'Nashville' Boss Talks Connie Britton's Season 5 Involvement, Rayna's "Existential Crisis"

"We had a very long and interesting conversation with [Britton] before we started," co-showrunner Marshall Herskovitz tells THR about her season five storyline.
Mark Levine/ABC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the second half of Nashville's two-hour season five premiere, "Back in Baby's Arms."]

While the first hour of Nashville's supersized season five premiere dealt largely with the aftermath of Juliette's (Hayden Panettiere) nearly fatal plane crash, the second hour shined a greater light on fellow superstar Rayna James (Connie Britton).

After struggling with the severity of Juliette's plane crash, Rayna returned to Nashville ready to return to the studio, this time for a new collaborative album with her husband and longtime guitar player Deacon (Charles Esten) focusing on their long and eventful relationship. Rayna's suggestion caused tension with Deacon, who was hesitant to say the least about revisiting parts of their painful past, particularly his own mistakes and previous battles with alcoholism. In the end, he acquiesced but it seems this is just the beginning for the twosome as they dig into the skeletons out of the closet and put them into song.

"Connie had a lot to do with that," co-showrunner Marshall Herskovitz tells THR. "We had a very long and interesting conversation with her before we started and she talked about her feelings about where Rayna would be right now and also [with creator] Callie [Khouri]. It was just sort of a group endeavor of saying, 'OK, this is a person who's having a different kind of crisis. Not a physical one, but an artistic crisis and an existential crisis about who she is as a woman, as a person, and we thought what a great thing to explore.' And also, Rayna's had to be so strong in so many different ways, it was interesting for me to the see the other sides of her, to see her vulnerability, to see the price she paid to be that strong."

Britton previously talked to THR about her own desire to see Rayna return to performing in March after the first half of the season had focused predominantly on her struggles as a fairly new label head at Highway 65. "That partly came from me, because I was like, 'I miss it. I bet if I miss it, Rayna really misses it," she said at the time.

Although Deacon and Rayna resolved their differences about their new record together by episode's end, the two-hour premiere still ended on an ominous note. After getting flowers from an unknown sender, the final moments showed an unknown person watching Rayna from across the street with her music playing in their car, which also sported a broken windshield.

The scene raised eyebrows particularly given the reports in recent months that Britton, who is also a co-executive producer on the country music drama, was eyeing a reduced role on the series. Would the show possibly kill her off at the hands of a dangerous and unhinged stalker?

Herskovitz was tight-lipped about what that particular Rayna scene could mean and Britton's future on the series. "I can't talk about it, sorry. The truth is we've always been this way. We've never talked about story in advance. Even in the days of thirtysomething when there really wasn’t a story to talk about, we still wouldn’t talk about," Herskovitz says. "I put a huge premium on the audience's experience of the show as they watch it, the immediacy of that. If you know something's going to happen, then you're not having the same experience of it and we've always felt that."

However, Britton has seemed to dampen these reports in recent days, telling Ellen DeGeneres Wednesday on her daytime show that "I'm in for the duration" of the series.

The question about Britton's future on the series comes at a major turning point for the series, which now has a new home (CMT) and new showrunners in Herskovitz and his longtime writing partner Edward Zwick. Thankfully, the duo's hope to move away from the soapy, sensationalistic elements of the show and to focus on more grounded storylines seemed to resonate with Britton.

"That's part of the willingness to go deeper with these characters, and I think each of the actors, certainly Connie, have embraced about that," Herskovitz says.

This more nuanced approach is one the two specialized in as the creators and showrunners of the ABC drama thirtysomething, which focused on the emotional struggles of a group of mostly married, yes, thirtysomethings. For Nashville, the storyline comes as the show tries to find new drama for arguably its most beloved pairing after finally letting on-and-off couple Rayna and Deacon tie the knot in March midway through season four. Before that, much of the drama surrounding Rayna and Deacon centered on their rollercoaster, will-they-or-won't-they dynamic.

"They had covered a lot of grounds and the audience knew a lot of the issues between them and a lot of them had to do with betrayal and loss and the fact that he had been an alcoholic," Herskovitz says. "I think, for us, the question again was, 'OK, all that may be true but what happens between these two people on a day-to-day basis. What is he like? What is she like? What's their interaction like? When you talk about a marriage ... you're talking about their past, you're talking about their habits, you're talking about their fears. It was taking this relationship and trying to go deeper and look at the dynamics between them and, for us, that's always fun and always endlessly fascinating."

Nashville airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on CMT.