Every week in Slate’s Nashville TV club, Katy Waldman will have an IM conversation with a different Nashville fan. This week, she and Laura Anderson, a Slate assistant editor, take a look back at the season so far and speculate about what lies ahead.
Katy Waldman: Thanks for joining me, Laura! I won’t ask you what you thought of tonight’s episode because there wasn’t one.
Laura Anderson: Yet here we are. I'm just SO EXCITED about Nashville and can't contain my feelings.
Waldman: GREAT! What are these irrepressible feelings?
Anderson: For one thing, I'm amazed by how my opinion of the main characters has changed over the course of the season. I started out mainly sympathizing with Rayna and thinking of her as the character you're supposed to like the most, while thinking of Juliette as the character you're supposed to hate. (Or supposed to love to hate, maybe.)
But my feelings about these ladies have evolved. Rayna is becoming the villain. The longer I watch this show, the more I think that Rayna's a moderately talented singer who takes her material privilege for granted, ingratiates herself using her traditional femininity, and exploits others' talents for her own gain. And, simultaneously, the more I think Juliette's a talented songwriter who can't get taken seriously because she lacks Rayna's connections, dresses like a slut (no judgment there), and acts like a bitch (which, as we all know, is equivalent to a man acting like a boss).
Have your feelings about Rayna and Juliette similarly changed?
Waldman: I definitely agree that Juliette is becoming more sympathetic. In fact, I hope she doesn't lose any fire (some might say brattiness) as she reconciles with her addict mother and tries to support Deacon. But I don’t think I’ve turned against Rayna in quite the same way you have. I’m willing to grant that she’s talented, hardworking and good-hearted—though I’m intrigued by your suggestion that she “ingratiates herself using traditional femininity.” Could you say more about that?
Anderson: Well, "ingratiate" was perhaps too strong a word. I guess I was thinking about the way she flirted with Liam when she was trying to get him to produce her new album. And the way she transformed into a gracious, maternal type at events for Teddy's campaign. Juliette is really, really bad at containing her temper and being appropriately deferential to authority figures. Rayna, on the other hand, knows how to play the game—and that means being sexual (but not too sexual) when appropriate, and acting wifely when appropriate. I am not saying that this is bad; I just think Rayna's sweetness and likability are to some degree calculated.
Waldman: There’s a class element here, I think. Rayna comes across as a Nashville belle, with the socially approved combination of sugar and Tabasco sauce. (Is that the right spicy Southern condiment?) She is ever so polished, whereas Juliette seems more raw and relatable, which is perhaps why I'm starting to prefer her storylines. But does Rayna feel inauthentic to you as a character? Or just super manicured?
Anderson: I think Tabasco is from Louisiana, but close enough!
Rayna definitely feels authentic to me as a character. And manicured too—but in the way that I imagine a country superstar actually would be in real life. One of the things I love about this show is that it gives me plausible backstories for familiar-seeming celebrity dramas: shoplifting, quickie marriages to Christian virgin football stars. Rayna's hyper-put-together-ness and ability to appear at ease is just another part of that—my feeling that Nashville is pulling back the curtain to reveal a world I previously knew nothing about.
Waldman: To me, another thing that makes Rayna’s character “work” is her desperation! For all her polish, the show’s put her in what is potentially a deeply unflattering position: the star who is past her prime and stubbornly hanging on. (And yes, it is terrible that society is so hard on thirty- or forty-something women. Nashville could probably be more critical of this.) But Rayna knows she has a lot to lose, and I think the ever-present risk of the music scene declaring her career “over,” especially—mortifyingly—in relation to a younger rival, raises the show’s stakes.
Anderson: But things have really turned around for Rayna in the last few episodes, no? "Wrong Song" is number one (and everyone is erroneously assuming that she, rather than Juliette, is responsible for its catchy brilliance.) She's on tour again—an arena tour, no less. She's been working on her "new sound" with Liam (which is one of many things I am concerned about now that Liam is apparently out of the picture). People are treating her like a queen again. And she seems comfortable being treated like a queen, and not at all comfortable being treated like someone who's being paid to do a job. I think Nashville's psychological portraits of its characters are, on the whole, exquisite, and Rayna is exhibit A: We know she's a child of privilege, and that shines through in her expectations of others, professionally and personally. Whereas Juliette, who has worked her ass off to get where she is, takes nothing for granted but wants to be taken seriously for her work and her success. That said—and your point about the "potentially unflattering position" reminded me of this—I like Nashville best when it's not pitting Juliette and Rayna directly against each other. I fell in love with the show when episode 1 made it appear that we were in for a catfight—and then episodes 2 through 8, more or less, left each character to her own devices. I understand why Juliette and Rayna dislike each other, but their sparring is frankly one of the more boring parts of the show to me (second to Scarlett and Gunnar's will-they-won't-they-but-of-course-they-will mooning). You touched last week on the ways Juliette and Rayna's relationship is changing, and I am very much hoping that it will evolve past these little spats that they seem to love. Or that they will drift apart after the tour—I honestly have no problem with parallel, rather than intertwining, storylines.
Waldman: Really? The lack of interaction between, say, Teddy and Juliette doesn't bother you at all? I sometimes feel like I'm watching three or four different programs. And maybe I wouldn’t mind if all the subplots were equally interesting, but I mostly just care about Juliette, Deacon, and Rayna. If Nashville is going to force us to look at Gunnar and Scarlett gazing longingly at each other, it should at least assure us that their absurd mooniness is somewhat relevant to the good stuff, rather than an in-show commercial break.
Anderson: I couldn't agree more about Gunnar and Scarlett's relevance. But I was trying to figure out why I care so little about those two, and my reasons are a little different from yours. For one thing, the Gunnar/Scarlett narrative is just so predictable: They're obviously going to get together at some point. (I would bet a can of bean dip—hell, several cans of bean dip—on this.) By contrast, I honestly don't ever know what's coming next for Juliette/Rayna. For another thing, I don't know enough about their families. Yes, I know Scarlett is Deacon's niece (although their relationship feels totally generic from where I sit), and I know Gunnar's brother is a convict and that he was raised by his grandmother. But I don't have nearly as much rich information about their familial backgrounds as I do about Rayna's and Juliette's. And, as I mentioned before, I find Rayna and Juliette so psychologically compelling because I can see the connections between their relationships with their parents and their relationships with the other people in their life. (For instance, were you taken aback by how quickly Rayna kicked Liam to the curb after his double-dealing came to light? But it makes sense when you realize how much she loathes her father's underhanded ways. At the same time, of course, she's at least a little bit like her father in that she's not her children's primary caregiver.) What I'm trying to say is that Nashville is really good at depicting mommy issues and daddy issues, but I get none of that with Gunnar and Scarlett.
Waldman: I think your point about having meaningful access to Juliette and Rayna's pasts, but not Scarlett's or Gunnar's, is a really astute one. By now, though, I fear I am not particularly interested in learning anything else about Scarlett or Gunnar, although they are welcome to come onscreen periodically for a winsome duet. Anyway, I'd love to close by asking you about the show’s future. Do you have any predictions? Hopes? Fears? Advice you'd give the showrunners?
Anderson: Well! I definitely am hoping for more Juliette back-story. I know we've learned a lot about her early childhood and her dynamic with her mom, but her rise from poverty/obscurity/hardship to fame/fortune/sparkly mini-dresses has not yet been accounted for, and I'm dying to know more. (I am also hoping for more sparkly mini-dresses, and perhaps some kind of world record for most leg shown onstage, though we may have reached that point already.) I am also hoping that Liam's exile will be temporary, because—and this will be controversial—I think Liam and Rayna have much better chemistry than Deacon and Rayna. (Of course, David Plotz would say I'm just sad to see Liam go because of his floppy hair and unconventional good looks, which would not be entirely unfounded.) As for fears? Only that the plotlines will become too absurd, the dialogue too melodramatic: the same fears one has for any beloved soap opera. However, given the caliber the showrunners have given us so far, I think those fears are mostly unfounded. The only piece of advice I'd give to the showrunners is maybe to ask Clare Bowen to ease up on Scarlett's drawl, just a bit? How about you, Katy? What do you foresee, dread, and anticipate?
Waldman: This is never going to happen, but I would love to see Avery redeemed. Perhaps he could miss a crucial meeting with Dominic to rescue a drowning puppy. Or shave his chin-tee only to realize that, Samson-like, he has shorn away his musical talent and must pursue a career in social work. And now that you mention it, a peek into Juliette's adolescence/rise to fame would be captivating! As would more information about the Rayna-Deacon tryst, even if such backstory only confirms their incompatibility and paves the way for Liam and Rayna to get together. (By the way, I originally envisioned Liam with Juliette—but now I'm hoping that she and Deacon will eventually act on their considerable chemistry.) Fears: I dread Gunnar becoming the Joey Quinn of Nashville and doing stupid, illegal things to protect his fugitive brother. I fear Joleen falling for Deacon. I am unreasonably excited about how cute Deacon looks in his "eff you, Rayna" sunglasses and hope he wears them often in the season’s remaining episodes.
Anderson: Cheers to that!