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Warning: This recap for the “The Wayfaring Stranger” and “Back in Baby’s Arms” episodes of Nashville contains spoilers.
Welcome back to Nashville, y’all. It was a return trip that seemed unlikely back in May, when ABC canceled the series after a fourth season that even die-hard fans had to admit was #problematic. Fortunately, our down-home friends over at CMT saw the value in continuing the professional and personal heartbreaks of country music queens Rayna James and Juliette Barnes. And the show is returning with fresh leadership, with prolific producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick — of Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life fame — assuming showrunning duties.
If you saw the first hour of the two-hour premiere that CMT sneak-previewed back in December, you’ll remember that the change in leadership was evident right away. It’s not that the characters sound or act differently than they did before — it’s the pace of the show around them that’s changed. One of the many problems with Season 4 was the way that the creative team just kept throwing more storylines at the wall, seeing what would stick. Every episode was so packed with incident, it became difficult to keep track of, let alone care about, the multiple storylines competing for our attention. That’s a mistake that Herskovitz himself promised Yahoo TV we wouldn’t see in the fifth season: “We’re not burning up story as quickly as the show did in the past.”
The premiere displayed plenty of evidence of that philosophy, particularly the first hour, which devoted several long, lingering scenes to establishing the current home lives of Rayna and a post-plane-crash Juliette, confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg and two broken vertebrae. It was only in the second hour that the canvas expanded to more fully include other supporting characters, like Gunnar, Scarlett, and Will (who didn’t appear in the first half at all). And even when more folks entered the frame, the narrative pace remained steady, clearly laying out the characters’ paths for the season ahead. Read on for some specific likes and dislikes.
Best Storyline: I couldn’t have been the only one wondering last season how Highway 65 managed to stay in business amid Rayna’s personal dramas and poor business decisions. Clearly, Zwick and Herskovitz were thinking along similar lines, because they make it clear right off the top that Rayna’s label was in dire straits. (Not to be confused with Dire Straits.) Paying $275,000 to free Maddie from her emancipation-facilitated Lennox Hill Records was just one more drop in an already-overflowing bucket of red ink, and provokes Rayna to do something she might otherwise never consider: take a well-paying but artistically unfulfilling corporate gig serenading a Silicon Valley office party. Meanwhile, the label’s cloudy financials are also driving a wedge between Rayna and the only man she’s closer to than Deacon — her long-suffering business partner, Bucky. Way back in Season 1, it seemed like Nashville was poised to offer an unvarnished look at the business of country music, until it became clear that economics weren’t the kind of sexy figures ABC was looking for. It’s nice to see that thread picked up again, even if it took five years.
Worst Storyline: Truth: My So-Called Life is one of the best shows ever made. Truth Redux: The angel-themed Christmas episode, “So-Called Angels,” was one of the worst episodes in its run. So I’m understandably leery about Herskovitz and Zwick revisiting that material with Juliette’s post-crash attempts to find the seemingly heavenly being who appeared amid the plane wreckage and stayed by her side until medical help arrived. Fortunately, unlike Angela’s angelic homeless helper, Juliette’s angel is made flesh pretty quickly: Her name is Hallie Jordan (played by real-life singer Rhiannon Giddens) and she sings in a local church choir. She also doesn’t want to be recognized for her good deeds, but — as is her wont — Juliette isn’t going to take no for an answer. May better angels improve the nature of this MSCL holdover in Nashville.
Steamiest Moment: Deacon turning up at Rayna’s hotel room door in California, having caught a last-minute plane out of Nashville to ensure that she’ll board her own return flight. “Why are you here?” she asks, to which he responds with Han Solo-like swagger, “’Cause my girl’s in trouble.” This scene alone makes up for every little bit of nonsense that happened with the Beverly last season.
Best Bit of #RealTalk: Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses for #Deyna. In the second hour, Deacon opens up about his long-simmering feelings of inadequacy in this partnership. “I live in your beautiful house, with your beautiful girls,” he says, pointedly adding, “It’s your label, you make all the decisions,” in regard to her suggestion that they should record an album together. The writers, and Charles Esten, are also incisive enough to play this moment as stemming from his personal issues — not hers. It’s a moment that brings a welcome dose of reality to their fairy-tale love story.
Maddie Watch: Freed of her recording contract, but still legally emancipated, Maddie is continuing to test the boundaries of her family’s patience. Her main point of annoyance this time is her little sis, Daphne, whom she takes to task for offering her own input to a song that Maddie’s in the process of refining. Still, as sibling rivalry is a more relatable experience than, say, emancipating yourself from parents who are only too happy to spoil you, I’m going to put her back in the nice column of Nashville’s naughty/nice list. And, hey, she showed real grown-up gumption by putting aside her resentment and finding a way to sing in tune with Daphne.
Most Promising New Character: Rayna may not entirely trust tech guru Zach Welles, but he represents an intriguing personality for the show: a country-music outsider who thinks he can become an insider and has plenty of money to throw around to make that happen.
Most Worrisome New Character: Highway 65’s just-hired social media guy sure seemed awfully gushy — to the point of being stalker-y — toward Rayna in his brief appearance. But the more immediate threat is Jakob Fine, a Tom Ford-like fashion designer who sets his intense gaze on Will, recently reunited with his boyfriend, Kevin. C’mon Will … haven’t you been through enough heartbreak already?
Standout Song: No matter who has the golden eyes that Gunnar originally sings about, “All of Me” may just be The Exes best tune as a duo — soulful without being sappy, and filled with openhearted honesty.
Nashville airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on CMT.