Monarch already has more drama than a good country song. But while a good country song can resolve it all in four minutes, the new Fox drama is just getting started, with a first hour that sets up a juicy season full of twists and reveals — starting with that “WTF?” moment from the end of tonight’s premiere, “Stop at Nothing.”
Before we get to that, though, a bit of setup. The Roman family are country-music giants whose legacy is threatened by the impending death of matriarch Dottie (Susan Sarandon), who has terminal cancer. Her daughter Nicky (Anna Friel) is ready to finally get her chance at stardom, but is stuck singing harmonies for her dad, Dottie’s husband Albie (Trace Adkins), who has a few skeletons in his closet. Nicky has some competition from her more talented sister Gigi (Beth Ditto), who’d previously sworn off the family business, while Albie butts heads with his son Luke (Joshua Sasse), who’s trying to keep the family’s record label relevant. Monarch has a marquee star in Oscar winner Sarandon, a beloved TV actor in Friel, and musical talent in Grammy nominee Adkins and former Gossip singer Ditto. Based on this premiere, it’s one part Nashville, one part Empire, one part Dallas, one part Succession, and one part This Is Us. (And if that all caught your attention but you still haven’t watched for yourself, stop here, because everything below is a spoiler.)
Oh, yeah, and there’s also a dash of Six Feet Under, because Dottie, established as one of the show’s protagonists, sure seems to die at the end of the episode. (More on that uncertainty in a second.) Throughout “Stop at Nothing,” Dottie is planning for her death: planting a report on her health in People, having a suspicious meeting with a lawyer, grooming Nicky for the spotlight, leaving her voting shares to Luke, even getting Albie to admit he cheated on her once. Nicky doesn’t understand her mother’s focus on dying at first, mentioning early in the episode that Dottie’s doctors said she had months left. But Dottie then explains that she’s literally planning her death, and she wants Nicky to help her go out on a high note after the family’s annual musicale concert. Monarch never quite establishes why Dottie is so eager to end her reign over country music early, but all the same, Nicky is torn up — shocked at her mother’s plan, in disbelief that she’s actually serious, nervous and excited to be closer to the fame she’s dreamt of for years. And of course she’d be!
When Nicky meets Dottie in her room after the musicale, she oscillates on her decision, at one point looking like she may not give her mother the rest of the pain pills she’s asking for. But as the obedient favorite child, Nicky relents, gives Dottie the rest of the pills, and even helps her wash them down with some whiskey. She sits with her mother as she drifts off — and then Gigi walks in.
Here’s where things get complicated, because unlike Six Feet Under, Monarch doesn’t seal Dottie’s fate in the premiere. The episode leaves us with the image of a shocked Gigi discovering her sister holding an empty bottle of pills next to their probably dead mother. And that’s not a good look, especially after the two had a dramatic confrontation at the musicale, where Gigi admitted she never pursued performing because she didn’t want to get in Nicky’s way.
So let’s speculate for a second. If Nicky can’t quickly explain herself to Gigi — or if Gigi sees this as part of Nicky’s scheme to take the spotlight — then Gigi could plausibly call 911 and get Dottie to a hospital. Because come on, would a TV show really cast Susan Sarandon, a freaking Oscar winner, and use her for all of one episode? But at the same time, Dottie sure seems to have taken her last breath by the time Gigi walks in.
Then there’s the evidence. Trailers for Monarch seem to largely be cut with footage from the premiere, possibly because that’s the only episode Sarandon appears in. And in the episode, Sarandon’s name is listed last among the cast, despite her being set up as a co-lead with Friel. Sarandon has been doing the promotional circuit for the show, but she teased “lots of intrigue and secrets” to Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, and was reportedly “cagey” about her future on the show on a Television Critics Association Panel, per Deadline. “She looms over everyone,” Jon Feldman, one of Monarch’s executive producers, said on that panel — which sure sounds kind of ghostly, right? And his assurance that Sarandon “will appear in multiple episodes” doesn’t mean much either way, after the premiere established that Monarch will have its share of flashbacks. (Can you believe we’ve gotten this far without even speculating about whom Albie kills in that flash-forward?! But that’s for another time.)
In a cruel twist from the folks at Fox, it’ll take longer than usual for us to get closure on Dottie’s fate, with Monarch not airing episode two until the show’s time-period premiere on Tuesday, September 20. But also like a good country song, Monarch has already figured out how to keep us coming back.