'Nashville' Boss on Deacon's Fate, Juliette's Loneliness and "Blowback" From Teddy's Arrest

"We're really focusing this year on the difference between the public persona and the private reality," showrunner Dee Johnson tells THR about season four.
ABC

Will Deacon (Charles Esten) live or die on Nashville? Showrunner Dee Johnson isn't spilling the beans, but luckily, it won't take fans long to find out his fate.

"You will know within the first five minutes what our situation is moving forward as far as Deacon goes," Johnson tells The Hollywood Reporter.

However, Deacon's lifeline is hardly the only big question going into the fourth season of the ABC country music drama. Ahead of Wednesday's return, Johnson spoke with THR about Juliette's "twisted sense of self-loathing," Scarlett and Gunnar's "connection," Layla and Jeff's "new understanding" and how Teddy's exit as a series regular will impact the series.

What would you say is the theme for season four?

Because of where everybody is in their careers and lives, we're really focusing this year on the difference between the public persona and the private reality so that's our theme this season. A lot of our characters are celebrities in our fictitious world so we're really digging into that.

That was a big question especially for Juliette coming out of the finale. What is the next step of her journey after Avery left her?

Some people can really throw themselves into their work to keep them away from having to deal with their lives in many ways and she does so with an amazing amount of success. So when we come into this season, she couldn't be more successful.

Where do she and Avery stand? Is there hope for them?

There's definitely hope, but when we come back into the season, they have not been communicating.

Is there one person in Juliette's life who is trying to help her the most?

In our fictitious world, celebrities oftentimes can be surrounded by all kinds of people who may or may not have her best interest at heart. She's alone in the beginning of our season, at least emotionally.

Seeing her team up with Jeff at the end of last season was surprising considering what they had been through. What can you say about their working relationship?

Certainly it was motivated out of a real twisted sense of self-loathing. But the thing about Jeff is he actually is quite good at what he does. Those two are never going to have the warm fuzzies for each other, but she appreciates that he is a mover and a shaker in many ways, and that's what she wants at this point in her life.

Obviously Jeff and Layla were a big focus point at the end of last season. Where do they go from here as a couple?

They come into the new season with a new understanding of each other. Nothing like taking a golf club to somebody's Bentley to really shake things up in a relationship. They now understand each other in a way that they didn't before.

What is the next step for Layla as an artist? What challenges lay ahead for her?

She's definitely not given up on her career, and she also has a mover and a shaker in a manager. Of course, the bad news for her is he now has a very demanding client, and I think that's going to be not easy — not only for Layla in terms of her relationship with Jeff, but keeping his attention on the relationship and on her own career. It's going to be challenging.

Is there anyone else on the show she'll turn to for advice?

She's a Rayna artist so that relationship continues, but it's complicated because Rayna hates Jeff. She does have an ally who believes her in Rayna, but Rayna has her own problems. So it's going to be hard for Layla to get the right amount of attention in the beginning of the season.

Will her struggle with depression come up again then?

It's definitely a struggle, but ultimately she feels a little more secure in her relationship with Jeff even though it's problematic on the surface of it because Juliette is such a demanding client. I don't think she goes quite to the depth — at least in the early going — that you might expect. She has grown a lot. She's been through a lot what with the Will thing and her near-death experience, etc. One thinks that we evolve a little bit.

What can you say is ahead for Rayna? What are some of her upcoming obstacles?

At the end of last season, she lost Juliette as an artist. That leaves her — at least from a label head point of view — with no established artists other than herself on her label. That poses a big problem for her, at least in terms of the public perception in Nashville about her viability in doing this. So she's got a lot of work to do to make herself a relevant player.

How does she go about making herself relevant and saving face in the community?

She lost Juliette. She lost Sadie Stone — for different reasons, of course, but it's looking like she can't keep an established artist. So one of the things that Rayna throws herself into in terms of filling her days is thinking outside the box and having to bring a big name. She's got to sign a big name to her label to give it any kind of credibility. She goes after somebody who is outside the box.

Obviously, Rayna's daughters are getting older. What does that dynamic look like as they're growing up and coming into their own?

Well, the biggest problem with them getting older is one's getting older quicker than the other, at least in terms of entering into the teenage years. They're entering an age with children where there's a bigger difference; [ages] 11 and 16 [are a] big difference in terms of what they're experiencing and what they're wanting. As much as we love them together and as much as they have always performed together, there's definitely going to be a strain in that particular sibling relationship as a result of what the older kid is going through.

Eric Close is not returning as a series regular so how does that change the dynamic of the show and how does that affect that family storyline this season?

There's definitely some blowback from it. It was pretty heinous where we left. It affects the family, obviously, but it really affects Daphne probably almost more than anybody and it is something that we do play to. We see Eric for the first time in episode three.

Now that you're not focusing on political stories as much, how has that shift affected the storytelling?

It allows us to have all the stories be more of a piece where we're in the same world and we're not splitting focus in that way. I think that was tricky.

Will finally came out in the finale after a long struggle. What is the next step of that and what new challenges will he face now that he's out?

That was step A. When we come back, it’s a month later and I think that in the time in between the finale and when we come back, he made a decision in the moment and it was true to him and it was real and long-earned, but like anything, afterwards you're going, 'Was that the right decision?' He's been hibernating for a month since the finale. … He has to figure out who he is not only as a performer but also as a person because he has never really lived 'out' before. He is new to a lot of it. There is a struggle in terms of who he is and how he lives and what he does.

Obviously he had that big romance at the end of last season. What does his love life look like this season?

When we come back this season, they're still together.

One of the show's biggest couples, Scarlett and Gunnar, had a big moment in the finale. What can you say is next for them?

They have their musical magic. They have this connection that's been there from the beginning. Scarlett is still involved with Dr. Rand and in the finale, they basically leaned into something that they're going to now have to deal with because they are professionally linked. The question is, of course, can you put that genie back in the bottle?

Individually, what is coming up for them this season?

Gunnar has a little bit of a lesson that he has to learn this season. He's such a romantic. He's the kind of guy that goes from zero to 60 in a relationship and it's about instantly falling in love, and one of the things he has to learn how to do this year is learn how to date.

What about Scarlett?

She's moved in with Dr. Rand, and they are a couple. The question she has to ask herself is: What is their relationship built on? One could make the argument that it's situational.

What is next for them as a duo after signing with Rayna?

Going back to our theme again, because they have so much history and because they have such magic, they're going to continue to perform together onstage. At some point, they are going to go out on the road and all their history will be part of the struggle they have in terms of the face they put on when they're on stage for the audience. … It's always fun to think that people look like they're having a great old time and they're really close, and then you find out what's really happening behind the scenes, you're like, 'Oh my God.' There's lots of stuff happening behind the scenes that may not be clear, and then there's going to be times when it's visible on the stage.

What is coming up for Luke this season? How does he fit into everything?

Juliette mentioned that she's joining Luke's tour at the end of last season and that's where she is when we come into this season. So they actually get to be friendly.

What do you think draws them to each other?

They have a lot in common given the level of performer that each of them are and their level of success. It's a small club that they're in. In Luke's backstory, it's been suggested that he got divorced and there were some problems in his family dynamic and one would assume that maybe he made some choices in his life that would be similar to some of the choices that Juliette made in terms of career over family.

What can you say about his love life? 

Any love he has — for lack of a better word — might also be situational. One of Luke's main drives this season is looking back at the family that he might have caused problems with in the past and trying to repair that.

Nashville airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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