And now, at last, the final lap. In the Idoldome on Wednesday night, where the faithful gathered for the ritual execution of Jason Castro, the room seemed dominated by an unstable mixture of euphoria and exhaustion as we enter the last phases before the anointing at the Nokia in a mere two weeks.
From what promised just three months ago to be a sure and predictable season, a final three has emerged that not a pundit alive would have prophesied. That from the ashes of the promised Johns-Smithson-Archuleta clash should have emerged this group would have been unthinkable when the Top 24 appeared.
David Cook began this season seen as a derivative lightweight Chris Daughtry. Called charmless by Judge Cowell, given to sulking at negative reviews and snapping at the judges. Syesha Mercado was a pretty face with a traditional style bound to disappear beneath the more contemporary and quirky pyrotechnics from Carly Smithson, Amanda Overmyer, Brooke White, Ramiele Malubay and even, back when, Alaina Whitaker and Alexandrea Lushington.
But here they are preparing for what promises to be, once we can get over that it was not at all what we expected, a strong final three. Perhaps not quite on a level with Season 4's Underwood-Bice-Solomon showdown but on a par with Clarkson-Guarini-McKibbin and pound for pound, for my money, a mile ahead of Studdard-Aiken-Locke, Barrino-DeGarmo-Trias, Hicks-McPhee-Yamin and inarguably more interesting than Sparks-Lewis-Doolittle.
The season's greatest shock has to be the completely unforeseen endurance of Syesha. Perpetual denizen of the bottom three, she dodged bullet after bullet, really coming to life in only the last few weeks and proving that a strong close is everything. Singing in the old-fashioned style that for so long dominated "Idol" and fading into a host of more contemporary performers, including one prodigy genetically engineered to drag the show into its age of grace, Syesha seemed to have arrived at the Idoldome a couple of years too late.
But before we skip ahead to what seems the inevitable coronation of the Chosen One, there are a few signs that there may yet be surprises left. First, Ryan Seacrest's comment Wednesday night that all three of the survivors have on one night or another been the top vote-getter spells out pretty clearly that there have been at least two nights when TCO was not the top vote-getter.
Second, on the results show, Angel of Death Seacrest stated that among the top three vote-getters, each had a margin of fewer than a million votes, indicating a 2-million-vote spread, which in a 50-million-vote universe, means those at the top are within 4% of one another. If that is the case, it is very much a roll of the dice who will wind up on the top next week. Within 4%, anyone could stay or go.
Finally there is the little matter of the Case of the Not So Bottom Two. Both this week and last, the Angel of Death had brought out two contestants (this week it was Syesha and Jason; last week, Syesha and Brooke) and said one of the two would be going home. What he did not say however, was that this pair was "your bottom two." Which leads one to believe that in this minutely plotted spectacle, if he did not say they were the bottom two, it was because they were not the bottom two. If there is one thing history has taught us, it is that Seacrest does not make mistakes.
Now, looking at last week, if Brooke and Syesha were not the bottom two, that means Brooke and someone else were. Given that the producers strive to milk these results for maximum suspense, we must wonder who that other person was. If last week it had been Jason, why not bring him forward? The audience had been expecting that Brooke, Syesha and Jason were all possibilities for the bottom two. So why would they not use that reality, if it were so, for genuine drama?
And if it was not Jason, and it was not Syesha, that means it was one of the Davids. David Cook would have been a huge surprise but not an unbelievable one; after the departures of fellow rockers Carly and Michael Johns, it was certainly not beyond the pale of possibility. But the idea that he would lose instead of Brooke would have been unlikely enough to drain the final ceremony of its tension, although still possible enough that that pairing would have been worthwhile.
Could it be then that the Chosen One shared the bottom rungs with Brooke? And could it be that the producers judged that bringing out that pairing would result not only in the untimely deaths by hysteria of millions of 12-year-old girls, it would seem so implausible that he would be voted off, that the final verdict would seem almost ridiculously obvious?
And then once again, if Syesha was not necessarily in the bottom two this week, who was?
Meanwhile in the Idoldome this week, nerves seemed to bounce off the walls. David Cook, who has been so at ease on stage for many weeks now, for the first time seemed worn and edgy, admitting Wednesday night that his head was in a bad space. Syesha, of course, had her public outburst of emotion. Jason said his lack of experience was holding him back and seemed on a hippie version of an emotional roller coaster all week (maybe that's more of an emotional merry-go-round). Only the Chosen One seemed in his shrugging, embarrassed way, completely unaffected by the accumulated pressure.
Contrast that with visiting deposed contestant Carly, now officially anointed by this column as the greatest performer in "American Idol" history. Sitting in the crowd with Season 2 contestant Kimberly Caldwell, Carly seemed rested, buoyant and completely jubilant to be back.
At one commercial break, stage manager Debbie Williams summoned Carly back on stage to join her comrades one more time on the death couch where the others awaited their fate. (Williams explained that David Cook had suggested, "Wouldn't it be funny if we came back from break and Carly was just here with us.") Joining them for a while, Carly seemed happier and to be having more fun than the shell-shocked survivors could probably even fathom.
But honestly, one can hardly begrudge this group a bit of nervous collapse. Working for more than three months straight on a grueling seven-day-a-week schedule, separated from family and friends in the "Idol" dorms, and forced to snap life-or-death song choices and to keep smiling under withering critiques -- not to mention the pressure of having absolutely everything in the world at stake in this contest -- it is a wonder that any of them were able to stand on their feet at all.
And so we bid farewell to Jason, "American Idol's" first hippie finalist. With his piercing eyes, goofy remarks, perpetual smile and unmistakable sweet nature, he was impossible not to like. Though his musical background was more limited than many of the others, he nonetheless had some star-making musical moments and was the sort of genuine find for whom this season will be remembered.
Judging from the avalanche of e-mails I have received from his Dreadhead fan club in the last few weeks, Jason has the most ardent of fan bases. They will without a doubt stay with him as he moves into his post-"Idol" career.
Whether through his music or his personality, Jason always brought a bit of fun to the "Idol" stage, was never just filler, and for that we wish him well and treasure the time we've shared in the Idoldome.