Since it's premiere back in March, season nine of RuPaul's Drag Race has been one of the most polarising ever. Many fans point to the move to major network VH1 as the root of all evil, alleging that the change of channels has led to the "commercialisation" and "mainstreaming" of the show, and that the new network has stripped back all that was brilliant about the show to begin with, from the Pit Crew to the extended runway scenes. And sadly for her, Wendy Williams has often been the face of this outrage, thanks to a misplaced hosting gig with the show.
We're nine episodes into season nine now, and whether it's luck or some divine intervention, it seems like the show has finally done it. Last night's episode was hands down the best one all season, despite the fact that a mini-challenge was nowhere to be seen. The main challenge for the week found the girls asked to create their own TV pilot to pitch to networks, which in the great Drag Race tradition of course led to a blaxploitation series involving a Russian spy, a sitcom about two Christian mothers dealing with their sons sexuality, and a prison drama involving two hookers. But it was the fun and drama in the episode, rather than the challenge itself, which made it one to remember.
Much of this season has been devoted to the "special moments" the girls have in the workroom - whether it's Peppermint discussing her transgender identity, Sasha slamming Russia or Valentina talking about her eating disorder - and we still got a little of that in this episode with Sasha's crash course on club kids, but it was blessedly short. Instead, the extra time was filled with scenes of the girls gaming each other and playing around, which was a nice change from the serious tone we'd had previously. In the workroom, Alexis continued the trend of trying to dominate every challenge, fighting Peppermint for the voice over in their pilot; while Sasha and Shea forged their friendship even further and Nina and Valentina made the interesting choice not to shoot from a script.
The pilots themselves turned out just okay, although Sasha and Shea took a well-deserved win for their on-brand, simple and effective spy comedy. The runway, on the other hand, was one of the best we've had all season, with each queen debuting their own version of a 'Club Kid' look, and the majority of them succeeding spectacularly.
And what happened after the runway was truly shocking. Valentina, the "beautiful", "gorgeous" "Linda Evangelista" lookalike faced her ally, the forever self-doubting Nina in a surprise lip sync. And, after an altercation with RuPaul about the suitability of a veil in a lip syncing challenge - she later revealed that she didn't know the words to the song which was why she wanted to keep it on - Valentina was the queen to sashay away.
More than a thirteenth queen in the form of Cynthia or a shock elimination in the form of Eureka, Valentina's elimination was for me the biggest twist of this season. Given the "winners edit" the producers were giving her up until this point - from the cute reaction shots, to the candle she prayed to, to the amount of screen time dedicated to telling her how "beautiful" she was - I really thought that Valentina was going to go all the way and snatch the trophy this year, despite my protests that she didn't deserve it. Of course, queens return every season on Drag Race, so I wouldn't be at all surprised if Valentina came back in a future episode - after all, I can't ever remember Ru dismissing a queen with so much malice and I can't see that standing forever. But if Valentina really is gone for good, then I'm not only completely shook but also completely impressed by the ability of the Drag Race editors to know their formula so well and to know exactly how to subvert it. If it stands, Valentina's elimination will almost definitely set her up for an All Stars gig - and let's hope it will set up Sasha for a win this season as well.