There’s something beautiful about just how mercenary this season finale is. Nashville spent the better part of this season only grudgingly accepting that it was going to have to become a soap if it wanted to survive, and by the time this episode ends, there are surprise marriage proposals and people falling off the wagon and horrifying car crashes no one would ever walk away from surely and letters sent from beyond the grave. (Okay, they were just sent through the postal service, which might as well be the same thing, and I think I just wrote a Mallard Fillmore strip.) This was my favorite episode since the pilot, but it also feels like a very different show from the one we were promised in that first episode. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—soap with occasional, acutely observed family drama looks good on this show—but it felt in that pilot like Callie Khouri was going to thread an incredibly difficult needle, and at a certain point, she just stopped trying to do that. Ah, well.
“I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive” is, if nothing else, a striking love letter to Hayden Panettiere and Juliette Barnes. In the pilot, Juliette was probably the show’s weakest element, but somewhere around the Fake Tim Tebow arc, she became the only character who realized she was living in a soap, Panettiere’s performance shifted to compensate, and the show started getting sucked into her gravitational field. Suddenly, Juliette’s storylines were just about the most interesting things going on on the show, and somewhere around February, Panettiere truly got her feet underneath herself when it came to playing the character. In the finale, she spends most of the episode in a state of barely restrained emotional collapse, but she’s also stalking around and hissing at everybody who gets in her way.
It turns out that Juliette hasn’t quite put together that her mother killed Dante to protect Juliette, so she’s upset at the whole murder-suicide scandal ending up in the news. To be honest, I wondered why Jolene thought that killing a man and then killing herself would somehow save her daughter from tabloid infamy or somehow be “preferable” to the sex tape ending up out there. That storyline seemed like a piece of the character that was—the squeaky clean country star trying to rough up her image a little bit that we met in the pilot—not the character that is, who seems to engage in scandal because she enjoys the sport of it. But the whole thing is resolved when the cops find the chewed up SD card in the garbage disposal (because Dante would never, ever make a copy of this and distribute it to his partner in crime for safe-keeping) and Juliette reads that letter from her mother and summarizes its contents for us. Also, she cries a lot.
And I mean a lot. There are five or six scenes in this episode that are there just to show us that Juliette has a heart, too. We all know that Connie Britton is an excellent crier, but the finale sometimes seems as if it’s aiming to even the score on that count between the show’s two chief draws. Hayden Panettiere gets to cry at her mother’s funeral. She gets to cry in front of her mother’s corpse. She gets to cry backstage at the CMAs. She gets to cry after receiving her CMA (which she places on an endtable in her home after it’s delivered to her). She cries while singing, for God’s sake. And she cries at all levels! Some of the crying is full-fledged weeping, and some of it is keeping-it-together, tears-leaking-out restrained sobbing. Panettiere nails most of these in a most admirable fashion. As a story to hold the whole thing together, it could feel a little lacking, but the performance keeps it all from feeling repetitive or boring.
Meanwhile, Maddie has found out that she’s Deacon’s daughter, and that’s sent everybody spiraling out of control! Rayna tries to explain to Deacon why she and Teddy made the decisions they did, and it’s a surprisingly great scene. The show has always excelled when these characters try to explain things they’ve done in the past, and now that the series’ central secret is out in the open, everybody can be very angry and judgmental of each other. It also allows Teddy, who’s been kind of a sniveling bastard for a while now, a chance to further develop his good guy persona, just in time for his embezzlement to be investigated (by a U.S. Attorney character who obviously should have been played by Jere Burns). And it completely sends Deacon off the wagon.
Deacon’s drinking has receded into the background so much that I had honestly forgotten it was a major character motivation until we saw him in that bar, contemplating a drink. The series of sudden, abrupt jump cuts that all centered on him swallowing that first drink in 13 years drove home the gravity of the moment, however, and from there, it was time for a drunk Deacon to race around Nashville, being a jackass to everybody and fooling Coleman into leaving him alone so he can drink in the bathroom after a shower, taking swigs straight from the bottle. Where drunk Juliette was sort of silly, drunk Deacon is at once wounded and a little terrifying, as he should be. And the episode never tries to undercut his emotions, either. If ever there was a reason to fall off the wagon, this is it.
We should probably talk about the closing montage, which stays just on the right side of ridiculous, I think. The second Rayna shoved aside a drunken Deacon to have a loud argument with him while driving, you could sort of feel the wheels of the ABC Plot Generating Machine 3000 begin to click and whir, but there’s nothing wrong with a season-ending car crash, even when you’re relatively certain both people in the car are going to survive. What’s important is that Rayna and Deacon’s relationship truly seems to have hit rock bottom now, and the suggestion that it couldn’t survive because of the secrets that Rayna was keeping from him has been proved right. I’m sure these two will end up in bed together again sometime in season two, but this car crash really salts the earth between them, and that’s a good place to leave that relationship for now.
And throughout, everything that’s happening—right down to the marriage proposal Scarlett isn’t sure how to answer and Will’s frightened waving away of a potential male suitor as he’s out trying to become the biggest country star in the world—is underscored by Juliette saying farewell to her mother in song, Avery occasionally smiling over at her like he’s a fucking guardian angel and not the worst character in the history of television. Throughout, Hayden Panettiere keeps it casual, letting a tear trickle here, offering a quaver in her voice there. But it’s always spot on for a young woman in mourning, even as you can sort of detect the devilish smile behind everything else, the Juliette grin that says, “That’s right. This is my show now, assholes. See you in season two!”
Finale grade: B+
Season grade: C+
- The life and times of Avery Barclay: “But Ms. Khouri!” he pled into the phone. “My fight with the genetically reconstructed megalodon is so important to my character arc!” He hung his head in dejection and picked up his guitar. He would simply be smiling at someone else again.
- There were some nice musical moments in this episode beyond Juliette’s number. In particular, I thought Scarlett and Avery’s duet was surprisingly lovely. Maybe the show should just become a series of musical montages next season?
- Now we know that the only other country music superstar in the Nashville universe is Brad Paisley. My question to you: If Brad Paisley exists in the Nashville-verse, then who is he married to? Or does Peggy Cantor have an identical twin we don’t know about? (Also, I really liked how the show got around the question of other female country stars by having Deacon demand the TV be shut off after Paisley read Rayna and Juliette's names.)
- Everything about the Gunnar and Scarlett storyline has become largely ridiculous, but I appreciated that Gunnar noted he’d combed his hair properly when he emerged from his Dark Gunnar persona, because we all know that and his ridiculous Christian-Bale-as-Batman voice were the only things he changed about himself. (I also liked the scene where Will hopped out of bed with a lady when Gunnar got home. Will Lexington is a firm believer in faking it until you make it.)
- Lamar removes Tandi from the company, and that’s the only thing they do in the whole episode. Even Callie Khouri doesn’t care about this anymore!
- There are rumors the show is going to stop filming in Nashville, which I think would be a big mistake. The city’s flavor has added so much to this first season, even when the show was being awful. Rob Owen of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a great report on the filming of the show here.
- Thanks for reading these reviews all season! I don’t know if I’ll be back this season, but you’ve been a lot of fun to talk Nashville’s strengths and weaknesses with.