Note: This article contains spoilers for last night’s episode of Nashville.
A few weeks back, ABC’s Nashville — now in its third season — nearly evaded a conversation that seems unavoidable when a young, single character gets pregnant unexpectedly in the year 2014. The country music soap delicately danced around the topic of abortion. Superstar Juliette Barnes (played by Hayden Panettiere) would have the baby and give it up for adoption, and she would hide the pregnancy while filming a Patsy Cline biopic and touring the country, practicality be damned.
It’s understandable that showrunner Callie Khouri and her writers would have Juliette, one of Nashville‘s leads, continue with her pregnancy: Panettiere was newly expecting when the show began production on Season 3. While certainly practical to the situation with Panettiere, the show’s hesitance to really delve into Juliette’s options in more concrete terms (as the Washington Post detailed, the show treated the abortion storyline in an “unusual” way) seemed like a sensible move, given the decidedly Red State world of country music. After all, Nashville, which remained “on the bubble” throughout its second season, can’t push a liberal agenda too far while still drawing in more conservative country fans with its original songs and vaguely obscured inspiration in real-life music stars. But with “gay cowboy” Will Lexington, Nashville throws socially conservative caution to the wind — or after last night’s episode, at least seems to be heading in that direction. Finally.
Played by O.C. alum Chris Carmack, Lexington has been closeted but out to viewers since he first showed up late in Season 1. Since then, Will’s career has blossomed with a major label signing and subsequent No. 1 album, while his sexuality has been buried even deeper, inspiring him to seriously contemplate suicide at one point last season. There are real stakes now, and they’re often addressed in explicit ways. Will’s label head, the villainous Jeff Fordham, not only know Will is gay, but references this fact often as The Ultimate Career-Ruining Secret, something on par with a penchant for cannibalism or child pornography. (Fordham has been portrayed as less than gay-friendly, having fired an openly gay label publicist whom Will claimed was making passes at him; in all actuality, Will and said Edgehill employee were once involved.)
Will’s beard of a wife, fellow country starlet Layla Grant, is currently blackmailing him and Fordham with the secret in order to advance her career. The producer behind Will and Layla’s reality show is also blackmailing him over his homosexuality. Everyone in his inner circle knows, but no one makes a move. It’s either tied up in money, or they’re trying to be a good ally (Deacon joined the latter group in last night’s episode).
“People I’ve spoken to say that at a certain level it’d be career suicide for somebody to come out of the closet,” Carmack told OUT Magazine last year. “That’s a terrible kind of fame. I don’t think executives would give Will the time of day. That’s a damn shame, but in country music there’s a stigma that’s insurmountable.”
Somehow, Will’s situation got worse last night: he asked his fuck buddy (disguised as his traveling trainer) to sign a nondisclosure agreement, and it blew up so badly, it’s like you just know that dude’s gonna try to take Will down as revenge. So what does the cowboy do to cope? He goes cruising in a park after dark for gay sex, mistakes a man’s cues, and gets his ass whooped by two homophobic bros who make off with his wallet (his ID’s in there, you know?). It’s so bad, in fact, that it seems inevitable that Nashville writers are preparing to push Will right out of the closet in the coming episodes, more than a season after he first tried to kiss his straight buddy Gunnar. Country music is in a different place now than it was even then, a year and a half ago. Just last year, Kacey Musgraves proved that being a mainstream country star and a gay ally aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, a liberal bent could help country musicians appeal to a non-country fanbase.
Still, there’s a wide divide between singing a song about following one’s arrow, sexuality-wise, and being an out-and-proud gay man who garners commercial country radio airplay (even ally Musgraves struggles with that). For Nashville to finally tackle these tough questions is crucial.
“What is funny is when I run into people and they recognize me from the show, they’ll go, ‘Oh, you’re the uh …’ [laughs],” Carmack told Taste of Country last fall. “They just pause and go, ‘The new guy!’ Everybody wants to say, ‘Oh, you’re the gay cowboy,’ and not with any derision, but with excitement … but people are scared to say it.”
If there’s one network primed to address these topics in an uncensored way, it’s ABC. Shonda Rhimes’ dramas have broken barriers in the portrayal of gay and lesbian sex on network television in the last decade, starting with shower make-outs between Callie and Arizona on Grey’s Anatomy and continuing now with How to Get Away With Murder and Scandal‘s gay sex scenes. ABC seems to understand this strategy in dramas more than comedies, though it was also the network that allowed Ellen DeGeneres to come out on her self-titled sitcom in 1997. (Cam and Mitchell’s relationship on Modern Family, however, has remained sterile, a decision that has been divisively framed as a way of normalizing gay families.)
While Shondaland may take a progressive view (“There are no GAY scenes. There are scenes with people in them,” Rhimes recently responded to an angry fan on Twitter), Nashville is wise to carefully consider Will Lexington’s coming out. Now, after more than a season of Will having gay sex in the closet, it’s time. Like mainstream hip hop (another heteronormative genre), country music itself may not be ready for an openly gay superstar — but it shouldn’t stand in the way of the show’s progressive fiction.
(Correction: an earlier version of this story referred to a ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ character as Dakota, not Arizona, as well as misread details of Juliette’s pregnancy decision.)