I often describe Nashville (2012- ) as a guilty pleasure. Created by Callie Khouri, it tells the stories of a handful of singers, songwriters and musicians in “Music City”, from seasoned professionals at the height of their powers to up-and-coming artists trying to break into the scene. In the great country tradition, their personal lives are car crashes (a metaphor rent none-too-subtly literal in the show’s first season finale, “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive“). Yet in a series often given to fast-moving, improbable and exaggerated plot developments, what emerges from “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad”—a recent episode set in the lead-up to the Season Two finale—is a surprisingly sensitive and nuanced depiction of a very public mental breakdown and the beginnings of a recovery.
Scarlett O’Connor (Clare Bowen) is a gifted poet and musician, the niece of country royalty in Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten), a troubled soul who also has a complex history with her mentor, Rayna James (Connie Britton). Rayna is the well-established “Queen of Country” and has recently set up her own label, Highway 65, as a way both of retaining control over her own career and nurturing new artists. Signing Scarlett as her first artist, she has used her considerable influence to secure her protege a huge opportunity with the supporting slot on her most recent signing, country crossover star Juliette Barnes‘ (Hayden Panettiere) latest tour.
Yet for Scarlett, things are moving too fast. She never craved the limelight, but has gone along with decisions that have thrust her firmly into its glow. During recording sessions for her debut album, she has developed a reliance upon “uppers” as a consequence of a casual suggestion from her hot-shot producer. She is a delicate soul under intense pressure. Tellingly, a trigger point arrives in the form of an unexpected visit from her controlling and overbearing mother, Beverly O’Connor (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson). One night on the tour, finding it all too much and, having pleaded unsuccessfully with Juliette for a night off, Scarlett downs a couple of large whiskies before taking to the stage, where she very quickly has a very public breakdown.
Nashville is, to a large extent, pure soap melodrama. But there is also an extra dimension at play, and I would venture that this emanates in large part from the series’ unique and celebrated soundtrack. Curated by respected producer T Bone Burnett and singer/songwriter Buddy Miller, it has highlighted the very best—and, often, the most overlooked or underrated—talent from the Nashville and Americana music scenes, showcasing thoughtful songs to a primetime audience. These songs are carefully selected to fit both storyline and theme and, as such, provide insight by becoming a character’s inner monologue or narrating a potted back story. Accordingly, Scarlett’s complex if not downright poisonous relationship with her mother was established in the previous episode, “Crazy“, when she acerbically dedicated a rehearsal performance of her composition “Black Roses” (actually written specifically for the series by songwriter Lucy Schwartz) to Beverly. Her mother could only stand by and listen, embarrassed and insensed.
On stage, Scarlett suffers a psychotic episode. Her visions blurs, then she begins railing against an invisible enemy—clearly her bullying mother—before crawling under a stage piano and clinging onto it for dear life. She is unceremoniously escorted from the stage, sedated by a personal physician, then whisked via Juliette’s private jet to a top-notch hospital. When she wakes, she is horrified to find herself secured to the bed, and her mother in attendance. She freaks out, escapes (somehow) her bonds, and flees the hospital. Her mother gives chase, yelling after her in her own, counter-productively neurotic way, but it is Rayna’s contrasting, calming influence that is able to reason with Scarlett:
The causes of psychosis are varied. In Scarlett’s case, there are a number of factors seemingly at play. Anxiety is certainly one, both in terms of her unhappiness at the direction her career is taking, and due to the sudden appearance of her mother. Trauma or abuse at her mother’s hands is heavily implied to be another, as is a hereditary component. To the writers’ credit, Beverly is illustrative of most of the characters in Nashville in that she is neither all good nor all bad. She has clearly suffered at the hands of her own abusive father, and is careful to advise Scarlett’s doctor that both her and her grandmother have suffered psychotic episodes. Her constant arguments with her brother Deacon, who is also an alcoholic and cautions Scarlett over a genetic proneness to addiction, also go some way to hinting at the difficult upbringing they both endured. There are potentially both biological and social factors that can lead to cycles of such mental illness being perpetuated through the generations, and it is pleasing to see that toxic but not uncommon mix acknowledged here.
Scarlett heeds Rayna’s request and reluctantly returns to the hospital to continue her treatment. Here, a number of friends and family rally one-by-one at Scarlett’s bedside, including her estranged best friend, Zoey Dalton (Chaley Rose). It is with Zoey that Scarlett feels able to discuss the uncomfortable truth that her memory of the incident onstage differs significantly from the truth. Initially describing it as a mere “hiccup”, she is forced to acknowledge the true extent of the episode when she catches up with footage that appears online:
This scene highlights a disturbing aspect of psychosis and other mental illnesses, that of not being able to trust your own thoughts or memories. What the episode skips over is the follow-up treatment or diagnosis that Scarlett receives; psychosis itself is not a diagnosis, but rather a symptom of some other underlying problem. It remains to be seen whether or not the series will revisit this topic as part of Scarlett’s ongoing arc, but here the details are lost to Nashville‘s relentless pace of storytelling.
What is handled sensitively, however, is the impact upon her career. For anyone suffering a permanent mental illness, the long-term impact upon their working life can be severe. Scarlett benefits where many do not, from having access to the very best health services and also an understanding boss. Rayna ignores the cynical voices that tell her that this kind of “tabloid tragedy” is what makes a country song, and that she should seek to capitalise upon it. It is something the gutter press would do well to learn, as would the readers who lap up every celebrity’s fall from grace when their vulnerabilities are made public. Instead, once Scarlett is well enough to have another conversation Rayna, herself a mother and very much a maternal figure in the show, puts her artist foremost above her own interests or those of her ailing record label:
It is a tender scene, and the heart of the episode as Scarlett finally starts to assert what will make her well. She follows this up by confronting her mother, who is desperate for her to remain in hospital and undergo further treatment, and telling her that the very best thing she can do for her daughter right now is to go back home and give her some space. It is odd, in the context of both the episode and the ongoing series, that Scarlett is suddenly able to find her inner strength and to acknowledge the string of bad decisions she has made and that have gotten her to this crucial crossroads in her life. Her dialogue also acknowledges that extended treatment served her mother’s wellbeing, such that the show takes care not to advocate refusal of treatment. What it does do effectively, however, is to highlight that each individual has different needs, and that these needs should be understood and respected.
It is worth noting that all of Nashville‘s episode names are borrowed from song titles; “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” is the title track of Tammy Wynette‘s first album. Whilst Scarlett appears not to have suffered a powerful addiction, Wynette had a long-term problem with painkillers, and was treated at the Betty Ford Center at around the same time she joined the cast of soap opera Capitol (1982-87), in which she played a hair stylist turned singer. Art imitates life imitates art.
Compared to a series such as Perception, in which Dr. Pierce’s mental health is often little more than a plot device, in Nashville the personal and inner lives of the characters are key to the heart of the drama and, naturally, the music. The sense of authenticity and gravitas that flows from this focus are to Nashville‘s credit. Over this instalment’s final scene, Rayna James performs the song “Wrong for the Right Reasons” (by Chris DeStefano, Rosi Golan, and Natalie Hemby), which neatly frames Scarlet’s arc and the wider themes of the episode. Some good can arise from times of crisis, it teaches us, if we let ourselves take the right lessons from our more painful experiences.
In the words of Henry Giles, “Music is the medicine of an afflicted mind”. Given both its superlative soundtrack and episodes such as this one, maybe I should stop referring to Nashville as a guilty pleasure after all.