American Idol Recap Season 20, Episode 18: Carrie Underwood Mentors, Top 3 Revealed

American Idol Recap Season 20, Episode 18: Carrie Underwood Mentors, Top 3 Revealed

Published May 16, 2022
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Tonight was going to break hearts no matter what happened because everyone left in the competition is incredible — but “American Idol” voters still managed to keep the weakest performer of the night and send home one of the season’s must unique artists.

Carrie Underwood, arguably the most successful “Idol” alum, was their mentor for the first round of the competition, which saw her really connect with their experience and offer some sage advice. But she didn’t perform tonight, as mentors often do.

That’s because Carrie is coming back next week to join the star-studded, three-hour finale. She appears to be the only “Idol” alum to do so, which is odd as this is the 20th season. We know we’ve seen “Idol” faves all season long, but only one for the finale? Here’s hoping there’s a surprise or 10 up their sleeves!

There was a guest performance tonight, though, with Season 19 mentor FINNEAS returning to debut his new single. It was a pretty random choice, considering he hasn’t really been involved at all this season, but he still did a great job.

After that, though, the second round of competition brought out the best we’ve seen all season in pretty much everyone. Based on that one round alone, we were ready to declare a Top 5 for the finale and eliminate no one — okay, maybe a Top 4.

Still, hard choices had to be made, and America proved they were up to the task by once again getting it dead wrong. Or maybe they’re still voting on potential instead of what we’re getting now? Hopefully they won’t do that next week because some of these artists are all the way there there!

Fair warning, since I’m safe at home, I’m probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. But I might be nicer, too. Maybe.

And just for fun, I’m going to rank the performances from worst to first to see who my favorites are each week. That way I can see who’s the best and then see if you get it right with your votes — i.e., agree with me.

(“Naked,” FINNEAS) A very hip performance, with a wacky video effect in play the whole time, FINNEAS continues to make his stamp as a solo artist with a sound very different from his collaborations with sister Billie Eilish. The energy of this piece was a lot of fun, too. He’s got a great, confident vocal style that was perfectly suited for the frustration of the track, and his performance wasn’t over the top, but suited the piece — and the camera effect — perfectly.

(“So Small,” Carrie Underwood – 20, Louisa, KY) Noah had a genuine and sweet sound in the opening bars, and he broke out big in the middle with an earnestness that was endearing. Between those two moments, though, it felt like he was underperforming the chorus a bit. He admitted to nerves on stage, and without his guitar, we could see it and hear it in his voice. The tenderness of his voice is his sweet spot, but he was inconsistent in giving it to us this week. Sadly, he was better in his hotel room. Hopefully, his second song will connect more, because that’s when he wins our hearts. He needs to believe in himself more.

(“I’ll Stand by You,” The Pretenders [as performed by Carrie Underwood] – 20, Normal, IL) Leah tried to play with the pacing so much in the early lines she actually fell off the rhythm a couple of times. Playing with a melody is fine, but not so much it starts to lose itself entirely. When she got a little deeper into it, she started going sharp. Did she lose herself in trying so hard to stand out that rather than creating a consistently special moment, she created something she couldn’t quite wrangle. There were moments we really loved, but there were others where it didn’t quite work.

(“Blown Away,” Carrie Underwood – 18, Toronto, ON) Nicolina was killing this performance, really making it her own, as Carrie said, with a lot of emotion and connection. Interestingly, the first time she hit the chorus, we expected bigger and could almost hear nerves in her voice. From that point on, though, she was giving us everything she wanted — even when the wind effect was causing her some problems. Nicolina has the biggest voice left in the competition, and she was mostly using it to its fullness tonight; there was just some unexpected inconsistent moments that crept in here and there.

(“I Wanna Remember,” NEEDTOBREATHE f. Carrie Underwood – 22, Tyler, TX) Fritz had a very cool, gentle sound that was giving us total coffeehouse vibes through most of the verses. But he really grabbed our attention when he got to the first chorus and started pushing his voice a bit. His performances are always intimate, so it’s nice to see those moments where he can go big, knowing he’s got that in his arsenal. He’s such a polished artist already, fully cognizant of who he is and what kind of vision he has for his career. He’s so consistent when he performs.

(“Undo It,” Carrie Underwood – 23, Winchester, TN) There could not be a better pairing of “Idol” alum and contestant this season than Carrie Underwood and HunterGirl. They both have that big, pure, smooth country voice with power for days. HunterGirl brought a lot of sass and energy to her performance, showing a different side to herself as an artist. Carrie helped bring out the strut, HunterGirl already had the power and what we got was a performance that told us once again she is so ready to take country music by storm. The last Platinum Ticket holder is standing tall.

All five of these contestants have had stellar runs this season. Leah was one of our picks to go last week, but it did feel like she stepped things up a bit in artistry. This week, we could hear nerves in Noah and Nicolina, which was surprising, while Fritz underperformed a bit at moments. If we had to send people home based on this round, we’d say goodbye to Noah and Leah. She’s becoming inconsistent in what she does, and his confidence as a performer and in himself as an artist just isn’t progressing as fast as the others.

(“Separate Ways (Worlds Apart),” from Journey – 20, Normal, IL) Once again Leah slowed down the start of the track to create a more haunting tone, but it was far more effective this round. There was a bit of a rock edge to her voice we’ve not seen much of this season, showing off yet another tool in her arsenal. She remains the most interesting person in the competition, and we fully appreciated the artistry and even dramatic performance elements she added to this piece. It made for a very memorable round, and a huge step up from her Round 1 performance.

(“Youngblood,” 5 Seconds of Summer – 22, Tyler, TX) A great song choice for Fritz, who injected it with a lot of pathos in the opening bars. It’s a perfect fit for that natural little cry in his voice. This was also a Fritz more confident with each passing week. He stepped away from the guitar and got out there to play with the crowd, and still took the time to find big moments in his vocal. This was an all-around performance, with some great physicality and — even more importantly — some incredibly powerful vocal moments. He was in total command of everything up there.

(“All I Ask,” Adele – 18, Toronto, ON) Nicolina still doesn’t trust an earpiece, as she shared with Carrie, but she’s managed to rise this far without it. What’s even more impressive than the power of her voice at such a young age is the depth of her emotional connection as a singer. She has clearly lived more pain than most people her age (like Adele herself) and is able to channel all of that into her artistry. This was such a classy performance, with no real tricks, and it even had Nicolina herself in tears by the end. She put everything into it, and we felt that.

(“Working Man,” Larry Fleet – 20, Louisa, KY) This is who Noah is as an artist, as he just wrapped the show with his strongest performance yet in the competition. He’s a storyteller and he needs to keep that at the front of his mind with every performance. We could feel how much he related to this song. His life as a father and construction worker at home is exactly the story of this song, and we could feel how much he connected with it. And through that, we connect with him. This was the redemption he needed in this second round to remind us of why he’s still here.

(“Girl Crush,” Little Big Town – 23, Winchester, TN) We know HunterGirl felt connected to this lyric because she gave us our first tears of the night. This was such a palpable performance, powerful and so broken and beautiful, this was pure artistry from start to finish. Every choice she made was so tasteful, even the one to stay behind the mic and let her face and voice tell the story. She told it, and we felt it. This was the kind of performance contestants win this show on the backs of. Did this seal a victory for her? It should seal next week!

The only thing we could say with some confidence at this point was that we were (again) feeling like this might be it for Leah. Beyond that, though, the other four contestants really managed to stand out with some stellar performances.

Noah was inconsistent on the night, but we feel he earned a lot of good graces with his second performance. And we know he’s beloved by the audience. For us, it was more likely going to be between Nicolina and Fritz for that second person to fall just shy of the finale.

Nicolina was more consistent, as she’s been all season, but that could also make her less exciting (which is what you need to get people to pick up votes). The audience reaction alone to Fritz’ second performance — the longest sustained applause of the night — would seem to give him the edge. Or would the fact Noah got no judges’ comments for his second song (due to time constraints) hurt his recovery with votes?

Would America make the same sense of this as we would, or were our hearts about to be broken? Actually, they were going to be broken regardless because this really is an incredible Top 5 lineup.

This is how you build a finale, with three incredible artists. The first person to take a breath in the closing moments of the show was HunterGirl, which seemed absolutely inevitable. She may have been in tears, but we were relieved. Could she win it all?

Noah’s redemption round — and down-home story — was enough for him to make it two-for-two with the country singers. Both of them have that ability to connect with an audience, so it should make for a tear-filled finale. We’re getting misty just thinking about it.

But who would join the crooners in that last slot? Our money was on Fritz getting that last slot, based on audience reaction and overall growth across the season, but did America agree that both of the last men standing deserved to continue? They did not.

Instead, they loved the personality and unique artistry of Leah Marlene, putting her into the finale alongside HunterGirl and Noah Thompson. She also gets credit for the most shocked reaction to be in the finale. Leah has that ability to make us cry on the right song, so this could be a night of many boxes of tissues.

It was a sad farewell for Fritz Hager and Nicolina, though we’ll still see them perform next week as part of the big three-hour finale. Both brought such incredibly unique styles and grace in what they do.

The night ended on a Top 5 hug, as the eliminated contestants had to console(?) a shocked Leah at her success … which was a little odd, considering they were probably wanting to mourn their respective eliminations. Still, it was nice to see how close everyone had gotten. And if they play their cards right, a Top 5 finish is no reason one can’t still find a career in music.

“American Idol” wraps it all up with a three-hour season finale next Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.