‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ S13 Finale Recap: Symone Reigns Over A (Declining) Empire

Unfortunately, this season didn't match its cast's talent.

rupaul's drag race s13e16 finale recap

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When it’s right, it’s right: Symone is our currently reigning. She easily won both of her finale lip-syncs, but the competition was over from her first look of the night.

The higher the hair, the closer to God, and all of Symone’s reached for the heavens. But that first look — of the five she wore in the finale, or seven if we’re counting reveals — was beyond. The hair! The gown! The textures! She’s been the front-runner since E2, and even though I found myself rooting for a double crowning with GottMik towards the end, it felt like a perfect end to the season.

Unfortunately, in a mask-off moment, I have to admit something I’ve tried to hide in these recaps: this was one of my least favourite seasons of the show ever. Having said this, the show is still good! It’s just not as good, which, given how much I and you and everyone in the world loves this show (and I love love love it, which I hope comes through writing 1-4k words a week on it), is frustrating.

The length definitely didn’t help — airing over four months is a lot. Neither did UK2, among the show’s best seasons, concurrently airing. But (and there’s going to be a lot of ‘but’s in this recap) the fact that show shoved a mini-ball into the finale really gets to the crux of where I think the general fatigue stems from: does that $100,000 cheque just pay off what these queens spend to be on the show? And what about the losers?

Cash > Uniqueness, Nerve, Talent

A widely circulated Vice article about the cost of Drag Race discussed the financial barriers of the show, as the audience expects more and more each season. Yvie Oddly summed it up, saying while drag’s popularity is a net good, “it also is very dangerous, because that means it can become all about capitalism, right? It can be all about who has the connections, who is spending the most money.”

Symone, herself, isn’t particularly rich (as far as we can tell). But she is connected: the House of Avalon’s lead designer Mark Monroe is self-evidently an incredibly creative, singular designer, and Symone’s drag is a team effort between herself, Mark, sister Gigi Goode (who does her hair), and her chosen family. And that, sincerely, is really lovely — it’s clear, from both Gigi and Symone’s time on the show, that this is a nourishing family of queer artists, their works being the best of each person.

But the expectations the Drag Race queens have to live up to is ridiculous, a level of perfection and creativity that seems antithetical to drag’s core as a queer art form. It feels so removed from real-life drag, a messy art form in usually messy environments.

rupaul's drag race s13e16 finale recap

Side note: so happy LaLa Ri won Miss Congeniality.

Unfortunately, Drag Race is all of drag for most people, and its emphasis on aesthetics and spectacle never feels more hollow than these grand lip-sync finales. Yes, they’re electric, and each lip-sync had a room of queers jumping up from their seats and screaming in my house this weekend: pure joy! But it also can feel like the queens who really succeed in this new-ish format are the ones who try to remain true to some level of artistic pursuit while providing the necessary TV spark.

Sasha Velour’s ‘So Emotional’ lip-sync changed the game (somewhat ironic since she’s probably the queen who has estranged herself from the show the most post-crowning, bar James, fka Tyra). That showstopper resulted in S10’s retrospectively empty lipsyncs, where the over-reliance on reveals saw a butterfly massacre and a lot of splash, no substance. Then, Yvie Oddly again subverted it, by lip-syncing in that mesmerising mirror-head outfit, adding so much depth to her performance.

rupaul's drag race s13e16 finale recap

Another side note: this is the best Denali has ever looked!

But this year, none of the reveals (which each queen did) really made sense for the song themselves, though the choice to make it all-Britney electro-bangers definitely didn’t help. The ‘tribute’ to Britney is seemingly a limp gesture of solidarity re; her conservatorship, offering nothing other than a vague reference point. And love them, but ‘Work Bitch’ or ‘Gimme More’ doesn’t pack the emotional punch of ‘So Emotional’: what else can the queens do but dance?

It’s the ‘reveal honey yes work-ification’ of Drag Race. When reality shows last for over a decade, they normally lose their shine due to the need to add new gimmicks. Drag Race‘s ouroboros (a great drag name, by the way) isn’t unique, but it is uniquely frustrating as the US show repeatedly gets in the queens’ own way to show themselves.

Having said that, Symone made it work this season. The reveal to the all-Timberland bikini was true to herself, an innovative look that spoke to her own creativity while a celebration of Blackness — as all of her looks did. Meanwhile, Kandy, Rosé and Mik had nowhere to go with their performances, which, to be clear, would have raked in tips at a club. They were all great, sprained ankle or not.

rupaul's drag race s13e16 finale recap

The thing that astounds me about Symone isn’t the finesse itself, but the creativity: continually, her looks and performances feel fresh. It’s so exciting, as if she’s working against the system she’s in.

But anything less than a monumental, game-changing performance falls flat in the finale: the finale, which is supposed to be a celebration of these queens, ultimately devalues what their art form actually is in the real world.

Drag Race is continually elevating our expectations of what a queen should look like and be. GottMik’s ball look was better than any villain costume in a Disney CGI, but is that really what we… want?

rupaul's drag race s13e16 finale recap

Astonishing, truly.

At the core of S13, we saw Symone overcome her inner demons, centre her Blackness and be absolutely radiant, a true star who would have been a contender on any season without her connections. But it’s like the show itself puts that to the side, and meanwhile gets a Democratic senator to equate freedom, drag and American liberty in some hackneyed pre-lipsync message, as if the country isn’t a failed state that refuses to provide substantial support to its citizens, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.

Nina Bo’nina should have been Blac Chyna, and Marianne Williamson should have cheered on the queens: she understands the toxic forces that need to be sweated out of the system, the campness of hope and love as an actual belief beyond your own monetary profit. Sure, it’s ridiculous to think Drag Race will somehow navigate all the evils of capitalism, and clearly this frustration is tied into much broader anger over how COVID pulled back any veneer of care from the wealthy and corporations. But I guess Drag Race is usually a reprieve, and this season, it was hard to feel that distance.

I get where they were going with the end lip-sync being ‘Till The World Ends’, but there’s something awfully dystopic in watching a car park of masked actors cheer on people performing in spite of their governments’ absolute failure to contain a pandemic, where Viacom and some Seltzer company find a way to continue to filming their show, which feels like it sells representation rather than embraces it.

rupaul's drag race s13e16 finale recap

Gay Mad Max reboot (aka Fury Road).

Still, I want to make it clear (that’s why you brought me here, Mr. Junkee), I am only so critical because I love this show so much. It remains so important and vital, capable of so much, elevating amazing artists and voices. It creates ‘community’ across the globe, and personally has been central to beginning to embrace queerness back when as a baby gay and helped me make so many friends (and my ‘career’ too). But where UK2 centred the queens, S13 centred Drag Race as a product.

There used to be a wink-wink-nudge-nudge to that, but maybe Drag Race is simply too big to try and pretend there’s a veneer of irony anymore, akin to celebrating the ‘anti-capitalist’ messaging of a Disney film.

Having said this, I am genuinely really excited for Drag Race Down Under. Australian queens never take themselves too seriously (I imagine it’s similar for Kiwi kweens, too), and I have a feeling that while the standards might not be up to ‘scratch’ (read; no famous designers making things for queens, the fact that the set seemingly features cherubs from Bunnings for no reason), bringing things down to earth can only be a good thing.

Halfway through the reunion, there was an eye-watering tribute to Chi Chi DeVayne, a contestant the show continually told their bankruptcy wasn’t an excuse for shoddy looks. It’s true, many poorer queens can still succeed (Yvie and Bob spent very little on their seasons, and Jaida made most of her outfits), but it’s naive to say money doesn’t come into the show — or that it regularly promotes technical perfection above artistry.

GottMik wants crash the cis-tem, but the S13 queens will make their real mark outside of it, off the show. I can’t wait to see what they all do next. In the meantime, remember to stream the ‘Till The World Ends’ remix featuring Nicki and Kesha.

RuPaul’s Drag Race S13 is available on Stan, with Down Under premiering each Saturday 4pm AEST from May 1.

Jared Richards is Junkee’s Drag Race recapper and a freelancer who has written for The GuardianThe Big Issue and more. He’s on Twitter.