Every week in Slate’s Nashville TV club, Katy Waldman will have an IM conversation with a different Nashville fan. This week, she rehashes episode 1.18 with Cory Barker, a PhD student in Communication and Culture at Indiana University and a television critic at TV.com.
Katy Waldman: I felt that this episode was really about setting up expectations and then fulfilling them: We knew all along, more or less, that Dante was slimy and out for himself; that Will had romantic feelings for Gunnar; that Rayna and Deacon would find each other in some dimly lit doorway at night and one thing would lead to another. We just had to wait for the characters to catch up to our intuitions.
Cory Barker: The episode was shot through with inevitability. Some big shoes finally dropped.
Waldman: Is this a satisfying way to watch TV? Or would you rather never know what’s coming next, a la 24?
Barker: It’s two different modes of storytelling. Something like 24 keeps you on your toes, but there isn't the same kind of emotional investment, at least for me. I care about Juliette (despite the writers' fumbling of her character) and to watch her make one shaky decision after another is hard. You know that really bad things are coming, and you know she's handling things poorly. And with Rayna and Deacon, we've now had 18 episodes to get wrapped up in their love affair. The writers probably made the correct call in keeping them apart for this long. There's a sense that this is a relatively uncomplicated time for Rayna, so why shouldn't she try to make it work with Deacon? But with those two, it's never NOT complicated, which is going to make the morning after more difficult.
Waldman: I’d say it’s especially complicated right now. Deacon has the delightful Stacey—"She's lovely," Scarlett says, "And you're happy"—and Rayna has just reconnected with Liam.
Barker: Yeah, maybe. There's a moment early in this episode where Rayna tells Tandy that she's really excited to have the chance to make decisions in her love life. So I think she's in this space where some of the drama from her divorce has blown over. Deacon was there when her father was in the hospital. Liam is a choice, but he's not THE choice. As for Deacon, sure, it’s absolutely terrible timing. But he’s unable to keep Rayna from doing this to him; that’s who he is.
Waldman: Some things never change. And some things—even entrenched things, like Rayna’s feud with Lamar—absolutely do! What did you make of that father-daughter reconciliation? (How typical of their messed up family that Rayna’s elevation in her dad’s eyes had to entail Tandy’s fall from grace.)
Barker: Powers Boothe has done some nice work the last few episodes. And since the political dealings aren't ever going to be as fascinating as what's happening in the music sector, it's at least smart to pull Lamar away from business and stadiums. But I'm mostly in wait-and-see mode with this. I want to see Lamar and Rayna develop a relationship, but I don't know if I trust the show to commit to it. I certainly don't care about Tandy and Coleman working together to either push Lamar out or take Teddy down. The Cumberland Deal and City Contracts are two phrases I don't need to hear ever again. Thoughts?
Waldman: I'm with you! And I’m pretty sure Teddy suffers from Resting Asshole Face. Also, what’s with Peggy? Are we supposed to see her as snaky/evil or just damaged and in love? (Not that it matters: I’d rather spend my time speculating about the compatibility of Stacey and Liam.)
Barker: Yeah, that's the biggest problem with characters like Teddy, and sometimes even Juliette. The show hasn't made up its mind as far as what we're supposed to think. Rayna's our protagonist and so anyone who does her wrong is going to look like a jerk, but when you keep these other characters around, there has to be a good reason.
Waldman: Great point, and I think you’re right to bring up Juliette here. Bad things happen to her—she grew up in poverty, with an addict mother, and her “boyfriend” Dante was a manipulative creep—but she also brings a lot of trouble upon herself. I think the show might be caught between wanting to give us a delicious hate-watching experience (“she’s such a brat!”) and the more nuanced experience of empathizing with a flawed character.
Barker: In the middle stretch of the season, the writers deepened her, made her more sympathetic, helped us understand where she was coming from. But every time she reconciles with her mother, or makes a smart, mature decision, she then does something two times as childish. It's almost as if the writers don't quite know how to craft dramatic stories for her with an ending other than "she's immature, alone, and sad."
Waldman: You’re right: Nashville is such a morality tale! Childishness is punished by loneliness and sadness. Kindness and talent are rewarded. Corruption—in the form of the Cumberland Deal, for instance—comes to light. The arrogant do not fare well. (Right, Avery?) It's like an Aesop's fable with banjos.
Barker: Yeah, except if you're Rayna. She gets off the hook quite a bit, which is fine, but they need to stop putting Juliette in crappy situations and then expecting us to marvel at how much less mature/composed she is than her co-headliner.
Waldman: Rayna’s dad just had a heart attack! She’s going through a divorce! How is that letting her off the hook?
Barker: We're supposed to celebrate that she's "like a teenager" with Liam, but with Juliette, it's all about growing up. I love Rayna, and I don't think I can love an actress more than I love Connie B., but I'd really like for the show to be the two-hander I think it wants to be. Nashville is Juliette's story too, and the show hasn't figured out how to show her complexities without making her look like a monster.
Waldman: I’m going to disagree with what I just said. Rayna’s a famous country singer with spectacular daughters and a relationship with her father and sister that shows signs of improving. She has a career she loves and she’s finally come to terms with her feelings for Deacon. Her life is awesome. And it should be, according to the Aesop theory, because she definitely doesn’t have the inner darkness of an Avery or a Juliette.
Barker: I think she’s a mess! Look at the way she waffles back and forth between men. It’s just that the show hasn’t quite embraced her messiness. One of my favorite moments of the season was when she finally broke down on the bathroom floor. I'd just like for Nashville to acknowledge that she's still trying to figure it out, and sometimes, it doesn't go well.
Waldman: Fair enough. And Avery?
Barker: I'm a big Avery fan. He was a major tool, and will probably always be at least a minor one, but he's trying, you know? He understands why he failed and wants to make it right. Whether or not he's back in the romantic picture is interesting. I wrote in my review that I don't understand why the show had to pull Scarlet and Gunnar apart so quickly, even if they're not "apart." It wouldn't surprise me if Avery and Scarlet had a moment or two. Knowing how this show treats Avery, it also wouldn't surprise me if he went back into full douche mode and tried to put the moves on her.
Waldman: And then a force field of pure goodness would radiate from Scarlett's forehead, hurling him back.
Barker: Scarlett can do no wrong, ever.
Waldman: Is it just me, or has she been a pretty static character this season? She and Deacon seem so consistent, while the rest of the characters are all over the place. You get a new Juliette, a new Avery, a new Liam every episode. But Scarlett hasn’t changed much, although perhaps she’s grown in confidence and vision.
Barker: Yeah, she and Deacon are sort of the moral centers of the show. Both of them have high opinions of those around them, and so the show uses that for drama. Gunnar, Juliette, Rayna, whomever: These characters can make interesting choices that leave Scarlett and Deacon to react. And that works.