Can 'Nashville' Survive Without Rayna James?
Can 'Nashville' Survive Without Rayna James?
Jennifer Lind-Westbrook
Jennifer Lind-Westbrook
Contributing Writer, BuddyTV
Say it ain't so. Fans of Nashville are still reeling following the death of the (fictitious) grande dame of Music City, Rayna James, who succumbed to injuries she sustained during a car crash. To be fair, Rayna's death and star Connie Britton's exit shouldn't come as a total surprise since Britton never committed to a full season when the series was picked up by CMT after being cancelled by ABC. But fans, especially those who waged a campaign to save Nashville, are feeling betrayed to see the beloved heart and soul of Nashville killed off before the midpoint of the season. The show may go on, but will viewers still tune in with no Rayna, and how can the series' creative team convince them to stay?


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All in the Family

Rayna leaves behind her two musically-gifted daughters Maddie and Daphne as well as her true love, Deacon Claybourne. After career disappointments, alcoholism, rage issues and liver cancer, Deacon finally got his happy ending by marrying the woman of his dreams. Deacon, who doesn't have a stellar track record when it comes to dealing with disappointment and personal setbacks, is going to have to make good on his promise to Rayna and hold the family together. Viewers are going to have a hard time embracing widower Deacon after four seasons of "Will they or won't they?" with Rayna.

Maddie has been a difficult character to like lately, taking teenage rebellion to new heights. Rayna's death could make Maddie more likable again (the show's writers and creators have been making a noticeable effort to revamp Maddie's bratty image to some degree this season.) Expect Maddie to struggle with the ongoing guilt she feels over her behavior in the year preceding her mother's death but hopefully show more nurturing and maturity by taking on a more maternal role to her younger sibling. Daphne's gone largely unnoticed aside from generic tween angst but will become the subject of an impending custody battle between Deacon, Rayna's ex-husband Teddy and her sister Tandy. No matter what, the interest in Rayna's family is bound to wane without their matriarch.

Mo Music, Less Problems

One thing is certain, Nashville needs to turn more attention to what made it a great show in the beginning -- exploring the artistic and business sides of country music. Performances have been few and far between lately, usually just brief soundtracks for episode-ending montages. Nashville has been bogged down in melodramatic storylines for far too long: stalkers, convoluted revenge schemes, plane crashes, prostitution rings and murder. 

There is room for solid drama and great music. Thumbs up to the show's writers for tackling issues like Will Lexington's struggles as a gay (formerly closeted) country singer, and Juliette Barnes' postpartum depression storyline (inspired by Hayden Panettiere's real-life battle.) Some of Nashville's best storylines were the ongoing rivalry both professionally and personally between Queen of Country Rayna and ingenue Juliette, and their shared clashes with Edgehill Records' smarmy executive Jeff Fordham. All of this was balanced with music that inspired several successful soundtracks along with cameos from Kelsea Ballerini, Christina Aguilera, Florida Georgia Line, Pam Tillis, Kellie Pickler and Zac Brown, just to name a few.

Rayna's label, Highway 65, has had a revolving door of artists -- Layla Grant, Sadie Stone, Markus Keen and Vita Martin -- and is now apparently going to be helmed by Silicon Valley outsider Zach Welles (Cameron Scoggins.) If the merge with Luke Wheeler's Wheelin' Dealin' records doesn't fall through, Welles could be in charge of the careers of The Exes, Will and Juliette. It also offers an opportunity for Nashville to introduce new characters. Zach is about the bottom line which means Highway 65 should actually start seriously courting musicians and all that entails, exactly what Nashville was about in its glory days. It would be a shame if the billionaire uses the label as an excuse to creep on Will and then dismantles it piece by piece.

Another question mark is Deacon and Rayna's album. They did some recording before Rayna's death, and this vanity project has even more meaning now that Rayna is gone.

Bring Back the Old Juliette

With Britton's departure, Panettiere needs to become a compelling reason to tune in again.
Juliette is up and around -- taking her first crutch-free steps rushing to Rayna's hospital room -- but she hasn't gotten her bite back, unless she's taking a chunk out of her long-suffering love interest, Avery. There was a time when Juliette used Rayna being in a coma to her own advantage, boosting her own image, currying public favor, determined to make sure her record sales weren't overshadowed by Rayna's personal tragedy. Those days are gone, and if the old Juliette is going to adhere to the WWJD philosophy from here on out, Nashville needs a new vixen ASAP. Like Juliette said herself in a season 2 episode, "I guess nice just ain't my color."


It Takes an Ensemble

With Rayna out of the picture, expect the rest of the cast to get more screen time, but for fans, that may not be good news. Scarlett O'Connor's and Gunnar Scott's on-again-off-again relationship has grown tedious and creatively, the twosome have performed just one lackluster song together, "All of Me," all season. The formerly earnest, good-hearted Gunnar has become jealous and competitive, and doe-eyed Scarlett is undergoing some uncharacteristic sexual awakening thanks to a moderately charming British film director. Some onscreen couples aren't meant to be, and "Scunnar" is one of them.

Will's finally enjoying professional success, even if his not-so-private life remains a mess. We haven't seen much of the handsome crooner other than to witness his tedious break-up with boyfriend Kevin, but a footloose and fancy-free Will has potential.

Avery Barkley's loyalty to Juliette should be rewarded with a storyline that focuses on him as an artist and not just Juliette's baby daddy. Does anyone remember when he used to be a bad boy? It's time for Avery to stop being treated like a piece of furniture with bad hair.

Newcomer Hallie Jordan (Rhiannon Giddens) needs to step out of Juliette's shadow, and Ashley Wilkenson (Bridgit Wilkenson) could be the new diva on the block if her debut is any indication of what's to come. And while Maddie's relationship with the older, bipolar street performer Clay (Joseph David-Jones) seems destined for failure, his charisma and incredible vocal talent is a welcome addition for as long as he lasts.

Love It or Leave It?

Fans are likely to tune in for the last two episodes before the mid-season break, just to see the immediate aftermath of Rayna's death and how those close to the singer deal with their grief. Hopefully, executive producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick (Thirtysomething, My So-Called Life) will lay the groundwork for some interesting plotlines moving forward.

If Zwick and Herskovitz hope for a season 6, they need to stop the creative hemorrhaging plaguing season 5. Lay Rayna to rest (quickly), give the existing cast more opportunities to showcase their talents, infuse a bit of humor and tone down all the tragedy, bring back the city of Nashville (the Grand Ole Opry, Mercy Lounge, Crazy Town, Bridgestone Arena, The 5 Spot, 5 Points, East Nashville, Centennial Park) -- which paid a pretty penny to help keep the show afloat -- as an extra, call on some country music heavy hitters for cameos, spend time developing new characters and make Nashville great again. And, please, no Rayna afterlife appearances. Some "Nashies" are going to turn the channel and never look back, but others will be willing to see what happens next. Life goes on.


Are you happy with season 5 of Nashville? Did CMT make a mistake picking the show up after its cancellation? Are you interested in watching without Rayna? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

Nashville airs Thursdays at 10/9c on CMT. Want more news? Visit our Nashville page on Facebook.

(Image courtesy of CMT)