SPOILER ALERT: The Story includes details about last night’s episode of Nashville.
It was a tall order for Thirtysomething creators Marshall Herskovits and Ed Zwick — one of the first things they had to deal with as new showrunners of Nashville last summer was crafting an exit for star Connie Britton. With her blessing, they spearheaded a final 9-episode arc for her beloved character Rayna James. It culminated last night with Rayna’ tragic death stemming from a random car crash while Rayna was being driven away by police after surviving an attack by an armed stalker.
In an interview with Deadline, Herskovitz talks about why they decided to have Rayna die in Episode 9, what to expect in the next two episodes before the series’ fifth season takes a break and are there plans for a sixth season. He also gives a “poetic” interpretation of what really killed Rayna and discusses possible casting additions following Britton’s exit.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the timing of Connie’s final episode? Why Episode 9, two episodes before the midseason finale?
HERSKOVITZ: My primary objective was to allow the audience time to absorb, respond and work through the shock of her death. It was originally suggested to us that we have Rayna die at the end of Episode 11, right at the end of this miniseason we are doing. I said, “No, that makes no sense, you can’t do that to the audience, ‘Oops, she died, bye, see you in 3 months.’ That would not work.” Once we understood that, we then saw that we really had to work backwards, how much time, how many episodes we need to process what happened. We arrived at the formula that we used — she had the accident in the eight episode, dies in the ninth episode and then we have the tenth and the eleventh to deal with the aftermath. It’s actually worked out very well.
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about the upcoming two episodes?
HERSKOVITZ: I feel incredibly proud of the tenth episode, which is the funeral and the aftermath of the funeral. I feel it is full of musical passion and love and connection and is in some way redemptive. When you watch this episode where she dies, you can feel nothing but shock and kind of disrepair at the end of it. When you watch the next episode, you feel a kind of redemption. That’s what I hope the audience will stay around for. Because it really gives a sense of how this family, this group of people, this show can go on without this person they love so much even as they miss her so much.
DEADLINE: What will be the impact of Rayna’s death on those around her?
HERSKOVITZ: Some of the characters will still be very deeply in the their grief of their loss. Others would move more easily. Life moves on relentlessly and other stories would happen but no one is going to forget her, the reverberations of her death will continue for many, many episodes. But I don’t want to imply that the show would become some sort of depressing house of mourning draped in black. Life will go on, and there will be other stories. There is a balance as there is in life. When it first happens, you are overwhelmed, and you begin to live your life again but you never forget the person that you’ve lost, and sometimes you are overcome by the emotions but you still live your life.
DEADLINE: Are you planning to add another major female character to fill the void left by Connie’s departure?
HERSKOVITZ: We made casting additions in the fall, and it was always our intention even before we decided that Rayna would die that we would make additions to the cast in the second part of the season, don’t think any of them is related to her death. It was our mandate when we came in this year to make certain changes in the direction of the show and that entailed unfortunately letting some cast members go and bringing some new ones in. We wanted to have more diversity of music, more diversity of people, there have been a lot of factors gone into how we’ve made these adjustments.
DEADLINE: With Connie gone, would Hayden Panettiere become the lead of the series, or you will keep it as an ensemble?
HERSKOVITZ: We’ve always seen this as an ensemble show. Rayna was the center, both Rayna and Juliette were at the center. We feel very comfortably doing an ensemble show with no one person at the center. But we don’t have to tell everyone’s story in every episode so there will be some episodes that concentrate more on Deacon, others more on Juliette. Just by changing that template, we can go deeper into the stories but tell fewer stories per episode.
DEADLINE: What was the significance of the stalker storyline and the scene of him confronting Rayna?
HERSKOVITZ: We had an idea from the beginning that there would be a stalker that would become increasingly frightening for the entire family because that is something we see in modern life all the time, so many celebrities go through it, and that would culminate in a very long and intense scene. That was a scene that was 9 minutes that you almost never see on TV, it was just these two people where they actually establish an odd and amazing connection with each other based on the fact that they both have experienced so much trauma in their lives.
It was always our goal with this storylne to show Rayna’s ability in this moment, in such stark terror, to keep her head and to realize that the man confronting her was actually someone very vulnerable, someone who had injured himself and she could reach him by speaking to his vulnerability and emotionally disarm him. The idea always was that she prevailed in the situation because of her humanity, because she manages to touch his humanity.
Rayna had gone through so much trauma in her life, so many people on the show had gone through so much trauma in their childhood, that’s a theme on the show. We felt that there was a real, almost karmic connection — the reason Rayna was in that police car going through a red light and being hit by a truck was because of what happened with that stalker. if he hadn’t been there she would not be there and it wouldn’t happen.
So in some sense you can say, poetically speaking, that it was trauma that killed her because this man responded to her so deeply, because he saw something in her that he recognized in himself.
DEADLINE: Have you thought about Season 6?
HERSKOVITZ: We always start thinking ahead. We are beginning to formulate plans for sixth year but until we have definite word from CMT, there is limit to what we can do.
DEADLINE: How was the call made how to write Rayna off the show? It was one of the first major decisions as showrunners you had to make.
HERSKOVITZ: We had already taken over the show when CMT picked it up. That’s when Connie came came to us and said that even though she was still under contract, she felt at a creative level that she wanted to leave. It was actually a very painful decision for her because she felt close to the people on show, very close to the show itself but had been doing it for four years, and she just felt it was time to go.
The next question was: could we figure out a way to write her out and could we get the network and the studio to go along with that. We worked together and we figured out a storyline that everyone felt comfortable enough with and proceeded.
DEADLINE: Was writing Rayna off completely the only option you had?
HERSKOVITZ: As it was expressed to us, there was no option other than she would leave the show, there was no talk of bring her back occasionally. And frankly, there was no scenario that we could think of where Rayna James would not be in regular contact with her husband and her daughters, it would just make no sense. There wasn’t a believable avenue where we could keep her in some way partially connected to the show. After some resistance on all of our parts, because we don’t want to see the character die, we accepted the fact that there was no others way for her to leave.
DEADLINE: Why did you decide to give Rayna a scene with each main character from her inner circle in Connie’s final episode?
HERSKOVITZ: The idea was to do this for our viewers. You want to give the viewers the chance to say goodbye, which is by watching her say goodbye.