overnights

George & Tammy Recap: Blue Christmas

George and Tammy

The Grand Tour
Season 1 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating 3 stars

George and Tammy

The Grand Tour
Season 1 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating 3 stars
Photo: Vulture; Photo: Paramount+

Country music has always had two distinct threads: As I put it last week, “Saturday night and Sunday morning.” There’s the “wilder side of life,” drinkin’ and foolin’ around with honky-tonk women, and the sanctified Southern Baptist religious streak that requires those same partiers to comb their hair, splash some water on their faces, and show up for Sunday services, hangover be damned. Saturday night always leads to heartbreak the next morning (the Kris Kristofferson–Johnny Cash song “Sunday Morning Coming Down” articulates this feeling beautifully), but by the following weekend, the regret is forgotten and the cycle begins again.

Some country artists embody both of these states, braiding together a complex sense of moral identity that can seem hypocritical to outsiders. Not so for George Jones and Tammy Wynette: Part of their success as a duo was that they embodied the tension between sin (George) and righteousness (Tammy), seemingly resolved through the healing power of love. That’s a lot of pressure to put on fallible human beings, particularly when combined with the public scrutiny and cold economics of fame. In last week’s episode of George & Tammy, we began to see how George Jones’s barfly image made it impossible for him to enjoy peace and stability. This week, the cable snapped.

The episode opens with Geroge bent over a glass of whiskey, his right-hand man Peanutt (Walton Goggins) passed out on the bar next to him, monologuing about his discomfort with the lack of control and “quick shifts between pandemonium and isolation” that characterize the celebrity life. Then Tammy shows up, swaddled in a fur coat with a big fake smile for the bartender, telling him it’s time to go. They get into their car and start quoting Bible verses at one another to express their differing philosophies on how to handle this ongoing marital crisis. (There’s that Sunday morning influence.) But even Tammy Wynette, the long-suffering martyr who advised millions of women to “Stand By Your Man,” has her limits.

If Tammy has reservations about her fame, she doesn’t share them with anyone. It’s her job to remain strong for the children, after all. She’s also at a different, more exciting phase of her career; she’s been on an upward trajectory throughout her marriage to George while he’s been stalling out. And if George resents Tammy for this, he doesn’t say it, either, although Shannon hints at displeasure by grunting and avoiding eye contact when an interviewer presses him on the state of his solo career. A lack of communication about the things that matter the most is one thing that doomed George and Tammy’s relationship. But that’s nothing compared to the devil George Jones found at the bottom of a bottle.

Her 1998 obituary in People magazine quoted Wynette as saying, “I was naggin’ and he was nippin’,” about her marriage to Jones. It also says that she claimed Jones “once chased her around with a rifle,” the closest I could find to corroborating the dramatic Christmas Eve confrontation — actually, “attempted murder” would be more appropriate — that finally breaks Tammy in “The Grand Tour.” In real life, Tammy Wynette filed for divorce from George Jones twice, once in 1973 and again in 1975. George & Tammy condenses these events into one story line, combining them with another terrifying flash of violence when George abruptly wakes up from being passed out and starts shooting randomly: at Tammy, at their wall of platinum records, at the chandelier that falls on their Christmas tree in a visual metaphor for their shattered marriage.

I found myself muttering, “Oh, fuck you, George,” when he comes to Tammy’s new house and tells her, “Tell me what I need to say, and I’ll say it.” Even if he doesn’t remember trying to kill Tammy, he certainly remembers waking up in a padded cell wearing a straightjacket (and hallucinating a duck, for some reason?). He’s gone way beyond an innocent night out with the boys, even if he did refuse the affections of a woman at the bar. And expecting Tammy just to forgive and forget something like that shows that he doesn’t take her safety, or the safety of their children, seriously. She takes him back anyway, of course, although the divorce papers George Richey (Steve Zahn) has drawn up for Tammy “just in case” say what she can’t.

Richey is the one who pushes Tammy to leave George throughout “The Grand Tour.” And while his concern for her well-being does seem genuine, there’s also the uncomfortable fact that a happy George Jones and a George Jones who tops the country charts seem to be fundamentally incompatible. As the couple’s producer and songwriter — and, spoiler alert, Tammy’s fourth and last husband — it’s in Richey’s best interest for Tammy to be strong and George to be heartbroken. The end of “The Grand Tour” hints at more misery to come: Tammy’s using her fame to get pills, singing “‘Til I Can Make It on My Own.” George is fully consumed by his demons, taking his fans on “The Grand Tour” of his regrets. Richey, who wrote both songs, sees dollar signs.

Another Lonely Song

• In addition to his drinking, George Jones also had an addiction to cocaine — something that has been glossed over in this series so far.

• As I also mentioned last week, the infamous riding-lawn-mower incident didn’t actually happen until the ’90s. But it’s also the most famous apocryphal story about George Jones, so I get why the show worked it in here.

• Throughout this week’s episode, George and Tammy are haunted by the music of a different, more stable* country duo: Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, whose first big hit, “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” is playing on the radio when Tammy is driving home with George’s ill-fated Christmas present. Several of Lynn’s Christmas songs, including “Country Christmas,” appear in the background as Tammy’s preparing for their similarly ill-fated celebration. George & Tammy is never subtle about using music as foreshadowing, and the presence of Loretta Lynn — singer of “The Pill” and an all-around more liberated alternative to Tammy Wynette — in this episode predicts Tammy’s turn toward self-preservation.

• And speaking of famous country duos, in this week’s episode, Tammy’s right-hand woman Sheila Richey (Kelly McCormack) repeats a bit of gossip about Porter Wagoner, onetime duet partner of one Ms. Dolly Parton.

• *The secret to her professional partnership with Twitty, according to Lynn, was that it was totally platonic.

George & Tammy Recap: Blue Christmas