It’s time for some scream therapy, people. Say it with me:
Because wow, that sucked. That really, really sucked.
Not just that Rayna dies, which is of course the suckiest of the suck. But the whole damn episode feels creepy and ominous, like some sort of bizarro version of Nashville where every positive moment is false and nothing feels safe. Even those insanely close-up photos of Rayna that CMT kept showing before the commercial breaks were freaking me out. It’s like the camera is staring into her soul.
What are we supposed to do with this? I honestly don’t know. How does Nashville go on from here? How does this recap go on from here? Yes, other shows have killed off big characters before. Shonda made McDreamy McDeady. The Good Wife killed off Will Gardner and I’ve never forgiven them for it. But has the lead character of a TV show ever been killed off? This is like killing off Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote or MacGyver on, uh, MacGyver. I’m not sure this is salvageable, but then again, it’s not like Nashville had much choice. (I’ll explain why in a bit.)
Let’s get into this literal and metaphorical car wreck, shall we?
So Rayna gets rushed to the hospital and she’s kind of … fine? Her exceedingly glamorous doctor and/or spokesmodel tells Deacon that she has a shattered pelvis and hip, but no bleeding in the brain. Rayna needs a four-hour surgery, then she should be able to leave the hospital in a few days, good as new. This should be great news, except it doesn’t feel like great news, you know? First of all: Why give Rayna a car crash only to have her be, like, totes fine? And why does the whole episode have this glowy, hazy “Very Special Episode” vibe?
One by one, Rayna’s friends and loved ones gather by her bedside. There’s a great scene where Scarlett goes to pick up Daphne at chorus practice, and Daphne looks up and sees her and thinks, “Hey, it’s Aunt Scarlett!” then her face crumbles as she realizes that it must be bad news. It sort of reminded me of a similar scene in Manchester by the Sea. (Yes, I just compared a scene in Nashville to a scene in a film by America’s greatest excavator of the human condition, Kenneth Lonergan. So there’s your cookie, Nashville.)
The gang quickly gather. Maddie and Bucky and Gunnar and Juliette and Avery and Will are there, too … I think? (Is Will still on this show?) Rayna is awake and keeps talking about adding a new song to her album with Deacon. A final song, she says, “that last little thing you hear that suddenly makes everything make sense.” I could use a song like that right about now myself, to be honest.
After her “successful” surgery, Rayna has special moments with everyone: She tells Deacon how much she loves him and how everything is better, even the hard stuff, with him at her side. “You’re not getting rid of me that easy,” she says. (Damn you, Nashville!)
She tells Juliette that she’s noticed she’s changed for the better. “It’s like, after you fell out of the sky, something shook out of you,” she says. “Now you’ve got me wondering, after this whole nightmare, what’s going to shake out of me?” (Don’t ask.)
She spends some of her final moments with Scarlett talking about goddamn Damien George. (“I’m intrigued by him,” Scarlett says. Damien George ruins everything.)
She tells Daphne that she has a musical gift and it’s her privilege and responsibility to share it with people. “Nothing gives me greater joy than watching you [sing],” she says.
Oh, and did I mention that she has a special moment with her mother (Carla Gugino, in a cameo), which seems pretty unlikely because she is dead.
“What are you doing here?” Rayna asks. “Just watching you,” her mother says. “I have been all along. The magnificent woman you’ve become just gives me such a thrill.”
Pretty sure this was the moment when everyone at home gave up hope that Rayna would ever leave this hospital.
Rayna tells Deacon about her special visitor and he understandably freaks out. “It’s just the opioids,” the doctor says, who is annoyingly breezy and cheerful throughout the entire episode. “Good, because you always hear about white lights,” Deacon says sheepishly. “People calling from beyond. I got a little nervous.” TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS, DEACON!
Anyway, Daphne is supposed to have a chorus concert that night, but she decides to stay by her mama’s side. Then little tween operator Flynn arranges to have the chorus come to the hospital. They all gather in Rayna’s room and start to sing and everything is beautiful and good and then … Rayna crashes. Everyone has to clear out as they rush her into the ICU.
I should note that Juliette has the same doctor as Rayna (cool coincidence!) and, as she’s in consult with her, a nurse rushes in to inform the doctor that her trauma patient is crashing. “That’s Rayna!” Juliette says. And she has her own little Forrest Gump moment when she runs down the hall and sheds her leg braces. Run Juliette, run!
The doctor, who’s suddenly not all that cheerful, tells them it’s not looking good. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I usually tell folks to pray for the best and prepare for the worst in moments like this,” the surgeon says. No one has the heart to tell him that’s not an original line.
Deacon manages to steal a private moment with Rayna while she’s still awake. “If something happens, you’re going to stay strong for the girls,” she says. “Not going to promise, because you ain’t going nowhere” he responses. Then, choking back tears, he says, “I promise … I promise.”
Kill me now.
Juliette comes in and whispers to Rayna, who’s unconscious at this point, “All I ever wanted was for you to be proud of me.” Gah.
Oh, and I haven’t mentioned Maddie, who decides that the occasion of her mother being hospitalized is a good time to bond with Clay, so they’re driving around Nashville and having deep conversations together. She gets the text from Deacon that Rayna’s in trouble, but there’s nightmarish traffic, so she has to get out and run, too.
Finally, it’s Deacon, Daphne, and Maddie gathered at Rayna’s bedside. They’re crying, but they start to sing, “Life That’s Good” through their tears. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and everyone is acting the hell out of this moment and I am a complete mess.
And then Rayna James dies. Not Jon Snow dead. Or Peter Quinn on Homeland dead. But dead dead. As in not coming back.
“You ASSHOLES!” I wrote in my notes, which I realize isn’t very professional of me, but I will not apologize for my emotions. How could Nashville do this to us?
I was full of diffuse anger and grief as I watched the episode last night, but having slept on it, I realize that they had no choice. Look, Connie Britton wanted off the show. She’s a super famous and beloved actress and, if we’re being totally honest, better opportunities await her. So Nashville had a bunch of options, none of them good.
(1) They could put Rayna in a coma, leaving her — and us — in limbo, but at least allowing for the possibility of a happy ending. Of course, the problem is that the show would be in limbo, too. Nobody would be able to move on with their lives and Deacon would pretty much have to have all of his scenes in a hospital room. That would get old fast.
(2) They could have Deacon and Rayna go on a world tour to promote their album. But you see the problem there — we’d lose Deacon, too. (And what about the kids?) Not a viable solution.
(3) They could have Rayna leave. Like, after the car crash and stalking incident, she could go on a personal journey of self-discovery, leaving her friends and loved ones behind. (Strangely, the show hinted at that possibility in the first episode, when she did her Thelma and/or Louise bit on the open road.) But that’s not sustainable either. Rayna would never abandon Deacon or her girls for long. That would be totally out of character.
(4) They could have not made season five at all. Honestly, this is my favorite option of the bunch. Deacon and Rayna deserve their happy ending, damn it! But I can see how, from the perspective of the cast and crew and CMT, this would not be an ideal choice.
So what’s left? What could Nashville do other than kill Rayna off and give us this one last super-sad episode in which to mourn her? I mean, I’d probably do a few things differently if it were my show: First off, I’d have the stalker be the one who kills her because the random car crash to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of fate and inherent fragility of human existence is just annoying. This is not Philosophy 101, Nashville. Also, I wouldn’t have pulled the rug out from under people like that. I would’ve made it clear that Rayna was dying from the start of the episode. She still could’ve had all her special moments with everyone without the false promise of hope. That was messed up.
But now here we are. What will Nashville look like in a post-Rayna world? It’s almost inconceivable. Apparently, she’ll be featured a lot in flashbacks and dreams in the next episode and we’ll also have the long-anticipated return of Teddy and Tandy to soften the blow. (Joking.) After that, Rayna won’t be coming back. For real. The question is, will viewers?