EXCLUSIVE: 'Nashville' boss explains Connie Britton's exit: 'She needed to move on with her life'


Warning: Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you haven't watched Thursday's episode of Nashville. If you have and want to refresh your memory, read our recap. Then, this emotional note by Connie Britton. Then come on back!

We're still in mourning over what happened on Nashville.

The country music drama ripped everyone's hearts out on Thursday's episode, when one of its main characters, Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton), died following complications from injuries suffered during a brutal car wreck. Arguably the moral center of Nashville, the decision to kill Rayna off -- effectively bidding farewell to Britton after four and a half seasons -- didn't come without hesitations.

"When CMT picked up the show [in June 2016], Connie Britton came to [co-showrunner] Ed Zwick and myself and said that she was very torn, but that she felt that creatively, she needed to move on with her life," co-showrunner Marshall Herskovitz tells ET. "[She] felt bad about it because she loved the show and loved everyone who worked on the show. But it felt [like], on some level, that she needed to find other challenges, which is something I understand and sympathize with."

RELATED: Connie Britton Posts Sweet Tribute After Heartbreaking 'Nashville' Episode

Britton's desire to move on professionally wasn't met with any pushback from Herskovitz, who along with Zwick, "really got it." The duo had to get sign-off from the studio, Lionsgate TV, as well as the network, because Britton was still under contract; Herskovitz admits the process "was not simple." "I'm not going to compel somebody to work with me. If she felt like leaving the show, we would find a way for her to leave the show," he says.

27 PHOTOS
Connie Britton out and about
See Gallery
Connie Britton out and about
GOOD MORNING AMERICA - Connie Britton is a guest on 'Good Morning America,' Tuesday, February 7, 2017, airing on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Heidi Gutman/ABC vis Getty Images) CONNIE BRITTON, GINGER ZEE
Actress Connie Britton attends 'Beatriz at Dinner' Premiere at Eccles Center Theatre during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, January 23, 2017. / AFP / VALERIE MACON (Photo credit should read VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 23: Actress Connie Britton attends AT&T At The Lift during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2017 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Randy Shropshire/Getty Images for AT&T)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 23: (Front L-R) Actors Amy Landecker, Connie Britton, John Lithgow, Salma Hayek, and director Miguel Areta of 'Cast Change' and (Top) Keving Smith attend The IMDb Studio featuring the Filmmaker Discovery Lounge, presented by Amazon Video Direct: Day Four during The 2017 Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2017 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 21: Actress Connie Britton attends The IMDb Studio featuring the Filmmaker Discovery Lounge, presented by Amazon Video Direct: Day Two during The 2017 Sundance Film Festival on January 21, 2017 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for IMDb)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 08: 74th ANNUAL GOLDEN GLOBE AWARDS -- Pictured: Actress Connie Britton arrives to the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 8, 2017. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 05: UNDP Goodwill Ambassador Connie Britton attends the 2016 United Nations Development Programme Global Goals Gala at Phillips on December 5, 2016 in New York (Photo by Gary Gershoff/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 07: Actress Connie Britton arrives at the 6th Annual Sean Penn & Friends HAITI RISING Gala Benefiting J/P Haitian Relief Organization at Montage Beverly Hills on January 7, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 15: (L-R) Director David O. Russell, actors Kuoth Wiel, Allison Williams and Connie Britton arrive at the screening Of David O. Russell's 'Past Forward' hosted by Prada at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel on November 15, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 15: Actress Connie Britton attends Prada Presents 'Past Forward' by David O. Russell premiere at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel on November 15, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Connie Britton arrives for the 68th Emmy Awards on September 18, 2016 at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles. / AFP / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - SEPTEMBER 17: Actress Connie Britton attends the Vanity and FX Annual Primetime Emmy Nominations Party at Craft Restaurant on September 17, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 13: Actress Connie Britton speaks at The United State of Women Reception hosted by Civic Nation at Hay-Adams Hotel on June 13, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - SEPTEMBER 17: (L-R) Actress Sarah Paulson, writer/director/producer Ryan Murphy and Connie Britton at Vanity Fair And FX's Annual Primetime Emmy Nominations Party on September 17, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 13: Actress Connie Britton attends The United State of Women Reception hosted by Civic Nation at Hay-Adams Hotel on June 13, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 17: Saycon Sengbloh, Connie Britton, Sophia Bush and Jersey Banks attend Broadway's 'Eclipsed' at Golden Theatre on May 17, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Jenny Anderson/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 17: Connie Britton and Lupita Nyong'o backstage at Broadway's 'Eclipsed' at Golden Theatre on May 17, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Jenny Anderson/Getty Images)
LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS -- Episode 370 -- Pictured: Actress Connie Britton during an interview on May 16, 2016 -- (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 14: Connie Britton arrives for the 27th Annual GLAAD Media Awards at The Waldorf=Astoria on May 14, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 14: Actress Laverne Cox (L) and Actress Connie Britton pose backstage at the 27th Annual GLAAD Media Awards in New York on May 14, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for GLAAD)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 30: Actress Connie Britton attends the 102nd White House Correspondents' Association Dinner on April 30, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/FilmMagic)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 29: Actress Connie Britton attends The New Yorker's annual party kicking off The White House Correspondents' Association Dinner Weekend hosted by David Remnick at W Hotel Rooftop on April 29, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The New Yorker)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 29: VP & Chief Privacy Officer, Policy at Facebook, Erin Egan and actress Connie Britton attend the Glamour and Facebook brunch to discuss sexism in 2016, during WHCD Weekend at Kinship on April 29, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Glamour)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 15: Actress Connie Britton attends the 'Wolves' after party during 2016 Tribeca Film Festival at No. 8 on April 15, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for 2016 Tribeca Film Festival)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 04: Actress Connie Britton attends the For Your Consideration event for FX's 'The People v. O.J. Simpson - American Crime Story' at The Theatre at Ace Hotel on April 4, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE - 'Jimmy Kimmel Live' airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EST and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Wednesday, March 9 included Louis C.K., Connie Britton ('Nashville') and musical guest The Wild Feathers. (Photo by Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images) JIMMY KIMMEL, CONNIE BRITTON
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

That was the tricky part: How do you write off a main character as pivotal and central to Nashville as Rayna? Herskovitz notes that they deliberated every possible explanation as to why Rayna would leave town without having her die, but ultimately, none felt organic to the character and the story.

"Maybe there's some way she leaves. She goes somewhere. She goes on tour. She's going around the world, whatever it is -- some way to imagine that she could stay alive," he says. "But we quickly realized that that would just never work -- that Rayna Jaymes is so connected to her children and her husband, there's no circumstance we could put her in where she would not be in constant contact with them."

RELATED: 'Nashville' Says Farewell to Its Stars With Devastating Goodbye

"We could have her held hostage by terrorists. That was the only thing we could think of that would keep her from being in contact [with her family], but that was just a joke. You can't seriously do that storyline," Herskovitz recalls one of their more outlandish ideas. "After painful deliberation, we realized there was no alternative to the character dying."

The future was ripe with possibilities once Rayna's death was etched in ink, and the writers leaned into the chance for new storytelling in uncharted territory. Sometimes the difficult choice is the best option. "Telling the story of what happens to this family and her friends after she dies is full of possibility for us," Herskovitz says. "Rayna dying was something we were challenged by, inspired by and [it] spun off many stories on its own."

That's not to say Thursday was the last we'll see of Rayna. Spoiler alert: It won't be. "There will be glimpses of Rayna in the next couple of episodes," Herskovitz teases, opting not to hint at the context of those cameos. "Anything more than that, I won't say. It would be giving away too much."

If you ask what the most emotional scenes were for the Nashville boss, he offers three poignant moments: Rayna's death scene ("Every crew member, every cast member and Connie herself was crying"); Deacon, Maddie and Daphne's impromptu lullaby to their dying mother; and Deacon's final embrace with Rayna.

RELATED: 'Nashville' Star Charles Esten on Rayna Shocker: 'Hang on Tight'

"When Maddie starts to sing the song and then they all join in, I just lose it," Herskovitz reflects. "The final shot of Deacon when he puts his head down on her and a tear comes out of his eye. You see the face of a man who's been completely shattered. If it's possible to win an Emmy for a single shot, [Charles] Esten's got it."

How Rayna's family comes out on the other side remains to be seen, but one thing's for sure, it's going to be a long, hard road. "In the short term, it will be as devastating as it will have to be," the executive producer says. "We wanted a part of the season to allow these people to be devastated and to tell the story of what that means."

Rayna's demise (and Britton's departure) comes at a crucial time for the show, which will spend the next two episodes exploring the "reverberations of the death" before breaking for a months-long hiatus. "We needed this event to happen with enough time after it so that we could process the death. We as viewers and we as cast members and characters on the show," Herskovitz says, adding that next week's episode, in particular, "is absolutely sublime" as it focuses on grief.

"There's something so beautiful and redemptive and full of love about that episode," he continues. "I feel that if our viewers come back next week, they will share that experience of grief and, at the same time, something uplifting. I look forward to showing that not just that there's life after Rayna, but what kind of experience you can have talking about someone you've loved and lost."

RELATED: 'Nashville' Ends on a Brutal Rayna Shocker

The final episode before the break offers "a glimpse of what it's like to try and have a life without Rayna, but it's incredible difficult," Herskovitz warns, teasing that Deacon goes "through the stages of grief" and the song he and Rayna were working on "ends up playing a very important part for this family." "People move on in life -- the show will move on and there is a show post-Rayna. Eventually, people will be comfortable with a show post-Rayna."

"It doesn't mean that she's forgotten; she's part of their lives, she's talked about and she's yearned for," he adds. "People suffer over her loss, but there are amazing stories in the second half of the season. It's not just a depressing sense of mourning that hovers [over] every episode."

Herskovitz reveals that Nashville strikes a slightly different tone in the back half of the season, simply by way of the void that's left by Rayna's absence.

"The second half of the season does a balancing act between the new events that happened in these characters' lives, the ways in which their lives moved on and the fact that they're still hurting -- some of them reeling, some of them undone -- by this terrible event. You're going to see both, just as you would in real life," he hints. "You feel your grief, yet life demands that you move on."

Nashville airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CMT.

Read Full Story

Sign up for Entertainment Insider by AOL to get the hottest pop culture news delivered straight to your inbox!

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.