Nashville, Season 1
Rayna, Juliette, and Joleen: A love/hate triangle. (Also, will Avery hook up with Juliette?)
Hi, Gunnar’s fugitive brother! It was a pleasure to meet you recently on Nashville, but I worry you won’t be around long. After all, the series has an incredibly high metabolism for its supporting players, introducing characters in a flash and dropping them like hot Southern biscuits. (Bye, Hailey. Bye, Sean.) Meanwhile, Nashville sometimes forgets its leads, in that they could mingle a lot more than they do and probably generate a lot more sharp drama.
In an AV Club recap, Todd VanDerWerff sums all this up beautifully when he writes that plotlines on Nashville “feel hermetically sealed off from each other… the stories are all taking place in bubble universes that never cross over.” And he takes as evidence the “Wrong Song” celebration party, in Episode 11, during which encounters between characters who don’t normally associate—Rayna and Joleen, Juliette and Avery—end up feeling not satisfying but weird and unreal. As these interactions unspool, he says, “it’s just not immediately clear what the show is going for or what we’re supposed to think or anything. It’s just another thing that happens.”
Nevertheless, two of those bizarre, disembodied tête-à-têtes stuck with me last week, not so much because they constituted great TV but because they raised interesting questions about how various characters reflect and relate to each other. Given that we viewed the conversation between Rayna and Joleen through Juliette’s eyes, this fleeting episode produces a neat triangle. One way of looking at it would be to see Rayna and Joleen as the base and Juliette as the apex: two potential mother figures and one daughter. During Thursday’s TV Club, June and I wondered whether Juliette’s mommy issues informed her hostility toward Rayna, a musical forebear. Seeing Joleen and Ma James together in one frame drove home the connection between them. (In their next conversation, maybe, they can bond over Juliette’s rudeness.)
At the same time, though, class holds the pair apart. Rayna equals old aristocratic Nashville, all graciousness and platinum-gold princess weeds. Joleen, dressed in brown and hoarding mini-hamburgers in her cocktail napkin, hails from a world of trailer parks and addiction. That Joleen’s overture to Rayna embarrasses her daughter on a deep and personal level hints at the emergence of a different dynamic. Nashville may present Rayna and Joleen as doubles, but it also submits Joleen as a surrogate for Juliette.
What I mean by this is that perhaps it makes more sense to group Jules and Jo together at the base of the triangle and to imagine Rayna at the apex. Mrs. Barnes, whose last name sounds like barns, embodies a past Juliette can’t quite outrun. When she chats up Rayna (who, yes, reigns), it’s her daughter as much as herself who’s on full, painful display. And the feeling that Joleen is somehow a (very, very unwelcome) mouthpiece or shadow self for Juliette at the party is compounded when Joleen later reveals that her daughter also used to idolize Rayna. Joleen distills Juliette’s vulnerabilities. No wonder Jules seems in such a hurry to disown her.
But—wait—are the true doppelgängers here Juliette and Rayna? Such a reading falls in line with the June Thomas theory of Nashville, which says the show’s main arc will involve Ms. James and Ms. Barnes realizing how much they have in common. (Their shared drive, charisma, and talent make them “sisters under the skin,” writes June.) And that also seems right: Despite her mom complex, would Jules really resent Rayna’s privilege so hotly if she didn’t see the other woman as a direct competitor? Joleen is both Juliette’s mother and her alter ego (by way of the trailer park); Rayna, too, is at once mother figure and rival, a vision of who Juliette might be or become. (And, obviously, Juliette’s day-to-day lifestyle resembles Rayna’s a lot more than it does Joleen’s.)
And then there was Avery’s sad, sad attempt to ingratiate himself to Juliette. Mostly, this scene, in which the chin-teed rocker approaches the starlet and gets rejected, instructs us in the Ways of Avery. He is ambitious and full of himself, in addition to having horrible facial hair. I was prepared to file the moment under “Nashville youth behaving badly” and move on, but an observation in the comments sparked an epiphany. User marijocook points out that Avery and Juliette mirror one another, too, in their self-importance and lack of consideration! What’s more, she explains, they could one day be soul mates. “Avery will persevere and fight his way into stardom exactly the same way she [Juliette] has done, and he will weasel his way into her life” just as she’s insinuated herself in Deacon’s.
The prediction sounds horrifying, delicious—and plausible. Nashville may play host to many insulated narratives, but ultimately, as marijocook concludes, “it’s a small city.”
Katy Waldman is a Slate assistant editor.