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Nashville Series Finale: Charles Esten and Connie Britton on That Beautiful Ending

Did that final performance bring tears to your eyes?

Lindsay MacDonald

Happily ever afters were a dime a dozen in the Nashville series finale, and honestly, we wouldn't have had it any other way!

In the final hour of the show, we got to see Deacon (Charles Esten) finally forgive his father, the girls embark on their own journeys as young artists, Juliette (Hayden Panettiere) and Avery (Jonathan Jackson) reconcile, Scarlett (Clare Bowen) and Gunnar (Sam Palladio) embark on new chapters in their lives, and about a million other lose ends tied up in a nice bow. Perhaps most satisfying of all though, we got to see one final moment between Rayna (Connie Britton) and Deacon!

Rather than give us a dream sequence or some kind of message from beyond, Nashville decided to keep Rayna's return grounded in reality, making it a flashback to her and Deacon's wedding night. The memory of Rayna forgiving Deacon for all that had passed between them -- no matter how hard -- was exactly what Deacon needed in that moment before going on stage to forgive his father. It was a beautiful tribute not only to Rayna's character, but the relationship between Rayna and Deacon that was such a staple of the show from the very beginning. We even got to see her perform one last time in the final number with the entire cast!

"Rayna got to do the impossible," Connie Britton said of the finale. "She got to come back from the dead. I got to do the most wonderful, which was to go back to my Nashville family and celebrate all the hard work and love and care that went into that show. Being on the Ryman stage, reunited with six years of cast and crew, is a moment I'll cherish and never forget. I am grateful."

To get his thoughts on what it felt like to reunite on that stage one last time, TV Guide also spoke with Charles Esten, who breaks down that touching reunion, all those finale twists and turns and his tenure on the ABC-turned-CMT drama in the interview below!

Charles Esten, Nashville

Charles Esten, Nashville

Mark Levine

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How do you feel now that Nashville has reached the end of the end?
Charles Esten:
Well, I can say that I've been grateful for all the things that offered a sense of closure. The last thing you want to do is walk away and say like, "Oh, we didn't do this. Oh, we should have this. We didn't do that." Those are the things that makes it hard. I mean, in the song that we always sing on the show, "A Life That's Good," one of the phrases is Deacon's line. I always sing this one: "I wanna look back and say I did all that I could." That is a great feeling to be able to say that. This has been a long road, and Deacon has been down this hard, tough road, and honestly just everybody is part of the show that has worked very, very hard. It wasn't always easy. There were difficult times. So you just want to be able to look back and say you did all that you could, and I'm actually feeling that type of closure now. I know that I gave my heart and my soul to this role and did all that I could.

Did it feel like the right way to end it, bringing everyone on stage, even Rayna, to perform one last time?
The character of Rayna, obviously the whole show was built around her in the early days and her life and her career. And Rayna still looms large and factors into everything. At the very end, that's out of necessity. That's who that character was and how she impacted everybody on our show, especially Deacon. To have not had her there in some form like that that we had would not have felt like closure. It would have felt like well we finished, but not really. Having everybody on that stage, even that moment I found offered a whole lot of warmth and closure. I've been thinking about it a lot and it's such an unusual ending to do it like that, but then again, this has always been an unusual show, and almost in the same way we would have scenes and songs.

It's almost like the whole show is a long concert, and at the end of a long concert, what happens? Everybody comes out on stage and sings the hit... By the time we were done, we were more able to sort of just hug on each other and hug on each others neck and say thank you... So there was a little bit of that that felt great, and getting to be on stage with everybody, and just put your arms around everybody and the crew included. We were very fortunate to get picked up after the ABC years. Not only that [we got] two more years. but to know that the last year was the last year, that was a gift from CMT that I'll always appreciate. It meant the writers could draw it to a close, and it also meant that we could emotionally get there more slowly than just finding out it was done and over.

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Was there ever a point early in the show's run where you stepped back and realized, "Wow, we've really got something special here?"
Esten: For me with Nashville, it just kept getting better and better. The script was amazing and, "Oh, it's gonna shoot in Nashville? And oh, Connie Britton's playing Rayna? And oh, T Bone Burnett is doing the music?" It just kept going from strength to strength like that. Then I showed up and saw the level of interest that every single department had in being truthful that the wardrobe would look exactly like. It wasn't a bunch of people wearing cowboy hats with straws coming out of their mouth. We looked like on the set what you look like when you went downtown and walked around through the city. The same thing, the sets were immaculate. Our Bluebird looked exactly like the Bluebird... All the instruments were exactly dead on what they should be. And I just kept going, "This thing is not letting down. It's impressing me more at every turn."

Where it really kicked in, I would say, was when I was watching the first episode because until that point, I hadn't seen -- I had seen Connie and I singing together and I knew what I sounded like, and I knew what we sounded like together. I thought, "That's great, we should be good." And then what opened to me was all the other talent all around us. I remember seeing Sam and Clare, or Scarlett and Gunnar sing, "If I didn't Know Better," and I remember watching that going, "This is magical. My character is nowhere near this scene." This Bluebird scene shot with these two incredible voices, these great actors, incredible voices, while this other stuffs going on with Deacon and Teddy (Eric Close) and the whole campaign. There's JD Souther playing Watty White and saying, "You got to hear this." It's a really wonderful thing where you could be in love with your own show. That's when I fully fell for it then.

Charles Esten, Clare Bowen, Maisie Stella, Ronny Cox, Lennon Stella, Nashville

Charles Esten, Clare Bowen, Maisie Stella, Ronny Cox, Lennon Stella, Nashville

Mark Levine

Let's talk about that Rayna scene. I loved that it turned out to be a memory instead of a dream or a hallucination or anything like that. What do you think that moment is for Deacon, and how did it sort of influence his decision about his father?
Esten: Well, I think it served a dual purpose. I think in some sense, Deacon sort of shut down because the mourning process was just almost not trying to remember. If he ever did remember, it was also, "I wasted time. I should've done this, I should've done that. He wasn't able to use Rayna's help in those memories to help him through missing and mourning her. That needed outside help. It needed the girls and Scarlett and Jessie (Kaitlin Doubleday) and Highway 65. Finally, he starts to get there.

And then this other thing happens: his father. And the girls don't understand, they just see this nice grandpa. He's probably just sitting there thinking, "What would Rayna say?" Because Rayna knew all of it. She knew his darkest stuff from the beginning. He knew her stuff about her dad and her mom. And who can talk about forgiveness more than Rayna? How did she do that? "How did she forgive me for what I did to her life? And then, "Oh wait, I remember, and the time I remember is literally the most beautiful time of my life, that moment." So to think that in that one moment, not only does he have this memory of this bit of wisdom and warmth and love that she blessed him with, but also for the rest of his life he can go there too. He can have those memories, those moments like that.

And was it a good piece of closure for Deacon, finally forgiving his dad?
What I love about this is what we've been exploring is the issue of forgiveness. Deacon came from an abusive, dysfunctional situation that was all caused by the father and his drinking. I love that we got to explore this because Deacon has needed all this forgiveness for so long. From the very beginning, there's a whole lot of "I'm sorry's" coming out of Deacon, and he was given that grace and that forgiveness.

It's one thing to talk about forgiveness for somebody that has completely changed and is now just a sweet old grandpa that plays music. Yes, most people would be able to find their way around to forgiving that man. But then to find out that he's still drinking. He lied about it. What I essentially find out is he's human. This is where you're really testing grace and forgiveness. That is, OK, yes, you're right. He's drinking. He lied about it. Does that mean that he's unforgivable and irredeemable forever and always? But that's the nature of forgiveness and grace is that it's for us as much as it's for them or perhaps more than it's for them. Deacon knew that, without that forgiveness, he has this hard shell about him that his daughters are always going to see and always know. He has no peace in his own heart regarding his father. Forgiveness, in terms of the closure that we were talking about with his father, that feels like closure to me.

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​Hayden Panettiere, Nashville

Hayden Panettiere, Nashville

Mark Levine

What did you think of that little tease at the end with Ilse (Ilse DeLange) saying maybe they'll start to write together? Is that a little seed that they planted that maybe there might still be love in Deacon's future?
Esten: What I actually liked a lot about it was that everything we've been through the last two seasons, or the season and a half, where he sort of slowly opened up with Jessie, it seems to me sort of more realistic like the next one to come along wouldn't be the one. You know what I mean? That would be unlikely. But that person, if they had a good heart and a good caring heart, could help open them back up and help through the pain that brings up armor, [help them] let the armor down a little bit, so that there'd even be a situation where Ilsa could say "I'd love to write with you someday" in a slightly flirtatious way, with a little bit of meaning. And Deacon, instead of going, "Oh, no, I don't think that would be ... I don't know. I gotta go." He'd be like, "Um, yeah, you seem like a really kind person that treated my daughter really well. You're obviously beautiful. You have a gorgeous voice. Yeah, I don't know where this will lead, nobody does, but I would like to write with you." And I like that phrase, because writing with somebody is a special thing in Nashville. So it's a better way than saying, "I'd love to go on a date with you sometime." They're not the same thing. It's the sitting down and sharing of yourself with somebody to write this song.

So I like the nebulous quality behind it. Certainly doesn't mean that they're gonna end up even dating, but it means that Deacon's heart is in a better place. It's more open and more -- in some sense more healthy and open and maybe even a little bit brave, not just protecting itself so much, which doesn't get you anywhere in the long run.

What do you think you'll miss most about making this show?
There's a lot of hard questions, but that's the easiest: It's the people. It's the people that I got to spend time with day in and day out in good times and in bad. In hard dramatic scenes and in funny light scenes. In long days doing concerts on stage and days so cold outside that we'd have to stop because tears were just coming out of your eyes from the hold. And brutally hot days just trying to keep yourself from sweating... Just rain, shine, good times, bad -- that crew, that cast is truly special. I'll miss them and take a part of them with me for the rest of my days.