'Nashville' Showrunner on Deacon's Devastating News, Layla's Future, Season 4

"He's been through a lot and I don't think he wants to put anybody else through a lot"
'Nashville'  ABC/Mark Levine

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the midseason finale of ABC's Nashville, "First to Have a Second Chance."]

Nashville's winter finale featured a number of gasp-inducing moments, including a cliffhanger involving the fate of one of the show's central characters.

Although promos for the episode revealed Deacon (Charles Esten) passed out, the show went into its two-month winter hiatus leaving viewers wondering if Layla (Aubrey Peeples) would survive after she was last seen floating face down in a pool with her closeted husband Will (Chris Carmack) calling out for help.

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While showrunner Dee Johnson says fans will have to tune when Nashville returns Feb. 4 to find out what happens, she did acknowledge that Layla and Will's relationship has reached a breaking point. The pair has been essentially trapped in a sham marriage as Will refuses to publicly acknowledge that he's gay with their reality-show producer using footage of him revealing that to Layla as blackmail. But a change could be coming.

"Something has to give and I think that Will in particular has to take stock of his part in all of this," Johnson tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I mean, when you look at that character, Layla, who is really quite young, that is a horrible thing to find yourself in a marriage that's just a sham. Then to have to continue to play the sham? I think that he is feeling horribly guilty. So I don't think he can just go on his merry way; he has to change."

As for Deacon, viewers got the relief of seeing him alive after his near-death scare, but it wasn't all good news for the brooding guitarist. Deacon was told that he has undiagnosed cirrhosis of the liver strongly pointing to cancer. Johnson said the disease will be "a big struggle for him" as he doesn't want anyone to take care of him, including longtime love Rayna (Connie Britton) or his niece Scarlett (Clare Bowen).

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In a night full of shocking moments, Rayna's decision to call off her wedding to Luke (Will Chase) at the last minute felt like the least surprising development, particularly given the show's persistent teasing of her past with Deacon and his lingering love for her. But the episode centered around the big "Ruke" nuptials did feature some wedded bliss, after all, courtesy of Juliette (Hayden Panettiere) and Avery (Jonathan Jackson).

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Johnson about the midseason finale's major developments and how those incidents would affect Nashville going forward.

What can you say about Layla's fate?

That's a tough one, isn't it? [Laughs.] Timing is definitely everything. I think that she's been through a lot. It would be nice if she didn't perish.

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It seems like there's a lot of story there with her relationships with Will and Jeff (Oliver Hudson) that still needs to be unpacked and dealt with. Do you feel like there's still a story for her?

I think she ended up having, intentionally or otherwise, actually, a huge impact on both of these men in surprising ways and then obviously, as a result of that, ended up being some form of collateral damage in the episode. So there's certainly a lot to unpack after that … for all parties.

Why did you decide to go in that direction for Deacon with the diagnosis and the illness, which seemed to sort of come out of nowhere?

We did build to it slowly, whether or not anybody noticed, that he was not feeling great. We wanted in some way for his past to catch up with him as it does for people at inopportune times …Maybe because there is at least, to some degree, a correlation between his very heavy drinking in his younger years and the liver cancer that he's suffering from at this moment. For us it wasn't really left field as much as it was just really horrible timing.

How will this affect him going forward?

He's been through a lot, and I don't think he wants to put anybody else through a lot. That's going to be a big struggle for him only because of whatever feelings he has, lifelong feelings for Rayna, but because of his very close relationship with Scarlett. I don't think that he's somebody that wants to be taken care of.

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Did you think about having Rayna go ahead with her wedding to Luke when you were plotting that story from the beginning?

We wanted Luke to be a really viable choice and I think that he tried really hard. There's been a lot of unfinished business for Rayna. It felt right that she would not make the same mistake that she did with Teddy (Eric Close), which is to just jump into something that would ultimately be unfair to both of them, but in particular to Luke. I think that she recognized the damage that was done with the whole Teddy thing, too. In my mind, it was always going to be a big struggle. Ultimately, you want to believe that characters learn from their mistakes, and I think that she did.

There were a lot of references and hints to her wedding with Teddy and her marriage to him, but he wasn't shown interacting with her or the girls in this episode. Was this a conscious choice to have him be separated from them?

When you really condense the episode, it happened in such a short time frame. I think that he was dealing with own feelings about it. Rayna may not have been emotionally 100 percent with Teddy but I believe that Teddy was in love with Rayna and wanted to make that work, so I think he was dealing with a lot of his own emotions and that it was probably going to be a difficult thing to endure and his girls were swept up in it. So I think to some degree he did want to take a backseat at that moment and then I think he just sort of retreated into his loneliness and he called the only person he could really talk to about it.

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With Juliette and Avery, do you think that he's forgiven her, because they haven't really discussed what happened with Jeff since early in the season?

The story that they had in episode eight shed a light, for both of them, on each other, and I think he has forgiven her, which isn't of course to say that he'll ever forget that. You can't experience that level of unfaithfulness and have it somewhere in the back of your head, should anything else come up. But overall I think he has forgiven her and he wouldn't have asked her to marry him if he didn't.

Last season the show's renewal came at the eleventh hour. What sense you have about the show's future beyond this season? Are you working toward a season finale that could serve as a series finale, if need be?

We're definitely moving forward like we've got more to come. That's not, in any way, anything I'm thinking about. We're taking it to the next level and now we're in a place where we're looking at where Rayna is, where Deacon is, where's that going to land and maybe write toward something like that.

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How will Laura Benanti starring in Radio City Music Hall's "New York Spring Spectacular" affect her role on Nashville?

Obviously it puts a crimp in her availability. The only good news is that New York is a little closer to Nashville than L.A. so we have her moving forward and I think we will just try to do the best that we can.

Nashville returns Feb. 4 on ABC. Hit the comments below with your thoughts. What did you think about the winter finale?

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