SPOILER ALERT: The story includes details about tonight’s episode of Nashville and Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us.
It’s been a tough week for fans of soapy family drama series. After This Is Us‘ William lost his battle with cancer in a Memphis hospital Tuesday, Nashville‘s Rayna tonight passed away in another Tennessee hospital 200 miles away. The episode marks Nashville star Connie Britton’s departure from the country music drama after four and a half seasons.
Britton had been the star and emotional center of Nashville since the series’ 2012 launch on ABC, with Hayden Panettiere as the co-lead, playing the bratty hot new country starlet Juliette to Britton’s fading superstar Rayna. When ABC surprisingly canceled the country music drama in May after four seasons, and it later was picked up by CMT, Britton, who was still under a contract, approached new showrunners Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick with a request to leave for personal and professional reasons. They obliged and conceived a final arc for Rayna, culminating in her death tonight, two episodes before Nashville’s midseason finale. (For more on that and why Rayna had to die, read my interview with Nashville producers Friday morning.)
Britton’s Rayna landed in the hospital after the police car she was riding in — after coming face-to-face with her stalker — was hit by a truck. While she survived the crash and subsequent surgery, Rayna eventually succumbed to her injuries after being able to say goodbye to her children, Deacon and everyone else who had been close to her, and getting a visit from her late mom, played by Carla Gugino, in a hallucination.
“Playing Rayna has been a privilege and a deeply enriching experience for me,” Britton said in a statement. “I am going to miss her grace, tenacity and feistiness. And I’m forever grateful and indebted to our unbelievably talented cast and crew, and to the Nashville community amongst whom I have had the honor to work. And then there are the fans. Wow. I’m so humbled by our incredible fans for their unwavering passion and commitment. They are the reason the show exists, and the reason the show will continue. I’ll be watching and cheering alongside all of you. Thanks for the honor of these 5 years.”
Speculation about a pending Britton departure from Nashville — produced by Lionsgate TV, ABC Studios and Opry Entertainment — intensified earlier this pilot season when the Emmy-nominated Friday Night Lights and American Horror Story alumna was approached with pilot offers.
In an exclusive video for Deadline, Britton talks about what drew her to the role of Rayna James and shares her thoughts about Rayna’s passing and the future of Nashville. “That was a tough week of shooting, I’ll tell you that,” Britton says about filming tonight’s episode. “It was hard to get through those days without everybody being in tears.”