Photo: CMT

Note: The following contains major plot points from the most recent episode of Nashville.

Nashville’s survival has always been a bit precarious, after starting out as a frontrunner for ABC in the 2012 TV season, then clinging to dear life forever afterward. After season four, the show seemed like it was likely gone for good as everything was nicely cleared up—except for a minor Juliette plane-crash cliffhanger. Then CMT picked up the series for its fifth season, adding new showrunners Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz from Thirtysomething. Appropriately, season five basically kicked off as Nashvillesomething, as Gunnar and Scarlett entered their bizillionth relationship-go-round, Juliette was in a wheelchair, Rayna was saddled with both a stalker and a panic disorder, and things felt ever so slightly different.

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Some of us gave up watching the show after that premiere, although A.V. Club Senior Editor Marah Eakin tells us that Nashville’s season five was recently starting to hit its stride again. Then last night Nashville lost its lead, the queen of fictional country music and its arguable reason for watching: Connie Britton’s Rayna James.

There were rumors that Britton wasn’t long for the new CMT Nashville world, but last night’s episode still came as a shock to most. After being rescued from her stalker, Rayna gets into a devastating car crash (her second, for those keeping track). She’s taken to the hospital, where she is expected to recover. She even finds time for a little bonding experience with her onetime rival Juliette. Then, cruelly—while her daughter’s choir is serenading her—Rayna dies, leaving Nashville forever.

Connie Britton immediately followed up the shocking reveal with a long Instagram post thanking the show and its fans. She also called out other Nashville characters lost along the way, like Lamar, Tandy, and Teddy—none of whom had nearly the same kind of impact.

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Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Herskovitz explained that Britton had approached them about wanting to move on from the show, despite having a year left in her contract:

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.

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According to Variety, Britton will still appear in the next two episodes, presumably as part of Rayna’s funeral and in flashbacks. (Meanwhile, she’s also currently fielding pilot offers.) The loss of Rayna leaves a giant hole in the Nashville landscape, particularly as Deacon will now likely struggle as a single dad to motherless daughters Maddie and Daphne. But Herskovitz maintains that the series can—and will—move on:

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.

Herskovitz points to the death of Gary in Thirtysomething as an example—though really, Thirtysomething was really more of an ensemble piece, and Gary died in the final season. It’s difficult to see where Nashville goes from here without its central character. For those of us who stopped watching before this, we’re honestly kind of glad we did.

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