Tops and Bottoms: A Final Look at Drag Race Season 13

Let’s get this fucking turd of a season over with.

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13. Tina

I may have been too harsh in my critiques of Tina Burner during the season, but I still think my frustration is valid. In a season like this where no one wants to do anything, inserting a not funny entity that demands a season be planned around her is just further shackling your momentum. Tina Burner only makes sense when she’s either your main star or you’re setting her up to fail; she’s not a reactive presence, and putting her on a season with a bunch of other islands of contestants is just going to show her lack of spontaneity and personality. Tina’s worst attribute is that the show treats her as a legend by association, that being a comedy queen from New York inherently means they’re a Big Deal, which is just lazy. It’s projecting importance on her, and I don’t buy it for a second.

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12. Elliott

What a fucking disappointment.

Early on, the season plays Elliott off like a vapid, antagonistic troll who radiates a toxic aura. Elliott is abrasive, highly judgmental, defensive, and, as we learned off-show, pretty racist. Couple that with her general aesthetic, an Irish folk creature who kidnaps children dressed as an over-pumped assistant manager at Sears, and you have all the makings of a perfect Hatesink. Elliott was born and raised to be an early-game villain: someone with no clout and no talent who spends 4 episodes meandering around and getting shit on by everyone because being mercy killed as the mark of the end of Act 1.

And then she didn’t.

I think asking if Elliott deserved to last longer than the likes of Lala Ri or Tamisha misses the point, because it goes back to my argument that judging the show by talent is a foolish choice. Even if she was talented enough to win, you don’t cast someone like Elliott because of their talent. And you certainly don’t cast her to give her some kind of Aiden Zhane-style story arc where she’s a loner maligned by her peers. Framing Elliott as a unfairly picked on outsider is honestly pretty gross and tonedeaf, because the disdain Elliott has received has been mostly earned from her crap attitude. It’s a bad read of the situation, and while it’s the only bad Choice the show made, it’s very indicative of their issues with knowing what to do with this cast.

11. Gottmik

So I’ve gone on record multiples times saying that Gottmik’s inclusion is the best of both worlds scenario: she’s both an inspirational contestant because of being a Trans guy, and she’s also a basic white dude out of Drag. They’re two common archetypes that, “amazingly,” always end up making it to the end game, and combing the two into one package meant that the only way Gottmik wasn’t making the finale was if she murdered someone after filming, and even then they’d probably still not disqualify her. This is nothing personal to do with Kade, himself, and I’m aware how cynical it is to just paint Gottmik as that type of contestant. But I argue I’m not doing any of this, the show is the one using Gottmik for its own means. I would bet money that if Gottmik was a cis man who did Drag, they wouldn’t have even cast her.

I know I’ve talked mostly about the politics of Gottmik’s casting, but that’s because there’s nothing else to go over. They did fine, Gottmik’s make-up is stellar, and they’re at least pleasant and not distracting or mean-spirited. I just can never take their inclusion seriously because it feels like a stunt first, and Gottmik never defined themself otherwise.

10. Rosé

I gave Rosé every chance I could, but frankly she’s just not compelling. I may have been harsher on Tina during the season, but both fall into the same category: someone from New York, whose status as a New Yorker is supposed to wow us by itself. It’s the same kind of lazy storytelling from the first few seasons that said queens of West Hollywood were of some high tier status, and not mostly failed actors. But what’s really unfortunate with regards to Rosé is that it misses the obvious storyline: Jan 2.0.

The Jan comparisons are obvious and up front, so why the hell would you not take the bait? The season opens with this sense that Rosé is getting some kind of Jan-style edit, but that vanishes quickly and we’re left with a character who has nothing else going for her. It’s like they took Jan, and removed every single thing compelling about Jan, and that’s Rosé. Like with Elliott, it’s a frustrating waste of a contestant, and a sign of the show not getting what makes their contestants special.

9. Kandy

I was perhaps too harsh on Kandy during the season, because whatever problems I had with her during the Tamisha drama, I’ll give her this: she’s trying. Kandy is absolutely trying to make something in this season happen. It’s not just that Kandy is loud and abrasive, it’s that she knows this about herself, and while her attempts to weaponize or cash-in on her arrogance and her malapropisms was mostly fruitless, it was at least a valiant attempt to do something.

There’s an interesting metanarrative to Kandy Muse, probably the closest this season gets to compelling: Kandy knows she’s in a bad season, and she lives in denial about it. Once it became clear how much worse Season 13 was in comparison to the thriving UK 2, Kandy spends her time on Twitter defending the season, making passive-aggressive comments about the fans and trying to point out flaws in UK 2. Oddly, her in-show character reflects this, as unintentionally as this was, by constantly bringing up the weird subplots of the season that went nowhere: her crush on Joey, her misunderstanding of basic geography, etc. Kandy waves the Season 13 flag harder than anyone else, even the producers, but it’s not out of brown-nosing; Kandy is indignant about this season, her season, being good because she doesn’t want to face the reality that a season featuring her sucks. It’s almost cruel, in that sense, that the show didn’t crown her, and instead went with the more passive Symone, who never felt compelled to defend the season. Then again, Kandy was never going to overcome the latent classism and sizism of the fandom, so realistically second place was the best she could hope for.

8. Joey

Joey is someone I feel like I should not like. I’m cynical of the show not only canonizing certain archetypes, but certain placements. As if there’s something inherently mystic or divine about whether or not someone is a second boot. And Joey Jay starts that with early proclamations of being a filler Queen, someone who has no shot of making it further than second boot. It’s rather tacky and unoriginal, as if the show knowing someone like Joey is an early boot and acknowledging it in some way is smart or subversive or excuses the lazy storytelling.

That all being said, I ended up liking Joey for a few key reasons. While her status as an early boot was telegraphed and obvious, it did mean that the show had no expectations for her, and let her do whatever she wanted. This let her really feel herself in Episode 3, the only good episode of the season, where Joey becomes even more vocal and loud about wanting to look her best at the expense of any and everyone. Secondly, because of her early boot status, the show let her get away with being a bit of a buffoon. Drag Race contestants, especially on US, have certain expectations and plans for how they’re going to work with the show as a jumping out point, plans which never produce good TV unless they either fuel a mental breakdown like Lawrence Cheney or later expose themselves as a potential Ponzi Scheme (we’ll get to that!). Both Joey and the show had no delusional about her place, and so agreed that she should just be an ignorant dumb White girl who inexplicably gets thristed on by Kandy Muse (going back to the whole Kandy Is The Season’s Flag Bearer postulate). Joey approached the season less a chance to be a big star and more a fun month long vacation before she inevitably quits Drag and changes her Instagram to feature her boymode-only life, and while that’s a bit self-defeating, it’s weirdly honest for a season this unaware.

7. Symone

So Symone was originally a Top in this rank because I honestly really do like her, but something is just… off upon reflection. I’m fine with Symone’s win, she’s who I most wanted to see win of the three realistic options. She has a few small, cute character moments throughout the season, notably with both Tamisha and Utica. Symone is certainly not unlikable, and she never subtracts from any scene she’s in. I think I really like Symone as a winner.

But well, that’s kind of the problem. I can only see Symone as a winner.

I don’t see Symone as a character as much as I see her as a token winner, which is a qualifier I only feel compelled to make because I’m used to actual good Queens rarely win. I have the same qualifiers with Symone as I do Aquaria, which isn’t a good sign and definitely not a glowing endorsement of her as character outside of her win. Even compared to most recent winners, Symone is just alright: she’s better than Monet, the SheDevil, and Vivienne, but is not as fun as Yvie, Jaida, Priyanka, or even Lawrence. She’s not ground breaking, and the fact that she’s just a tier below the more vibrant characters of the bigger names is less to do with her and more to do with grading on a curve. In most seasons, I would call Symone a nothing character, but I’m so desperate for something real that I have to give her a pass. Symone is fine, but I want better than fine.

6. Denali

If this season actually had a Jan, it was Denali. Denali clearly thought she deserved better, and she echoed a lot of the fandom frustrations with the season. I’m usually dismissive of audience surrogates, but this was clearly unintentional: the show did not realize Denali’s frustrations at her not winning and them saving both Symone and Kandy during the lip sync would be echoed by the fans. True to the Jan archetype, she projected herself as way beyond everyone else this season, and was constantly brought down, much to her frustration and my amusement.

Really, the only problem with Denali is that she’s on such a lackluster season. That may seem unfair, but Denali is a good character who could not drum up enough momentum around her to be engaging. It’s not her fault, not solely, but it does mean the little bit of enjoyment I could get from Denali was quashed by the suppressing atmosphere. Denali is one of the few characters who works as a solo experience, but she was not the answer this season needed. Still, high enough to be just outside the Tops.

Top

5. Kahmora

Kahmora is easily one of the show’s best first boots, but almost at the expense of the season.

I question the idea of the first three episodes, because in retrospect it feels pointless to the point of pretentious. A longer season is not always a good thing, as it frequently means that plotlines are needlessly extended and endings often feel limp and unexciting. In theory this opening should have given us more fleshed out character and set up dynamics to pay off down the road, but it didn’t? The only dynamic it really set up was Elliott being an outsider, which flopped, and Tamisha vs Kandy, a rivalry that was such a bad idea the show dropped it. If there was any benefactor to the extended format, it was Kahmora Hall, who may not be the best first boot, but she’s definitely one of the most detailed.

Despite my misgivings of the early episodes, Episode 3 was a stand out in being the one time we see this cast interact, and Kahmora was one of its biggest stars. I enjoy the juxtaposition between the start where the Queens are mocking her for taking hours to get ready with the sad reality that she’s dealing with an unsupportive boyfriend. It leads nicely to her boot next episode, where the scene of Kahmora playing a green screen character in full pads not only works in terms of comedy, but is a pay-off to the idea that she’s a perfectionist that’s hard on herself. You can tell Kahmora is not emotionally ready for the show, and there’s a good reason the lip sync with her and Denali is edited like it is. Unlike most first boots, Kahmora is not a joke, but instead a tragic figure whose kooky trappings are a hint at a bad mental state. As weird as it is to give Kahmora such a Twin Peaks-esque character, she ends up one of the most well-realized relative to her story.

Kahmora is perhaps the only contestant to benefit from the extended filming schedule, and while she’s not as iconic as Vanjie or Shangela (like I severely doubt she’s coming back for Season 14), her three episodes are a full, succinct character examination of someone the show wouldn’t normally bother.

4. Olivia

Prepare yourself, because while I think the entire cast was gravely misused and undersold, all of my Top 4 are this high specifically because they not only brought a lot, but could have brought even more. Season 13 bungled a lot of characters and cut ties with too many too quickly, and I think expressing why these characters work is important so that I’m not just in the back ineffectually complaining.

Olivia is the text book example of the former, a bungled character with loads of potential, because her character writes itself. A lot of my giddy at Olivia’s character early on is that she’s exactly the kind of seemingly pleasant but chaotic element this season full of pretentious clowns needed. Her set-up is obvious and literary: after only doing drag for a solid three day, she stomps Rosé at a lip sync, the pinnacle of Rosé’s character, to which Olivia happily informs the other New York queens, much to their horror. After this, Olivia spends her time needling and prodding people, trying to get some kind of reaction out of them. Her list of actions, as minor as they all were, is extensive: goading another fight from Tamisha and Kandy, peer pressuring Utica into mocking Tina Burner, thanking everyone in the most saccharine way after her each of her wins, etc. Nothing about Olivia feels sincere or honest, she’s sociopathic in the way she maneuvers around the entire cast. The revelation that she’s a former fat kid is just icing on the cake, and is a suitable origin story for someone this insane.

My only complaint about Olivia is that she’s exhausted by show’s end, but that has less to do with her and more to do with both the endlessness of the season and the show overusing her. Olivia needed more push from production: more wins, given more a chance to cause chaos, etc. I don’t think Olivia should have won, but I think she’s exactly the kind of person who excels at doing well because it perfectly sets others off. Olivia is fun, but in a better season she could have been so much more.

3. Lala

The act of treason this show did to Lala Ri is a war crime.

Lala Ri was a character I struggled with summarizing on the show, but it’s because she’s obviously stellar. Lala Ri’s personality, cadence, and attitude are exactly the right ingredients to what make the perfect sixth place boot. Like a Joslyn or a Dida or even now a Tia, Lala Ri is not a nuanced character, but her point is to be that iconic side character who bounces off everyone else well. You could slap Lala Ri into any season and she’d flourish, and so you would think the show would go out of its way to save her. And you would also think the show would go out of its way to save her over Elliott, both for being a hatesink that no one likes and because the optics of letting a racist outlast a Black Queen. But well… this show is this show.

I think it speaks volumes that Lala Ri won Miss Congeniality, both in that she had such good chemistry with everyone and how badly the producers judged her. I doubt Lala will ever come back, but I at least hope the show learned its lesson from her.

2. Utica

Utica, as you might recall, was ranked dead last during my write-up for the first week, a feeling I have reneged on but one I won’t to erase. For as much as I like Utica, part of what I like about her is that she makes a terrible first impression, and was only able to survive the Pork Chop Queens vote by virtue of competing with an Irish folk monster who kidnaps children. Utica is extremely oft-putting and forced, and a lot of what make Utica could easily be awful and unwatchable. In most seasons, I would hate Utica.

So what happened here?

First of all, there’s actual earnestness to Utica. Episode 3 confirming that her “quirkiness” was not some bargain bin personality all WASP kids try to force (looking at you, Cracker!), but rather as the sumparts of a cult kid who didn’t see a TV until he was twenty, did a lot to contextualize and humanize Utica. She’s clearly trying, but it’s from attempting to adjust to a world she doesn’t understand, her only idea being to lean in on “weird” because a stranger told her she was as a compliment. Which brings me to the second point: it’s annoying everyone. I don’t typically vibe with the judges on… anything, since the judging panel is a façade to push the sometimes impossible, often times classist standards of the producers, but they hit Utica right on the money: she’s clearly a talented artist who gets in her own way. The pinnacle of this is the sleeping bags look, where Utica crafted a truly beautiful, chic, avant grade garment that she immediately undermined with her pantomiming. There’s a weird metanarrative to Utica, as she attempts and fails at being the exact kind of unique contestant the show loved pushing, especially back on Logo, which ironically makes her a better character in my books. It’s insincerity born from seeking validation, which I totally understand.

But really, Utica works so well because she’s exactly the kind of contestant that would flourish in a distanced narrative. If Utica was on a season where Queens actually, you know, did things together, she’d likely falter because she intentionally alienates people with her antics. But because everyone was an island and no one associated with one another, Utica’s character had a chance to sore far beyond it likely would or should have. Like Kahmora, Utica is a consolation prize and silver lining to bizarre choice of format, and she’s not one I’m eager to see resurrected or repeated. But as is on Season 13, she’s great.

1. Tamisha

I mean, duh.

Tamisha was made for Drag Race. There’s certain attributes that all great Drag Race contestants need, and she has all of them. Even in a season with everyone this guarded and unassuming, Tamisha rampaged through with total abandon and became the breakout star of Season 13.

A lot of breakout stars benefit from nice, sympathetic openings, and Tamisha is no different. Her start is naturally embellished and sweet, with future winner Symone loving her maternal energy and her status as a Drag Queen of three decades inferring a lot of her potential influence. It’s very easy to like Tamisha based on just the premiere, and it’s the perfect start for her because it allows her to effortlessly transition to her next phase: the cynical Drag Mom. Fans don’t typically like the cynic, but the presentation of it being an old, crabby Drag Mom of six centuries, surrounded by the hopelessly dumb Porkchop group, helps elevate Tamisha to the most relatable one of the Season. It’s also here where we learn the billion Fun Facts of Tamisha’s life: she’s in her fifties, she’s a biological father of three, she’s the Drag Mom of Tandi Iman Dupree, etc. Like with the cynic slant to her character, it builds up Tamisha as a wise bitch you don’t fuck with, which seamlessly translates to her next role in the show: being the bitch someone fucks with. In defiance of the rest of the season, Kandy decides to actually do something and press everyone’s buttons with her comments that undermine the Porkchop group. Tamisha, protective mom and overly proud bitch in general, decides to read her for filth for her statements, leaving Kandy a flustered, defensive mess and winning my heart. It’s such a well-executed tear through Kandy Muse that makes her look like a complete fool and just ingrains Tamisha to the audience even more. Therefore, it’s all the more tragic when the show lets her go, far too early in my books. Tamisha only had six episodes to really work her magic, and while one can argue it’s better to love and lost, Season 13 needed all the help it can get.

Post-show, Tamisha has systemically burned away all her good will with a possible Ponzi scheme and a pointless rivalry with Monet X Change, currently filling in as the poor man’s Bob after a few years of being the poor man’s Monique. This is all, of course, iconic Queen behavior, but I still say Tamisha was robbed of more episodes. We were robbed of more Tamisha. Tamisha is a character that both shows Season 13’s potential and it totally squandering it.

Final Thoughts

So this sucked.

Season 13 is a massive step down to Season 12, itself already a big step down from Season 11. Whatever problems I had with Season 12 compared to 11, like the weak second half or the lack of tension in the cast, was amplified here. It’s a wisp of a fart of a nothing of a Season, and what’s perhaps most frustrating is the hows and whys. If this season was just offensive and tone deaf and actively hateful like 9 or 10 that would be one thing, but it’s not. It’s just… fucking boring.

The first thing I think people were quick to point out was the obnoxious length of sixteen episodes and how long the it took for the first Queen to be eliminated. Now these are oddities, this is by far the longest season of the franchise, but I think they’re less a problem and more a catalyst to the core issue: the lack of personal drama. This would not be a great season without the filler, but the filler just highlights the tedium and grates the nerves. The length is only a problem if I find everyone so uncompelling, and well… let’s get into that.

There’s no personal bonding moments between the cast members, nor long-standing rivalries, nor sudden infatuation, nor anything else of the sort. The entire cast are such islands of characters, rarely interacting with one another. And I don’t mean that we don’t see a lot of fights and drama, although that is part of it; I mean that there’s not even a notable friendship or fun rivalry that can pay dividends. It’s not just the lack of a Bianca reading Laganja as a try-hard, it’s the lack of a sincere Bianca and Adore friendship that both informs Adore’s need for focus and Bianca’s softer side. As manufactured by Bianca as that was in hindsight, in worked. And it’s not like these Queens aren’t interacting: Kandy, Gottmik, and Tina form a weird alliance, we get the two Jans pining for one another, we get Tamisha calling out Kandy for downplaying her talent. But none of these pay off, and they feel so shallow and inconsequential. This is an ensemble cast style show; show the damn cast ensembling! It’s fitting that this season was filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic, because it feels like this could have been shot from home.

The irony is that Season 13 is a victim of the franchise’s success. I mentioned this periodically already, in both my past articles and in the character assessments, but the perception of Season 13 was furthered by the inevitable comparisons with UK 2, a stand-out season that used its cast intelligently and with grace. Season 13 was never going to be considered… good, but it was further trivialized by UK 2, and raised an important question: why even watch. We’re in a windfall of Drag Race iterations that’s reaching over-saturation: between Down Under, All Stars 6, International All Stars, UK 3, and Canada 2. We’re not lacking of Drag Race, and if any season needed to show why Drag Race US is still necessary and relevant, it was this one. And it utterly failed. I’m going to say the show is doomed to fail, we’re definitely getting a Season 14 and, if nothing else, Drag Race proper will continue if only to supply fresh blood for All Stars seasons. But the failure of 13 was a warning and a threat to the status quo, and if Drag Race doesn’t shape up, audiences aren’t going to be interested.

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