Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Psychology of 'Nashville's' Deacon Claybourne...

Dexter Morgan has only been gone for my life for a few days, but already I think it is apparent that his successor in my heart and mind will be Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten) on ABC's Nashville.


We have known Deacon was a more traditional addict (an alcoholic) since the pilot episode, but he seemed to be strong in his recovery and deep into living without those demons. The events of the season finale, which admittedly I railed against for seeming out of character, spun him into a rage that he only knew how to quell by drinking. He found out he had a daughter and that she was kept from him for years, and he just couldn't handle it. At the time it made no sense: he had been through so much, especially recently, that could have been a trigger, but nothing else even blipped his radar. This not only blipped it, it exploded it.

But as season two is exploring, albeit in a quiet, more internalized way through nuances in Esten's performance (if you think he's broken your heart so far, just wait until next week!) and the expectation that audiences understand addicts' frames of mind, it wasn't so much the news of fatherhood that set him off but the feeling of unworthiness that came with it. The woman he loved didn't trust him enough to tell him about his child-- not at first because he was still drunk back then but also not once throughout the thirteen years that she had been alive and he had been sober. He thought he had been doing well this whole time, but this was the proof that people still held back with him-- even if they loved and respected him, they didn't quite trust him. "Once an addict, always an addict," right? And he gave into that, figuring if they were already thinking it, he shouldn't fight it anymore.

People tend to think of addiction only as it relates to drugs or alcohol rather than the brain chemistry and chemical imbalances that actually cause it. It's so much easier to focus on the external-- on what can be seen-- but that's only a behavior. You can stop drinking or using drugs, but the part of your brain that obsessively fires the need for giving into the compulsion doesn't rewire. It can quiet over time, but it doesn't completely disappear. 

Now that Deacon has come out of his relapse, though, as we saw in the second season premiere but will especially see in the second episode of the second season, he is self-punishing because of the immense guilt and sadness he feels over recent events and actions that he doesn't quite have the proper tools with which to deal. He has woken up from addiction, looked around at the mess he made, and (like Dexter, by the way) decided he is no good to anyone or anything. He may not drink himself to death, but his shame spiral is just as detrimental.

Pleading guilty to the car accident that put Rayna in a coma even though he wasn't driving was just the start. Not wanting a lawyer or to be out on bail or even his niece to come and see him continued the thread. But the real telling moment is how he is handling his broken arm. Prison healthcare is not great, and Deacon is in no position to take pain meds anyway, but living with the pain in his arm is a constant, throbbing reminder of the pain he has caused those around him. Forcing yourself to experience that-- to relive that-- not only keeps you in an equally obsessive state as when you'd down bottle after bottle, but it sets up just as dark a future, too.

Deacon is a musician. He relies on his hands for a living. By not letting his arm heal properly, he is basically shutting off that part of his life that has sustained him-- monetarily but also emotionally-- and been his only healthy outlet. He's holding himself so responsible for so many things, he's basically letting the pieces of himself that make him happy or feel loved die slowly, one by one. He's basically saying he's not worthy or deserving of them-- of anything. He might as well curl up in a corner with a bottle of whatever because the result is pretty much the same. The depressive crash that comes when one gets sober is just as all-encompassing as the initial addiction. After all, it's all the same synapses in the brain.

Of course, Deacon has people, like his niece, in his life who will push and claw their way back in no matter how much momentary hurt he may cause, so his struggle shouldn't be a completely internalized one going forward. But honestly, watching everything behind his eyes, on his face, play out in his isolation in the season premiere was what makes me want to stick with an otherwise very over the top, soapy Nashville. To be honest, I didn't think this show had this kind of serious complexity in it. It grabbed so easily for catty fighting and tedious, stereotypical love triangles in its first season. There was always potential for Deacon and cowboy singer Will (Chris Carmack), but the show last year shied away from it. What we're seeing so far in season two, at least from Deacon, is truly grounding the series and inspiring what will hopefully prove to be a consistently smarter, stronger, more important show.

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