'Nashville' Boss Teases a Spring Wedding, Juliette and Layla's Return and "Blowback" for Luke

"Happily ever after usually don't come right away," showrunner Dee Johnson tells THR about Rayna and Deacon's engagement bliss.
 Mark Levine/ABC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Nashville's winter finale, "We've Got Nothing but Love to Prove."]

Few fans were left singing the blues after Nashville's winter finale, which (finally!) saw Rayna (Connie Britton) and Deacon (Charles Esten) get engaged. Deacon got on one knee in the final moments of the episode after suffering a severe case of jealously at the hands of Markus Keen (Riley Smith), who fled town to reunite with his band the day his country album was released in true rock star fashion.

Rayna said yes, and showrunner Dee Johnson tells The Hollywood Reporter fans won't have to wait long for their big day. "We can expect wedding bells in our return in March," she says. "We're going to jump time a little bit."

However, the rest of Nashville's ensemble will have plenty to write about over the show's long hiatus. Avery (Jonathan Jackson) reluctantly let Cadence spend time with estranged wife Juliette (Hayden Panettiere). Scarlett (Clare Bowen) broke up with her doctor boyfriend. Will (Chris Carmack) found himself at a crossroads, again, over his professional future. The worst fate was left for Luke (Will Chase), who learned he was $40 million in debt. Not only did he lose his girlfriend and several lucrative sponsorships, but he lost his own son when Colt moved in with his mom.

So what will the second half of season four hold for these country crooners? And how will Juliette and Layla (Aubrey Peeples) re-enter the mix? Johnson answered all those burning questions and more.

The episode ended with Deacon and Rayna's engagement. What was behind the decision for them to take this big step? How soon can we expect wedding bells?

It's something, obviously, that we've been working toward for a long time. It felt as though after everything that they had been through at the beginning of the season and everything they needed to process and actually being together and living together… They were pulled in different directions and so even though they were living in the same house, they were a little bit like ships in the night. Markus was a little bit of a catalyst too to their concerns, so they said, "We need to make this a done deal and everybody needs to know and let's finally do what we've been talking about doing."

How much of a time jump will there be?

A month approximately.

What kind of challenges will they face once they actually tie the knot? 

They're already living together so part of it doesn't change that much, but making it real definitely has its impact. Now they're really working on being a formally drawn family and that is isn't as easy as it seems. Happily ever after usually don't come right away.

Professionally, Markus' departure was a big hit for Highway 65. What will be Rayna's next step? What will she take away from the Markus fiasco?

It's not a full-on fiasco because the album does really, really well. It puts her on the map and it makes the label really relevant in a way. Early in the season it was seen as a vanity label but she proves herself. Is he gone from the label because he is the way he is? Yes. But, you know what, it did what it needed to do for her. It puts her front and center. She's actually in a good space.

How does that success with Markus' album change Rayna's job?

Success takes up a lot of one's time. This whole season, our theme has been the idea of public perception versus the private reality. The beginning of the season, she was potentially in trouble. She's actually doing quite well; the label is doing well. She also feels drawn to perform again, so I think she is one of those women who are on magazine covers who actually has done it all and can do it all. But underneath the weight of all that is the difficulty that she is experiencing at home that doesn’t necessarily begin with Deacon, but can go in that direction because she has a daughter who is trying to individuate in a very good way.

One of the biggest surprises of the beginning of the season was Rayna letting her daughters sign to the label. What's coming up for them as artists and how will that change the dynamic between mother and daughters?

Signing them to the label also means she has control over what they do and how they do it and when they do it. She, as any parent might want for their kids, [wants] to have it be more of a slow boil to something because they're still, in her mind, young, especially the youngest of them. But Maddie is at an age where there's a bigger gulf between those two ages than there ever has been and with what's happened to her as of late, the draw to individuate and bristle against authority, particularly your parents, is definitely something that we are exploring.

One of the characters that really hit rock bottom was Luke. How did you decide to throw this huge financial problem his way and blow his world apart?

We wanted him to make a few choices that were contrary to what his moral center truly is and it began with cutting Will Lexington, which he didn’t really want to do but he felt he had to do because of the brand. He made a bunch of sacrifices for this brand and all that it promised and it cost him at the end of the day. We knew it was going to cost him everything, including his son, which is obviously the most precious thing.

How will losing these things do to him? How will he fight to get these things back?

He has to go back into a discovery of who he really is after all that's happened and get back to his real self, and to a moral center that he can live with.

He got the financial problem itself squared away but he lost these brands. What will he have to do an artist to build himself back up?

He's still on tour. The question is, what is the blowback from all of this and how does he handle it? He does a public image hit. It's out there. It's hard to have sympathy for someone who either didn't know that that much money was gone or has that much money that it doesn’t matter. … He does have a little bit of a public relations situation to deal with, but I think he's mostly motivated, at this point in his life given everything that he went through, to get back to himself.

Scarlett is newly single as well. What does that mean for her and Gunnar? What does the second half of the season hold for them?

They're in kind of a decent place, but, in my mind, those two are always in a bunch of near-miss situations. She's with Caleb and then he's now with Erin, and so forth, and they do struggle because there are a lot of strange undercurrents, a lot of magical undercurrents that are still a few layers down beneath them. They are committed to this band and they are going to go on this journey together and that's never completely easy with all of this laying underneath.

Will had a hard time finding himself at the beginning of the season. Will he find romance again? Where will his musical career go from here?

He definitely has had an evolution in terms of what he wants to do. The reality for Will is that he is a performer, that that's what he's always wanted to be and he gets to a point where he can't fight that anymore. The question is, what does it mean to him as he goes forward as a performer? Is he going to fight the establishment or is he going to pick a new dream? And that's where he is. In terms of any romance, I think that that's always out there and he flirts with it. I will say that I think he was in love once in his life and that was with Kevin.

We haven’t seen much of Layla since Jeff's death. What was the reasoning behind Aubrey's absence from the show? Will she be back when the show returns?

Yeah, it was about Jem [and the Holograms]. So yes, had that not been the case, she would have been there. She's still very much in the picture.

She's obviously gone through a lot since we last saw her. What obstacles will she face in the second half of season four? How will she have changed?

By the time that she comes back, because the character has been absent and gone off to heal as much as possible given the circumstances, I think that she comes back tentatively and trying to make sense of her situation. Once she does get back, a newfound agenda presents itself.

I'm curious to see what's next for her musically. A death like this is hard but it's also great inspiration for music.

It's interesting you bring that up because she comes back from this long absence and tells Rayna she has material she's been working on. She's been working through a lot of feelings. That is a situation they have to deal with.

Will we see them work together more? That was something Layla wanted but then Markus got in the way.

Poor Layla (Laughs.) Always a bridesmaid, never the bride. She does come back and she is working with Rayna and there's definitely a plan to get that out. She had a whole album's worth of material ready to go, basically, before this whole thing with Jeff happened, and this is a question of which [album] they're going to go forward with, but there is a plan to launch her and Rayna is behind her.

Is there going to be anyone new in her life romantically?

It's hard for her after the whole Jeff thing. I don’t think you're going to see anything right away, but mourning only lasts so long on this show.

In the winter finale, you also introduced a new character, Frankie's daughter. What role will she play in the upcoming episodes?

She does end up functioning as a bit of mentor to Maddie. She is somebody who Maddie can confide in in a way that you don't have a teenager typically confiding in their parents. She is definitely a creative and emotional outlet for Maddie.

In this episode, Avery made a huge step in allowing Juliette to see the baby. What made him change his mind and what does that mean going forward?

He's still unwilling to let go of the signing away of parental rights. But by the end of this winter finale, Emily made a good case to him: that's always going to be her mom. He recognizes that and while he's going to let her work with the baby, it's really one day at a time as far as that. I don’t think he wants to deprive his daughter of her mother.

What can you say about when Hayden will return to the show? What kind of obstacles will Juliette face personally and professionally after the ordeal she went through at the beginning of the season?

She'll have been off the radar for a bit but I think when she does come back, she's going to come back strong and repaired as much as one can repair. We'll try to find where she fits into the landscape. She is indomitable.

Do you know what episode she'll be back in?

No, we're still working on that.

Juliette's struggle is something Hayden has struggled with in real life. Was there ever a concern about the parallels between her character's storyline and her life at the beginning of the season?

It wasn't a concern because we weren’t aware of anything like that. It had already begun last season and so we picked up the baton. We knew that she was going to hit rock bottom by episode seven, so that was already in the plans, but I don't think there was really an awareness that these things were dovetailing in the substantive way in which they may have been. It was a bit of a surprise.

The show is going to be off the air for a long time. How concerned are you about keeping up the momentum of the season and keeping viewers coming back?

It is always a drag to have that much time off. I think for any show that's really difficult. But I'm hoping that one of the things that brings people back is the idea that they're actually going to see something that we've been working towards for three and a half years, which is a wedding.

Nashville returns on Wednesday, March 16 at 10 p.m. on ABC. Are you excited for Rayna and Deacon to (finally) tie the knot?

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