The second season of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars has been a triumph of storytelling — and it's airing at just the right time.
Drag Race's eighth season, which aired this spring, had its merits (like a great winner), but it wasn't as compelling to watch as the show's greatest seasons. In particular, the show was light on drama, as the queens quickly bonded and rarely fought. Even "villains" like Derrick Barry and Acid Betty made friends in the cast (Bob the Drag Queen and Cynthia Lee Fontaine, respectively).
So All Stars 2 presented something of a dilemma: If new-to-the-show queens weren't going to give good drama — the lifeblood of most reality shows — how could you get star queens, all of whom have personal brands and fanbases to keep intact, to get down and dirty? The answer: You flip the format, up the ante and bring back some of the greatest villains in Drag Race herstory.
That formula has been a rousing success, particularly in how the show has set up a battle between beloved season five queen Alyssa Edwards and season four villain Phi Phi O'Hara. That story is brought to fruition in this episode, which gives the eliminated queens a chance not just to return to the competition, but to choose which queen to eliminate, too. The result is Alyssa's triumph and Phi Phi's downfall — both so deeply satisfying.
The previous episode ended with Alaska winning the lip sync for your legacy and sending Alyssa home. After returning to the workroom, Phi Phi shared why she thought Alyssa was the rightful eliminee. She did so at length, describing repeatedly how annoyed she was with the judges' kind treatment of Alyssa.
Then, in a gay-gasp-worthy trick, Alyssa and the other three eliminated queens — Coco Montrese, Tatianna and Ginger Minj — appeared behind the mirror. They had been listening to every word Phi Phi was saying.
"Do you remember when you were in high school, on the phone, and you were like, 'Girl, I can't stand her. She is so fake'?" Roxxxy Andrews says this week of the situation. "And then your friend was like, 'Well, Melissa, what do you think about that?' And they were on three-way? Phi Phi's crack was that three-way-call-in-high-school crack."
Alyssa immediately calls Phi Phi out, asking her why she didn't tell her her complaints to her face instead of behind her back. Phi Phi's response is one of panic and defensiveness, at first refusing to "act all foolish in front of the cameras" and then lashing out in anger. "You can play the victim, go ahead," she says, baffling Alyssa (and viewers, too).
Phi Phi accusing Alyssa of playing the victim is just projection. Remember when Donald Trump's former ghostwriter noted that Trump's insults are actually descriptions of himself? That's what Phi Phi does. That's how removed from reality Phi Phi's accusation is. It's downright Trumpian.
Phi Phi was almost certainly edited to be the villain this season. She said some incredibly dumb things for a queen who was seeking redemption — like talking shit about Alyssa, one of the most universally loved queens in Drag Race herstory — and the show's producers ran with it.
But here's the fact of the matter: The producers were doing their job. It is not a reality TV producer's job to present only the positive aspects of a contestant, but to tell a captivating story. Phi Phi's story has been incredibly compelling, but her off-the-show behavior has proven troubling. If she can't play the game — either commit to being nice or own being a bitch, as Alyssa notes in this episode — it's clear reality TV isn't the place for her.
That doesn't mean Phi Phi is untalented. She's very talented, actually. But it will always be fulfilling to watch a reality TV villain get tripped up by their own failings, no matter how much she bemoans that it's the "editing." Indeed, watching her jaw drop the second she hears Alyssa and Tatianna have both won the lip sync and are returning to the competition is pure karmic delight.
Meanwhile, Alyssa comes off as professional, wise and composed this episode. There was a great profile of her dance teacher alter-ego, Justin Johnson, in the Dallas Observer last week. The piece painted Johnson, and thus Alyssa, as focused on educating and growing young people.
Those teacherly qualities have been present all season, particularly in her choice to eliminate Ginger over Katya two episodes ago. Her encouragement of Katya, ostensibly a much stronger competitor than Ginger despite her failure that week, revealed the nurturing, kindhearted truth of Alyssa's character.
That's not to say she doesn't get a few digs at Phi Phi in, however. Alyssa stays cool during Phi Phi's meltdown at the top of the episode, even telling her fellow queen to "relax" in the most cheerfully unbothered manner. It's oh-so-sweet to watch her float above the fray while Phi Phi implodes.
The actual challenge takes a backseat to the Phi Phi drama this episode, but it's still a pretty great one: perform a duet comedy routine in front of a live audience of Drag Race alumni. There are all sorts of familiar faces in the crowd, from infamous first-ever eliminee Victoria "Porkchop" Parker to All Stars 1 winner Chad Michaels. Season six's Laganja Estranja is even in the crowd, holding an adorable "Haus of Edwards" sign to support her drag mom Alyssa.
It's even more fun to see the less frequently seen faces, like season seven's Jaidynn Diore Fierce, season two's Jessica Wild (who really should be a shoo-in for a potential All Stars 3) and season three's Alexis Mateo, who gets a cute shout-out when Alaska says her catchphrase "Bam!" during her act.
Speaking of, Alaska and her partner Alyssa are the clear victors in the challenge. It's super charming for Alyssa to choose to work with Alaska with the clear goal of redeeming herself in her partner's eyes. Alyssa screwed up when they were partnered in last episode's acting challenge, and she wants to make it right. Her deep respect for Alaska comes through in this episode, and it's clear that the feeling is mutual (on and off the show).
Alaska makes the very wise decision to let Alyssa be Alyssa. The Texan queen is hilarious when she's not trying to be, but the second you hand her a script, she loses all confidence. So instead, Alaska gives Alyssa prompts, and Alyssa riffs on them. It's a hilarious act, never better than when Alyssa calls head judge Michelle Visage "beast." It's totally "Alyssa Edwardian," as Alaska says.
Besides Alyssa, the other big winner this episode is Tatianna, who is solid with Detox in the comedy challenge and is triumphant in the lip sync. Tatianna faces down one of Drag Race's best lip-syncers ever, and not only emerges unscathed, but works with Alyssa to make this the best lip sync of the season.
While the lip sync for your legacy twist has made this season surprising and tense, this episode proves lip sync for your life is the superior format. Faced with the chance to return to the competition, these queens turn out every trick in their bags, from death drops to splits to furious wig shakes. It helps that the song, Rihanna's "Shut Up and Drive," is a total banger.
Tatianna's elimination in the second episode of the season was tough to watch, particularly because she triumphed in the premiere episode. She's grown a ton since season two, and it's exciting that she'll have another chance to shine. Plus, her slow, amazed reaction to learning she won the lip sync was nothing short of heartwarming.
Ginger and Coco fail to return to the competition this episode, and neither is a major loss for All Stars 2. Ginger's behavior this season has been bizarre, seemingly savvy at times (nodding at the show's deceptive editing in the premiere) but bewildering at others (her claim in this episode that she would have prevented Katya's elimination if Alyssa hadn't sent her home).
Coco, bless her heart, just isn't in the same spirit as she was in season five. She's kind of funny in the challenge (better than her partner Phi Phi), but she just can't compete with the remaining queens.
Roxxxy Andrews plays an interesting role in this episode: She's the host of the comedy show, and the only one performing solo. She has a difficult challenge, with no partner and thus no sounding board to check if her jokes are any good. But the potential reward is great: She'd get $10,000 for winning, plus get to choose the returning queen, plus choose which bottom queen goes home.
Unfortunately, despite her best efforts, she can't beat her own demons. She constantly undercuts her own jokes on-stage, and even the return of her season five character Tasha Salad doesn't amuse the crowd. It's her third misfire of the season (after Snatch Game and last week's acting challenge), and in deliberations, she seems defeated. That she doesn't get sent home after three times in the bottom doesn't bode well for her future.
Roxxxy deserves huge kudos for being the anti-Phi Phi. Instead of blaming the show and other queens for how she came off in her original season, she immediately took ownership of her actions in the season premiere. Watching her triumph in that first challenge was thrilling largely because she showed she had truly grown since season five. But if she continues to underperform and somehow outlasts queens who have turned it out this season, like Alaska and Detox, fans will likely only grow frustrated with her once again.
And so we return to Roxxxy's fellow bottom-two dweller, Phi Phi O'Hara. Both Alyssa and Tatianna choose her to go home after her disastrous "chola" performance. Phi Phi continues to be utterly delusional by barking that she's not going to "beg" for a chance to stay in the race during deliberations. Instead of fighting to stick around, she gets lost in her own pride.
This is Phi Phi's issue: No one else is her problem. Yes, even the editors painting her as the season's villain aren't her problem. Her problem is herself, and her tendency to self-destruct — and she doesn't realize that. She fixates on Alyssa, to the point that even Coco (who feuded with Alyssa for a whole season) tells her to let it go. Off the show, she's fixated on the producers, even lying about easily provable facts and refusing to admit she was wrong.
Phi Phi's goal is redemption, according to several of the other queens (and Phi Phi herself). That's admirable. But to actually achieve redemption requires real growth. Certainly, Phi Phi has improved her drag, and has likely developed coping mechanisms to better deal with conflict. But sadly, all All Stars proved was that this Phi Phi is the same Phi Phi that was on season four.
"Everything I heard and knew about [you], I'm glad [you] validated it," Alyssa tells her. "You're that girl I knew you were."
The next episode of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars, which will feature the newly configured top six going head-to-head in a Shark Tank-esque challenge, will air on Logo and VH1 next Thursday at 8 p.m. ET.