We pick up this week with the Red Lips, White Lies tour in Atlanta, Georgia, and it’s business as usual backstage. Rayna’s in hair and makeup, anticipating yet another stream of interviews and press junkets. It’s plain to see that she’s still a bit out of it after that doozy of a conversation with Teddy last week, but if the pending divorce is crushing her inside, she’s still managing to put on a mostly-brave face for the press on the outside. She won’t, as she says, “fold up like a tent when things get bad.” Meanwhile, after the success of her acoustic set with Deacon at the previous show, Juliette is revising her setlist, swapping the more juvenile material of old for the newer, mature sound that we first heard with “Undermine.” That this goes against the interests and concerns of her manager and team is of little import to her.
One of the reasons I found this episode interesting and often rewarding is this dynamic shift. For much of this season, we’ve seen Rayna orbit around the tribulations of a career that needed reinvigorating, often at the expense of the more pressing drama in her personal life. Juliette, however, always seemed to be distracted from her music by one thing or another: her drug addicted but now rehabilitated mother, her kleptomaniac phase, her hasty marriage and annulment. This episode turns that dynamic on its head, and presents us a new one that finds Rayna missing cues on stage, frigid and removed under the stage lights, and Juliette creating the conditions to grow into the artist she has always wanted to be, and anyone who gets in her way will rue the day they did.
About Rayna missing that cue. I found that to be a telling, smart moment, and I loved the bit of background from Deacon. “Twenty years and I’ve never seen her miss a cue,” he says, and I believe him. Connie Britton does brave-face better than anyone, so sometimes it’s difficult to tell just how much she’s struggling inside. That moment though, her band playing the first few measures again, and then again, and then again—it said everything. Finally, though, she picks up and it’s smooth sailing from there. [And it was great to hear that song— “It’s My Life” is my best guess at a title—again after hearing it in episode two. Why hasn’t ABC released it?]
Soon, she’ll have to fly home and break the hearts of her daughters with the news of the divorce. Soon, the divorce will be real and tangible and there will be paperwork and press leaks. But for now, she makes a steamy distraction of Liam, who’s conveniently also in Atlanta, supporting another band. I’d seen in last week’s sneak previews that Rayna and Liam were making out, and wasn’t sure what to think of that. I’d rather they be finishing Rayna’s record—which is eventually discussed and teased, fingers crossed—but I understand the intention. Liam comes without strings attached, Rayna says so herself. The Teddy thing is too depressing. The Deacon thing is too confusing, too big and rooted in an exhausting context. Liam is a kind of surrogate. They drink, they slow dance, they make out, Rayna wears a big hat, and no one’s the wiser. I was overjoyed that more was not made of this chance encounter. There’s no reason to weave Liam into Rayna’s already-complicated love life—but keep him around if it means more Rayna James music, more “Buried Under.” There’s no denying the chemistry between them, but I’m just not sure the show can budget its time well enough to do it justice.
Plus, a lot of that sexual tension is released when Rayna cuts the kissing short, locks herself in the bathroom, and sobs.
The parts of the episode I found most frustrating, per usual, had nothing to do with the tour and everything to do with Avery, Scarlett, and Gunnar. It didn’t get any better than Gunnar socking Avery in the face last week, but there was, to my disappointment, no encore of that. Just a furthering of a plotline that almost no one is interested in: Avery hasn’t seen a dime, he’s living out of a motel, he’s frustrated with Dominic’s producer-via-speaker routine, Marilyn is still creepy and dead-eyed. Haley, Gunnar’s ex, offers him a publishing deal, and despite Marilyn’s objections, by the end of the episode Avery’s looking at a check for 100k. If the team behind Nashville has read any of the criticism, they must know that the most agreed-upon consensus is that Avery is terrible and any time devoted to him is time wasted. What, then, were we meant to feel when Avery looks at that check and a feeling of peace and satisfaction washes over him? We’ve never been given a reason to like this person or invest in his future, and I think it’s a foregone conclusion that he’s unredeemable at this point.
And then Gunnar’s brother, Jason the fugitive, shows up at the Bluebird, looking for a place to hide out for a bit. Life on the lam ain’t easy, in other words. Gunnar proposes his brother stay at the apartment he now shares with Scarlett, but she won’t have it. “It’s illegal to harbor a fugitive,” she says, but because she’s a mostly weak-willed character, he’s their newest roommate by the end of the night. And we see, in the last frames, that he’s brought that loaded gun of his along. The previews for next week’s episode—“Dear Brother,” it’s titled—seem to suggest that the gun sets a lot of things in motion, maybe even weaving some of the storylines together. This worries me because of the many likely pitfalls, and because I think the show is working best when the drama is sized-to-scale, but I’m trying to keep an open mind about it.
Another choice that confused me, let me down even, was the decision to montage the last four minutes of the episode—muting Rayna and Teddy’s we’re-getting-a-divorce speech, which felt incredibly lazy—to the tune of a new song Scarlett and Gunnar were working on. The lyrics didn’t have any noticeable resonance, and neither did the storylines the montage was trying to make cohesive. (Also included was Juliette in her backyard, talking to her now-rehabilitated mother on her iPhone.) It all felt very clumsy and undercooked, untrusting of its writers and actors to deliver. It felt like a daytime soap, and this show has proved—in full episodes, sometimes in chunks—that it can play with the big kids, that it’s better than that, which is why I was so thrown for a loop. Props, however, to the Stella daughters, who played that scene well without having to say or do much but cry. Not an easy task.
If it is to be that next week’s episode really marks a downward turn for Nashville—as so often happens in the latter half of a promising new series, as the overly-dramatized previews may suggest—I can only hope it’s a minor detour.