Although it has slightly bigger ambitions, Nashville is still primarily an ABC primetime soap. Honestly, I think I've struggled with that at times this season. Not because soaps are inherently bad (in fact, they can be very awesome), but because the show has often fumbled through development by yanking characters from one emotional extreme to another, with very little time spent in any middle (perhaps sometimes complex) space. Last week, I predicted a hotly dramatic finale, and "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive" certainly delivered on that idea in full-force. This episode featured a character falling off the wagon, two physical altercations, a funeral, a proposal, a car accident, a letter from beyond the grave, a paternity reveal, and pregnancy announcement. It was not a quiet finale, nor were there any characters left with nothing to do... and many of those things fell somewhere between powerful and compelling and ridiculous and overheated.
Thankfully, no matter the quality of the story, the show has great performers to pull it through—and above all else, this episode was a fine showcase for most of the leads. There's a case to be made that Juliette remains a completely self-involved brat who neglected her mother's problems to such a degree that he mother ended up dead, but the finale found the right beats to hit with the character. Outside of one purely spiteful spell of outrage backstage at the CMAs (one that she admittedly regretted and that really changed her perspective on coming to terms with her mother's death), Juliette's grieving didn't reach the sort of hyperbolic and manic levels I expected it to, and that's a big testament to Hayden Panettiere's performance. I was never a big fan of her on Heroes, but as this season progressed, it became clear to me that she, like most everyone else on that show, was a victim of miserable writing and characterization (and she still wasn't that bad!). Despite Juliette's problematic character, Panettiere has delivered the strongest work of her career over the last string of episodes and although I have trouble believing she has an actual chance, this finale would be a fine Emmy submission.
Again, what worked here was that Juliette's grief never manifested into even poorer decision-making for the character. Instead, she went from numb and closed-off at the beginning of the episode, when she ignored Deacon's assistance, to being much more open and aware of the complicated feelings washing over her. She still acted like a spoiled egomaniac at times, but I got the sense that the relief she felt over her mother's death really opened her eyes to how she viewed that relationship. Juliette never felt good enough and blamed herself for her mother's failures, yet only continued to make things worse by stubbornly (and ignorantly) refusing to admit those feelings to mother so that their relationship could truly improve. Jolene was not the best mother, and that was not all Juliette's fault. But Juliette also was not the best daughter, and not simply because Jolene pushed her away. Panettiere did a great job of bringing Juliette through those emotions as the episode progressed: In the funeral home, Juliette was broken, but ready to speak to the truths of the bond with her mother; at the cemetery, she acknowledged mistakes on both their parts to Rayna; and at the Bluebird, she honored her mother's wishes with a powerful performance. Now to be fair, the show helped the situation along by having Jolene send a letter explaining her actions, but I'm not sure that would have totally mattered. What mattered was that Juliette let her emotions in and that she can now, theoretically, try to figure them out as she moves forward.
Weirdly, what seemed to be the most dramatic story going into the episode (Jolene and Dante's deaths), did not end up playing that role in the hour. Instead, the honor belongs to the looming question of Maddie's paternity. Callie Khouri's script smartly pushed the story forward at the top of the episode, which allowed Deacon to fume around like a ticking time bomb before receiving confirmation from Rayna and then taking one big plunge into the bottom of a whiskey bottle. As I said last week, I find it really dumb that Rayna kept vital information on the identity of Maddie's father in such an obvious place, but like so many of this season's stories, once the sloppy inciting incident is out of the way, the characters and the actors carry the material the rest of the way. Much like with Juliette's emotional turmoil, Deacon's tumble off the wagon unspooled in a progressive fashion that really served the episode well. The conversation between Deacon and Rayna backstage at the CMAs avoided any extended bits of dialogue between the two. Instead, they were hurriedly talking over one another, with Rayna struggling to justify her actions and Deacon muttering along the way. That scene worked as a reflection of the characters' history and rapport, particularly because they clearly have trouble talking to one another about difficult matters.
Furthermore, the quieter (yet still very intense) scene between Rayna and Deacon nicely contrasted with most everything that happened with Deacon afterward. Once he started drinking, the show did not shy away from his reckless, even scary, behavior. The sequence with Coleman, Gunnar, and Scarlett trying to subdue a drunk and shifty Deacon felt properly hectic and dangerous, but as the follow-up scene with Deacon in the bathroom proved, Charles Esten is much better playing Deacon in the smaller, introspective moments. Unfortunately, the desire for a big cliffhanger got the best of the episode by the time the story came to a conclusion; as soon as Deacon and Rayna got into the truck together, it was pretty clear that a terrible car accident was coming. I hate that as a temporary resolution for this arc because Rayna and Deacon really need to have a conversation and I'm fearful that an accident like this is only going to pull them apart once whichever one of them is a coma wakes up. Still, a lame conclusion does not take away from what was a mostly successful emotional story. We know that Rayna and Deacon's issues are far from over, just as we knew that Deacon was eventually going to start drinking again. I can deal with an extreme button on a solid story because I'm happy that Nashville played these cards in the first season. There was no reason to wait longer on Maddie's paternity, and Deacon's sobriety was probably always attached to that reveal.
While the two big stories worked very well here, I'm not so sure about the half-dozen other threads Khouri tried to jam in because it was the finale (in what could have been a series finale, really). This one goes so far out of its way to give us something about every character that I almost expected Hailey, Avery's band and Wyclef Jean to show up in the final montage. It was not entirely bothersome to get a quick moment where Tandy quits the company because Lamar is re-energized and ready to move forward with that god forsaken stadium, but really who cares? That goes double for the returned focus on Nashville's greatest storyline, The Damn Cumberland Deal. Teddy is probably going to jail, but not before he learned that Peggy is pregnant. I assume that the two of them will name the unborn child Cumberland because that is the only thing the two like talking about. Eric Close is not bad at his job. In fact, he is actually kind of great when the show lets Teddy be a human being, like when he calmed Rayna down after Maddie stormed out in this episode. But the show prefers him to be Mr. Cumberland Deal, so whatever.
These threads were lame on their own, but I think they hurt the episode more because Gunnar and Scarlett's story felt severely underdeveloped. The two of them have been on quite the journey this season and yet here, all they got was one real scene together and then a couple of moments with Gunnar seething over Scarlett's re-discovered relationship with Avery. And yet, the result of that was... a proposal? We didn't see Scarlett say yes, but I'm hoping she says no. It was a last-ditch effort from Gunnar, who—though he ditched the leather jacket and pushed his hair back upward—is still pretty lost as an individual. But above all else, that proposal felt like it was tacked on just in case the show go canceled. I'll be very, very interested to see how the show writes around it in Season 2, or if Khouri and Dee Johnson will simply run away from it immediately.
Still, after some true creative problems and low spots, it does feel like Nashville found itself a little bit more at the tail-end of this first season. The finale did a fine job of pushing the right stories forward while still producing some admittedly goofy cliffhangers. I'm not quite sure Nashville has yet lived up to the quality and promise of that great pilot, but it weathered the storm well enough. While I hope that it manages to dial back some of the histrionics in next season, all of the primary characters made it to a place where the show's character-based soapiness could be more assured come the fall.
– Preeeeeety silly that both Juliette and Rayna high-tailed it out of the CMA Awards. Cool that Juliette won, but I'm certain that their disappearances would be hot topics on the country music gossip blogs. Those exist, right?
– Also CMA-related: Rayna's outfit on-stage was not good. I love Connie Britton, but that top was just too tight in the wrong places.
– The amount of music per episode declined quite a bit in the second half of the season. I'm wondering if that's simply a byproduct of the stories being told, or if some of the reported-on production issues extend to the music. It's not easy to crank out those originals, huh?
– If I did Nashville power rankings, Avery would be near the top. What a meteoric rise for that guy.
– Will's presence in the concluding montage leads me to believe that the show views him as an important character in Nashville's world. Here's to hoping that Chris Carmack is a regular next year.
– Thanks for reading and commenting on these reviews, folks. Glad to do them over the last stretch of episodes.
– What worked for you, or didn't work for you, in this finale?