In spite of its flaws and its dubious musical entertainment value, one of the reasons American Idol works as compelling television is because of its reality show aspects. And I don’t mean the fact that it’s a competition, but for the fact that what it ultimately demands from its competitors (those who stay in it long enough, at any rate), will eventually become manifest on-stage for good or ill. Even though we aren’t privy to the machinations and preparations for the weekly showings like we are on a program like Project Runway, there are nevertheless implicit personal stories that are revealed, to one extent or another, every Tuesday night. Over the last few weeks, evidence of the kind of growth that this Faustian bargain of a set-up can create has been perhaps most obvious with Syesha, whose increasing comfort level has been accompanied by an emerging determination to do what she likes rather than what seems suitable.

But last night’s evidence of evolution rested squarely on the broadening shoulders of David Archuleta.

David’s abilities have never been in question, even to most of his detractors. And his performances have almost always been, song choice notwithstanding, at the very top of the heap. But after last night, one can’t help but see that in retrospect, there was something missing. That something was a decision. I heard over the course of the week that David may have said something to his mom about realizing, for the first time, that he wanted after all to actually win this thing. I have no idea how apocryphal or not this information is, but in any case even if he said it I believe it was an indication of a decision that runs much deeper.

I believe David Archuleta has finally decided to be David Archuleta. And in the world of show business, that is no small thing. David is modest and compassionate by nature, and so his immense talent and dedication to his craft have surely seemed to him to be a magnificent gift for which he is neither proud nor ambitious, but grateful and humbled. The only possible downside to this respectable attitude is the disinclination to take personal ownership of the skill, and full responsibility for how it works in the world. That has changed.

The technical aspects of David’s work last night were not fundamentally different than they were before. But the level of command and control over his audience that David exhibited was unprecedented. In his moments of greatest ease onstage in performances past, there have been glimpses of his desire and capacity to guide an audience, but David has never before displayed such an unambiguous commitment to lead; to finally and ultimately say, with complete and conscious determination, “follow me, I know where to take you.”

This transition of ownership might not seem as intentional if it weren’t for the fact that David had an opportunity to engage with his fans in the real world this week, the world outside of the Idol bubble, during a brief trip to Las Vegas. These kinds of encounters had always seemed rather alien to David, engendering a sort of bewildered confusion; it seemed he could never quite grasp what all the commotion was about. But now it seems as if David may have come to terms with the relationship between his art and its admirers. He may very well have embraced the responsibility not only to his God for his gifts, to himself for his standards, but to his audience for its compliance, its participation, and its trust.

Last night, David had his audience eating out of the palm of his hand. And he offered them every morsel of nuance not only because he could, but because he chose to.