Thursday, May 23, 2013

On Addiction and 'Nashville's' Character Assassination of Deacon...

Nashville already had the always-struggling, tragic addict character in Juliette's mother Jolene. Her final fall off the wagon may have been to save her daughter the trauma of yet another public scandal and therefore been her first truly selfless act, but it was still an act of giving into her disease. Deacon, on the other hand, was always a pillar of strength, a symbol of hope for anyone feeling like Jolene, that you could pull yourself out of the spiral. He was a symbol of success in a situation not many survive. He was hope, all wrapped up in a pretty package. And the events of the season finale left us with no hope at all.

It is said that things become cliches because they are so widely true, and when it comes to primetime soap opera season finales, the cliches are always pregnancies, possible deaths, and long-suffering characters unable to keep it together. While it felt absolutely real that if something was going to knock Deacon off his sobriety wagon, it was the realization that the love of his life had kept a major secret from him and kept him from being a dad for so many years. But the way events actually played out within the episode, it felt too "TV easy" that he should be triggered so quickly and so permanently. It didn't feel like his emotions drove that story but rather that the writers desperately wanted to explode the plot-- and his character-- and did so, regardless of whether it felt right in the moment or not.

Deacon has had a handle on his sobriety for thirteen years. We all know (because the show told us so) that he was a terrible drunk before, a slave and completely different person once he was under the influence. But he had weathered so many terrible things, including temptation, access, and personal strife, and still stayed clean. And though this terrible secret initially came to him from someone other than Rayna, he was strong and smart enough to go directly to her with it right after learning to find out if it was really true. Deacon was clean and sober when he confronted her in the CMA dressing room; therefore even if he was angry enough not to listen to her reason, he was still clear-headed enough to reason with himself. He wasn't under the influence yet.

All season long, it seemed like Deacon was a role model because of how he got a handle on his issues and could now pay it forward to help those like Jolene. Yes, we saw him struggle with the decision to take the first drink-- briefly-- so it wasn't like he was defrauding us all along. But it just felt too brief; he just seemed too willing to throw it all away. It came out of nowhere. That's unequivocally true of most triggers for most addicts-- it lends itself to just how human and therefore susceptible he really is-- but it left me feeling like the show was betraying the specific character they had created.

I was personally hoping Nashville would keep Deacon clean and pure, I can't deny that. I was hoping, for once, there'd be a positive example of someone who had truly survived addiction on-screen. It may not provide the most salacious drama, but Nashville has a dozen other characters for that. I don't think the drama suffers if you have one character who can struggle but ultimately choose to stay positive, even when everyone else around him is falling. They had something really rare with the Deacon they created, even though they often chose to focus on his external love life than his internal struggle. And honestly, if his internal struggle was still great all these years later, then we should have been let in on it; we should have been allowed to get in his head and understand him; the emotional impact of what happened would have been that much greater. Instead, it just felt like a typical season finale attempt to blow up characters and situations and leave us with a cliffhanger. It didn't feel completely earned.

My response to it might have been different if Deacon and Rayna were in a different place in their relationship when he learned this fact, but they were finally together again, and he was happy. Or so we were supposed to believe. Maybe the real lesson here is a guy like Deacon can never really be happy; that addicts will self-sabotage at any chance they get. But I don't want to believe that because it's an extremely pessimistic way to go through life, not to mention the fact that the show never set that up. Deacon, as we got to know him over the course of the full first season, was flawed, and he would always have his demons, but he had found a way to control them, and he was a positive example for anyone (including Jolene and the audience) who had struggled. 
It is also said that addicts are extremely good liars. They are often able to charm or otherwise con people into thinking they're okay when really they're just functioning alcoholics. We saw a glimpse of this in Deacon when he woke up to find Coleman still looking after him; he told him what he knew Coleman needed to hear to get him off his back, but he said it in a way that even a guy who had been where he was now would believe it. Does it add a richness to Charles Esten's performance to see these new sides and layers to Deacon? Absolutely, but I feel it's at the expense of the strength of Deacon's character, and that just makes me, personally, exponentially sad. We always knew he was an addict, but we had no reason to believe he was weak. 

I wanted to end this post with the words of Tyra Banks, but I realize now that it's not truly appropriate to do so. We weren't rooting for Deacon in the sense that is implied by her aggressive and insanely GIF-able America's Next Top Model outburst because we had been led to believe he was okay. He had come through the other side relatively unscathed; he had put the pieces of his life back together; now we just related to him but didn't necessarily worry about him. Nashville's season finale pulled that rug right out from under us, though. Whether he walks away from that car crash without a scratch (as drunks so often do) or whether it's the wake-up call that works this time doesn't even matter. Ten minutes of weakness undid all of the greatness the previous 21 and a half episodes gave us of this man. The disease won. It took down one of the best, most resolved men to ever fight with it. Maybe that's the most important message this show is putting forth about addiction after all, but it's not one we feel good about sharing with anyone wondering whether or not they can beat this thing.

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