Juliette continues to pursue Deacon, while Avery teaches Scarlett how to sing like nobody's listening. Plus: A performance by the Conrad sisters!

By Darren Franich
Updated March 13, 2015 at 07:15 PM EDT
Katherine Bomboy-Thornton/ABC

Juliette Barnes had a busy morning. She had to get her picture taken in front of a row of green screens. She had to get Deacon Clayborne to join up on her tour, which meant leaving a lusty message on his voicemail about recording “Undermine.” She had to get some cheese. (Not the kind that comes in blocks, either. Her assistant asks: “You mean the processed kind?” “The good kind,” Juliette responded.) Then she had to look at the pictures from the shoot. The post-production team replaced the green screens with clouds, making Juliette look like a beautiful angel smirking in the heavens. “Those whitening strips really worked!” said her assistant. Juliette Barnes stared daggers at her assistant. If we could have seen a thought bubble over her head at that moment, it would have said: “I wonder how those whitening strips will work on my teeth after I bite your head off and drink your blood to stay young forever.”

Last night’s episode of Nashville made it clear that Juliette is at the absolute peak of a certain kind of stardom. She’s young enough to be a teen sensation and old enough to be a lusty sex symbol. She’s untouched by scandal. She’s a showbiz professional who can still act like an ingenue. And she has all the money in the world and doesn’t need it for anything besides cars and fedoras. By comparison, witness Rayna James and her mayoral candidate hubby Teddy. They’re juggling two children who are both young — which is to say, juggling two dependents who will require several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of private schooling in the next decade. They’ve got a big house, a tour, a mayoral candidacy, and the typical wide assortment of very-rich-person holdings. And they are not bringing in any money. “Your assets are not liquid,” is how their financial advisor described it. (On Wall Street, the phrase “Illiquid Assets” is synonymous with “Armageddon.”)

Her managers asked her — once again — to think about going on tour with Juliette, but Rayna refused. Three episodes into the series, the Rayna-Juliette Tour seems like an inevitability — unless the first season is just about Juliette dancing around town in her Daisy Dukes while Rayna wrinkles her nose in disgust. But on the other hand, the Rayna-Juliette tour is also an intriguing running temptation for both singers. Rayna would bring Juliette a much-desired whiff of country authenticity, officially announcing her place in the canon of Nashville royalty. Juliette by herself gets one night in the Garden; Rayna would get her three nights. In turn, Juliette would bring Rayna teenagers, and therefore, money. Problem: They both hate each other.

You can look at Juliette and Rayna as separate points on a stardom graph. Juliette is currently high on the first wave of her fame; Rayna is much further along, and is currently at a low point. Meanwhile, far behind them and much lower than either of them, you find Scarlett, who was busy preparing to record a demo session with Gunnar. They had to record in Scarlett’s house — because, according to Gunnar, “My dog hates blondes. Who knew?” Which meant they ran right into Avery, the Prog-Country-Anti-Pop-Retro rocker boyfriend. Gunnar complimented Avery’s most recent performance, telling him: “Your guitar tone reminded me of ol’ Link Wray.” (In Nashville, complimenting someone on their guitar tone is like telling someone with a new haircut that their teeth look nice.)

When you look at the Scarlett, Juliette, and Rayna subplots through the prism of stardom — wanting it, having it, and trying desperately to hold onto it — the way the episode crosscut between them became even more interesting. Scarlett tried recording for Watty White, but choked. The audio equipment confused her: “It sounds like I’m hearing myself from across the room.” It got so bad that Watty asked Gunnar to record with a new girl. It didn’t matter, said Gunnar: We’re just trying to sell these songs to the highest bidder. Cut To: Juliette, singing in a lavish recording studio that looks like an architectural collaboration of Frank Lloyd Wright and Steve Jobs, demanding the sound engineer to turn up her echo just a li’l bit. She’s not just recording a potential new hit. She’s breaking new ground, leaving behind the bald Swedish androids who usually write her songs and collaborating with Deacon on a song which speaks directly to her own experience. (“Undermine” is about her mom, maybe — more on that later.)

NEXT: True-life viral siblings perform in fictional talent show

Meanwhile, Rayna couldn’t even bring herself to assemble a set list for her tour with Deacon. He suggested some of their earlier stuff; she threw out the big arena hits. He had to remind her that they were touring without their usual band or background singers. Previously, Nashville has held up Rayna as a shining beacon of The Old Ways, but she’s become as much of a glitzy recreation as Juliette; indeed, in the show’s fictional history, she may have set the whole template for someone like Juliette. Deacon reminded her that their tour was supposed to be about “that quiet, intimate thing.” Can Rayna even do that anymore?

This was the first episode to put more than a cursory focus on the Conrad Sisters: Elder sister (and possible spawn-of-Deacon) Maddie and younger sister Daphne. The girls are growing up; there was topical chat about “sideboob,” and Maddie wanted to try on a dress that was worth more than her college education. Grampa Lamar is of the mind that Rayna should focus more of her attention on her daughters. In fact, he even offered the cash-strapped Conrads a check for $500 thousand…with a list of specific requirements, most of them pertaining to keeping Rayna at home. “The girls are at the age when they need their mother,” Lamar explained, when he showed up for a surprise appearance at the girls’ talent show. Rayna told him: “Go home. Go to hell.”

At that point, the Conrad sisters performed in the talent show. I should note here that Maddie and Daphne are played by true-life country music children Lennon and Maisy Stella, who achieved a bit of viral fame earlier this summer with a household-percussion rendition of Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend.” On last night’s episode, the siblings performed an acoustic version of “Telescope” — the helium-voiced hubba-hubba track we saw Juliette lip-sync last week. The whole crowd loved it — even Rayna got a big kick out of it. I wonder if this indicates a potential sea change in her thoughts on Juliette. I also wonder how we’re meant to take the acoustic version of “Telescope,” for a few different reasons. First of all: It took a song originally portrayed as pop claptrap and reconfigured it in the “quiet, intimate” style. Is that an optimistic perspective on music — that even the silliest lyrics (“My Eyes/My Eyes/My Eyes are like a Telescope”) have a weird grain of emotional truth? Or is it a cynical argument that everything sounds “authentic” with a real guitar?

These are big questions — about music, about culture, about the whole central conflict of the show. It indicates a complicated view of country music. Grampa Lamar, conversely, has a rather simple view of the music of his city. Rayna asked her sister why her father always disapproved of her career, and her sis gave it to her straight: Their mom had an affair with “a singer-songwriter friend.” And not just a dalliance: They were together for over ten years, right up until Mama James passed on. (ASIDE: It’s not clear yet just how soapy Nashville is, so any speculation about the identity of Mama James’ suitor may be extremely premature. That being said: It was probably Watty White. END OF ASIDE.) Rayna told her daddy that she was sorry he had to live through that. Lamar responded that Rayna was just reliving her mother’s old mistakes: “You have the same disregard for your marriage that she did for ours.”

Speaking of parental issues! Juliette had to face the return of her mother, a pharmaceuticals addict who seems to be perpetually looking for handouts from her daughter. It’s clear that Juliette wishes her mother would just disappear. Juliette is, after all, young enough to think that the people from your past can just disappear; compare that to Rayna, dealing with old lovers and emotionally-distant parents and the tangled web of corporate loyalty. But eventually, her mother just showed up outside Juliette’s gated community and begged for help. Juliette left her out there…and her mom got snatched with a pound of Oxy at the bus station. Juliette’s highly ineffective manager told her that they’d get rid of her, eventually, but in the meantime, she had to stay at Juliette’s house. I’m not sure how intrigued I am by the Saga of Juliette’s Mom, but I like how the show is adding a bit more shading to the pop starlet’s background.

Rayna’s sister theorized that their mother created a perfect husband by loving two men: Lamar gave her almost everything; the singer-songwriter gave her love. That’s a complicated dynamic which happens to be playing out, in roughly equivalent form, in the Gunnar/Scarlett/Avery triangle. Gunnar told Avery that Scarlett choked, probably because of him. In response, Avery gave Scarlett a crash course in recording. His instructions were simple: Imagine that she’s just singing to him, in the room that they share together. Scarlett might be singing to Avery, but she’s singing withGunnar — and somehow, that combination worked the second time. Watty told Avery: “Your girlfriend’s got it, man.” Avery told Watty: “Hi Watty, I’m Avery.” Was all that good-boyfriend stuff just an elaborate long con by our resident neo-folk-post-rock musician to meet Watty White?

NEXT: Rayna has The Talk, whatever The Talk isRayna finally called Deacon to have The Talk. It wasn’t immediately clear what Talk this was: A break-up? A dissolution of a business partnership? An admission of Love That Cannot Be? Rayna told Deacon that she couldn’t really say it, whatever it was. “The only thing you can say, Ray,” said Deacon. “That it’s all over.” Rayna tried to be concrete. She’s holding hearts in her hand, and she’s trying to do the right thing, but her heart’s in pieces. Deacon said that he understood, but I’m not sure Rayna was really saying anything new. She loves Deacon just enough to never want to let go of him. They make beautiful music together; they always have. But they also can’t be together, for any number of reasons. Deacon needs to be the one to leave.

He finally had that opportunity. Juliette cornered him at the Bluebird Cafe. Deacon had to admit: “You’re a hard girl to say no to…but I’m gonna have to.” Juliette was shocked, and Deacon didn’t really have a good explanation. It may be that he’s a glutton for punishment, or that he’s lived too long with the same dream. Over the end of the episode, Scarlett and Gunnar sang a song with a key lyric: “I could just fade into you.” Roughly translated, the lyric could mean “I love you so much that I want to disappear into you and not be me anymore.” Love as Self-Immolation: Not a healthy idea, but a truthful one.

Juliette, upset about Deacon and about her mom and about pretty much everything in her life, went to a local drugstore and stole something from the beauty aisle. (I think it was nail polish. Full disclosure: I don’t hang out in the beauty aisle too often.) She didn’t notice the local kids holding an iPhone on her. The video was incriminating: Not only was she stealing, she was also wearing an atrocious fedora. Hope you’ve enjoyed Fame, Juliette, because Infamy is a real bitch.

And that’s all without even mentioning the ongoing tale of Teddy’s Sketchy Past. (He found out that his old credit union is going to be audited; better hope he gets elected Mayor before they reach 2008!) Fellow Nashville viewers, what did you think of the third episode? Want to hear more from the Conrad Sisters? Do you think Rayna should just agree to go on tour with Juliette, already? And do you think that, in real life, Powers Boothe’s grandchildren call him “Grampa Powers”? Because that would be awesome.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich