[Warning: This article contains major spoilers about Thursday's episode of Nashville. Read at your own risk!]
Can Nashville continue without Rayna Jaymes? According to the showrunners, the answer is a resounding yes... but fans may have a different view.
Nashville viewers have had less than 24 hours to process the shocking death of the beloved central character played by Connie Britton, who was killed off on Thursday's episode. And some angry "Nashies" on Twitter are already threatening to stop watching the show now that it will live in a post-Rayna world. But executive producer Marshall Herskovitz assures fans that the future is a bright one.
"The next episode, in which we have the funeral and the aftermath of the funeral, is the best episode I've been connected to on any show in 20 years," says Herskovitz, whose previous credits include My So-Called Life and thirtysomething. "It's like a symphony. It's like a state of grace that everyone's in, where you feel so intensely, not just the love they felt for her, but the power of love to hold people together. And it is the most moving episode I've seen in I don't know how long. ... I really feel that, once someone looks at that episode, they will understand that this show will go on."
TVGuide.com chatted with Herskovitz about Britton's decision to leave the show, his response to fan backlash about the episode, and why producers felt that death was the only plausible way to write Rayna out.
It became public before the season even began that Connie Britton had only signed on for 10 episodes. What was the story behind that, and how did that govern how you approached Rayna's storyline?
Herskovitz: When the show was canceled by ABC - and I don't want to speak for Connie; she can speak for herself — but just based on my conversations with her, I think Connie assumed that the show was over. And when it was picked up by CMT, what she indicated to me was that she felt that, from a creative standpoint, she wanted to move on. And this had nothing to do with the show. It had nothing to do with the people on the show. The cast and she got along great. They loved each other. This was really just her decision. It had been four years and she just felt she needed to move on. Now, she was under contract to Lionsgate to continue on the show. So, she came to me and she was basically in somewhat of a quandary. You know, "What do I do?" I said to her, "Look, if you don't want to be here, I'm not going to force someone to be here. So, let's figure out a way for you to leave the show in a manner that really pays respect to the character and to what you've meant to the show." And she was grateful, and from that moment on, we worked together to figure out the best storyline for that. So, it was my decision to write her out based on her desire to leave. And then it was a question of, how do you do that?
How did you arrive at the decision that Rayna would be killed off?
Herskovitz: To be perfectly honest, of course we would have liked to keep the character alive, but there was simply no way we could imagine that Rayna Jaymes would be alive and not be in contact with her children and her husband. That just made no sense. We couldn't send her on tour. We couldn't send her to an ashram. It just didn't make any sense. So, with great reluctance on all sides, we decided that the only answer was for the character to die.
And then, just letting you into all the thought process that we went through, it would make absolutely no sense to have her die at the end of Episode 11, when we were going to have some kind of hiatus after that and not be on the air for two or three months, and leave the audience hanging at such a shocking moment. Once we realized that, we said, "OK, look, what we've got to do is work out a series of storylines that allow for this stuff to happen, but then allow for the people in the show and the fans who watch the show to adjust to the death and to experience the grief and the upset and the anger and feeling of abandonment and work through to a place where there's at least some sense that there's going to be a future for these people on the show." So, that's what we worked out, and that's how it ends up that she has an accident in the eighth episode, she dies in the ninth episode, and then in the 10th and the 11th, you really see how these people in her life cope and start in the smallest of ways to move forward.
How quickly did you arrive at the decision that Rayna had to die? Were there any other storylines that you considered or started writing before realizing they wouldn't work?
Herskovitz: It was not a quick decision, but there were no other storylines. In other words, we spent a week basically avoiding the inevitable, trying to think of storylines. But really, nothing that was at all believable came up. So, it's not like we tried anything. You know... held hostage by terrorists? I mean, no. It just doesn't work.
As soon as it became apparent that Rayna was going to have a stalker this season, fans who knew that Connie had only signed on for 10 episodes assumed that the stalker was going to kill her.
Herskovitz: We wanted to do a stalker storyline from the beginning. Before even we knew Connie wanted to leave, we wanted to do a stalker, because it's just a fact of life for a celebrity in America today. And I always knew that I wanted to tell a story about Rayna reaching the stalker at an emotional level. This was based on a couple of real-life events that I was very struck by. ... This idea of a person in unbelievable jeopardy keeping her head and managing to rise above the situation fit Rayna Jaymes so perfectly. So, that was always the plan. Even before we were thinking that she was going to die, we were always going to tell that story.
There were a lot of, for lack of a better term, fake-outs in the episode and in the season in general, with Rayna surviving an attack by her stalker, and then seemingly surviving a car crash, only to suddenly die sort of randomly in the hospital. Were you concerned about fans getting upset about that?
Herskovitz: I think the stories actually tie together. It's not arbitrary. People think it's arbitrary and I can understand that, but it's not arbitrary. If you want to sort of look at it psychologically, Rayna had gone through a lot of trauma in her life. That's what that scene with the stalker was about, talking about how her father was a sociopath who killed her mother, and she carried that around every day of her life. There's so much trauma in the show. Deacon had gone through trauma as a child. And the reason this stalker was drawn to her, I believe, was because he recognized something in her because he had been traumatized. So, you can say it's random that she's in the police car and it's hit by a truck, but why was she in the police car? She was in the police car because this stalker had singled her out and put her through this horrible situation. So, in some way — not physically, but thematically, karmically — it was trauma that killed her. It was trauma that in some way came back to haunt her and finally didn't enable her to live a complete life. And to me, this is a very important theme to talk about.
True, but some fans might be left feeling like they were lulled into a false sense of security. Was that intentional? You could have just had her pronounced dead when she got to the hospital.
Herskovitz: I plead guilty to being a dramatist. To have her being pronounced dead at the hospital, I could have done that in the episode before. In other words, there was story to be told about the dying and everyone's reaction to the possibility that she might die, and her reaction. By the way, I think something that's kind of a little buried in this episode where she dies is this feeling that, once she sees her mother, she knows she's dying. The other people don't know, but she knows. And, if you watch closely, after she sees her mother, there's an urgency to her. She has to tell her daughter how much Deacon loves her and that Deacon will take care of her. And she has to tell Scarlett that you can make your own choices in this life. There's a sense of wanting to impart to the people that she loves the things they need to know in order to move forward with their lives. So, we felt there was a story to tell about the death, and that to just say, "Oh, dead," was in some way not doing justice to it.
You mention those conversations. Maddie is the only character who's really close to Rayna who doesn't get a deathbed send-off with her. Why did you make the decision to single her out?
Herskovitz: As a storyteller, you're drawn to a character's innate traits, or you're drawn to the things that define a relationship. Maddie had always, in some sense, been at odds with her mother. And this is so common among mothers and daughters who love each other, that somehow the struggle takes precedence over the love, even though the love is so strong. So there was something tragic, and horrible, and believable, about the fact that somehow this girl who loved her mother so much but couldn't deal with the fact that her mother was such a strong influence in her life, that it would cause her to almost miss her mother's death, and that that would be something that she's going to carry around with her. I've known people like that. That's just what happens to human beings.
What was the mood like for Connie's last day on set?
Herskovitz: It was a remarkable scene. There was so much emotion on the set. You would expect it from the actors, but from the crew as well, everybody was crying. They'd spent that entire day crying. I think that you would be tempted to say that the cast members weren't acting, but in fact, the acting part is in those moments, being able to modulate and repeat what was necessary for each scene. And I have to say, I was in awe of the kids. Just in awe. The grown-ups, maybe they have the skill or the learning to be able to understand how to pace themselves and get through a day like that. but when you see Lennon and Maisy crying... put it this way, when I looked at the dailies, when I saw them doing the same emotion, take after take, angle after angle, that's an extraordinary feat for a young actress. That's just incredibly difficult. And that's not just emotion. That's talent and skill. It just brought me to tears to watch the flowering of their abilities as actresses, in this whole season but especially in that episode, how they rose to that occasion.
I was just so proud of everyone. It was just so moving to watch everyone face this. We're in the business of pretending, but the only way we can make it work is by forgetting that we're pretending. Everyone on that show, every actor, every crew member, walked into that episode with this sense of dread as if someone was really going to die. That's how they went through the week. And that's a really hard, painful thing. They did it amazingly well.
Rayna is such a central part of Nashville. Where is the show going to go from here?
Herskovitz: This episode that you just saw leaves the characters and the viewer somehow in a kind of state of despair and loss. But when you watch the next episode, you're left in a different place. You're left in a place of redemption and grace. That's the only word I can use. I cry harder in the next episode than in this one, because I'm crying out of kind of a sense of love and connection to these people. It's uplifting. I really want our viewers and our fans to hang around and watch that episode and understand that there is going to be a life [after Rayna], and it's going to be a life full of depth and emotion and connection — and of course conflict, because there always is — but it's about the depth of their feeling and of their souls. ... This show will go on and this show will soar, and it will be partly because of Rayna and because of the loss of Rayna and the terrible feelings that are left behind, but [also] because of the humanity of these people and the strength of their characters. There are so many stories to tell about them.
Nashville airs Thursdays at 9/8c on CMT. Episodes are available on Hulu the day after broadcast.