[Warning: The following contains spoilers from Sunday's series premiere of Monarch. Read at your own risk!]
Dottie Cantrell Roman (Susan Sarandon) has always marched to the beat of her own drum. As the matriarch of the first family of country music, Dottie fought for over 40 years to cement her place at the top of the charts with her beloved husband, Albie (Trace Adkins).
But when she's diagnosed with terminal cancer, Dottie is forced to reckon with the people she's hurt and the secrets she's kept buried for decades—all while secretly getting her affairs in order and preparing her doting daughter, Nicky (Anna Friel), to be her heir apparent. Dottie's last wish is simple: She wants her husband and their three children—Nicky, who has always stood in her shadow; Gigi (Beth Ditto), the outcast who has always avoided the spotlight; and Luke (Joshua Sasse), the CEO of the family's record label—to host one last family musicale to show that they will be able to carry on without her.
After the event goes off without a hitch and sets up an unexpected rivalry between her daughters, Dottie, who believes that she is leaving the dynasty in good hands, asks a reluctant Nicky to help her overdose on pills, citing a desire to end her life on her own terms. The problem is, just as Dottie takes her final breath, Gigi walks in and catches Nicky holding the bottle that essentially killed their mother, setting into motion a whole host of soapy complications for the rest of the family.
Creator and executive producer Melissa London Hilfers spoke to TV Guide about writing each of Dottie's final goodbyes and the challenges that lie ahead for the Romans after the devastating loss of their matriarch.
What do you think Dottie's private goodbyes reveal about the complicated relationships that she had with the most important people in her life?
Melissa London Hilfers: Dottie is always focused on her legacy and the family dynasty in the future, so her goodbyes, as much as she wants to impart warmth and love on her children, are about planning for the future. When she says goodbye to Luke, it's very important to her that Luke stay on and run Monarch, so that the future of the family is assured. When she's saying goodbye to Gigi, as many problems as they have in their relationship, she wants Gigi to have that confidence to know that she can do whatever she wants.
[Dottie] wants Nicky to know that she's proud of her, but not forget what rests on her shoulders. And throughout the episode, you can feel her putting that pressure on Nicky—and it's very intentional. She believes that once she's gone, Nicky's gonna be running the family and gonna be the future of the dynasty, and she wants to be absolutely clear so that Nicky knows what that would entail.
She wants Albie to know that she has always treasured him and to know that everything that they had between them was meaningful and real. But in a way, she's sort of telling him that she always had the upper hand. It's a very "Dottie" farewell. It's infused with power dynamics, which I think is an interesting way to say goodbye to your husband. She really does love him, and she wants him to be able to move on. But as with everything with Dottie, there's a little bit of an edge.
How will Albie contend with not only the grief of losing his soulmate but also the guilt that he feels about keeping a secret that Dottie had known for over 40 years?
Hilfers: The truth is, Albie does have a lot of guilt. He owes everything that's good in his life to Dottie in some way, and he knows he made mistakes, and he does feel guilty about that. He goes dark, as you could imagine someone might in his situation, and with help and love of his family, he's able to pull himself out of it. But throughout the season, he is reckoning with the demons of what he did in the past and what he did that may have hurt Dottie. He also learns more about Dottie after her death and learns that she was even more complicated than he knew.
Out of all the people in her family, why do you think Dottie chooses Nicky to help her take her own life?
Hilfers: Dottie believes Nicky is the strongest. Dottie believes that Nicky is her legacy and her heir, and I think she's testing Nicky. This is the ultimate test to see if she's able to carry forth the Roman legacy because it's not easy, and Dottie knows better than anybody that you have to sometimes do things that aren't easy in order to lead [the family].
Even with her mother's terminal cancer diagnosis, Nicky was having trouble convincing the people around her that she has what it takes to be her successor. How will she work to protect her family legacy while also fighting to carve out her own place as a solo act?
Hilfers: That's a great question. Nicky doesn't doubt that she has the ability to be a star or to be queen. But Nicky is realistic and she knows that, in the world we live in, the public is fickle and she is a woman over 40, and if she hasn't made it yet, it may be too late. So I think that Nicky's concern about her own future is that she's just starting too late. If she's going to be the face of the Roman family, she needs to be a major star in her own right, so all of that stress and pressure of having to prove herself and doing it for the family is all [left] on her.
Nicky is also contending with the deterioration of her own marriage to her philandering husband, Clive (Adam Croasdell). How is she dealing with the realization that her first marriage has not been perfect? Do you think she still has love for him, or is she simply tolerating him out of love and respect for their children?
Hilfers: She certainly loves Clive on some level. They've been together for many years, they have two beautiful children together, and she's also in love with the idea of a perfect relationship that she believes her parents had. Her mother has been a success to the outside world in every way, in every realm of her life—perfect wife, perfect star, perfect friend, perfect everything. That's so hard to live up to, and now Nicky feels that one of the big pillars of that perfection—her marriage—she herself has been unable to achieve. She failed at it, and she's given Clive a number of chances. This is not his first rodeo with another woman, and she's tried to forgive him, because she wanted to keep that veneer of perfection that she feels is so important. [When] Nicky starts off this season, she's so much about presentation to the outside world, and country music is all about authenticity, so she has some growth to do there.
While Nicky has always dreamed of becoming a star, it doesn't take long for her Gigi to be declared "the future of country music" after the sisters unexpectedly duet at the musicale. How will their relationship become further complicated?
Hilfers: Their relationship is gonna twist and turn in a lot of different ways. They do, above all, love each other, and they will always ride or die for each other, but professional aspirations do complicate the relationship. [Laughs.] The reason Gigi never came forward before was [that] she knew Nicky wanted it more, and she loved her sister enough to just step back. But in the pilot, Nicky dares her to go for it, and these are competitive, strong, ambitious women, [who think], "You don't have to dare me twice."
As the CEO of Monarch Entertainment, Luke is incredibly charismatic and charming, but he is also desperate for the approval of his hard-bitten father. Why do you think Albie treats Luke differently than his daughters?
Hilfers: The problems in their relationship go back to when Luke was a little boy. Part of it is, he's not musical in the same way the girls are. I mean, you'll see Luke sing, he has a great voice, but he's not a songwriter, and he doesn't have that same passion that they do.
Luke, on the other hand, is very educated and what Albie would call book-smart, and he focuses on things that are just less important and relatable to Albie. All Luke has ever wanted is his dad's respect—he deserves it. He is really successful, he's done so much for the family, he's done great things for the company that matters so much to Dottie, but that's not what's important to Albie. It's just a fundamental conflict they've always had, and it's hard to see them getting past it.
Gigi has a similar situation with Dottie where no matter what she does, it's like a square peg in a round hole. They just don't fit; they just don't understand each other. They do love each other, but they just can't connect. For Luke, he just doesn't know how to get the thing he wants most in the world, and the skills he has and the work that he does, in some ways, alienates him from his father further. It's sad, but I just feel like it's something that so many people have experienced.
Luke and Gigi's wife, Kayla (Meagan Holder), have also been harboring a secret of their own: They recently had an affair, and Gigi is seemingly none the wiser. Why do you think they are so drawn to each other against their better judgment?
Hilfers: I think there's just a very strong chemical connection between the two of them, but all of the things that Luke is not respected for from his father—his intellect, his business savvy—[are] exactly what Kayla sees. She's a smart business woman, and she's responding to the very qualities that he feels undervalued for, so I think that's really validating to him and feels almost like familial love.
On [Kayla's] side, some of it will be explained later in the season, but there were complications in her relationship with Gigi, particularly when they had their first child, that made her feel a little bit alienated and lonely. And Luke is a great guy. Who wouldn't love him? Except for the fact that she's married to his sister, so it's very problematic.
Were the songs that were performed in the pilot—covers of "Family Tradition" and "How Do I Live" and the debuts of "American Cowgirl" and "The Rose and the Brambles"—always part of your original script, or did you have to work with the music producers to ensure they aligned with what was required in each moment?
Hilfers: I think all of the songs you said were always in the pilot—there were actually even more songs that didn't make it [due to] time. However, "The Rose and the Brambles" and "American Cowgirl" hadn't been written. "The Rose and the Brambles" has lyrics that allude to some fundamental mythology about the family. I was very involved in talking with Adam Anders, who was producing the song, to make sure that the lyrics jive with what we were gonna be doing going forward.
How did some of the celebrity cameos come together?
Hilfers: All of the people that we got were first choices. With Martina [McBride] in the [pilot], it was important that somebody with real stature be introducing this couple when they're getting a "Lifetime Achievement Award." It had to be an artist with huge stature in the industry, because I felt like that was gonna establish our credibility.
Tanya Tucker is in episode 3 at the "Queens of Country" concert. It had to be a queen! There aren't that many around that have that gravitas and credibility, so having her there and having her perform was really important and really helpful.
Little Big Town has been a friend of the show. Two of the members, Jimmy and Karen, came to our writers' room and gave us some inside stuff that I definitely used. In particular, Karen gave a story that I used in the [upcoming] awards episode—it's ripped from something that had happened to her. They've been incredibly supportive. Jason Owen manages them as well, and he's one of our executive producers, so a lot of these artists that might have been pie-in-the-sky were much easier to make happen because of Jason.
Before she dies, Dottie tells Nicky, "I've done things that can never be forgiven." What are the biggest threats to the Roman family empire going forward?
Hilfers: There are both internal and external threats to the Roman empire. The internal threats are the competition amongst the siblings and the secrets that will be revealed will create rifts that can't be healed. And if the family is torn apart, there's no legacy, there's no empire.
External threats are that somebody, like a Wade Stellings (Callum Kerr), for example, or some new name could come in and take the crown and steal all the attention from all of the Romans. Secrets from the past that haven't been completely revealed yet could also bring new faces into our world that might not be here for good. We leave the pilot not knowing who is going to be the queen, and the implication is that there are only two choices, but what if there were more?
Monarch will now air Tuesdays at 9/8c on Fox. Episodes are available to stream the next day on FOX Now or Hulu.