Nashville may have lost a very bright star, but as they say: the show must go on. Below showrunner Marshall Herskovitz details to EW the moment Connie Britton told him she wanted to leave the CMT series, how he and the writers constructed Rayna’s heartbreaking exit, and explains what comes next for Nashville now that Britton is exiting the show.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So you and Ed Zwick pitched your vision of Nashville to ABC, then the show was canceled, then CMT picked it up. What happened next with Connie?
Marshall Herskovitz: It was really simple. And I think Connie should speak to this [note: she does in EW’s interview posted Thursday night]. She said to me — with a lot of pain and difficulty — that she wants to move on with her life. She said, “I love the show, I love this cast, I love these characters, but I’ve been doing this for four years and I feel like I need to move on.” She said it with some sense of defeat because she was contractually bound to do another season and didn’t know what to do. I said to her what I’ve always said to actors: “I never want to be in a situation where I’m compelling somebody to do something they don’t want to do. If you don’t want to be on the show, let us find a way to write you out that’s dignified and true to the character.” And she was relieved. She just wanted to go. It wasn’t about money. It was a creative need on her part to face new challenges. Which I completely understand and respect.

We spent about a week trying to figure out a way for the character to leave the show and still be alive, but there’s just no way to do it — Rayna would never not be in contact with Deacon and the children, unless she were being held by the Taliban or a scenario so absurd nobody would believe. She couldn’t just be on tour. We realized — as sad and painful as it was — that there was only one answer: The character had to die. But from an artistic standpoint that was filled with promise. We felt the only way to do this was really explore it and give it time so the fans could work through all the feelings that it evokes.

As you say, there were many ways to go down this road. What made this path — having the car accident last week and then Rayna dying in the hospital this week — the best choice?
I think it was time. When you have a character people feel as strongly about as Rayna, we wanted to tease the shock of her death. If at the end of the stalker episode she’s in an accident and just dies — “Oh sorry! Rayna’s dead” — that’s just cruel to an audience; that’s not caring about their feelings. We took a gamble to take an entire episode and talk about and walk around and slowly approach the idea that this person’s going to die.

And halfway through it, the audience thinks she’s going to pull through. And you do this red herring of teasing the idea that perhaps it’s actually Juliette who has some undiagnosed fatal medical issue.
Well, yes, although I think that’s open to interpretation. There is the possibility Juliette is in trouble. But to me, that’s more a manifestation of her concern about herself. In some ways that represents all of us going about our daily lives worrying about things that aren’t going to be significant, while there are other people worrying about life and death. That’s not to diminish Juliette — I think she represents all of us in a way — but she jumps to dire conclusions about herself when something actually dire is happening to somebody else. But you’re right. There is hope in the episode, and yet there is this moment when her mother comes to her, and at that moment I think the audience is going to go, “Well, wait a minute, that’s not a good sign.” Certainly, Deacon says hearing that really scared him, it’s like the white light and people-from-beyond calling. But in my mind, Rayna knows she’s dying in that moment. Even if the doctors say, “It’s okay, it’s just the drugs,” from that moment if you watch carefully everything she does has an urgency to it to impart to the people she loves the things she wants them to know. Because she knows she’s going.

I love the line you gave Rayna’s ghost-mom, “Maybe this song is finished.”
Thank you. Not my line, but I love that scene. And I love that Carla Gugino came and did it. She lent a kind of gravitas to it. It just all came together in a lovely way that made you feel intimate with these characters.

What was it like shooting that final teary scene?
Basically the entire cast and crew cried for the whole episode. And I know that Callie Khouri, who was directing the episode, told me Maisy Stella, who plays Daphne, at one point when they were doing the death scene, after it was like the 19th take she said, “I can’t believe I still have tears to cry.” Everyone was so emotional. There’s one shot at the very end when she flatlines, the girls scream and Deacon puts his head down on her, and he’s got this closeup, this tear comes out of his eye, but you see this man’s face he looks broken. Charles Esten should win an Emmy for that shot — that was a man who gave himself over to everything. There was no artifice or nothing held back. It gets me every time.

Before that scene too, when Deacon started to realize things were going south and started to crack, Esten’s performance really grabbed me too.
He’s something else; such a talented man. We have so many in the cast who are.

I know you don’t like to discuss future storylines, but do you want to tease to the flashbacks of Rayna that will happen this season?
I can say there will be a few flashbacks. That goes to the heart of the fact that when somebody dies they’re still so present in your life. Our inner lives are as rich and full as our outer lives, and in our inner lives the person is still there.

How does the show move forward without its star?
Shows always move forward. Grey’s Anatomy moved forward. Thirtysomething moved forward after Gary died. This is such a rich cast and such a rich group of characters there’s so many great stories to tell. We’re already deep into the writing and producing of the second half the season and there are so many great stories. And by the way, some are about the loss of Rayna and the price people pay. But the show of Nashville is a world, it’s not about one person. As great as Connie is and Rayna was, it was never just one person. What people will find as they process their feelings — and maybe fans will be angry at us or at her for this happening — but they’ll find the fabric of the show more than holds. It’s still this vibrant passionate creative world of people who live their lives in a way that has a fire beneath it. That’s always been the heart of Nashville. It’s always amazed me since I came on board that you can do a show about creativity, about what it means to be an artist. It’s about the creative process and turn their feelings into art, and then the show shares that art with the audience — which is also communal. It’s actually not a problem at all to continue. We’ll miss her, the characters miss her, and she’s missed in the stories, but the show is completely intact.

You pitched a vision of the season to ABC before you knew she wanted to leave. So I’m curious: What would Rayna have done this season in that alternate universe had fate not intervened?
Oh my god. First of all, let me just say, it’s so hard to make up stories. It just is. Ed Zwick calls it “breaking rock.” It’s been hard enough to figure out these stories without what we would have done. We were certainly thinking of this whole notion of Ranya trying to reclaim her artistic center and I’m sure that would have played a bigger part had she not died. I’m sure she would have taken artistic chances and the story would have come from that.

Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
I think the best episode we’ve done this year is the one that follows her funeral. I would put that episode against any I’ve done in my entire career. It’s an astonishing symphonic beautiful tribute to this woman and human connection and grief. That’s one I hope nobody misses. It really goes to the heart of what it means for people to be truly connected to each other.

Nashville airs Thursdays on CMT.

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