Okay, where all my Nashville fans at? This post serves as a rumination on favorite characters, a look back at parts of the first season and will be fairly spoiler-filled. Read on if you don’t care about that.
It would seem as if, faster than Juliette Barnes can curl her lip, this season flew by in the blink of an eye. What began as a simple drama about some country music stars and politicians in Nashville roared to life and turned in on itself, quickly becoming one of my only must-see-TV experiences.
Rayna James (Connie Britton), an established and beloved country music star who’s star has begun to dim a bit finds herself and her old ways directly up against bright young thing Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), and the two duke it out over the course of the season, sharing men, swapping massive scandals, and attempting to best the other in a never ending battle of wills. James’ representation of the older model of country music is in direct opposition to Barnes’ flashy young pop influenced ways, and the tensions between the two feels epic on another level. Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten), Rayna’s long time guitar player and former lover (Lover! What a word!) is caught in-between the two as blow up after blow up pushes them apart and pulls them together. Complicating matters is Rayna’s politician husband, Teddy (Eric Close) and two children (Lennon and Maisy Stella, two of the better singers on the show). Also in the mix is some up-and-comers struggling to make it in the Nashville music scene, Deacon’s niece Scarlett (Clare Bowen) and her smart alarm boyfriend/ex-boyfriend Avery (Jonathan Jackson in a thankless role) as well as her new beau and longtime friend Gunnar (Sam Palladio). Scarlett and Gunnar get a publishing deal, then Scarlett gets a recording deal, everyone fights, there’s a whole mess of political stuff with Rayna’s terrifying dad Lamar (Powers Boothe) and Teddy I didn’t even get into, and on and on and on it goes.
And the music, the music! If there’s anything I tend to strongly dislike, it’s country music, and I actually enjoy most of the music in Nashville, mostly because it tends to move the story forward in a very real way. Music is powerful, and throughout the show it’s used as a weapon, a means to an end, a lie, a hidden truth, a solemn gift and a thousand other ways. Every song has a purpose, and watching the characters struggle to write, or easily rattle off a tune is a delight of a different sort. Adding to the pleasure is the fact that every one of them sings their own stuff, from Panettiere down to the youngest cast members. The music makes the show, and it’s impossible to imagine it any other way.
What Nashville does especially well (no, not diversity, unfortunately) is highlight a wide spectrum of female characters, diverse in their motivations, desires and actions. The strongest and most interesting dynamic is undoubtedly the tension between James and Barnes, two self-made women who have built their empires from the ground up, and god are they fun to watch. Rayna James is a firecracker, as always, and Connie Britton is unbelievably moving as a woman juggling her roles as international celebrity, loving mother, devoted wife and woman on the mend after some very difficult circumstances threaten her entire way of life. James is staunch, resolved, a bad-ass in every sense of the word and one of the only characters who exists mostly without blame, living a good life, trying to be a good and thriving person. Her long-standing friendship and relationship with Deacon only highlights her reserves of good will and her attempts to redeem what was lost long ago.
Juliette Barnes is a woman still on the make. Meant to be a sort of Taylor Swift type initially, Juliette is the sort of person who makes three steps forward and two steps back, always struggling to define herself and set herself apart from others. She’s massively self-confident outwardly, while remaining a shrinking, terrified child at her heart. Hilarious at times, petulant and insane at others, Juliette had a lot of growing up to do this season and while she’s nowhere near where she needs to be, she’s getting there as fast as she can. Money, fame and beauty haven’t won her all she wanted, and what she wants most and can’t seem to find is someone to love her as she wants to love. Person after person disappoints and destroys her, and she’s finally brought so low she might actually be able to build a new kind of life in the coming season.
Scarlett O’Connor is perhaps one of the strongest characters on the show, simply because of her matter-of-fact resolve. Scarlett is most like Lily, from the Bob Dylan song, “Lily was a princess, she was fair-skinned and precious as a child, she did whatever she had to do, she had that certain flash every time she smiled.” Scarlett is gentle, giving, willing to extend grace in almost endless measure, but she finds her footing and her voice over the season, and won’t stand for being treated poorly by anyone. What Scarlett gains most is self-respect, and her arc is one of the most satisfying, taking her from a waitress with a remarkable voice to the main stage at the Grand Ol’ Opry.
The show is about the past knocking on the door of the present, making itself known, and never letting anyone get away with anything for too long. While good things happen to people throughout, the opportunity for past indiscretions to destroy the present are constant. Eventually I stopped reveling in even the temporary happiness of various characters, knowing they’d be brought low again, sometimes only minutes later. Nashville never shies away from a difficult moment, exploring death and the very real consequences and hardship it brings into life.
The lesson here always seems to be that try as you might to close the door and start anew, there’s no escaping what has happened. The show seems to cherish the idea that reasonable discourse is the best way to move forward, and puts a premium on forgiveness — both of self and of others. The characters fall hardest when giving in to vices and temptations, whether it’s over-confidence, pride and impulsiveness in the case of Juliette, or Deacon’s inability to commit, or fully quit his addictions. Lessons are repeated until they are learned, and oh, how they’re repeated. Nowhere else was that more visible than in the finale, with a surprise pregnancy announcement when all parties had moved on, the truth of a secret paternity revealed and a destructive car crash — making literal the metaphorical problems that had been building all season.
With a definite renewal for another season, we can look forward to a whole new mess of problems. And while most shows never live up to the enormous promise of their first season, I have high hopes that the sheer number of characters can shoulder the burdens placed upon them. Nashville at it’s core is a show about how we see the world and how the world sees us, and how that distinction dictates the kind of life we will have. Image is nothing more than a projection meant to guard what exists at the core — our true self.