One week after Rayna Jaymes’ (Connie Britton) devastating death on the country music drama, her family and close friends mourned their unexpected loss on Thursday’s episode, titled “I’ll Fly Away.” The show didn’t waste any time showing Rayna’s funeral, with her widower Deacon (Charles Esten) delivering a heartbreaking eulogy by Rayna’s white coffin fit for the country queen.
“She was my north, my south, my east and west; my working week, the Sunday rest; at noon, midnight; my talk, my song,” Deacon begins, breaking down in the middle of his remembrance as the rain poured down. “I thought that love would last forever. I was wrong.”
By the end of the speech, Deacon -- along with Maddie (Lennon Stella) and Daphne (Maisy Stella) -- are beyond inconsolable as their loved ones, including the return of Rayna’s sister Tandy (Judith Hoag) and Rayna’s incarcerated ex-husband Teddy (Eric Close), gather to pay tribute.
The wake is even more gut-wrenching to witness. The weight of Rayna’s death and the overwhelming presence of her pals paying their respects prove too much for Deacon to handle, and he escapes to his and Rayna’s bedroom -- now, his bedroom -- as he faces the dreaded reality of moving on without his life partner. “You always think you have all the time in the world,” a crestfallen Gunnar (Sam Palladio) says as he reflects on the frailty of life, as he and Rayna’s inner circle take a drink in her honor.
Everyone is affected by Rayna’s death in different ways, but all of them have one thing in common: She was their heaven and Earth. “I don’t know what I am without her,” Deacon admits to Maddie in a raw moment of vulnerability. “You’re my dad,” Maddie says, trying to quell his fears in a moment of reassurance.
But with Rayna’s death comes unfinished business. With Deacon barely functioning, who will look after Maddie and Daphne? What will happen to Rayna’s record label, Highway 65? Who will handle any leftover deals left dangling? When Teddy, out on bereavement leave from prison (he’ll be out in three months), Tandy, and Deacon meet with the lawyer, a significant wrench is thrown: Rayna never re-appointed guardianship for her daughters, and subsequently her estate, before she unexpectedly died, meaning Teddy could end up being Maddie and Daphne’s permanent guardian.
Tensions run high once Deacon finds out Teddy and Tandy’s plan to look after the girls and Highway 65, telling them firmly that he’s not giving up that easily over their proposed power play. “I just think you both need to back off a little bit,” Deacon says. Later, Teddy tries to talk Maddie into letting him be her guardian, but gets caught mid-conversation by Deacon. “You really are low,” he says angrily. “You’re trying to manipulate my daughter. Get out, Teddy. Get. Out.”
Picking between Deacon and Teddy wears on Maddie and Daphne, who both struggle with the fact that Deacon may no longer be their father. “Why did mom have to die?” Daphne asks through her tears in the midst of all this. “Life can be so very beautiful and then really cruel,” Scarlett (Clare Bowen) says. “It’s hard to understand why some things happen to some people and not to others.” Daphne asks Scarlett why they’re “even alive, if we have to die?” “We all got these lights inside of us and we’ve got to let them shine the best we can with the time we’ve got,” Scarlett says in response. “Your mama -- she shone so bright, but the brightest part of her light was you and your sister.”
Before Rayna’s fatal accident, she was on the bill for the CMT Awards (clever network plug, CMT!), but after her death, producers slot in tribute performances by Will Lexington (Chris Carmack) and Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), in what was to be her return to the stage post-accident -- only Juliette persuades Maddie to take the mic instead.
Singing her mother’s ballad, “Sanctuary,” Maddie takes the stage and offers a beautiful rendition of the classic as family photos are displayed on the screens behind her. It’s a black-and-white snapshot of her and her mother that causes Maddie to break down into tears, forcing her to stop mid-song. Deacon and Daphne run up the stage to console her and just when you think the moment’s over, Daphne continues the song a cappella before Deacon and Maddie rejoin to finish the heartbreaking cover without a dry eye in the audience.
Earlier in the evening, Deacon took the high road with Teddy, telling Rayna’s ex-husband that he can be the girls’ legal guardian if it comes to that. Maybe it was the heartfelt tribute performance that changed Teddy’s mind, but he loosens his grip on his guardianship wishes, instead offering an olive branch to Deacon: “Be their guardian for now, and maybe when we get back, we can work something out -- together.”
“It’s a crucial episode,” the 51-year-old actor said. “I’ve never had an episode where more people who have seen it already within our production have reached out to me to tell me how powerful they found it. I brought everything I could for this episode. We all did.”
“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, calling Thursday’s episode “absolutely sublime."
Nashville airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CMT.
For more on the aftermath of Nashville's big death, watch the video below.