Emotional Mother's Day on 'American Idol' has judges and viewers in tears

It was emotional Mother’s Day for the American Idol contestants Sunday, with most of them quarantining at home with their families and serenading their moms with special dedications. Mom-to-be judge Katy Perry, watching remotely from her Los Angeles living room, maintained her composure throughout most of the episode, but she started to hormonally sob once she witnessed the tight bond between Julia Gargano and Julia’s doppelganger mother, Jeanne. (“It’s a relationship I look forward to having with my own daughter,” Katy said, dabbing her eyes.) Other heartstring-yanking moments came when Just Sam — who’s been going through a tough time, isolated thousands of miles from her loved ones — broke down talking about her mother in prison, or when Jonny West, who’s been in self-isolation with girlfriend/fellow Idol contestant Margie Mays in L.A., surprised his mom in Georgia, where he’ll be spending the rest of this Idol season (and presumably the rest of quarantine).

But as two other contestants, Dillon James and Francisco Martin, presented their supportive moms with from-the-heart Mother’s Day letters, that’s when Katy truly lost it. And surely so did America’s viewers — especially any parents out there whose children have battled addiction or depression.

Dillon, who’s been sober for more than two years now, has been extremely frank this season about his rock-bottom struggles, and as his mother Lindy noted Sunday, she has struggled by his side. “It wasn’t just a journey that he took for the last five years; I was on it with him. I saw the very lows, and I’ve seen how far he’s come,” she said somberly. As Lindy sat next to Dillon on the sofa in the James family’s Bakersfield home, she confessed that she was “nervous” as she read aloud her son’s humble words of gratitude.

“I’m writing this letter to the most wonderful woman I’ve ever known in my life,” Dillon’s letter began. “You are my best friend, the person I can tell anything to, my other half. You have always been a real mother to me, but I have not always been a true son to you. You’ve guided me back to myself to a new life, and that I can never repay. But I can start by being the son you always deserved. I love you more than anything, and I just wanted you to know you saved my life. You saved me. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”

After Dillon tenderly crooned Amos Lee’s “Hang On, Hang On” while his stoic family watched on, a verklempt Katy praised him for making the performance all about his mother. And judge Luke Bryan remarked, “I can’t imagine how many sleepless nights [your mother has] had, and her love got you through it.”

Francisco Martin, who has been equally open about his mental health issues — including his anxiety, which has understandably worsened during the pandemic — also shared a touching moment with his “superwoman” mother Fatima, a nurse, to whom he dedicated “River” by Leon Bridges.

“I remember when I was going through a rough patch in 2019 and you were so worried for me,” Francisco’s letter said. “I wouldn’t leave my room for days and you were always there to comfort me, even if it was just to hear my voice. You did everything in your power to see a smile on my face, and you wouldn’t leave if I didn’t. So thank you for that. I guess that’s what mothers are for, but you are more than that. You care for others, working diligently hard on the frontlines, and you still have that beautiful smile on your face. And you do it selflessly. I’d be lucky to be anywhere near as good as the person you are. I appreciate all you do for us and for being such a gentle-hearted, passionate, and sweet person. I know that I can be such a pain, but you know I love you, Mom. I hope I can repay you one day.”

It was an emotional night in other ways, as the top 11 became the top seven. While Julia, Sam, Jonny, Dillon, Francisco, and two other contestants, Arthur Gunn and Louis Knight, were voted through, the show had to say goodbye to Jovin Webb, Makayla Phillips, Sophia James, and Grace Leer. The latter two cuts were somewhat surprising — Sophia gave one of the best performances last week with the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” and I would have loved to see a poignant dedication this week to her late mother, singer Naomi Star, which no doubt would have had Katy all choked up. As for Grace, I had assumed she’d safe simply because she was the only straight-up country singer left in the competition, but perhaps being a bonus top 21 contestant a few weeks ago — the producers’ ploy to stir up some Final Judgment drama — had tainted her as an also-ran or as damaged goods in viewers’ minds. Sadly, if this season hadn’t been cut short due to coronavirus-related production delays and there had been more live episodes to allow viewers to get invested, I think any of these singers might have had a shot at the finale. 

Anyway, this sentimental Sunday, the seven surviving singers all performed Mother’s Day tunes as well as classics from the Disney songbook. The Disney performances featured the same sort of distracting green-screen that had marred last week’s top 17 episode of The Voice, but some of them, for just a moment, still made Idol feel like the Happiest Show on Earth. Dog-mom Katy even dressed up for the occasion as Dumbo’s mother, “Mrs. Jumbo,” with her internet-famous pup Nugget in a matching Dumbo onesie, and that was an adorable distraction I welcomed.