'Nashville' Showrunner Opens Up About Losing Connie Britton

[This story contains spoilers from Thursday's episode of Nashville, "If Tomorrow Never Comes."]

Months of speculation about Connie Britton's Nashville future came to an end Thursday when her country singer alter-ego succumbed to injuries sustained in a car crash and died. Onscreen, it was a tearful goodbye as Rayna began to flatline just as her two daughters and her husband looked over her. Offscreen, co-showrunner Marshall Herskovitz sounded at least a little relieved that the cat was finally out of the bag about his leading lady's departure.

"I'm happy to be able to talk about this finally," he told The Hollywood Reporter.

Herskovitz and his longtime writing partner Ed Zwick signed on to take over as showrunners for Nashville's fifth season in March. Two months later, ABC unexpectedly pulled the plug on the primetime soap, leaving its future in question. One month after that, CMT and Hulu partnered to resurrect Nashville for a full 22-episode season five. However, not long after Nashville's 11th hour reprieve, reports about Britton's reduced role in the new season began to emerge in August.

Despite denials from multiple camps, including Britton telling Ellen DeGeneres last month "I'm in for the duration," Thursday's tearful episode confirmed the Friday Night Lights grad's exit. (You can read THR's interview with her here.)

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Herskovitz opened up about Britton's decision to leave, why Rayna had to die and his belief that the show can "definitely go on without Rayna."

You and Ed came came onboard the show last March. How soon did you know that Connie wanted to leave? What was that initial conversation with her like?

When the show was picked up by CMT is really when Connie came to us. Everyone thought it was going to be ordered for a new season at ABC and Connie was under contract and then ABC canceled it, and then we went through a number of weeks until it was announced that CMT had picked it up. My guess is that during that time, she had accepted in her mind that the show was going to be over. And when it was picked up by CMT, that's when she came to us.

What she basically indicated was that this was a creative decision for her. She loved the show, she loved the people on the show, felt it was her family, but it had been four years and that she felt she needed to move on and frankly didn’t know what to do about it because there was a contract. I said to her, "Listen, I don't really want to be in the business of forcing someone to do something that they don't want to do. If you want to leave the show, I'll support you. We'll figure out a way to write you out that's dignified and does due respect to the character and how important she's been to the other characters. Let's figure out a storyline that makes sense." Also I said to her, "That's not a decision I can make in a vacuum. I have to have the support of the studio and the network also." So I think there was certainly some discomposure at both companies but they accepted the fact that change happens.

So at that point, it was a question of, how do we figure this out creatively? What I said was, knowing that the season was going to split into two 11-episode mini-seasons, that the worst thing you could possibly do would be as the finale of episode 11, suddenly have Rayna die. That just would be awful and just leave people hanging for three months. That would just be so disrespectful for the audience. Once we realized that, we knew that we just had to reverse-engineer and say, "What kind of process do you need that will allow an audience to deal with the shock, the sense of loss, even the sense of betrayal and then move through that to some sense of engagement and belief that the show can go on when someone they loved so much has died?" So we worked out a structure that gave us the time, the number of episodes to have the death, have the immediate reaction to the death and then have this sense of at least the beginnings of what life will be like without Rayna.

What ultimately gave you and Ed faith that the show could survive without Rayna Jaymes?

The idea of ensemble shows is more our comfort zone. We tend to look at the creation of story as an exercise in endowing each character with what we call "critical mass," which is enough of a sense of humanness that you can generate stories about that person. In this show, you had many characters about whom you can generate stories. And if you can generate stories then you can move people and you can have amazing things happen. And we have so many wonderful characters in this. In many ways, we had too many to serve and so the dramatic possibilities in Deacon moving on without her, the dramatic possibilities in the daughters' lives, the dramatic possibilities in Scarlett and Gunnar and what happens to them, and Juliette and Avery, and Will and all the various people on the show, and the new people that we were bringing in — we just knew that the fabric of the show was so rich that it could definitely go on without Rayna. As much as we love Rayna and loved writing Rayna, and as much as we understood how important she was in the life of each character, it's also part of life that people die and you have to deal with loss. So from a dramatic standpoint, that's very rich. From a real-life standpoint, it's very upsetting.

How did you decide that Rayna would have to die instead of writing her off in some other fashion from the show?

We really thought about that a lot. We came up with many scenarios but the problem is simple: This is a woman who loves her family more than anything else. Short of being taken hostage by Boko Haram or being in a coma, which had already been done in the show, there's no way she would not be in contact with her children or her husband whom she loves more than life itself. There was no tour she could go on. There was no pilgrimage she could go on where she wouldn’t be in contact with them. If she's leaving the show, she's leaving the show. We spent about a week spinning out all kinds of scenarios that would allow her not to be dead because we didn’t want to kill her. But everyone agreed; nothing worked. There was just no way and it was sad, everybody felt sad. We felt sad from the moment we made the decision through the writing of the script. 

As writers, why did you feel the need to include this stalker storyline even though that's not ultimately what killed Rayna?

One of the things that struck me about the characters on this show is that so many of them had in some way been traumatized in childhood: Juliette, Scarlett, Deacon and Rayna. It's such a deeply embedded theme in the series and yet hadn’t been explored as a story unto itself. I felt that this stalker actually does lead to her death, just not directly. This is a man who was horribly traumatized and is drawn to Rayna because he recognizes something in her that she would understand his trauma. When he says, "You know me better than anyone else," it's because he knew instinctively that she would understand him and understand what he went through. So it's not an accident that he was drawn to her. It's trauma that brought these people together.

Even though she's able to disarm this man emotionally in the scene so that he does not hurt her, the reason she's in that police car speeding through a red light and hit by a truck is because of all that happened with that man. If that hadn’t happened, she wouldn’t have been in that accident so there is a connection. It was trauma that killed Rayna. It's just separated by one degree. But it's as if the horrors that took place in her life, in that wonderful speech she gives where she talks about how her father killed her mother and covered it up and she lives with that every day of her life — it's as if that, in some way, was something that she could never escape. And in some way, came back and destroyed her.

Looking past this episode, what can you say about these last two episodes as the show heads into the midseason break? How will the other characters be impacted by this and what does that look like for the show going forward?

The episode following this one where we see the funeral and we see the aftermath of the funeral is, for me, maybe the most beautiful episode I've been involved with in 20 years. ... There's something sublime about the symphonic movement of this story, of all these people sharing their grief in this communal way and moving through it to something that's like a state of grace. Everyone who sees the episode is just undone by it, but in an uplifting way. When you watch Rayna die, you feel despair. When you watch the next episode, you feel something else. It's so moving and about the power of love. That's when you realize that this is a world that absolutely goes on after her death because that's what people do, they move on. They continue to live and they continue to live in memory of this person. I want people to see that episode because it expresses the best of what Nashville can do as a communal experience for its viewers.

Connie is returning in these next two episodes. What can you say about those?

There will be flashbacks and it's important because she lives in the memory of people. So there will be flashbacks and they're very moving. 

What can you say about the second half of the season? Will there be a time jump?                   

There is a time jump. We decided to follow real time. We're off the air for two-and-a-half, three months — we don't know exactly — and we said, "OK, a three-month period of time has gone by," and that enabled us to use some shorthand. Some things have changed, and people are in a slightly different position. It helped with the storytelling to say, "OK, now it's three months later, where is everybody?"

What is the theme for the second half of season five?

Certainly everyone is still dealing with Rayna's death — that doesn't just go away. For some of the characters, that's a big part of the storyline, but the other characters are moving on with their lives and trying to figure it out. They're dealing with success and failure and all of the vicissitudes of life in the music business and in a city like Nashville where there's so much creative energy and creative connections between people. We're actually very excited about the second part of the year and all the different stories that happen.

I think people are going to be happy to see the Juliette storyline. They're going to be really intrigued by the Gunnar and Scarlett storyline. We've found a way to do justice to these characters and we do it in a different way than what was done before. We don't try to follow every story in every episode and I know that's difficult for some of the fans — I see people complaining. It's just there's mathematics involved. If you want to go deeper and tell bigger stories about people, you can't tell seven stories in an episode. So there's a price to be paid for going deeper and that price is that you can't cover everybody all the time. So I'm hoping that the viewers will get used to that rhythm and have faith.

Looking ahead, what is the biggest change that viewers will notice from the original Nashville with Rayna James to this new Nashville without her?

I think Rayna leaving will have lots of story implications, but it's not going to change the nature of the show.

Connie said she would be open to coming back to for a series finale. What are your thoughts about when the show might end? Would you be open to having her back for that last episode?

Sure, if we could do it in a way that was believable. It hasn't come up yet but yeah, we love her. … I think that would be one of many things that we would think about.

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