The reaper came early to "American Idol" this year. No, he was not technically with us tonight, but his table is already set for his Wednesday night reservation, when he will feast on the dreams of a few singers who dared to reach for greatness, raising his glass while his lackey, Angel of Death Seacrest wields the remorseless scythe.

All that comes Wednesday, but his icy shadow was upon us tonight, as with every missed note, with every forgettable song choice, eyes in the Idol dome could not but turn to that waiting table; candelabras already lighted, the wine already poured.

It wasn't always like this. Yes, the semifinal rounds involved some bloodshed, but in the Top 24s of recent years, the gods demanded a mere four virgin sacrifices a week, not these epic proportions of nine singers to fall Wednesday. (Some will be called back across the river Styx for the wild-card round.)

What's more, in the past, after the Top 24 round, one could go to bed contentedly knowing that the odds of elimination for each contestant were so long that the ruling classes of Idol would rarely feel the blade; in all likelihood the serf and the untouchable classes would provide the needed cannon fodder. These were the weeks when we could sit back and, at our leisure, get to know the greater contestants while the lesser ones were, four by four, cleared out of our way.

This year, however, not only are the numbers to fall later, but immediately we are destined to lose some of those who we had already let into our heart. The reasons for this as I see it are:

A stronger median talent pool this year (very, very few just obviously doomed from the start candidates, although I believe last year's Top 12 will forever be the gold standard)

The audition/Hollywood rounds were more focused on the one who ultimately made it through

 No obvious front-runner beside whom all others pale.

With the reaper standing on the sidelines and clearing his throat, the drama of "American Idol" tonight was inescapable.  Having come so far, these young people at last stand alone, making their case to the electorate of tens of millions with one little song. With only three advancing, any misstep would spell doom.  Unlike previous seasons, there is no time to find your footing.

And thus we saw, in the faces of Casey Carlson, of Brent Keith, of Ann Marie Boskovitch, those looks of pure, unfiltered horror as, after putting their all into the song, Simon delivered the news that there all would not be enough.  And, off-stage, they heard the reaper clear his throat. In their eyes at those moments, we saw all the terror our society can offer realized.  If fame is the highest prize of our land, we looked into its flipside, ignominy, eternal anonymity - it all flashed through those sets of eyes at those moments.   

And on the other side, two giants were born in Danny Gokey and Alexis Grace, the latter of whom I predict will be the next American Idol.

NOTE: Please join us for our Idoltracker postgame chat at noon Wednesday (PDT), when we will discuss the entire first 12.