Then, after years of back and forth, things started to look up for Deacon, mostly because he and Rayna finally got married in Season 4. But for Deacon, happiness is often short-lived. When the first half of Season 5 ended earlier this year, Rayna was killed in a car accident.
As “Nashville” returns to CMT on Thursday to kick off the second half of the fifth season, Deacon is still reeling from the loss of Rayna and trying to move on, which may lead fans to wonder — will Deacon ever catch a break? Can’t the writers just let him be happy?
Recently on set, Esten (whom viewers may also know from “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and “The Office”) pondered this while sitting in a replica of the Bluebird Café, the legendary Nashville venue where his character and Rayna first met. He smiled as he remembered one of his favorites lines that Deacon, always in some sort of emotional pain, said early in the first season: “Me and happy, we don’t get along too good.”
In other words, contentment may not be in the cards for his character — but that doesn’t mean that the rest of this season will be constant misery.
“It’s sort of a story line that could be transcendent,” Esten said. “There are situations when Deacon couldn’t be happy until he was with Rayna. And then sometimes, even when he was with her, he still couldn’t be happy.”
So now, as Deacon is left to take care of Rayna’s daughters, Maddie and Daphne (Lennon and Maisy Stella), he’s facing the biggest challenge of his life; and he won’t be able to wallow in sadness for long.
“He’s grown all along the way and now he has these girls under his wing and it would be immoral of him not to stand up — and not only to survive and raise them, but to raise them with some joy in their lives and some peace in their lives and some happiness in their lives,” Esten said. “So he has to fight for them, and for himself, to do that.”
Deacon and the rest of the “Nashville” characters aren’t the only ones mourning the loss of Rayna. Following Britton’s exit — she asked to be written off the show when the series moved from ABC to CMT in spring 2016 — real-life fans were upset as well. After all, it’s highly unusual for the lead character to be killed off while the show continues. (“Nashville” was recently renewed for a sixth season.)
Esten understands the intense reaction from viewers, especially the die-hard fans who lobbied other networks to pick up the series after it was canceled by ABC.
“Just because it’s a fictional character doesn’t mean there isn’t real sadness. For a lot of people, these characters become their friends, and become a part of their lives,” he said. Rayna and Deacon “were written so beautifully, and it was such a hard, long journey for us to finally get to that place in the sun, that it hurts to find that it’s gone.”
Britton’s departure means that Esten — who will also host the network’s CMT Music Awards on June 7 — moves into even more of a central role in the series alongside Hayden Panettiere, who plays troubled singer Juliette Barnes. Esten doesn’t give away any spoilers, but hints that things won’t get easier for Deacon.
“Deacon’s always been confronting his demons and trying to be a stronger man and a better man, and Rayna was key to that. She was right there to help Deacon become stronger,” he said. “So the question is, did she only make him strong enough to survive with her? Or did she somehow help make him strong enough to survive even without her?”
Either way, it’s a juicy role for Esten, who has also leveraged his “Nashville” fame into a solo career, releasing a new song every Friday and traveling the world playing concerts. He urges viewers, even if they’re tired of seeing Deacon so sad all the time, to give the new Rayna-less story line a chance.
“I wouldn’t give up on him yet and think that simply because this worst of all things has happened, that that’s the end of him.”