Checking in on Nashville: Aren't We ALL Strung Out on Rayna James?

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Nashville S01E15: "When You're Tired of Breaking Other Hearts"

We haven't reviewed Nashville since Price took on the pilot episode way back in October and I'd love to tell you that a lot of things have changed since then. But in a lot of ways, Nashville is still the same show we saw in that initial episode—it is just now a better version of that show.

Of course, becoming that better version involved overcoming some obstacles that started almost immediately after the pilot. For reasons that remain a little confusing, Callie Khouri and her writing staff decided to take the pilot's primary thrust, the burgeoning feud between Connie Britton's Rayna and Hayden Panettiere's Juliette, and stall the situation that was going to make that feud even juicier and more complex. So, away went the big tour and in its place came a number of stories for both female leads that, while generally interesting in their own right, kept you wondering why the show wouldn't just let Rayna and Juliette engage in their cross-generational southern diva-off. I understand the desire to not be pigeonholed as Country Strong: The TV Show, but detours like Juliette's dalliance with a Tim Tebow clone and Rayna's weekly crisis about everything that it means to be Rayna James didn't always work (though the performances did: Britton is one of my favorite performers on all of television, but Panettiere has, somewhat surprisingly, been very strong despite occasional overwrought material).

And yet, once the show finally got around to putting Rayna and Juliette (and Deacon) on their anticipated tour together, I started to get a sense of why it took so long. Not only did those additional, separate stories add complexity to what were fairly clear "types" in the pilot, but they really motivated character choices in ways that maybe weren't surprising, yet definitely worked. Those first eight or nine episodes built up the pressure on Rayna, Juliette, and Deacon so much that by the time they were actually out on the road together, the tension was even higher and their individual arcs had become even more intertwined. The journey was a bit bumpy, but Nashville is now delivering on the promise it teased us with in the pilot.

Last night's "When You're Tired of Breaking Other Hearts" simultaneously shrunk and expanded the show's world while managing to progress the season's big stories pretty successfully. As happens so often on this show, characters were troubled by lingering feelings or messy histories but in many cases, the events of the episode suggest that these tortured souls are truly starting to move past some of their fundamental hang-ups or tensions.

With the divorce made public, Rayna and Teddy attempted to co-parent their daughters with a split schedule, resulting in a really jarring turn for the oldest daughter, Maddie, who went from being totally understanding and mature in the past few episodes to calling her mother a bitch in this one. Yes, she is a teen, but the amount of vitriol in that opening scene at the Conrad manor seemed a little out-of-step to me. That bubbling anger extended to Rayna and Teddy's interactions, which are now more spiteful and biting than ever since Rayna knows Teddy's getting his "business consulting" from Peggy in an official capacity. Unfortunately, the show has gone back and forth with regard to whether or not it thinks Teddy is an okay dude or a complete jag, and this week, he was definitely more the latter—unless he was talking about politics and stadiums, but really let's not pretend you care about that.

Juliette, still dealing with her desire to be more in-control and reeling from the blow-up with manager Glenn, continues to push for more agency over her career. Somehow, she's penned enough new music on her own to put out another new album (like the label wouldn't be milking "I'm a Girl" or "Boys in Buses" more) and she's ready to be a real artist, but she doesn't actually know what goes into that process other than "I do what I want." Of course, like most new developments in Juliette's life, this turn toward maturity and control, while interesting musically, still stems both from her damaged relationship with her mother and an apparent yearning to be Rayna 2.0 without ever admitting it. 

Best of all, Deacon has finally freed himself from the middle of Rayna and Juliette's personal dramas by finding comfort in his dog's veterinarian (Susan Misner), who doesn't know who he is or even like country music. Charles Esten has done great work all season, but it's nice to see him get to play a different, less mopey and steely version of the character that isn't so tied to either Rayna or Juliette.

Smartly, all three of these stories convalesced at Juliette's latest show, one that she changed from a small fan club gathering to a full-on public safety hazard with a simple tweet, one that Maddie lied to Teddy about so she could attend. The tween "riot" and Maddie's subsequent injuries were a little silly, but they served useful story purposes: Juliette recognized that bulldozing everyone and doing whatever she feels like doing will only isolate her further and make her feel more alone, which is the thing she hates most. Rayna honed in on how difficult it's going to be for her daughters to deal with this divorce. And Deacon, inspired by a short conversation with Coleman, realized that there's nothing he could need more than time away from his two leading ladies.

Elsewhere in the episode, I felt like Gunnar's descent into drunken despondence over his brother's death made sense, based on what we know about their history. Of course he blames himself for Jason's murder, and when people on TV shows blame themselves for someone's murder, they get drunk and try to take police work (and/or justice) into their own hands. His treatment of Scarlett was a little unnecessary because we all knew they were going to reunite almost immediately (at least temporarily), and so I feel like we got jerked around for 25 minutes just so the show could create the conflict with Scarlett getting a solo deal. But props to Charles Esten, Clare Bowen, and Sam Palladio in that scene outside the bar with Deacon (naturally) providing the sage advice that he couldn't barely take himself.

One of the things I enjoy most about Nashville is how well the characters seem to exist in the same world, whether they're interacting with one another or not. Certain stories like Teddy and Coleman's Mayoral business or Avery's often unsympathetic trials and tribulations in Atlanta have little impact on the really solid stories the show knows how to tell with ease, but I never feel like those characters are unfortunately exiled on their own little islands (though I'm guessing a number of fans would wish that Avery was). Similarly, when characters who don't regularly interact come into contact with one another—I'm looking at you, Deacon and Gunnar—it never feels forced. Whether or not the show actually achieves the spirit of the real Nashville is up for debate, but the version of the city that these particular characters live in feels well-realized.

This episode certainly set up a lot of things for the home stretch of the season—Deacon's new woman, Scarlett's record deal, Avery burning the masters of his recordings because he's nuts, the stadium deal, etc.—that stand to move the show beyond some of the comfortable (and really good) rhythms it's been locked into lately.


B-SIDES

– Did anyone notice the flower-on-the-table motif happening early in the episode? I don't know what that was about exactly, maybe director Paul McCrane just really likes them. They looked nice

– Best line of the night goes to Coleman, who told Deacon that alcohol and pills aren't the problem; he's "strung out on Rayna James." Aren't we all?

– This is the moment where I admit that the reason I so badly want to like Avery is that Avery is the type of character that always sucks on shows like this. He's a tough guy to like, but I think Jonathan Jackson is doing a good job making the character's motivations seem well-intentioned. I'll be curious to see how he fits into the show now that he's not exiled in Atlanta with Wyclef.

– Because we haven't reviewed the show in forever, we also haven't talked about the music, which is obviously pretty darn good. What's your favorite track of the season thus far? Mine has to be either "Casino" or "I Will Fall."

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