Okay, forget drunk Juliette. There’s a new greatest character in all of Nashville, and it’s Dark Gunnar. For much of this episode—with his carefully tousled hair and his Batman voice—Gunnar seems like he’s been infected by the symbiote that created Venom in the Spider-man comics, not like the affable wannabe country star lunkhead we’ve come to know and love. The reasons for his misbehavior are too ridiculous to get into here—because of his brother’s death and his successful co-option of his brother’s song, Gunnar now feels as if he must become his brother or something—but I chuckled with delight every time he swaggered onto the screen like a high school sophomore auditioning for Danny Zuko. This is all meant to build to a place where he and Scarlett break up—just in time for her to realize what she’s been missing with Avery, I guess—but it just feels silly. At least he and Will made up in the holding cell they landed in after getting into a fistfight.
In addition to Gunnar turning into his own evil twin, this is likely the soapiest the show has been throughout its run. Juliette’s mom shot and killed Dante—not exactly a shocker there—as Juliette prepared to go on The View and reveal to the world that there was a sex tape of her. I was trying to figure out if some news outlet would pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million for a Juliette Barnes sex tape or if Dante was just bluffing. I was busy running the counterfactual about how much TMZ would pay if there was a Taylor Swift sex tape when a photo of Swift herself appeared backstage at the Opry to confirm that she exists in this universe and sent my head spinning for another loop. Is Swift second to Juliette? Above her in fame? Maybe Taylor can win the CMA female vocalist of the year award next week and show off her surprised face, only it will be genuine this time. “My goodness!” she could say. “I didn’t realize I was a character on this show!”
The Dante-ness of it all continued to be completely ridiculous, but because everything else was so soapy, it vaguely felt like it belonged. Jolene’s decision to take matters into her own hands in the protection of her daughter wrapped up her story arc in a way that felt a little too neat, but at least she took Dante with her to the great beyond. And because she and Dante both slip from the wagon in the pursuit of this storyline, Callie Khouri and the writers get to work out some of their pet themes as well, about how impossible it is to remove the past’s hold on our souls, how difficult it can be to lose yourself when who you were is so ever-present in your life. “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us,” says Ricky Jay, and frogs fall from the sky.
Somewhere along the line, Hayden Panettiere became my favorite thing about this show, which no one would have predicted, given how heavily I slagged her in my review of the pilot. Where everybody else on the show seemed a bit confused by its gradual soapification, though, Panettiere sunk her teeth into the material and dedicated herself to being the best rabble-rouser she could be. This show needed a Juliette Barnes to stir shit up, and, by God, Panettiere was going to be that Juliette Barnes. Why, even when she’s rehearsing her awards show banter for the CMAs with Rayna, she seems to be barely holding back a, “What is this shit?” I half expected her to tear the microphone she spoke into from the stage and beat the director about the head with it.
Instead, she dug deep and ended up in a position where she was going to tell Barbara Walters and company all about her sex tape (before learning that her mother had killed Dante and destroyed the sex tape-containing SD card in the garbage disposal). The inconsistencies that fell the other characters on Nashville work for Juliette, because Panettiere is pulling them all together somehow and because Juliette’s a young person trying to take control of her own life for the first time, and that’s already an inherently unstable sort of person. (The Scarlett/Gunnar/Avery/Will stuff would feel this interesting if they didn’t all seem like stately clipper ships, carefully cutting a straight path through gentle waves. Juliette feels like a powerboat tied to a bunch of dolphins in a water-skiing spectacular.)
Now, it wasn’t all Juliette and Dark Gunnar, but the rest of the episode was suitably trashy fun as well. Okay, Rayna has yet to even approach trashy fun, and her storyline tonight—involving Teddy filing a restraining order to keep Deacon from his girls—had its moments, like a tearful scene where Rayna asked her soon-to-be-ex-husband to just trust her about Maddie never finding out Deacon is her father, but also seemed far too emblematic of the series’ strange fascination with the drama of intractable paperwork. (Also landing in this category: the attempted coup to remove Lamar Wyatt, which would work as a storyline if it didn’t feel like it had floated in from some other series entirely, for all we’ve heard about it before now.) Still, the closing reveal—Maddie digs up a paternity test Rayna just kept laying around for some reason and discovers the truth about who her father is—is a gut punch, and the show could very easily build something great out of these disparate parts.
Because, hell, Nashville is capable of greatness when it wants to be. Will felt like a weird interloper character when we first met him, but now, he seems so weirdly integral to the story the series wants to tell that I hope he becomes a regular in season two. He and Gunnar’s little talk about his failed pass at Gunnar was some nicely handled writing and acting, and the story of Will wrestling with his homosexuality and hoping that becoming a country music star would supersede all of the pain and effort made me all the more interested to see what would happen if he actually became one. (Rayna sure seems interested in him when he charms his way into an audition for her label.) Gradually, Nashville has figured out how to tell stories that aren’t just retreads you’d expect to turn up in a show like this, and Will seems particularly important in that regard. Here’s a story you haven’t heard told in precisely this way before, and here’s an unlikely character to deliver it. The more Nashville offers that kind of storytelling, the more I remember why I liked it in the first place.
- The show, perhaps realizing it had a good thing in “Ho Hey” a few weeks ago, tries to get the girls to break it out again, before Teddy comes in and interrupts. But, really, the whole thing should feature Rayna parading across the screen with a banner reading, “Please download this single on iTunes,” for as pointless a retread as it seems.
- I dunno. I’m generally a Scarlett O’Connor appreciator, but I don’t quite think her performance merited a wild standing ovation. That’s the kind of out-of-nowhere overreaction that caused everybody to turn on Karen over on Smash, and I’d hate to see that happen to poor Scarlett. Polite, even enthusiastic applause? Sure. But I didn’t buy everybody jumping to their feet.
- The life and times of Avery Barclay: Avery watched Scarlett from the crowd, a smile twisting itself across his lips as she locked eyes with him. “Soon!” he thought, trying to push the very image of their carnal delights into her brain via telekinesis. “SOON!”
- That radio interview with Gunnar just made me giggle. I know it was supposed to—the point is that his overstated persona cuts so against who he really is—but Sam Palladio doesn’t have it in him to play even a fake miscreant.
- Nashville was renewed for a second season, everybody! Let’s hope season two is all about Coleman’s attempts to reinvent himself as “The Rebel Cowpoke.”