American Idol Plays With Fire in Week 5, Staging the Most Dramatic Ending Yet

The scripting was heavy as American Idol entered its fifth week of Season 21 auditions on Sunday, an episode which ended with a cliffhanger that felt a little too produced for my liking.

Fire Wilmore, a 22-year-old single mother from Oklahoma, was the final contestant of the evening, and the show played her up big time. We got her entire backstory about entering into state custody because of her own mother’s drug problems. We heard how desperately she wants to get out of exotic dancing and give a better future to her daughter. We even watched Fire teach her 4-year-old charmer how wishing wells work. It was gearing up to be a standard end-of-episode inspirational Idol moment.

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Then came the audition itself. Despite Luke Bryan’s hypnotized stare through Fire’s rendition of Bruno Mars’ “Talking to the Moon,” the judges weren’t entirely sold. Katy Perry pushed her to embrace her full voice rather than slipping into falsetto, a note she took very well, but Perry remained the only judge willing to give her a “yes.”

OK, now we’ve reached the bizarre portion of the evening. Perry comforted the disappointed contestant, telling her, “Somehow, someway, you will find what you came looking for.” Right on cue, her precocious daughter announced, “I think I found this!” and took one of the Golden Tickets from the wall, prompting a distraught Fire to respond, “Put it back. Just put it back.”

Was it heartbreaking? Sure. It also earned Fire a rare second chance to audition again in Nashville. But was it authentic? That’ll be a no from me. Idol has long mastered the art of emotional manipulation, but it’s hard to invest any genuine emotion in such a clearly staged situation.

Yours truly, The Grinch.

Other auditions from Week 5 worth discussing…

American Idol Mariah Faith
American Idol Mariah Faith

Mariah Faith, 21

| “One of the most interesting voices this season” came from this South Carolina hairstylist, whose impressive audition earned her her the opening slot at a Noah Thompson and HunterGirl concert. She initially gave the judges an easy-on-the-ears rendition of Vince Gills’ “Whenever You Come Around,” but Perry pushed her to let loose with Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” It didn’t blow me away, but little moments here and there proved that she’s got what it takes — she just need to bring it. Click here to watch.

Nailyah Serenity, 22 | Following a brief astrology therapy session, this North Carolina retail advisor left the judges gobsmacked with a contemporary take on Barbra Streisand’s “My Man.” I was worried when it started off with major lounge energy, but her personal style quickly shone through, ending strong with a surprisingly powerful belt. Click here to watch.

Kayleigh Clark, 17 | This glittery, pinked-out Mississippi chicken farmer began with a simple, pleasing performance of Garth Brooks’ “The Dance.” Hungry for a wow moment, the judges asked her for another song, resulting in a more impressive — but still boring, if I’m being honest — take on Hillsong Worship’s “I Surrender.” They’re convinced she’s Top 10 material, but I’m not sold yet.

Tori Green, 20 | I wish we’d gotten to know more about this California songstress, whose performance of Carrie Underwood’s “Cry Pretty” worked its magic on the judges. (Well, not on Bryan, but apparently he’s owning his new reputation of being the tough judge.)

American Idol PJAE
American Idol PJAE

PJAE, 23

| Newly confident following a 150-pound weight loss, this Oklahoma branding designer got all the validation he needed in life from his Golden Ticket, earned via a good-enough rendition of Madison Ryann Ward’s “Mirror.” I wasn’t quite as impressed as the judges seemed to be, but there were definitely impressive moments. That beautiful little riff he ended on damn near tickled my soul. Click here to watch.

Warren Peay, 23 | The phrase “so-and-so took us to church” is thrown around a lot, but I truly felt like I was in a worship service listening to this unassuming South Carolina repairman beat the heck out of Zach Williams’ “To the Table.” Perhaps that’s because he’s also a literal worship leader at his hometown’s baptist church. Who’s to say? But man, when he came through with that growl, even Perry had to lift a hand in praise. Click here to watch.

Two more yes’s we didn’t see for very long were Carina DeAngelo, 25, a meatball connoisseur (best title ever?) from Hawaii, and Johnny Knox, 26, a medical salesman from Alabama.

Paige Ann, 16 | Is there anything more on the nose than playing a song from Frozen because a contestant happens to work at a snow cone shop? Of course not. But isn’t that why we kind of love this show? Anyway, after giving the judges brain freeze, this confident singer revealed a voice far beyond her years in a stunning performance of Pink’s “What About Us.” Click here to watch.

American Idol Ophrah Kablan
American Idol Ophrah Kablan

Ophrah Kablan, 20

| One of the episode’s more interesting performers, this ball of energy from South Carolina had full command of the stage as she delivered a strong, fun, powerhouse performance of Aretha Franklin’s “Baby I Love You.” She was a breath of fresh air in a sea of good-but-same’s, and I look forward to seeing more of her. Click here to watch.

Kamron Lawson, 21 | A-ha’s “Take on Me” is probably the last song I would ever expect to hear on American Idol, but that didn’t stop this extremely likable West Virginia cashier from killing it. His little run on “in a day or twooooo” transcended me to another plane of existence. Come on, that range! It wasn’t a perfect audition, especially when he choked while performing his second song (Richie’s “Truly”), but you can’t not root for this guy. Click here to watch.

Owen Eckhardt, 19 | Perry sees a wee bit o’ Elvis in this easy-going veterinary student. His performance of Zach Bryan’s “Something in the Orange” was good, no doubt — but exciting? I think I was more excited to see Perry and Richie’s puppies show up than I was by anything else in this audition, to be honest.

Your thoughts on the latest round of Idol auditions? Are you also skeptical of that forced-feeling cliffhanger? Whatever’s on your mind, drop it in a comment below.

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