[Warning: The following contains spoilers from Tuesday's episode of Monarch. Read at your own risk!]
The second episode of Fox's new country music drama, Monarch, picks up in the immediate aftermath of the passing of Dottie Cantrell-Roman (Susan Sarandon), the undisputed queen of country music, with the surviving members of the Roman family all handling their grief in different ways.
Forced to reckon with the fact that Dottie knew about the short affair that he had at the start of their marriage, Albie (Trace Adkins) wants to honor his late wife in a very particular way—and doesn't take too kindly to his son Luke's (Joshua Sasse) insinuations that he had something to do with her premature death. Meanwhile, Nicky (Anna Friel), who is consumed with the guilt of actually helping Dottie take her own life, throws herself into ensuring that her mother's memorial service, which Dottie had planned herself, goes off without a hitch. And Gigi (Beth Ditto), who agreed not to talk about her sister's involvement in their mother's passing, has her first brush with stardom that, in the media, adds fuel to the fire of her professional rivalry with Nicky.
"I think the Romans have been schooled in how to maintain an outward composure, even despite inner turmoil or drama on the home front," showrunner Jon Harmon Feldman told TV Guide. "All the Romans are forced to have a public face and a private face, so I think Nicky has probably learned the lessons of her mother better than anyone, and I think that will be her burden going forward."
We spoke with Feldman about how difficult it will be for the Romans to save face in the wake of Dottie's untimely passing, how the producers were able to convince Shania Twain to play a fictional version of herself, and the new murder mystery that will raise the stakes for all of the characters this season.
What is Nicky's state of mind going into Dottie's funeral?
Feldman: I think she is conflicted by what her mother asked her [to do] or made her do, and the role she now needs to fill. She's basically stepping into the matriarch role that's been left open by Dottie. Over the course of the season, she's really gonna have to channel her inner Dottie Roman and kind of learn a ruthlessness that doesn't come naturally to Nicky, but she's gonna have to figure out how to become that person, even when she's not sure she likes herself for being that person.
When Albie initially refuses to sing at the memorial service, Nicky steps up and delivers an impromptu speech in front of her mother's casket. How much of that speech would you say was genuine, and how much of it was to save face and appease their millions of concerned fans?
Feldman: I think what's really compelling about this family is that there is real emotion and there is real love, and I think that moment is genuine on Nicky's part. I think it's sort of an outpouring of the conflict that she's dealing with. While that moment is about the loss of her mother, I think it's also about the loss of the part of herself that she had to give up to do what her mother wanted. What's really interesting about this family is there's a lot of love there, there's a lot of loyalty there, but there also happens to be murder and blackmail and duplicity and affairs and cover-ups to go along with it.
With her marriage already on the verge of falling apart, Nicky shares an immediate connection with Wade (Callum Kerr), a young country singer with a heart of gold. What can you preview about how Nicky's love life progresses this season?
Feldman: I think there's gonna be a pretty compelling love triangle that's gonna develop between Nicky, Wade, and a character that we will soon meet. And what's interesting is, as appealing as Wade is, the question that Nicky phrases is, is he just a boy [when] she needs a man? And I think that becomes sort of the crux of that love triangle. There's a boy, as appealing as he is, and then there's a man—although like many men that sometimes outwardly seemed perfect, he's a guy who comes with secrets.
In addition to grieving the loss of her mother, Gigi gets recognized in the public for the first time as a singer, and her aunt Nellie (Faith Prince) offers her a cautionary tale about living in the shadow of one's older sister. How do those events make Gigi reconsider the singing career that she had always denied herself?
Feldman: I think Gigi always avoided the spotlight because one, she never really, truly felt valued by her mother, and two, she loved her sister and knew that that was a role that Dottie wanted Nicky to fill. But I think Gigi's gonna become seduced by the journey of a budding star. We're gonna watch as she navigates fame and notoriety for the first time, but with it, I think she's also gonna navigate some truths about the family. I think Nellie becomes a little bit of her guide in a crash course on the complications of [Cantrell/Roman] sisters, and it's gonna be a relationship and an arc that really is gonna continue over the course of the year. Basically, Nicky and Gigi are gonna vie for who truly is gonna fill the void left by their mother.
How would you describe the sisters' current relationship?
Feldman: The great fun of Nicky and Gigi is that they are both best friends, yet they often work against each other's interests and find themselves in conflict and in competition. And as much as the sisters want to deny that a competition to assume the role left by their mother exists, it does. Episode two really starts to fuel that conflict between them. Musically, as Nelly warns, there's very little to be gained by living in your sister's shadow. And personally, the passing of their mother is gonna really start to tear away the fabric of some of the secrets that have existed between them over the years.
Luke is hellbent on blaming someone for Dottie's premature departure—and he's even willing to question his own father in pursuit of the truth. What do you think is the biggest source of conflict between them going forward?
Feldman: That is a great question. The punch thrown [by Albie] in episode two is not the last punch thrown between them, and we are gonna really explore that relationship. Look, I think for Albie, there's nothing more sacred than the music, and I think his son represents all that he hates about the music business, even though he's his son. And if you ask Albie, "Is Luke the son you would have wanted?," it's a [complicated] question. Would he have wanted more of a version of himself? But I think fathers and sons, just like mothers and daughters, can always be compelling, and I think that's gonna be a very important relationship going forward.
Albie wants to honor his late wife in a very particular way, regardless of what other people think. How does singing with his grandson, Ace (Iñigo Pascual), help him begin to rediscover his voice?
Feldman: One of the compelling arcs of our story is Albie Roman trying to discover who Albie Roman was, and in many respects, his story is a coming-of-age story for a 60-year-old man. Albie is going to make some missteps [while] rediscovering who he is, as he starts to trust people that maybe he shouldn't trust. But musically, I think it'll be really satisfying to watch him go on this journey and really get back to his performing and songwriting roots, even if it carries some pretty compelling soapy twists along the way.
Before the funeral, Nicky and Gigi perform "The Card You Gamble," which is also the show's theme song. How did you and the producers decide on that song for the opening and closing credits, and what do you think it reveals about the characters at that specific point in the story?
Feldman: Well, it was our opening theme song before we decided to use it at that moment. The Romans are a family that is well-schooled in conflict and fighting and dysfunction, but they're also born in music, and that's the one thing they share. And in episode 102, the siblings fracture, they're torn apart by revelations and the loss of their matriarch, and music brings them [back] together. Music is the one element that always had the ability to transcend the drama. Now, the question is, over the course of the first season, will the music bring them together, or will the dysfunction keep them apart?
How did you convince Shania Twain to make a cameo?
Feldman: One of our producers, Jason Owen, works with her, and I think to be a part of this show and to work with artists like Trace Adkins and performers like Susan Sarandon is very compelling, and Shania Twain is not only a gifted musician, but an incredibly talented actress. I think it was fun for her to play against type and kind of make fun of herself and present a version of herself that is not who she is, and I think that's always fun for performers. She's really good at it, so hopefully it was as fun to watch as it was to shoot.
The second episode also introduces Catt Phoenix (Martha Higareda), who is hellbent on helping her teenage daughter, Ana (Emma Milani), signed with Monarch Entertainment. What can you preview about how they fit into the story?
Feldman: I'll just say everyone who comes into our show brings with them an ulterior motive that may be apparent quickly or may be apparent very, very slowly. So I would just tell our audience to keep watching, because every character brings with them a twist and a secret.
It's also revealed early on that Gigi's wife, Kayla, has been having an affair with Luke. Kayla's sexuality isn't explicitly mentioned, at least in the first half of the season, but there is a harmful misconception that people who are attracted to more than one gender are more likely to be unfaithful. How did you and the writers work to make sure that she wasn't simply reduced to a spouse with a really damaging secret? Was that ever a concern in the writers' room?
Feldman: Of course. We really felt that Kayla's connection to Luke was based on an emotional connection. They worked in the same business, and they had a quality that drew them to each other on an emotional level. It was really important that that was rooted in emotion for us, because Gigi's an incredibly likable character, and Kayla and Luke are both very dimensionalized characters. We wanted that affair to be an affair of the heart that brought with it not only connection but conflict, and we really felt the struggle for both of those characters as they were drawn together.
At the end of the episode, Luke discovers that Nicky, not Dottie, was the one who wrote the letters in Dottie's will. What can you tease about the fallout as Luke gets one step closer to finding out what really happened to their mother?
Feldman: There are quite a few mysteries that play out over the course of the season, and I will say that the mystery of Dottie's death soon is consumed by an even larger mystery going forward, and it sort of hands-off into a mystery that has even greater stakes. But Luke will soon discover that his sister has not been honest with him about what truly happened that night.
What can you preview about the murder mystery in the future timeline and how it implicates all of the surviving Romans?
Feldman: The murder mystery is something that we are gonna resolve over the course of the season, but it continually creates drama and stakes for the Romans. It's gonna both bring them together and drive them apart, and the Romans are forced to live by those words. How do you publicly present one face when privately you're dealing with a cover-up of these proportions? The fun of the ongoing soap is [that] the murder mystery is gonna create stakes for all the Romans going forward.
I'd really like to think that the show really gets even stronger in the back half because all the characters and mysteries that we've set up really have time to evolve and get juicier and deeper. We're kind of building in this pressure cooker of music and family and dysfunction and drama.
Monarch airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on FOX. Episodes are available to stream the next day on FOX Now or Hulu.