Barring an unexpected encore, Wednesday night’s Season 4 finale was the last we’ll see of Nashville, and I’m not going to cry in my beer about it. Despite a powerful cast and an inspired premise, the ABC drama was weighed down by unrealized storylines and desultory supporting characters, and its plot managed to drag even as it careened from one implausible crisis to the next.
Yet I think my colleague Willa Paskin was right when she wrote that Nashville always had “a good show lurking inside of it,” and I think I know what that was. It wasn’t about country music, or Nashville, or a tough but tender career woman torn between fame and family. It was a show about addiction, and it was bleak as hell.
Addiction is hardly virgin territory for a network drama, and still less so for a soap opera—a genre with which Nashville often flirted, while ultimately neither embracing nor subverting. But the interesting thing about Nashville is that it wasn’t filled with addicts. At least, not the kind you’d notice right off. None of the main characters were actively addicted to illegal substances for the majority of the show; one was a recovering alcoholic. Relatively few pills were popped, veins tapped, or cases polished off, though a bottle was often close at hand. Largely eschewing the Hollywood tropes of addiction—the epic bender, the tensing of the arm and the plunge of the needle, the drug deal gone bad, the obligatory trip to rock bottom and back—freed Nashvillle to explore the terrain via some less familiar byways.
Its primary vehicle was Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten), 13 years sober when we met him in the show’s first episode, yet seemingly always a bad break or two from a relapse. In this respect he was typical. TV writers love a recovering alcoholic, because the specter of a fall from the wagon is an easy way to elevate the emotional stakes of otherwise mundane setbacks. Deacon’s attractiveness as a character—he was honest, loyal, large-hearted, and slings the city’s meanest lead guitar—insured that we cared what happens to him.
On Nashville, however, the real source of drama wasn’t the question of whether Deacon could stay dry in the show’s present or future. It’s the way his whiskey-drenched past continued to stalk him and the people he loved, no matter how valiant their efforts to leave it behind. The show’s insight was that the wreckage his drinking had wrought—on Rayna, on his sister, on his liver, on the psyche of the daughter he didn’t know he had—was no less tragic or irrevocable for having transpired off screen, more than a decade before we were introduced to him. Deacon’s life would be defined by alcohol even if he never touched another drop.
Wednesday’s final episode afforded Deacon a measure of redemption that was surely welcome given all he had been through. Yet to read his ending as a happy one would require you to forget that, over the course of four seasons, every turned corner and epiphany was followed inevitably by the reappearance of fresh ghosts from his past.
Meanwhile, the characters on Nashville who weren’t addicts found themselves nonetheless shaped, warped, bruised, and calloused by the addictions of those around them. None more so than the show’s third central figure, a hard-partying hot mess of a young crossover star named Juliette Barnes (played with manic conviction by Hayden Panettiere). Sharp-elbowed, short-tempered, self-centered, and conniving, she was as hard to love as Deacon was easy. Yet those traits were merely her own coping response to the same trauma that had driven Deacon to drink. He was raised by an abusive bully of an alcoholic father; she by a single mom so booze- and drug-addled she could scarcely care for herself, let alone Juliette.
Too hard on the outside and too soft within, Juliette found power and celebrity but never trust or peace. As with Deacon, the harm she inflicted wasn’t confined to herself: She directly caused the deaths of at least two other characters on the show (although the show encouraged its viewers to forget the first one, along with so many other sordid subplots that turned out to be dead ends). Her life may not have been defined by her mother’s addictions, but they never stopped shadowing her.
Even Rayna, a sober and steady businesswoman and mother of two, wasn’t immune. Her outwardly enviable life was perpetually haunted by her mutually destructive relationship with both Deacon and the music industry, which for her were not separable. She had run years ago from his unsteady arms into a bad marriage with a weak-spined man whose chief selling point was his relative sobriety, yet she continued to employ Deacon as her lead guitarist and confidante. Over the course of the show, Deacon’s drinking cost her two marriages to more dependable men, legal custody of her daughter, and nearly her life.
Not that Rayna was without a role in this. Like an addict, she kept on choosing Deacon and music no matter the toll. In the show’s dark, thrilling first episode, her husband Teddy gently told her, “You don’t have to put yourself through this. You could walk away and quit right now.” He was talking about her career, ostensibly, though they both knew he meant Deacon too. “Gotta pay for the house,” she replied, evincing a depth of denial that could have merited its own 12-step intervention.
Is “addiction” the right word for the relationship the show’s main characters had with country music? If not, it’s at least an apt metaphor. In Nashville, music was like a drug, the rush of which kept them coming back even as their friendships and families unraveled. Again and again, the recording industry presented the show’s artists with brutal choices between professional success and personal responsibility, and you can probably guess which one they were prone to pick. In one of the most searing examples, a country legend (Steve Kazee’s Riff Bell) was cajoled out of a comfortable retirement by an old friend, only to find that life on the road instantly woke all the hideous demons he was certain he had put to rest long before. The show left him in a New Orleans hospital, recovering from a booze-, hooker-, and Viagra-induced stroke, his happy family shattered.
Wednesday’s finale, one unfortunately timed cliffhanger aside, managed to give most of its characters a more satisfying sendoff. That’s provided you don’t count the many who had been shot, imprisoned, kidnapped, or otherwise unceremoniously disposed of in the preceding seasons and episodes. But the show’s conclusion shouldn’t alter its sobering takeaway, which is that addiction does ruin lives and dreams, and the best we can hope for is to go on living and singing amongst the ruins. The comforting, Hollywood-approved addiction narrative holds that, once you bottom out, you can begin the long slow rise to ultimate redemption. Nashville’s cold truth is that the rock stays chained to one foot forever. You can drag it along with you, but you’ll never quite shake free—and neither will the people you love most.