Nashville tells domestic violence story line in a way TV has rarely done
I'm one of the lucky ones — I'm not one of the one in four women in the United States who has experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner at some point in her lifetime.
But the domestic violence story line Nashville has been slowly and thoughtfully unveiling over the course of its third season has given me an inside look at what some women are subjected to at the hands of someone they love and who claims to love them in return.
Despite Rayna and Deacon finally getting together, the most compelling story arc for me of last night's episode — and indeed of the whole season — was Sadie Stone's struggle, both physical and emotional, with her former, yet still currently abusive husband.
When we were first introduced to Sadie (played brilliantly by Laura Benanti), her seemingly carefree and innocent nature gave no real hint that she had been abused in the past. This was Nashville's first honest and realistic move in telling this story: Women who have suffered abuse don't have signs on their heads telling the world so; rather, they are ordinary people whose ordeals usually come as a shock to others, even those who know them well.
Following some success in the music industry on Sadie's part, her ex-husband began to lay claim to some of her earnings. His way of securing her cooperation was to completely knock her out. Sadie's reaction was a multilayered one: shock, anger, an unwillingness to give in and a determination not to let anybody else see her scars. She ultimately bought a gun to make herself feel protected, but we saw her collapse into tears the first time she felt like she might need to use it. How often have we seen such a detailed portrayal of the feelings that undercut the stoicism we know victims of domestic violence have in spades?
A new spin on victims
Furthermore, Nashville continued to show Sadie to be a strong and determined woman, which is not at all surprising given Nashville has no shortage of strong females in its arsenal. While victims of domestic abuse are often portrayed as helpless and overpowered, Nashville instead gave its victim a voice. After settling with her ex-husband following legal advice, Sadie appeared on a fictional Good Morning America, and when questioned by Robin Roberts about the settlement, her response came in the form of this phenomenal speech:
"He doesn't deserve that money. He doesn't deserve to be rewarded for what he did. I was the victim of domestic violence, Robin. For years, I stayed silent about it like so many women. I felt trapped, afraid and controlled by a violent, damaged and awful man. And I am not going to let him get away with it."
Last night's big moment
In last night's episode, enraged by her audacity to speak out about what he had done to her, Sadie's ex-husband confronted her in a parking lot, questioning her, "Did you really think you could humiliate me and get away with it?" Not only has Nashville done a remarkable job of portraying the plight of victims, but in this one line, it successfully summed up the mentality of abusers. Sadie's response? "Did you really think you could beat the crap out of me and get away with it?"
In this moment, we once again see a multilayered portrayal of the emotions felt by a domestic violence victim when confronted by their abuser: Sadie is stoic and determined, but she's also petrified. This moment forced me, as a viewer, into her shoes, causing me to question what I would do in that situation. Would I be able to use that gun? Sadie herself doesn't seem to know if she can, and she's horrified when her ex-husband is shot following a struggle. Even in its most dramatic moment, this story line didn't cave to a black-and-white portrayal, instead giving us a multifaceted one — her fear, strength, horror and relief were all on display, so much so that I, as an audience member, can't even begin to hazard a guess as to how her reaction will play out in the next episode.
In defense of Nashville
Nashville, a perennial bubble show that is often deemed quite soapy, deserves more credit for story lines like these and the way it is presenting them to its audience. This domestic violence story arc — much like its story line dealing with how lead character, Will Lexington, takes a few steps forward and then a few steps back in coming to terms with his sexuality — isn't one the show has glossed over, nor has it presented it as a cut-and-dry issue or as something that is tackled one episode and then not mentioned again in the next.
Instead, Nashville has taken this issue and brought it to life on-screen in a manner I can only assume reflects real life. The emotions, the struggle, alternating feelings of guilt, triumph, defeat, embarrassment, extreme fear and resignation — all of these have been touched on at one point or another. The portrayal of Sadie Stone's experience with domestic violence is as nuanced as real-life domestic violence sufferers reveal their experiences to be.
So, while Nashville may have its soapy elements — which, don't get me wrong, are a key part of the show's appeal — it deserves to be taken more seriously, and it deserves more credit for how it has taken real-world issues and given life to them in a way that bucks cliches.
Nashville is a drama, so we should never expect it to not occasionally be melodramatic; but the show is at its best when it's exploring issues as opposed to merely touching on them in a way other shows do to boost ratings by trading on what people are talking about.
If Nashville is going to continue to bring issues like domestic violence to life in a way that gives viewers renewed and genuine insight into the struggles of those who deal with such issues, then a fourth season of the show seems like a no-brainer.