When Nashville's new showrunners Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick began work on season five, they had to face one particularly big burning question: What would happen to Juliette Barnes?
The season four finale of the country music drama, which aired 13 days after ABC surprisingly canceled the four-year-old show, ended on a huge cliffhanger when Juliette's plane went missing. Although the decision to move ahead with an unsatisfying ending angered fans, Lionsgate TV used the cliffhanger to drum up fan interest as it shopped the series to other outlets. (It worked: CMT and Hulu banded together to resurrect the series weeks later.)
Six-plus months later, fans were (finally) rewarded Thursday with the first new footage of season five, and the long-awaited reveal of what happened to Hayden Panettiere's character. After her plane crashed in a field, Juliette was found conscious by a stranger who sang to her to calm her. The fictional pop star was miraculously saved — the only survivor of the crash — but struggled with the lack of feeling in her lower half (save for a toe.) Bound to a wheelchair, Juliette struggled to find purpose to go on in the aftermath of her potentially life-changing injury.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter about the cliffhanger, Herskovitz said he and his longtime writing partner, best known for their work cerebral dramas like My So-Called Life and thirtysomething, embraced the storyline.
"To be honest with you, it was a lot of fun because it's not in our nature to do plane crashes," Herskovitz says with a laugh.
"I think what we wanted to say was this was a person, Juliette Barnes, who was reaching the end of a life that she couldn't live anymore. She had tried to commit suicide; she had been in rehab, but she was kind of running out of options. So what we thought was that this extraordinary event, which is obviously going to have a huge physical impact on her, could also be a moment of pivot in her life where she could be at least offered the opportunity to really change and really grow and find who she really is."
Juliette comes to this crossroads after a particularly tough season which saw the singer struggle with postpartum depression in season four. Behind the scenes, the writers felt re-energized by Juliette's recent bad luck and the "extreme crisis," as Herskovitz calls it.
"When you're a writer, you look upon horrible life events for your characters as good things. (Laughs.) In life, they're bad, but in writing, they're good. When Nancy got cancer in thirtysomething, that was a great thing for the character," he recalls of the ABC drama.
"This plane crash is a huge opportunity to talk about the development of Juliette Barnes as a person and that's what we've explored and Hayden's been incredible in terms of embracing this journey. I think it's been fun for her as well."
Although it was unclear just how Juliette would come out of the plane wreckage, her survival had been hinted at several times before, most notably with her popping up in new posters for season five meant to promote the show's move to CMT.
"This is more CMT's thought, but I certainly understand it, is that people love Hayden in the show and they wanted people to know what Hayden would be back," Herzkovitz says. "You don't know what's happening to her when she's back, but you know she's back."
Although Herzkovitz and his partner have a strict policy against spoilers — "we've never talked about story in advance," he states — he wasn't against including Panettiere in the marketing for season five.
"It seemed like that cat was already out of the bag," he says. "It's one thing to give away story and another thing to say this person's there. And it was sort of known that she was there so it just seemed pointless to try to hide it. … I'm much more interested in the story of Juliette Barnes than the question of whether she's going to live or die."
Nashville's full two-hour premiere airs Thursday, Jan. 5 at 9 p.m. on CMT.
Watch the full season five trailer below: