This season of "American Idol" is ticking right along. Wednesday's episode began the process of narrowing the field to the final 30 — 15 guys, 15 girls — which will be determined by the end of Thursday's (February 13) episode. The live shows begin next week. Is this real life?

If the process this year feels streamlined, it is — but only a bit. Last year's live shows kicked off with 40 singers, so this year's talent pool will be tighter. This season is also unfolding more naturally: By this time last year, the narrative seed that it was a woman's year to win had already been planted, while no such lines have been drawn in the sand this year ... not yet, at least.

Wednesday's episode found singers riding The Elevator of Fate to learn whether judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick, Jr. were going to keep them around or send them, broken and bruised, back to their hometowns.

Here are a handful of highlights from Wednesday's episode.

Meuse Sings For Her Life
Jessica Meuse, whose uncanny ability to find herself embroiled in drama was a hallmark of Hollywood Week, was summonsed before the judges not alone, but alongside fellow singer Jesse Roach. It seems the judges only had room for one of them going forward, and both were asked to prove their mettle right there in front of the judges.

Meuse volunteered to go first, belted out an a capella version of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man," and set the bar for Roach. Roach's version of K.T. Oslin's "Do Ya" couldn't quite hang, and in what the judges described as "the hardest decision of the competition," Meuse advanced and Roach was sent home. Which means viewers can count on more drama from Meuse going forward.

MK Clears The Air
MK Nobilette has one of the season's most interesting voices, sidestepping the usual vocal theatrics that mark "Idol" contestants' style and delivering a down-the-middle brand of soul that recalls Annie Lennox. The judges liked her, but seemed unsure what to do with the backward-ball-cap-wearing Nobilette, wondering whether she "fit in" to the competition. Nobilette then cut to the heart of what she felt the judges were dancing around.

"I'm very obviously gay," she told them. "And there are always going to be people in America and everywhere else who are definitely going to hate me. But I think in the last two years there have been a lot of things that have really changed that, and have really made a positive thing." J. Lo concurred. "The world is changing, I think, (and) we think that you could be an American Idol, " she told Nobilette, and passed her through to the top 15 women.

Fargo Moves Forward
Andrina Brogden, who dreams of being Fargo, North Dakota's first "American Idol," kept her dream alive Wednesday by passing through to the next round. The judges chose her over Leah Guerrero, highlighting Brogden's version of Ellie Goulding's "Burn" from Hollywood's solo round.

The judges determined the two singers' smoky styles were similar, but said Brogden had what Guerrero wanted. So Guerrero was cut and Brogden passed through, and Fargo's "Idol" chances roll on.

The Return Of The Dawg
"American Idol" has done a lot of work this year to brand itself with a new identity and wipe the slate clean from previous years. Then, 46 minutes into the season's ninth episode, we were given our first glimpse so far this year of Randy Jackson, the "dawg" who just won't go away, and it was like we were back to square one. Jackson will be involved this year as a mentor for the contestants.

Casey Cliffhanger
The episode ended with C.J. Harris and Casey Thrasher — both already considered frontrunners this season, given their early screen time — waiting to learn the news of which them was going through. Both of the Alabama-reared country-soul singers were asked to sing for their spots, with Thrasher's take on Brett Eldredge's "Don't Ya" slightly edging out Harris' version of the Allman Brothers' "Whipping Post."

Which of them made it? It's not yet clear: The episode cut off just as they were about to learn their fate, with Connick addressing Thrasher mid-sentence. "We have concluded through a lot of deliberation," Connick told Thrasher, "through all the people that have made it this far. That you..." And then nothing.

How does his sentence end? "American Idol" — and Connick's sentence — continues tonight.

What did you think of Wednesday's "Idol" episode? Let us know in the comments!