Tammy Wynette and George Jones were married for just six years (1969-1975)—a stunning fact when you consider the size of their legend. For the brief period that they were the first couple in country music and well beyond their divorce, the two had one of the most star crossed and volatile relationships in the history of, well, history.
In bringing the story of George and Tammy to Showtime, the series (produced in connection with Chastain’s Freckle Films) manages to just about match the drama of the real-life couple’s decades-long connection, and that’s really saying something. George Jones was the worst kind of alcoholic—the kind that didn’t just turn mean when the liquor was flowing, but violent too. Jones would lash out physically against Wynette, and during one particularly less than festive holiday season, he shot up their whole house, making their chandelier the star atop their Christmas tree. Jones was so addicted to alcohol, that when Tammy took away all the keys to their fleet of cars, Jones hopped on his John Deere lawn mower and drove it to the nearest watering hole, just to get a nip.
What would make a woman marry a man like that, spend more than half a decade with him as her husband, and then return to him over and over again throughout her later life? That is the riddle that George and Tammy answers with a simple wave of the hand: they were hot for each other.
I don’t mean just physically (although certainly that too), but also in spirit, talent, and in that intangible thing that makes us look at another person as if they hung the moon, even if they can barely stay level on the stool next to the bar. And make no mistake, George could not keep level.
When he and Tammy first meet, it’s perhaps one of the worst “meet-cutes” you’ll ever see on film or television. Tammy comes to George’s room to be introduced as his opening act for some upcoming tour dates. The hotel room is full of empty bottles, a naked woman, and a hungover country legend.
Tammy looks past that though. In part because she loved the sound of Jones’ voice so much on the radio, that her heart already partially belonged to him before she walked into his den of ill-repute. The stories of Jones and his drinking and carousing were hardly secret. It could be said that his infamy as a drunk not only kept pace with his fame as a singer, but actually embellished it. People liked George Jones, drunk and wild.
Truth is, Tammy kind of does too—for a time. But then as in many relationships where the bottle is brandished too often, even the hottest form of love can’t hold up under the weight of alcoholism. To make matters more challenging, during their married years Tammy’s career was in full ascent, whereas Jones was having more middling results (there’s a certain A Star is Born arc here). Tammy was a machine that kept going even after a difficult pregnancy and a botched hysterectomy that led to 26 more surgeries and, eventually, an addiction to painkillers, resulting in an untimely death at just 55 years old.
It’s useful, I think, to place these two legends where they might rank in the history of country music. Many believe that Jones was the greatest pure country singer ever. Wynette was called “the First Lady of country music” for the whole of her career. In the world of country music, they were half of a Mount Rushmore. While George and Tammy spends a lot of time on the strife between them, it doesn’t short us on the magic of their recordings. Seeing Wynette change “Stand By Your Man” from a general statement of love to a much more personal one is revelatory. On the other hand, hearing George record his greatest ballad, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” while staring at a deeply downhearted Tammy is absolutely crushing. What makes both these moments even more astounding is knowing that Chastain and Shannon sang the songs themselves.
When George and Tammy was in early development. Josh Brolin (who retains a producer’s credit here) was slated to play Jones. While I’m sure Brolin would have been terrific, Michael Shannon’s craggy, world-weary face and his capacity for giving fearless, vanity-free performances makes him more than well-suited for the role. Hell, it makes him perfect (and what cinephile wasn’t hoping for a Take Shelter reunion between the two leads anyway?).
But as much as Shannon brings to George Jones, this is largely Tammy’s story. Just as the weight of carrying their relationship in real life landed on the back of Wynette, so does most of the weight of this series attach itself to Jessica Chastain. To put it mildly, she’s more than up to the task.
Over the six episodes of this limited series we see Chastain’s Tammy Wynette go from bright-eyed hopeful to long-suffering mother, wife, and star who eschews her own health needs to take care of others and keep the Tammy Wynette train rolling. The cost to her is devastating, and Chastain, with her immensely expressive face, and the underlying kindness that seems to be a part of her true personhood, is absolutely off the charts here.
For many years, Wynette had a spine of steel and a quality heart to match. But in a real shot of irony, her love for Jones and her constant pain resulted in her becoming a bigger addict than the man she divorced, and her next husband (played by a duplicitous Steve Zahn) basically was her Colonel Tom Parker, only with additional benefits.
Even after their divorce, Jones and Wynette stayed attached. They recorded, toured, and laid down together numerous times over the remainder of Tammy’s life. One could say they were toxic soulmates.
As Shannon perfectly states:
“She wanted to be married to George Jones and one day she woke up and realized she married George Jones.”
Even more wrenching is Chastain’s explanation to Shannon about why they can’t make it work:
“You hate yourself so much you can’t help but hate me for loving you.”
In some ways, their life together is the saddest of country songs. They are a case in point of the inexorable pull that two people have for each other even when it seems to be the last thing that would be good for either of them. George and Tammy didn’t set out to break each other’s hearts, but you almost wonder if they were on a mission to break their own.
Because they surely did.
George and Tammy premieres only on Showtime Sunday, December 4, at 9pm ET.