Every season on Project Runway, we all eagerly await the group challenge, that reliable supplier of above-average drama. Designers clash, egos are bruised, and someone gets thrown under the Greyhound. But even after the past few weeks’ steady unveiling of Gretchen’s wench within, I wasn’t expecting this season’s group challenge to deliver such a knockout punch of mayhem. For the first time, I appreciated the 90-minute format because it allowed for an extended judging session that revealed, in detail, the molten hot evil bubbling inside the string bean–limbed narcissist from Oregon. And Tim’s impassioned smackdown of Gretchen in full view of her colleagues at the end of the show? Brilliance. One of his best moments yet.

That last night’s episode was so juicy is saying a lot indeed, considering how the story arc telegraphed the final outcome: the alpha dogs against the underdogs; Casanova’s meltdown and latest threat to quit; the lack of love for Michael C. Speaking of last week’s champ, which of his sadistic colleagues spiked his cocoa with crack and hoodwinked him into selecting Gretchen for his team? It couldn’t have been April. “Dumbass,” she told the cameras. “Do you want to hire Hitler? Seriously?”

One could argue that the comparison was a tad hyperbolic. Then again, Gretchen played the role of ruthless dictator to a tee last night, assuming the team leader position (even though there wasn’t supposed to be one), hogging the easel, inserting herself into every single decision, and compiling a to-do list with lipstick (huh?) at 4 a.m. I’m not sure that engaging in Elaine Benes dancing (plus stupid singing) in the middle of Mood is a common trait among totalitarian rulers, but studies have shown that it makes recappers cringe. It also makes their cats flee the room.

Like many of you, I’ve been irked by the show’s strict adherence to one-day challenges. Ever since Runway moved to Lifetime, the designers have been hamstrung by absurd time constraints. This week’s was just laughable: a six-piece collection in a day? You gotta be shizzing me. And even the $1,000 budget wasn’t all that extravagant. Divided by six, it’s $166 apiece. Hey guys, go nuts with that extra 16 bucks!

The two teams of six had to choose both a fall 2010 trend (their choices: minimalist; 50s retro and ladylike shapes; menswear for women; military) and textile (gold; camel; leopard and cheetah prints; plaid; lace). Team Luxe (Hitler Gretchen, Michael C., Ivy, A.J., Andy, Christopher) went for menswear and camel, while Team Bad News Bears (April, Casanova, Mondo, Michael D., Valerie, Peach) opted for military and lace. At first Casanova exuded confidence, announcing that he felt like “a fish in the water.” But then Tim suggested that his lace top looked like it came out of his abuelita’s closet, and the guy flung himself into what Valerie dubbed a “major, major, major diva moment.” Feeling “lost,” he collapsed on the fainting couch, cursed up a storm, and complained that he couldn’t take the harsh critiques anymore. “I’m even getting fat,” he whined (hilariously). It took a bilingual pep talk from Valerie, some morale-boosting from Michael D., and some ego-stroking from his model to finally get the guy out of his funk. His supporters were far more patient than I would have been. My reaction? Come on, man! Strap on some huevos and quit this self-indulgent mierda!

In no time, Casanova was back in the workroom. His nipples poked perkily through his v-neck green sweater (which was kind of out of step with his Aladdin shoes and turban) and his sense of humor peeked through his self-pity: “Maybe I’m too old-fashioned for this show. I just can work with sluts and old ladies.” Like that, Team Bad News Bears was back on track.

Team Luxe, however, was lurching forward on a dangerous, combustive fuel found only in the wilds of the fashion world and known to scientists as back-stabbicus by vicious bitchicus. They made the boneheaded choice of each designer having a hand in all the looks, which ended up replacing any sense of individual style with a lukewarm bowl of camel-colored mush. Tim warned them that their collection was looking “ho-hum.” Yet it mattered not to them. As long as Gretchen was around to nag, dictate, and make self-congratulatory proclamations like “I feel like I’m in every [garment], even if I’m not the one sewing,” no one seemed to realize how spectacularly they had failed. These numskulls should have known better than to put their weight behind a combo as lethally staid as menswear and camel. (How groundbreaking!) At the very least, they should have sensed something was amiss when they had to draft their models to finish the hems. Is that even within the rules?

Though I wasn’t wild about all of the pieces in Team Bad News Bears’ collection, they could have sent one of their models down the runway wearing nothing but one of Valerie’s headbands and they still would have triumphed over Team (Not At All) Luxe. Michael D.’s elegant-edgy black lace dress made up for Mondo’s sad, mustard-colored leggings, while Casanova, of all people, was responsible for the chicest ensemble of the bunch. “I don’t know what happened to my taste,” he’d sighed earlier. Well, hermano found it. Heidi — who can only say Casanova’s name in an exaggerated come-hither voice — led Michael, Nina and serial Runway guest judge Georgina Chapman in praising the guy’s work. I agreed with them. (Their applause for Peach, on the other hand, I didn’t quite get. That blue skirt — huh? But good for her for not totally tanking for once.) Casanova’s win really was one of the most surprising turn-arounds on this show. His teammates rooted for him and I might have to do the same from now on…as long as he keeps da hos and grannies in check.

No sooner had Heidi named Team BNB the winners than Gretchen busted out a scowl that could make Tracy Flick feel inept. Backstage, Her Wretchedness complained that her team, not the BNBs, had shown the most cohesiveness. Now, I knew Gretchen, along with her assistant witch-in-training, Ivy, were deluded, but this was a seriously staggering display of cluelessness. The only cohesion that Team Luxe’s looks shared was a thundering echo of craptacular dowdiness. Only Christopher’s palazzo pants (with Michael C’s tailored top) failed to assault the eyes. From A.J.’s pathetic white shirtdress over burnt orange riding pants (blech!), to Ivy’s gray shorts and unfortunate Golden Girls vest (sorry, Bea), the collection was a massive milquetoast misfire that triggered Michael’s Metamucil face numerous times — and passed it on to Nina.

Gretchen, naturally, dominated the conversation with the judges, blabbing on about her team’s all-hands-on-all-decks approach and how there was no weak link. (Ha.) Melodramatic tears from multiple pairs of eyes flowed plentifully, and the Luxe-ers all behaved as if they were auditioning for a Lifetime movie of the week. “It’s like having a baby and someone saying it’s ugly!” sobbed Ivy. An equally histrionic Gretchen proclaimed, “We stand united!” Spare me. Who does she think she is? MLK leading the march on Washington?

If at first Gretchen seemed drunk on her own Kool-Aid, the unrelenting grilling from the judges sobered her up. In a matter of seconds, she went from passionately defending her team’s collection to calling it “crappy.” “It’s amazing how your tune has changed since we started this conversation,” Heidi noted. When Gretchen back-pedaled herself into an even deeper hole, saying she couldn’t pick a weak link because “everybody sucked,” I nearly yelped. (That also causes the cats to flee.) They all stubbornly refused to name anyone but pariah Michael C. as the faulty designer — despite Heidi’s repeated reminders that he had immunity. And though Ivy chimed in here and there (on the shortcomings of Michael C.: “I don’t know if it’s laziness or just ignorance.”), it was Gretchen whose deviousness was on full display. And none of her teammates spoke up to stop her steamrolling of the situation! She arrogantly instructed the judges to choose designers they want to see more from. She got belligerent. She behaved like a beast. Is it any wonder Heidi kept referencing S&M (whips, handcuffs) when discussing her?

It was no surprise that Christopher was safe, though I was shocked that Ivy ranked higher than Andy. How on earth did that happen? As for the bottom two, we all knew the sacrificial lamb had to be A.J. (Kinda fitting, since he wore his giant, pin cushion-y red heart not on his sleeve, exactly, but on his macho leather vest.) Yet I still relished watching the insufferable Gretchen squirm in the hot seat, then get that tongue-lashing from Tim backstage. “I have a few words for Team Luxe,” he said ominously. “I fundamentally do not understand your behavior and demeanor and affect on the runway. I don’t get it. I don’t know why you allowed Gretchen to manipulate, control, and bully you. I don’t understand it.” Oh, it was perfection. You tell ’em, Tim!

What do you think about last night’s shenanigans? Is Gretchen going down? Will Ivy’s “ah-ha moment” about her colleague’s black soul spread out to the others? Was Michael C. unfairly targeted? Did you laugh when Michael Kors claimed they don’t base their judging decisions on contestants’ past performance—right after Heidi mentioned how well Michael C. had done last week? Did you laugh as loud as my husband at Valerie’s vomit/diarrhea analogy? And speaking of the sassy sister, who can decode the mystery to her Laverne De Fazio-ish monogram fetish? Sound off! Your comments have been cracking me up lately!

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Project Runway

Karlie Kloss and Christian Siriano guide undiscovered designers through the harrowing rites of fashion.

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