The 52-year-old actor breaks down Thursday's unexpected cameo ('I was hoping and praying' it would happen). Plus, the actor behind the special appearance reacts!
Warning: Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched Thursday's series finale of Nashville. You will regret it! If you have, you may proceed...
That was one heck of a Nashville swan song -- with the surprise return of a beloved character!
On Thursday's series finale, the CMT country music drama took its final bow, giving its main characters the happy endings they all deserved. For Juliette and Avery, that meant settling in on their farm outside of Nashville, Tennessee, as they await the arrival of their second baby. For Scarlett, that meant getting engaged (to Clare Bowen's real-life hubby, Brandon Robert Young). For Maddie, that meant moving out and living on her own. For Daphne, that meant signing a new record deal. For Will, that meant being in a relationship with Zach. For Deacon, that meant fulfilling his lifelong dream of headlining a tour and mending fences with his father.
But there was one special moment that trumped them all: the return of Connie Britton, reprising her role as Rayna Jaymes, who died midway through the fifth season following a brutal car wreck. (Her cameo was teased in the final season trailer in June.)
In the emotional scene, Deacon -- minutes away from taking the stage at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium -- takes a moment to himself, closing his eyes as he lets his mind wander back to his wedding night with Rayna, a rare moment of joy and introspection for the couple, who had gone through their fair share of ups and downs.
"I'm thinking, 'This is too good to be true. How is it happened that all this stuff I've done, all these things, all these regrets just, what, gone?'" Deacon says in wonderment to Rayna, after she implores him to share his thoughts. "It's like raindrops in a barrel and it's right at the top -- all that pain -- and just one more raindrop and..." he trails off.
"I know, honey. Yes, we've hurt each other. We have our past," Rayna says in the scene. "But sometimes, once in your life, somebody gets in your bloodstream. It doesn't matter how much you fail each other, we must choose each other. And I choose you exactly the way you are. And I'm going to love you forever. Forever and ever."
Charles Esten opened up about reuniting with Britton once more to film the final Deacon/Rayna scene in the series finale, revealing that it almost didn't come to pass due to logistical reasons.
"If I'm recalling correctly, we actually did not know that it was a go until very, very close to it. There were a lot of pieces that had to come together schedule-wise," Esten, tells ET exclusively. "I was certainly hoping and praying that that would happen, because to me, it is as it should be. It wouldn't have been, I think, the same ending. It wouldn't have been the same closure. There wouldn't have been the same magic. There wouldn't have been the same Nashville. It was Rayna's story from the very beginning. Even after her character passed away, she was such an integral part of the show. She didn't haunt those days, but her character and the meaning her character brought to it informed every other scene after that."
"To me, creatively, artistically it felt like the exact, right thing to have," he continues. "Professionally, another scene with Connie Britton? Yes please. And personally, more time with my buddy and my friend, Connie? Yes please. I'm so glad that it was able to get worked out and happen. I hope that the audience feels the same way as we did."
Britton issued a statement to ET about returning to Nashville one last time, saying, "Rayna got to do the impossible. She got to come back from the dead. I got to do the most wonderful [thing], which was to go back to my Nashville family and celebrate all the hard work and love and care that went into that show. Being on the Ryman stage, reunited with six years of cast and crew, is a moment I’ll cherish and never forget. I am grateful.”
For Esten, getting to revisit a quieter moment for Nashville's royal couple was poignant because it was rare for the show to delve into the less dramatic, tension-filled everyday minutae of married life.
"We saw how happy they were, but this was an inscape of that, if you will, which helped me a lot," he says. "When you think about the happiness that Deacon and Rayna got, it was obviously short-lived, in terms of the length of their marriage. But if you think about it in another way, we're not thinking of the million moments that weren't onscreen. The depth of that, while they were together, we didn't get to see at all. Even the years they toured, they had years and years together -- not where they were all the way together and satisfied like in their marriage -- but it made me think, 'Oh, wow, that's right!' There are so many moments that we weren't there for -- the laughter and joy and making music. It really informed the depth of that relationship. I was so glad for it."
Heading into the final episode, Esten admitted he didn't know what he wanted for Deacon's final wrap-up, but was extremely satisfied with what showrunner Marshall Herskovitz came up with. "What I ended up with, I was very, very pleased with -- and that was some bit of closure. I didn't want to just coast to the ending," he says. "We can't finish telling Deacon's story if we don't address his deepest wound, his oldest wound, which was a dysfunctional, abusive relationship with his father. In the same way with not having Connie on that stage would have felt like we didn't really end in a way we should, I would've felt the same way with [Deacon's father]. I thought it was really meaningful that it wasn't just the last episode where that finishes, it was the last song of the last scene."
But Esten has faith that Deacon has become "a better man" by the end of his roller-coaster trek. "I feel like we hit the finish line with that final scene and that final song and him calling his father up on stage," he says. "Deacon will be human and mess up again, but not in the same ways. It'll be different. We've come to a new level, which is what you want out of a story. He's essentially still that character, but he's that character in a different place with a different heart and a different mind."
Nashville also took the opportunity to close out its six-season run by honoring all the actors who have graced the screen, as well as the show's crew members, at the end of the hour, bringing everyone onto the Ryman stage one last time. In addition to series regulars Esten, Bowen, Hayden Panettiere, Jonathan Jackson, Sam Palladio, Lennon Stella, Maisy Stella, Chris Carmack, Kaitlin Doubleday and Jeffrey Nordling, guests at the final day of filming on April 9 included Britton, Eric Close, Will Chase, Judith Hoag, Melvin Ray Kearney II, Nick Jandl, Sylvia Jeffries, Kyle Dean Massey, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Rihannon Giddens, Pam Tillis and Buddy Miller.
"Having everybody back on that stage at the very end, how unusual as a way to end that?" Esten reminisces. "To my mind, our show has always gone back and forth between a dramatic performance and a musical performance, between a scene and a song. This show, in some sense, has been a long concert that we were giving. What happens at the end of a long concert? Everybody comes out on stage and they sing a song together. It seemed rather perfect and rather magical if you ask me."
Though it'll take a while for the Nashville experience to sink in, Esten -- who next stars in TNT's drama thriller Tell Me Your Secrets alongside Lily Rabe and Amy Brenneman -- says the show has been life-changing, both professionally and personally. "Nashville is about healing and coming together and forgiveness and the power of music all the way through the finish line," he says, adding that he took several mementos from set, including two of Deacon's guitars, a microphone from his final Bluebird Cafe performance, a piano and many of his clothes. "That meant the world to me and I was really glad to see it end that way."