EXCLUSIVE: 'Nashville' Boss on Season 5 Premiere and Juliette's Fate: 'She's Gone Through a Literal Hell'


Warning: Spoiler alert! Do not read if you have not watched Thursday’s early season five premiere of Nashville.

What happened to Nashville’s Juliette Barnes?

The question was answered during the country music drama’s early premiere of the season five debut on CMT on Thursday, and the aftermath was heartbreaking. Juliette’s fate -- and Hayden Panettiere’s future -- was one of the biggest mysteries going into the new season, and Nashville wasted no time giving fans the answers they had been seeking for months.

Did Juliette perish in the plane crash? Thankfully, she didn’t.

RELATED: 'Nashville' Debuts First Season 5 Footage in New Trailer

But she was the lone survivor in the horrifying accident that left her with paralysis in her legs, shattered vertebrae and a new perspective on life and death that causes her to question her own mortality and spirituality.

New co-showrunner Marshall Herskovitz, who runs the show with his longtime producing partner Edward Zwick, hopped on the phone with ET to chat about Juliette’s new journey and why he viewed the plane crash as a golden opportunity for storytelling.

ET: Was it a challenge to resolve the massive cliffhanger that Nashville left off on, while also re-establishing the characters and the world to viewers who haven’t seen the show before?

Marshall Herskovitz:
The truth is, it was more of an opportunity than a challenge. In other words, if you’ve seen our shows before, we don’t generally have plane crashes in them. From a dramatic standpoint, there was a lot of great stuff to work with. You’re talking about somebody who survived the crash landing of a plane. For us, this was really rich with potential -- not just for Juliette, but for Avery and other people in the show. I actually saw the plane crash as a gift, to be honest with you. I know that sounds ghoulish. It really gave us a lot to work with. I will say that.

What did you want to capture with the opening scene between Rayna and the old man?

The show doesn’t begin with the plane crash, the show begins with Rayna in a car in the middle of nowhere and that was intentional. It came out a vision of the scene; it was just sort of a picture that came to me of where the show would begin. It was a way, perhaps, of saying to the audience, “We’re not in Kansas anymore” -- almost an invitation to the audience to say, “OK, what’s going on? Where are we? I can’t necessarily assume everything’s the same as it was before.” We start out with a very mysterious scene with Rayna that’s not explained until the end of the show.

RELATED: 'Nashville' Finale Ends on Major Cliffhanger, Puts Juliette's Fate in Limbo


Let’s talk about the plane crash scene.

It’s very powerful and very emotional, and then you’re off to the races. But we intentionally waited a moment before going to the plane crash as a way of saying, this isn’t just going to be about the drama, this is going to be about something else as well. [It’s going to be] something deeper and more resonant than the horror of a plane crash. We wanted to make our intentions known that we look at these characters and we look at these stories in a particular way. We want to go as deep as we can and we want to show the currents beneath the surface, the feelings that people have, [and] the relationships that play out. We wanted all of that to somehow be known even in the first episode.

Was there ever any concern that Hayden Panettiere or Connie Britton would not return in a full-time capacity? Did you ever need to consider the option of killing a character off?

No. We were presented with the show as it was. There were changes we wanted to make in-house as stories were told, but these were the two centers of the show. So we always assumed we would bring them back, both of them. I didn’t want Hayden’s character to die in the plane crash. I think there’s so much story to tell and as you’ll see as it plays out, I think we found a wonderful story for Juliette Barnes. I think it’ll be quite surprising for people and yet, really dramatic to the magnitude to this event that takes place in her life.

It seems like Juliette is on a spiritual quest this season. Is the first episode a preview of what lies ahead?

We’ve watched this woman go through hell, and we’ve watched her descend into hell. Now she’s gone through a literal hell with this plane crash, and I think that would have a profound effect on anybody. For us as dramatists, the opportunity that I was talking about was to watch what happens to a human being who has to live through that. That’s gold, dramatically speaking. Without speaking directly to what the story is going to be, Juliette is definitely on a journey and we’re going to see real changes in her life.

RELATED: Charles Esten Says 'Nashville' Will Be Less Soapy and More Music-Focused

Not only is Juliette emotionally traumatized, but she has to adjust to her new reality physically, with paralysis in her legs. How does this affect her psyche?

You’re going to see it. I can’t answer that only because it’s going to be so much fun as it’s revealed. But it definitely will affect her psyche.

Is Juliette’s paralysis and recovery process going to be a season-long arc?

On the advice of council I invoke the Fifth Amendment and will not incriminate myself. (Laughs.)

This season will also introduce several new key characters, including Bridgit Mendler (Ashley, a YouTube star), Joseph David-Jones (Clay, a 20-something musician) and Jen Richards (Allyson, a physical therapist), among others. What are you most excited for fans to see from the new crop?

We’re really excited about the new characters. There were a lot of reasons to bring in new characters. We felt that we wanted to broaden the canvas of the show. We wanted to have different kind of music in the show. We felt that people wanted more diversity on the show. By the way, I don’t say this very often, but we’ve been so lucky in the people we found to play these new characters.

Rhiannon Giddens
[who plays Hallie, the woman who sings to Juliette at the crash site,] is a singer and musician who has created quite a profile for herself in the culture. She sang at the White House and she’s done amazing things, yet she’s not a household name. We’ve been huge admirers of hers and reached out to her and said, “Are you interested in acting?” And it turned out she was and it turned out she was a natural. It’s been such an exciting dream for us to have her come into the show, and we want to introduce her music to our audience, so that’s been a big part for us. There are several other characters who we’re excited about who will bring a different perspective to the show and added complexity and fun.

RELATED: Connie Britton Credits 'Nashville' Fans for Bringing Show Back

Fans of Nashville have always fawned over the original music featured on the show. Will songs be available on iTunes immediately after each episode?

Absolutely, it’s very important to us. I’ve never done a show that’s had so much music in it -- and live music. It’s been so joyous and really exciting for me, and I’ve been blown away by the talent of not just the performers, but there’s so many people behind the scenes. What we’ve done, frankly, is we’ve actually made the scripts shorter so that there is more time for the music to play, because one of the things we felt ourselves, and certainly heard from the audience, was that they wanted more of the music. That it felt sometimes like the music was truncated because there wasn’t time for it, and so we created the time for it because we feel it’s integral to what the show is.

premieres with back-to-back episodes on Thursday, Jan. 5 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CMT.

For more on the new season of Nashville, watch ET's exclusive interview with Charles Esten below.