Credit: Mark Levine/CMT

True soap opera latches on to your heart like nothing else. It gives us the chance to revel in even the tiniest details of a character’s emotional life — a luxury most of us rarely afford ourselves. All of this makes saying goodbye to a soap opera particularly painful — especially when we came so close to losing it once before.

There will be no third network to save Nashville, which ended its six-season run tonight with a sweet, sentimental finale that tidily wrapped up current storylines while delivering the happily-ever-after fix — and a surprise appearance from Rayna Jaymes — that fans longed for.

As it often happens with shows that last beyond a few years, a big chunk of the action in Nashville’s final season centered on characters we barely knew enough to care about. Purple-haired enchantress Alannah (Rainee Blake), who arrived ostensibly to drive a wedge between Avery (Jonathan Jackson) and Juliette (Hayden Panettiere), finally served her narrative purpose in the finale by exposing sleazy record exec Brad Maitland (Jeffrey Nordling) as a sexual predator we all knew him to be — a move that also allowed Jessie (Kaitlin Doubleday) to obtain full custody of her son Jake, clearing the path for a future with Deacon (Charles Esten). Unless, of course, Deacon decides to take up with the lovely French judge from Nashville’s Next — one of several plot fragments the episode tossed to the sky like celebratory confetti, including Scarlett’s (Clare Bowen) engagement to a nameless man with an emo haircut (played by Bowen’s real-life husband Brandon Young), and the sure-why-not reunion of Will Lexington (Chris Carmack) and tech wunderkind Zach Welles (Cameron Scoggins).

In the end, though, Nashville remained true to its central love story: The bittersweet saga of Deacon Claybourne and country music superstar Rayna James (Connie Britton). After Rayna’s death in season 5, she lived on through Deacon’s struggles — his struggle to be a father to daughters Maddie (Lennon Stella) and Daphne (Maisy Stella), to find love again, and finally, to forgive the man whose legacy of alcoholism and abuse kept him separated from Rayna for so long, his father Gideon (Ronny Cox). At first, Gideon’s sudden arrival for the final five episodes seemed like an elderly twist on Cousin Oliver syndrome, as though viewers needed the conspicuous addition of a long-lost grandpa to reinvigorate their investment in the James-Claybourne family unit.

But the last episode revealed that Gideon was here for a bigger reason, one that gifted Nashies with a final visit from their queen, Ms. Rayna Jaymes (Britton returned to film the scenes during the show’s final week of production). Rayna came to Deacon as a vision (or, if we’re going to get technical about things, a memory) as he recovered in his dressing room from an unexpected encounter with his dad. “Is this real?” he whispers, and suddenly we are enveloped in a gauzy flashback to Deacon and Rayna’s wedding day. Can he really be marrying the love of his life, Deacon worried then, after “all that pain,” the mistakes and regrets that kept them apart for so long. As always, Rayna did not let him give up on himself, or love. “It doesn’t matter how much you fail each other,” she murmured in her soothing lilt. “We must choose each other. And I choose you, exactly the way you are. And I’m going to love you forever… and ever and ever.”

Rayna Jaymes, saving the day from beyond the grave. Armed with this reassurance from his forever beloved, Deacon realized that forgiving his father would not make him weak — instead, it would render his family unbreakable. The luminous thread of that lesson wound its way from Rayna to Nashville’s other leading lady, Juliette Barnes, who finally found peace with herself — and her happily ever after with Avery — on a farm, far from the punishing spotlight of fame.

And what a wonderful place to leave these characters: Onstage, singing in unison, as the shimmery velum between fiction and reality disappeared. Watching the crowd around Charles Esten swell with crew, cast members past and present, exec producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, and the woman who started it all, show creator Callie Khouri, it brought to mind the series finale of Once and Again — another small, deeply-loved drama from Zwick and Herskovitz — which ended with the actors tearfully bidding farewell to their characters and costars. It’s hard to say goodbye to Nashville, but as a fan I’m grateful to its creators for leaving the characters we love with a life that’s good. Grade: B+

Episode Recaps

Legendary music icon Rayna Jaymes struggles to maintain her place in the spotlight while dealing with the ambitious rising pop vixen Juliette Barnes.
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