope it’s the last time Drag Race ever does anything like it.

Sorry, one more Kaia note: her praise of Plasma’s outfit includes the line, “I like that you’re wearing two belts.”

The next episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race will air Friday, March 8, 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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