With their dramatic save of Michael Lynche last week, the judges on "American Idol" flexed their final bit of power of the season, turning the rest of the competition over entirely to the votes of viewers.
Yes, they'll still be able to make their alternately withering or exaggerated instant critiques and dispense often contradictory advice. But they'll no longer have any direct power in keeping any of the remaining Top 9 in or out of the competition.
What remains for fans of Middlebury's Katie Stevens is finding out how this will play out for her. It never was clear if the judges would have voted unanimously to save her, had it come to that. But after being among the bottom three vote-getters for two weeks, she was out of the cellar last week after her acclaimed rendition of "Let It Be."
It's in her favor that her change of fortune (and her clear rank within the top two-thirds of the remaining contestants) was due entirely to the voters.
For all their celebrated negativity (especially that of Simon Cowell, who seems a little distanced from the competition in his final season on the show), the judges' main power is to place singers on the stage. Say what you will about how dull the field may be for "Idol" singers this season, it was the judges who hand-picked the Top 24 from which the Top 12 was made.
The save that rescued Big Mike was a rule instituted last year. Judges can use it only once, for a contestant they feel was unfairly eliminated by viewers, somewhere between the Top 12 and Top 5. The choice to use it has to be unanimous.
As such, it turned the eliminations of March and April into a kind of double elimination: First, contestants learned that they had received the least amount of votes, and then they heard from judges that the viewers were right.
The only previous use of the save was to keep Matt Giraud, the dueling pianist from Kalamazoo, Mich., in last year's Top 7. He lasted only a couple of weeks, finishing fifth overall. And when he returned this season to sing a duet with Scott MacIntyre, both of them furiously promoting their new online recordings, it was tough to remember either of them.
In the case of Lynche, using the save seemed a logical move in an effort to keep what was really a strong voice, a unique approach and a compelling back story (new dad!) in the mix. It was a reaction, too, to the other remaining guys, an iffy bunch who are the frequent recipients of judges' complaints: Andrew Garcia, teenage Aaron Kelly, generic rock guy Lee DeWyze. Chief among them is the guy who only made it to the Top 24 because of a technicality (someone else had been disqualified): Tim Urban.
After escaping repeated deserved ousters, Urban, the most successful choice ever for the website Vote for the Worst, actually turned his unpopularity among the judges into an asset. He's grinned his way out of the bottom three and now gets the most screams from the studio audience of any contestant.
Stevens' graduation from the bottom may have been the result of sympathy votes from fans, improved reactions from judges or her performances' becoming stronger.
She also may be benefiting from being the only alternative to the two other women still standing, the tattooed and pierced bohemians Siobhan Magnus and Crystal Bowersox. In the final analysis, how many repeat-dial fans can there be for two women who come so far from left field? And does having both of them in the contest split a bloc of votes, paving the way for Stevens, at 17, the sole traditional female vocalist?
Stevens brightened last week when informed last season's "Idol" runner-up, Adam Lambert, was this week's mentor. Such enthusiasm will serve her well. And if it is, as rumored, a week for Elvis songs, there's enough latitude for her to handle it.
The King of Rock 'n' Roll got his crown by blending styles. If Stevens should go country, as Cowell keeps suggesting, there's a lot of material to choose from; if she continues to stay in pop and R&B, there's plenty there as well.
But the week is fraught with danger: Because Lynche was saved last week, it means two go home this week.
• The Top 9 perform at 8 tonight on Fox. The results show is Wednesday at 9.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun