The Stella sisters lived up to their name on Nashville the other week, spreading a shimmer over an otherwise dull episode with their cover of the Lumineers’ song “Ho, Hey.” It was a sterling occasion for the Nashville reaction shot—the mid-song camera pan to marveling audience members, which theoretically ups our appreciation for whomever’s performing. And it was a typical Nashville moment of music bringing characters together, transporting them (and us) to a more rarefied world.
When Maddie first confides to her mom that she, too, wants to be a country star, Rayna balks. She can’t stand the idea of the wicked industry getting its hooks in her daughter. But after sister Tandy points out that Maddie might read such misgivings as disapproval—the very disapproval against which Rayna rebelled so long ago—Rayna reconsiders, inviting the girls onstage to perform a sound check for her show. They are, of course, enchanted by the lights and the backup band; we are swept under the spell of their angelic voices. In the charmed space of three minutes, Rayna’s daughters remind everyone why they entered the music biz in the first place. “Still looking for a second act for your label?” asks Marshall Evans. But Maddie and Daphne are precious, unsullied. “Back away, Marshall,” Rayna replies.
The scene reinforces key themes, like a season-long obsession with authenticity and pure, unplundered talent. It has the curious effect of filling you with pride in a fictional character’s kids: arguably, an uncommon experience for TV viewers, and especially for viewers of soaps, whose emotions more often have some tinge of aspiration, e.g. I want to be Scarlett. It reflects beautifully on Rayna as a musician and a mother. Aside from all this, the whole thing is just refreshing and innocent and great.
And it might have been a huge mistake.
I’m not saying I’d complain if it happened again, but I do think Nashville’s creators are risking something when they spotlight the wonderful Stella sisters. Maddie and Daphne Conrad don’t win any awards for being especially well-developed characters. They’re cute; they elicit our goodwill. Other than that, they exist so Rayna can struggle with work-life balance and Deacon can have yet another reason to stay intertwined with his former girlfriend. When Maisy and Lennon Stella become the focus of an episode—but only by singing, not because their characters really seem integrated into the drama of the show—Nashville’s fourth wall starts to break down. It becomes, say, a reality program following adorable wunderkinds as they parlay their roles on an ABC soap into world domination.
I first smelled trouble two weeks ago, when after watching the show I felt compelled to research the actresses, binge-watch their YouTube videos, and refer to them in my head as Lennon and Maisy instead of Maddie and Daphne. For me, Nashville had become an uneasy combination of fake country stars (Rayna James, Juliette Barnes, Watty White) and real ones (the Stellas)—who were far more richly realized in my imagination than the characters they played.
The ideal solution, of course, would be to build up the roles of Maddie and Daphne until they could withstand the heat of Lennon and Maisy’s celebrity. Failing that, I suppose the show could put a gag order on the Stellas, forbid them from releasing any new YouTube videos, and basically try to eradicate all evidence of their non-Nashville existence. In the meantime, I won’t deny that I’m eagerly anticipating the next installment, Wednesday, of The Lennon and Maisy Stella Hour, starring Lennon and Maisy Stella. But a part of me sort of misses Nashville.