It wouldn’t be country music without demons. And when it comes to ABC’s primetime soap Nashville, the skeletons are about to bust out of their respective closets.
Opening episode three with the gloriously bratty Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), preening and pouting her way through a photo shoot in a plunging, bespangled mini-dress, the kiddie comer whines to her manager -- again -- about getting Rayna Jaymes’ (Connie Britton) longtime band leader in her abnd, then snaps at news that her mother’s in town looking for money.
“Deacon… my mother…” she barks. “Manage it! What do I pay you for?” Such a bristling reply from the girl being sold as sugar and sex.
Meanwhile at Rayna’s, her husband Teddy (Eric Close) wages a mayoral campaign at Daddy’s (Powers Boothe) behest. She knows this low budget tour she’s embarking on is the first nail in her professional coffin, but at the same time recognizes the bills are getting harder to pay.
Rayna’s manager not-so-subtly suggests reconsidering the co-headlining trek with Juliette, offering, “She needs you, too. On her own, she can do one night at the Garden. With you, it’s three.” As if to pour salt on the wound, the accountant quickly reminds Rayna that she can always take a loan from her father. “You both need new material,” Rayna hisses.
On the opposite end of the music career totem pole is young Scarlett O'Connor (Clare Bowen), the Bluebird waitress discovered by legendary producer Watty White (J. D. Souther), who’s trying to manage her boyfriend’s envy as she takes her shot at an impossible dream. This act, however, is a trio: after live-in boyfriend Avery (Jonathan Jackson) sulks to the side while watching Scarlett and partner Gunnar Scott (Sam Palladio) hone their craft, the conflict between love and ambition only deepens.
And then there’s Deacon Clayborne (Charles Esten), the long-suffering guitarist and songwriter whose entire existence has subsisted on pining for Rayna, whom he eventually lost to his addictions. After almost two decades, he’s suddenly the object of Juliette’s desire -- half his age and certainly his height. It’s everything he’s ever wanted: meaningful songwriting, the spotlight, and bonus: sex. The only stipulation: that he remain “exclusive.”
Rayna needs some space to deal with the downsizing, so Deacon picks up his saddlebag and heads to Juliette’s recording session. She cuts their song with him singing harmony live. Her handlers look on impressed. They end up in bed, natch, where Juliette presses Deacon again.
“I want you in my band, making music -- exclusively,” she informs him all whips and whipped cream, trying to seal the deal.
“Is that the dating equivalent of going steady? Is that what we’re doing?” he asks.
There is something very high school about these shenanigans. Yet Nashville, like country music, knows it’s the indulged immaturity that often yields the best squeeze. It also lets the show pivot.
Avery arrives at the Bluebird. There, Gunnar tells him about Scarlett choking in the recording studio, and that she’s blowing the deal for fear of losing her man.
Rayna’s father sends his beleaguered daughter a check for $500,000 with terms that include no new records or tours during her husband’s candidacy and time in office. When Rayna sees him at the talent show, he patronizingly dismisses her career -- and Rayna shouts him away.
Later, Rayna’s sister appears at her McMansion to confide about their mother’s affair with a singer-songwriter. It went on for years and Rayna’s career stings the same way. Indeed, a beat after, Daddy is seen sitting alone in a dark office, looking at old photos of his late wife.
After confronting her father -- and understanding her mother had her reasons -- Rayna declares she’ll never take his money, then calls Deacon, trying to do the right thing.
Deacon, who’s wrestling between his heart and desire to have a shot, gets the call while still at Juliette’s and immediately makes an excuse to go and meet the woman he’s always loved.
His defection pushes all of Juliette’s buttons. Fresh from the gate where her junkie mother’s presented herself, screeching for help and laying on guilt, Juliette instructed her bodyguard get the woman out of there, then shrieks, “There were times I needed you, too.”
In the chaos, everyone’s looking for someone to count on. Juliette wants Deacon, Scarlett needs Avery, Deacon yearns for Rayna, whose marriage and father are undermining her very being.
So about those duos: Rayna and Deacon have sizzle. Scarlett and Gunnar harkens back to the construction of Brooks & Dunn and Foster & Lloyd, as well as myriad boy-girl frisson fests that imbued Dolly and Porter, George and Tammy, Loretta and Conway -- all kinetic combos.
And there’s mean-as-a-snake, desperately spoiled and impossibly needy Juliette, who wants Deacon for solidity, talent and obvious sexual chemistry. But it’s also about taking what’s Rayna’s -- proving she’s as good as anyone; not to be an actual duo, but to have the credibility as a solo artist she so craves.
By show’s end, Rayna has broken her own heart and set Deacon free. Juliette arrives at the Bluebird to get her answer -- which isn’t what she thought. Turning bad into worse, she allows her mother to stay, then white trash binges at a drugstore for junk food and cheap make-up. Inevitably recognized, she intentionally shoplifts a lipstick knowing full well that a cell phone is capturing her every move.
Demons and duos: at the heart of country music and on the minds of Nashville’s major players.