SPOILER ALERT: The story includes details about last night’s episode of Nashville on CMT.
Nashville fans are mourning the death of the show’s beloved central character, country icon Rayna James, played by series star Connie Britton. She survived a scary run-in with an armed stalker and her second major car crash. The first, in the Season 1 finale, left her in a coma, which she eventually woke up from and completely recovered. The outcome was not happy this time. After visibly improving following a successful surgery to the point of being able to write one more song with husband Deacon and have heart-to-hearts with all important people in her life, including a hallucination of her late mom, played by Carla Gugino, Rayna’s condition suddenly deteriorated and she passed away, with her family by her side.
In an interview with Deadline, Nashville creator/executive producer Callie Khouri, who directed Britton’s final episode, talks about the decision to kill off Rayna and why no other scenario they’d considered made sense, addresses the fallout from Rayna’s death and describes how it was being on the set of the show when Britton’s last scenes were filmed. The Oscar winner for writing Thelma & Louise also draws a parallel between the tragic heroines and Rayna and makes her case to Nashville fans why they should stick with the show after her passing.
DEADLINE: Why Did Rayna have to die?
KHOURI: It was an agonizing decision. We started the season knowing Connie had wanted to leave for a number of personal and professional reasons, having to do with the tremendous opportunities that are are out there for her. I know it was a decision that she wrestled with as well. We wanted to accommodate her. We love her and I wish that we had been able to figure out a way that made sense just to have Rayna go somewhere. But honestly I don’t believe that anyone would believe that in the midst of everything Daphne and Maddie were going through, Rayna would ever purposely leave her family just like that and leave Deacon. What is she going to do? We joked around a lot — kidnapped by Boko Haram? What are you gonna do?
DEADLINE: Did you seriously consider any other scenarios?
KHOURI: We talked about everything and did quite a bit of soul searching but the biggest hurdle was we could never come up with a plausible reason why Rayna would just disappear form the series. On top of it (having her die) certainly was a very Nashville thing to have happened. Nashville has seen its share of untimely losses over the years, beloved country stars. What we endeavored to do is have it be like real life, come out of nowhere and too soon.
DEADLINE: Was there a possibility for Connie to stay on as a recurring guest star or it had to be a clean break?
KHOURI: That was my understanding, that we had to let her out. For any actor, four years is a long time to devote when you are living in another city (Nashville films in Nashville), and she has a son she devotes an enormous amount of time to. There have been a lot of movie roles she has wanted to pursue along with other TV opportunities. We didn’t want to do anything that was dependent on holding her. And to have her dropping in and out just wasn’t dramatically desirable for her or for us.
DEADLINE: Did Connie have a say in how the character would exit? Was she on board with the decision to kill off Rayna?
KHOURI: Absolutely. We talk to her about everything, she was definitely part of the decision.
DEADLINE: You were forced to write off Rayna prematurely because of Connie’s desire to leave. How did you envision Rayna’s story would end when you were creating the show?
KHOURI: I’ve certainly never thought about where it would end. I think with a character that is iconic like this, you have to do something that is incredibly dramatic, and we are not far off from what I would done had we gone to cancellation.
DEADLINE: You directed Connie’s finale episode. How was it on the set?
KHOURI: We all were feeling very emotional. There were a lot of tears shed on the set. On the day we shot her final scene with the girls and Deacon in the hospital room, I took a picture of the trash can – one of those huge trash cans – literally overflowing with Kleenex. All of us were complete basket cases, not just the actors but the whole crew. We were really, really super sad. We wanted her to have a great and emotional exit from the show, which she really did.
DEADLINE: Did Connie say something at the end?
KHOURI: Yes, at the end of shooting we had a gathering. It was a really sad and loving occasion where she thanked everybody and we thanked her again. We cried quite a bit. It’s tough. Even with Thelma and Louise I never really thought of death as death. Connie and I talked about it, and I said wow, it’s so much harder than I thought it was going to be. It hit me a lot more viscerally than I expected.
DEADLINE: You mentioned Thelma & Louise, in which the central characters’ stories also end with their deaths. Do you see other parallels with Rayna?
KHOURI: I hope that Rayna James’ memory lives on much in the same way, that she becomes one of those female characters that people really use as a touchstone for a self-determining woman who is making the best of the life she has.
DEADLINE: When crafting Rayna’s final arc, why did you decide to have a stalker storyline, and why did you decide not to end her life that way?
KHOURI: Stalking unfortunately is all too common for people who are in the public eye, and we always planned at some point to have that as part of out story, to show what people who are famous have to deal with at the worst of times. We would talk about it every year. We decided that we didn’t want to end Rayna’s life at the hands of a stalker. The random surprise, the way death can just come out of nowhere, that’s the hard thing to deal with. It’s just something about that that appealed to all of us in the room, not seeing it coming, having a setup for thinking it was going to be one thing, having the relief of having gotten away with your life and then something else completely unconnected happened.
DEADLINE: The crash that led to Rayna’s death. Was it an accident or there is a mystery behind who hit her?
KHOURI: It’s random.
DEADLINE: Rayna was in a great place with Deacon when she died. Was that intentional?
KHOURI: Yes, definitely. We wanted them to be in a happy marriage and happy creatively, doing what they do best, having finally reached a place where they both felt really good about what they have come through.
DEADLINE: What will be the fallout from Rayna’s death?
KHOURI: We are going to do — as we try to do this season — very realistically watching people try to put their lives together, experience grief and loss and all of it that naturally comes from the loss of the most important person in your life.
DEADLINE: Nashville fans too are grieving over Rayna’s death right now. What would you say to them?
KHOURI: We have so much left to tell. If they love these characters, then they are going to love going through the healing process with them. The loss of this character is in every storyline, everything is geared around people dealing in a very real way with the loss of this incredibly special person. Thematically, there is still a lot there for fans to connect to and go through with us. I hope they will stay on the road with us and trust that we will keep delivering everything that we have been able to deliver for the past four seasons.