‘Nashville’: [Spoiler Alert] Is Dead! Showrunner Marshall Herskovitz on the Show’s Surprising Twist

Mark Levine

[Spoiler alert! This post contains massive spoilers for the February 23 episode of Nashville. You have been warned!]

It is true, Nashville fans: Rayna Jaymes is dead. The “Queen of Country” on the ABC-turned-CMT music drama succumbed to injuries sustained after a car accident, which followed an incident with her stalker. In real life, actress Connie Britton, who played Jaymes, wanted to pursue other projects.

TV Insider spoke with Nashville showrunner Marshall Herskovitz about the series post-Rayna, why the writers felt she had to die, if Britton will pop up again and more.

What is your mindset as you’re waiting to see how the fans react to this twist?
[Laughs] I’ve been through this before. I think when we did thirtysomething and we killed off Gary, I think that was the first time a lead character of a series had been killed off. People were so shocked, they didn’t even know what to think of it.

Look, I am really hopeful that we’ve shown the viewers this year that Nashville is a very deep and profound set of relationships. It has amazing characters and an amazing cast and wonderful stories. There is really the possibility of life after Rayna [Jaymes]. It doesn’t mean these characters won’t be devastated by the loss—and we are playing with that. It’s not like we forget about her; it’s not like she doesn’t leave a hole. But there is still a show there that, to me, is very moving and exciting and fascinating and compelling.

I’m actually confident that the viewers will come back. I know they’ll be upset. I get it. It’s very upsetting. I’m hoping they will certainly come back for the next episode. The next episode, which covers the funeral and the aftermath of the funeral, is really one of the best things I’ve been associated with in 20 years. It’s just a remarkable hour of television. I can say that because I didn’t write or direct it. I’m just so proud of the people who did, and the cast and the crew. You watch this episode and you feel the despair. When you watch the next episode, there’s something redemptive about it. There’s something full of love and life and the potential of moving forward with life. That’s the moment when I think the audience will see there is a Nashville after Rayna.

You and your writing partner Ed Zwick came aboard the show this season. At what point was it presented to you that Connie might not be staying the duration? And at what point was the decision made to kill Rayna off?
Actually, Connie came to us after CMT picked up the show and she said she felt, from a creative standpoint, that she wanted to move on. She loved the people on the show, she loved the show, it was just about her needing—I don’t want to speak for her—to face the challenges of finding new things. We could completely understand that, because we did thirtysomething for four years. And at the end of four years, we asked the network to cancel the show because we felt we were done. We didn’t know what else to do.

I was quite sympathetic to her feeling that she felt, from a creative standpoint, she wanted to move on. We still had to convince the studio and the network to let her go, because she was still under contract. I said to her, “Look, I’m not interested in making someone do something they don’t want to do. If you want to leave, I support that and we’ll figure out a way to make it work.” We got the blessing of the powers that be, and then we set about figuring out a storyline that would do justice to the character. And, of course, we tried to think of a way to not have her die. Obviously, that would have been better. But there simply was no plausible scenario whereby Rayna James would be alive and not be in daily contact with her husband and children; she just loved them too much.

You noted, rightfully, that Rayna would never be apart from her family. Was there ever a version where they moved away to give them a happy ending off-screen?
No, we never thought about that. I think that would be even more painful! [Laughs] I think the idea is…look, death is part of life. It’s a part of life, especially in our culture, that we’re very uncomfortable with.

To me, as a dramatist, it’s very fertile ground to explore how people deal with something as profoundly earth-shattering as this event is. Their mother and his wife is taken away from them so quickly. It’s horrendous. But I know people this has happened to. In fact, Ed Zwick’s mother was killed in a car accident. It’s a shattering event. It happens in life and there are things to be discovered and things to be explored in the aftermath.

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How did fans knowing that Connie might not be here for long impact the story you told and the hints you might have dropped along the way about Rayna’s death? Did you want them to pick up on her talking to her kids about her mom missing her milestones, etc. to prep viewers?
I think it was completely unconscious, because I didn’t even realize that! I would have written that scene the same even if she weren’t dying. She would want to note the milestones in their lives.

The other thing is—and I’m glad I have the chance to talk about this—the stalker storyline was in our minds and already being developed before Connie came to us and said she wanted to leave the show. We wanted to do that story about a stalker disrupting her life and finally confronting her. This idea of doing a ten-minute scene, which you know on television is exceedingly rare. It’s a tour de force scene between these two people where Rayna finds the strength and humanity to reach this man—and emotionally disarm him—was already in the works before we decided that her character was going to die. We were able to combine the two stories.

The stalker was never there as a red herring. It was very much a story on its own, and one that was very important to us, by the way. Because it’s a story about trauma, especially childhood trauma. It’s something I feel is not well understood enough in our society. The price we pay for childhood trauma. When you talk about addiction and alcoholism and child abuse and any number of things in our society, so many of them are caused by what happens to young children at the hands of adults who don’t understand the damage they’re doing. What draws this man to Rayna is he sees in her the same kind of damage he experienced as a child; that’s why he connects with her. That’s why she shares with him in that amazing scene. She shares with him the trauma she went through of knowing that her father killed her mother and that she carries that around with her all the time.

I find myself saying to people, it was trauma that killed Rayna. Yes, she’s in the back of a police car and they were hit by a truck, but why was she in that police car? She was in that police car because this man was drawn to her because this man was drawn to her; because he recognized her trauma and he had been traumatized. If none of that had happened, she wouldn’t have been in that police car. To me, there is a profound connection between the two events, even though it’s not a causal connection; it’s a thematic, almost karmic connection between the two events.

Early reports noted that Connie was contracted for ten episodes; her death, as you noted, is nine. Is there room for her to pop up in dreams, flashbacks, etc.? Or was this it?
I can say, yes, we’re going to see a glimpse or two of her in the next couple of episodes. I won’t say anything more than that. We do see a flashback or something. She’s so much a part of their lives. It would be impossible to not see some evidence of her continuing in their minds and in the household.

Looking ahead, is there anything you can preview about the recovery for the family beyond the funeral? Is there a time jump or anything like that ahead?
There is a hiatus in the show as well. When we come back, it’s three months later. We’re going to see some of the characters are handling life after Rayna better than others. And that’s part of the story: not everyone can move on and some can. But everyone is paying a price. Just like in real life, there is a balancing act between the grief that you feel and the fact that you have to move on with your life. We’ll see that play out in the show.

We have amazing stories in the 11 episodes playing out later. Each of the characters have a great journey they go on. Rayna is in each of their minds and their hearts as they go through it. I think there’s a really rich landscape for Nashville viewers for the rest of the season.

Nashville, Thursdays, 9/8c, CMT