By Missy Schwartz
Updated April 09, 2010 at 11:24 AM EDT

Image Credit: Barbara Nitke/Lifetime Television Project Runway, you baffling puzzle of contradictions, you. You nag the contestants about taste levels, reminding them they are here to make capital-f Fashion, the stuff that fills the pages of Vogue, Elle, and even Nina Garcia’s own Marie Claire, and inspires Miranda Priestly to give dazzling monologues on the provenance of azure belts. And then what do you do? You send the weary souls to hang out with a bunch of flame-throwers, jugglers, and trapeze artists all rolling around in wood chips under the big top. And yet you act offended that some of them may return with sartorial visions too costume-y for your delicate sensibility.

Yes, for the last challenge before Bryant Park, the remaining five designers headed out to Coney Island to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, where Tim strutted down a runway all his own and gave the gang the challenge: Create a high-end runway look inspired by the three-ring hullaballoo surrounding them. They all loved the idea — Jay even went all hubba hubba over the shirtless, brawny men milling about — but moi, my first thought was, Uh-oh, major costume-y risks ahoy! But at least Lifetime finally forked over the dough for a two-day challenge, something we haven’t seen since the days of Kenley insisting that cropped jackets are totally hip-hop. (My apologies if the mere mention of her name produces memories that disturb your sleep tonight.)

Much of the episode consisted of Mila venting her frustrations about Emilio, who at the top of the hour, had won four-count-’em-four challenges and whose ego has in turn exploded like a bright yellow Peep® in water. “You don’t have to gloat constantly,” she huffed. Whatever Emilio did — announcing he’s in it to win it, detailing his vision to Tim Gunn, lapping up the superlatives from the judges, and hell, probably even waxing philosophical about the virtues of fluff versus fold — Mila responded with eye rolls, dramatic sighs, and dirty looks.

As Mila stirred her stew of bitterness and Emilio hatched his plans for audience incontinence (“I want people to pee on themselves!”), Anthony ran into problems. We were barely five minutes into the episode when I scrawled “I’m worried for A” in my notes. Our Steel Magnolia was in trouble and he knew it. “It’s like I’m a prisoner in my own mind,” he said. “I might be setting myself up for failure.” Maybe he was tired, maybe he was still high on the thrill of his improbable return and even more improbable victory last week, or maybe he was suffering P.T.S.D. from the freakish circus clowns who galumphed in front of him in Brooklyn. Whatever it was, he never found his way through the murky Greatest Show on Earth hokum to couture enlightenment.

I will say this for Anthony’s dress: it was a lovely purple-blue. And it had some fantastic, dramatic wave action going on across the bust and onto the shoulders. But the gathered waist was unfortunate. And $300 worth of polyester — really? That’s impressive… not in a good way. Overall, the look was perhaps too restrained, since it failed to evoke the madcap flavor of the circus. (But claiming “She’s like a big, blue condom” was a bit much, even for Sir Quips A Lot.) At the same time, would it have killed the judges to give the guy some credit for leaping over the gaping pit of dreaded costumery and living to tell the tale? Even if Anthony’s garment hadn’t immediately inspired Agent Orange to purse his lips (which is slightly different from his Metamucil face — some day, will do a gallery deconstructing all of Kors’ tell-tale expressions), I knew our Southern Belle was a goner.

That’s right, even when standing next to Jay’s wholly ridiculous, totally unwearable homage to Michael Jackson. Tassels! Brass accents! Royal red! He might as well have had his model moonwalk down the runway to “Billie Jean.” And the judges’ reaction was as mystifying as the outfit itself. The clothing underneath the offending jacket was nothing if not humdrum, but they didn’t really go after him for it. Heidi merely remarked, “She would walk down the street, you would not think twice about it.” Actually, Frau Klum, I wouldn’t even think once about it.

Meanwhile, Madame Mod Mila managed to incorporate some color into her very shiny (!) runway look this week. But the thing was still pretty much unwearable for anyone not attending regular meetings of the Austin Powers fan club. (Costume required, natch.) Her outfit was LOUD, busy, a bit disjointed, and as guest judge Cynthia “I like hot pink” Rowley argued, not terribly relevant. But it was as well constructed as it was pure, unadulterated Mila. You can’t fault this one for not sticking to her aesthetic.

Heidi slapped a major fake-out on us last night when she threatened that two (TWO!) designers would be eliminated, only to give a single auf to (sniff) Anthony. That stung deep, let me tell you, but I suspected something like this was afoot as soon as the judges’ failed to lay into Jay’s outfit. For some reason, they didn’t hate it. And so, he and his arch nemesis Mila tied temporarily for third place.

Now, Jay made me laugh with his “I’m a good bitch” line and I appreciate that he lives to accentuate our lady curves in all their bountiful glory. I also adore him for being the only designer who wanted to share the Bryant Park experience with Anthony. But there is no way Jay will be beating Mila in the bake-off for spot No. 3. The judges may have cooled on Mila in the second half of the season, but not enough for her to shed her shimmery golden halo. Plus, I can’t imagine the producers want another single-sex finale this season. So Jay, sister, prepare to get bumped by Mila. Sorry.

A lot of drama is sure to unfold between these two foes next week. But last night, there were only two real horses in the race: Seth Aaron and His Highness Emilio. As always, SA gave into his every off-the-wall, creative whim. (Except for the top hat, which he wisely jettisoned.) His zippered, black-and-white striped coat with fancy long tails, yellow accents, and a collar the size of a UFO brought just the kind of nutty fantasy that we expect from the self-described spaz. It reminded me of that show-stopping houndstooth jacket he did in the Mini Me challenge — only with an extra dose of lunacy. As it should be! This was the freakin’ circus challenge! That said, I was not wild about the Ronald McDonald trousers, which Agent Orange argued had a “crazy crotch.” (A good effort, Michael, but it’s all in the delivery, and nothing will top your “insane crotch” comment from season three.) Personally, I didn’t think the crotch was all that deserving of the rubber room. Maybe that’s because the whole outfit was completely bonkers, fitting for Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter. Costume-y! Oh…no! Believe it. And I mean that as a compliment.

On to Emilio. The only thing the guy seems to enjoy more than arguing with Tim Gunn is disregarding Tim’s suggestions — until, of course, he realizes the dapper, so-articulate-he-makes-Anthony-long-for-a-dictionary mentor does indeed hold the secret to fashion salvation. When Tim advised him to incorporate color into his design — which, like Mila’s and SA’s, used black-and-white stripes as a starting point — Emilio refused. But the next day, he quietly worked some of that red stripe-y material onto the bodice. Wise choice. Emilio wanted to make an impression and he certainly did. It’s pretty impressive that he made the entire dress from one piece of fabric. And when all is said and done, his garment did have the edge on SA. But was his voluminous, bunchy-ball of a gown the “genius,” “stunning” be-all-end-all that the judges extolled it to be? I suppose…in a hyper-avant-garde sense. But the best of the season? I don’t know. These judges keep making me want to bang my head against the wall, so I’m constantly reminding myself that they’re the same people whose questionable taste kept Emilio around after the Barbarella Bubble Gum Bikini debacle and later rewarded him for what might be the most derivative design in the history of Runway. So… uh… serenity now?

At the end of the hour, after Emilio indulged in a yet another round of victorious fist pumps and a jubilant Seth Aaron hopped on Emilio backstage (why couldn’t we have seen more of that fun stuff all season long?), we had to say goodbye to our beloved Anthony. Was it any easier the second time? Not really. I got teary, people. But once again, I was impressed by his graciousness. He applauded for Mila and Jay, then bid everyone a heartfelt farewell. For all I know, the guy was happy to get the hell outta that pressure cooker and back to his mama in Georgia. In any case, from all of us here at recap land, Anthony, we salute you!

What did you think of the circus shenanigans? Did Emilio deserve a fifth win? Can the state of New York contain his ego anymore? Were you jarred by the sight of Michael and Heidi leaving their seats to touch Anthony’s polyester? Did you catch the funny shot of Nina fixing her hair? Was this episode brought to you by the word “viscera”? Whose home visit will have the most drama next week? What did you think of Jay saying he flat-out doesn’t like Mila “as a person”? And in the battle of Mila vs. Jay, who’s gonna emerge the victor?

Be sure to check back here later today for my exit interview with Anthony. Southern Belle exit interview take two!