The country music drama ripped everyone’s hearts out on Thursday’s episode, when one of its main characters, Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton), died following complications from injuries suffered during a brutal car wreck. Arguably the moral center of Nashville, the decision to kill Rayna off -- effectively bidding farewell to Britton after four and a half seasons -- didn’t come without hesitations.
“When CMT picked up the show [in June 2016], Connie Britton came to [co-showrunner] Ed Zwick and myself and said that she was very torn, but that she felt that creatively, she needed to move on with her life,” co-showrunner Marshall Herskovitz tells ET. “[She] felt bad about it because she loved the show and loved everyone who worked on the show. But it felt [like], on some level, that she needed to find other challenges, which is something I understand and sympathize with.”
Britton’s desire to move on professionally wasn’t met with any pushback from Herskovitz, who along with Zwick, “really got it.” The duo had to get sign-off from the studio, Lionsgate TV, as well as the network, because Britton was still under contract; Herskovitz admits the process “was not simple.” “I’m not going to compel somebody to work with me. If she felt like leaving the show, we would find a way for her to leave the show,” he says.
That was the tricky part: How do you write off a main character as pivotal and central to Nashville as Rayna? Herskovitz notes that they deliberated every possible explanation as to why Rayna would leave town without having her die, but ultimately, none felt organic to the character and the story.
“Maybe there’s some way she leaves. She goes somewhere. She goes on tour. She’s going around the world, whatever it is -- some way to imagine that she could stay alive,” he says. “But we quickly realized that that would just never work -- that Rayna Jaymes is so connected to her children and her husband, there’s no circumstance we could put her in where she would not be in constant contact with them.”
“We could have her held hostage by terrorists. That was the only thing we could think of that would keep her from being in contact [with her family], but that was just a joke. You can’t seriously do that storyline,” Herskovitz recalls one of their more outlandish ideas. “After painful deliberation, we realized there was no alternative to the character dying.”
The future was ripe with possibilities once Rayna’s death was etched in ink, and the writers leaned into the chance for new storytelling in uncharted territory. Sometimes the difficult choice is the best option. “Telling the story of what happens to this family and her friends after she dies is full of possibility for us,” Herskovitz says. “Rayna dying was something we were challenged by, inspired by and [it] spun off many stories on its own.”
That’s not to say Thursday was the last we’ll see of Rayna. Spoiler alert: It won’t be. “There will be glimpses of Rayna in the next couple of episodes,” Herskovitz teases, opting not to hint at the context of those cameos. “Anything more than that, I won’t say. It would be giving away too much.”
If you ask what the most emotional scenes were for the Nashville boss, he offers three poignant moments: Rayna’s death scene (“Every crew member, every cast member and Connie herself was crying”); Deacon, Maddie and Daphne’s impromptu lullaby to their dying mother; and Deacon’s final embrace with Rayna.
“When Maddie starts to sing the song and then they all join in, I just lose it,” Herskovitz reflects. “The final shot of Deacon when he puts his head down on her and a tear comes out of his eye. You see the face of a man who’s been completely shattered. If it’s possible to win an Emmy for a single shot, [Charles] Esten’s got it.”
How Rayna’s family comes out on the other side remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure, it’s going to be a long, hard road. “In the short term, it will be as devastating as it will have to be,” the executive producer says. “We wanted a part of the season to allow these people to be devastated and to tell the story of what that means.”
Rayna’s demise (and Britton’s departure) comes at a crucial time for the show, which will spend the next two episodes exploring the “reverberations of the death” before breaking for a months-long hiatus. “We needed this event to happen with enough time after it so that we could process the death. We as viewers and we as cast members and characters on the show,” Herskovitz says, adding that next week’s episode, in particular, “is absolutely sublime” as it focuses on grief.
“There’s something so beautiful and redemptive and full of love about that episode,” he continues. “I feel that if our viewers come back next week, they will share that experience of grief and, at the same time, something uplifting. I look forward to showing that not just that there’s life after Rayna, but what kind of experience you can have talking about someone you’ve loved and lost.”
The final episode before the break offers “a glimpse of what it’s like to try and have a life without Rayna, but it’s incredible difficult,” Herskovitz warns, teasing that Deacon goes “through the stages of grief” and the song he and Rayna were working on “ends up playing a very important part for this family.” “People move on in life -- the show will move on and there is a show post-Rayna. Eventually, people will be comfortable with a show post-Rayna.”
“It doesn’t mean that she’s forgotten; she’s part of their lives, she’s talked about and she’s yearned for,” he adds. “People suffer over her loss, but there are amazing stories in the second half of the season. It’s not just a depressing sense of mourning that hovers [over] every episode.”
Herskovitz reveals that Nashville strikes a slightly different tone in the back half of the season, simply by way of the void that’s left by Rayna’s absence.
“The second half of the season does a balancing act between the new events that happened in these characters’ lives, the ways in which their lives moved on and the fact that they’re still hurting -- some of them reeling, some of them undone -- by this terrible event. You’re going to see both, just as you would in real life,” he hints. “You feel your grief, yet life demands that you move on.”