I didn’t find Rayna dying a surprise. You don’t move to a new network and keep all your stars. Either Juliette, Rayna, or both were going to exit the show (i.e. die because they’re women and women hardly ever exit a show without dying).
Rayna has been getting her affairs in order all season. Maddie was back home and they were a family again. She went on a self-discovery, found her music roots, and decided to write an album with Deacon. The album writing part was filmed in her home so now there’s a kind of home movie to remember her by. The future of her label is bright with her new partner. Juliette came back to Highway 65 and resolved any unease with Rayna.
Even Scarlett found more of herself and became more confident / accepting of herself as an artist and woman, which wraps up Rayna feeling like she needed to watch out for her. Rayna fully acknowledged things weren’t always great with Deacon and he’s hurt her, but they’ve had happy, good times, too, and they chose to continually stand beside each other through the good and bad.
There were lots of family moments between Rayna, Deacon and the girls. Maddie’s been dating an older young man, which prompted her and Rayna to have serious talks about relationships. Daphne got her period and became a woman, which Rayna was able to talk to her about. Daphne and Maddie have both been growing into their own separate lives and while they still need their mother, they aren’t children anymore.
The stalker plot always felt off to me, too sudden and no purpose, but it served as a way to force an accident and death that wasn’t for shock value. Rayna didn’t die for shock value. The stalker could have just killed her at the end of the episode, but instead her death was framed as a tragic accident. It also allowed her time to accept her death as the end of her journey. It could have easily been car accident -> hospital scene -> flatline -> dead. Instead, she was given time and a scene with her dead mother to reach closure. Her family and even Juliette were given time to say goodbye.
Her death is a tragedy, but she wasn’t killed without any buildup and she didn’t die purely to shock the audience. She didn’t even die for manpain. It was a tragedy that will affect her family, friends, Nashville, and the entire world. Her death was not something that was done to her by another person in her life or a villain of the story. It was framed, rightly so, as an accident. It was a pretty good death, all things considered.
They handled Rayna’s exit with a great deal of respect. Rayna dying was the only thing that made sense for her character. She wouldn’t leave her family. I can easily see her wanting to leave with her family (to get away from the music scene, to start over, etc), but it wasn’t realistic to write out Deacon and the girls, too. The only way you write out Rayna is if you write out her family as well.
Rayna was always written as a strong family person who hated to be away from her family. There wasn’t a realistic way to separate her from the story without taking her family with her. She knows what it’s like to grow up without a mother. She would never do that to her girls. Death was the only way she would ever leave her family.
Yeah, Rayna dying sucks, but it’s a gift we even have a season 5. Nashville easily could have stayed dead when ABC cancelled it.