RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars was conceived with a twist and every installment since has relied more heavily on the production trick. The first season of the show opened with one of the best Drag Race casts ever assembled, only for Ru to reveal that the group was going to compete in teams rather than individually. Since then, each installment has packed on more and more twists: All Stars 2 brought us return of the queens, while All Stars 3 introduced (ugh) the jury. And with tonight’s episode of All Stars 4, the show piled up more twists than Madeline Ashton’s neck: A bottom four! Both lip syncing queens won! The eliminated queens returned! “Lip Sync for Your Legacy” found dead!
The pure desire to leave America gooped no doubt spurred the week’s epic four twist pile-up, but not all twists are created equal. Drag Race operates both as a competition and a reality show with a series of narratives and some twists benefit one while ignoring the other. Now, in the third All Stars iteration of the “returning queen” trope, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this particular device rarely has an impact on the game and usually only serve as a way to eek out the last remaining bits of storyline each queen can offer.
In All Stars 2, Tatianna and Alyssa Edwards delivered an all-time best “Lip Sync for Your Life” and earned back their spots in the competition, only to sashay away one after the other in the following weeks. Rather than posing threats to the crown, they posed existential threats to the formidable trio Rolaskatox, asking its members to question just how far they’d be willing to go to save their bestie Roxxxy Andrews from elimination as she accrued thousands of airline miles on her trip to the bottom.
And did anyone really buy Morgan McMichaels returning to the narrative mess that was All Stars 3? When BenDeLaChrist resurrected Morgan’s corpse from her slab in the Drag Race morgue, she’d been out of the competition for enough weeks that any notion she’d make top 4 just seemed absurd.
Rather than complicating the competition, both “Return of the Queens” editions were an opportunity to dredge up old drama for the camera. All Stars 3 had no reason to bring Morgan McMichaels back (justice for Aja!) but it did need a way to see the seasons’ drama play out in one room. What we got was an exhausting 20-minute long rehashing of every queens’ grievances. If you watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you’ll remember that when Buffy was brought back to life, she brought a demon back from other side with her. The returning queen is like that demon: a price the producers must pay in order to revive the show’s most compelling dramas.
The “returning queen” trope hasn’t really done anything on the standard edition of Drag Race, either. Did Naysha Lopez feel like a threat when she brought her soccer mom dance moves back after season 8’s double elimination? No! In season 7, Trixie Mattel returned to snatch a win in the “Reading Is Fundamental” mini-challenge but then exited the competition one episode later. Season nine queens feared Cynthia Lee Fontaine might prove a threat due to her experience on the show in season eight. That … didn’t exactly ring true.
For sure, there have been times when a queen’s return makes sense, but the examples are more circumstantial than forced by format. Eureka enjoyed a successful season 10 run only because a knee injury forced her early exit. And the most infamous returning queen of all time, Shangela, made sense because the show admitted that it cast her a bit too early in her evolution as a performer and brought her back for a proper shot at the crown.
But there is one saving grace. While the “returning queen” trope doesn’t always pan out, one of tonight’s twists might deliver. It’s long been questionable whether the “Lip Synch for your Legacy” format actually works, so the potential return of “Lip Sync for Your Life” might actually be the sweet spot at the nexus of storyline and competition. The “life” lip sync turns queens into fighters while the “legacy” format mostly turns queens into whiners saddled with the job of sending another queen home. But to make both the queens and the competition interesting again, forcing two queens to face their elimination like the harsh lighting of a makeup mirror, might be the show’s best bet for both storyline and entertainment.