'Empire' Boss Talks Lucious' Many Battles, "Breathtaking" Finale and Spinoff

Showrunner Ilene Chaiken talks to THR about Andre's dangerous endgame and Rumer Willis' "tormented" character.
Chuck Hodes/FOX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's midseason premiere of Empire, "Sound and Fury."]

The Walking Dead's famed barbed wire baseball bat Lucille got some serious competition when Empire returned for the second half of its third season Wednesday.

An angered Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) came out swinging, literally, in the final moments of the episode when she attacked her ex-husband Lucious (Terrence Howard) with a baseball bat. Enraged by his comments about his wife and "muse" Anika (Grace Byers), whom he promoted to head of A&R at Empire, Cookie left a lot of destruction in her wake, breaking gold records, framed photos and even Lucious' piano before the two shared a passionate kiss. Cookie eventually pulled herself away from him, reiterating that they were done for good.

And, in true Empire fashion, that was hardly the only jaw-dropping moment from the episode. Cookie and Lucious' battle also extended to Andre (Trai Byers) and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) when their respective girlfriends, Nessa (Sierra McClain) and Tiana (Serayah) went at it in the middle of a club performance, complete with pushing, hair-pulling and some salty language.

While most of the Lyon family was making enemies, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) found a new friend in rehab in Tory Ash (Rumer Willis), a famous but deeply troubled singer trying to overcome a heroin addiction after several public incidents.

To break down the events of the finale, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with showrunner Ilene Chaiken about Cookie and Lucious' complicated dynamic, the "breathtaking" season three finale and the latest on a potential Empire spinoff.

The ads and the posters seem to point to a renewed focus on Cookie and Lucious. Is that accurate? Why did you think it was important to put the focus back on them and their current relationship?

Well, it's simply, it's not a feint. It's a genuine promise about what the second half of the season has in store, and it starts with our first episode. In the first half of this season, Lucious madly tried to win Cookie back after having lost her at the end of season two, only to find Cookie starting on a new relationship with Angelo. This battle, this war of the Lyons that begins in this first episode, it's all about Lucious and Cookie's relationship; the thin line between love and hate, if you will.

The Lyons have battled with each other several times before, but how do you see this time as being different?

We've never seen Lucious and Cookie go at one another like we do in this first episode. It adds a new pitch for the two of them.

From a writing standpoint, why did you want to push Lucious and Cookie to this new more volatile place? What was the creative thinking behind that decision?

The things that Lucious has done, which started out as romantic and escalated to aggressive, in order to win Cookie back and destroy her new romance, absolutely elicited a response from Cookie. They've never been so pitted against one another in love before. Cookie had to take it to a new level; she can't just let Lucious keep doing this to her, and in taking it to a new level she's going to be forced to really examine herself.

What would you say is the overall theme for the second half of the season?

The themes we laid out in the first half of the season are still very much in play. It's Cookie and Lucious primarily: What are they to one another? What can they be? And will they ever be again? It's all within this context of this battle for the soul of the family. Jamal is still fighting for his family and in the second half of the season, we're going to see that battle play out. Can Jamal really save the family's soul in the fact of all the darkness that is Lucious and his influence over the family? Can Lucious be saved, or if not, can the others be saved from his dark influence? That really is what we play out and it gets played out between these two men and the music they're making, the albums they're making. They're fighting this battle in the arena of music, but it contains all of the wishes and drives that each of those men have.

You set up a very interesting dynamic with Jamal and Rumer Willis' character. What will we see with that going forward?

In taking on this story of Jamal and his opiate addiction, we really had to take it very seriously. We can't just send Jamal to rehab, have him come home and it's all over. The relationship that a person makes in that situation often becomes a profound relationship but also full of the challenges of maintaining one's health and sobriety, and so Tory Ash is all that for Jamal. They have this deep connection, but she also is a more fraught character than Jamal who poses dangers to him but faces the same dangers that he faces. And she's a musician as well; we wanted to really introduce another great and fresh musical element into the show. We have our reference points and Rumer is so gifted, and is so exactly what we talked about in the writers' room for this character. I won't mention the references because she emerges as a character and a voice unto herself, but you can kind of imagine from the history of music some of the artists that we're talking about. She falls into that trope of troubled artists and tormented musicians.

Another big move was when Lucious brings Anika in as head of A&R. What kind of an impact does that have going forward? What was the thinking behind that?

This is what she's wanted all along. She wanted her life back. She wanted to be a Lyon and have the things that being a Lyon would bring. A big part of that is being a part of Empire, being back in this music world. Lucious does it as a move, he brings her back in because he and Cookie are at war with one another, and what's going to hurt Cookie more than anything? Bringing Anika back in to the company and giving her that job and those approbations that he gives to her in that meeting — that's the thing more than anything else that just sets Cookie off, that ignites the ticking time bomb that Cookie is throughout the episode.

There's at least one point where Lucious looks truly terrified of Cookie. How does he seeing her in this state impact him and their relationship going forward?

I don't want to give too much away about how Lucious is impacted. I would just say it’s a profound and intense moment between them and a moment in which he is almost a little frightened by the rage and the passion that's unleashed in that moment. It answers a question for him: No matter what happens between them; in that moment, Lucious knows that Cookie loves him and will never be able to let him go. What will he do with that? That remains to be seen.

Where does this leave Cookie's relationship with Angelo then?

Cookie ends this episode saying, "I'm with Angelo." You know that she's trying, and you know all of the reasons that she's trying to leave that as her truth. But I think that it's certainly shaping her conviction. So will she double-down? Can she, having now exposed herself in that way? I think that that's the question that we'd like the audience to be asking.

Speaking of Anika, what is Hakeem's journey for the second half of the season?

Hakeem's journey for the second half of the season has more than anything to do with grappling being a father and figuring out what his relationship is to his daughter and how to claim it. Lucious has been using it as a carrot with him, which is not a really fair thing to do to a son or a grandchild, but it is who Lucious is and what he does. So how will Hakeem come to terms with that role for himself?

In this episode, Andre is as determined as ever to kill his father and take his spot. How far will he go to achieve that?

You'll have to watch the show to see how that unfolds, because Andre is in fact a man with a plan. He's somebody who's been pushed so far by his father, and, as I think we saw in the first half of the season, Lucious has never had a formidable adversary. Andre's intellect and his ability to play chess with his father is unparalleled. And his moves will continue to escalate, especially now that we know that he has an endgame, and that endgame is something that he sincerely intends to carry through.

In order to enact this plan, Andre has some new allies in Shyne (Xzibit) and Nessa. How do these newer people influence him going forward?

Andre sees Shyne as his opportunity to build his own army, to amass his own forces. He's learned from his father that he has to be a gangster. In order to fight Lucious, he has to have some of the same tools in his arsenal that Lucious has. And since he hasn’t spent his whole life building those relationships, he simply acquires them wholesale with Shyne, and he does something that compels Shyne to buckle under.

In January, the show earned another early renewal for season four. How much has getting that early pickup figured in to your season three planning as you get closer to the finale?

The season finale, which is a bit of a ways off, although we're shooting it right now, determines a lot about what season four will be. In a very big way, all of our cliffhangers, all of our drivers are set in motion in that finale in a really classic way. So you'll see when you see the finale some of what we have in mind and we haven't really begun to break stories beyond that. But we know where we're going and some of it is shocking and surprising and breathtaking and I'm sure unexpected. I know that's a lot of hyperbole, but I think this time you'll find that we really deliver on it.

In January, co-creator and exec producer Lee Daniels also confirmed an Empire spinoff is in the works. What are the latest talks for that project?

I'm not sure that we're ready to talk about it yet. Know that it's all very real, but the specifics are yet to be unveiled.

Empire airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Fox. Watch the trailer for the rest of season three, featuring first looks at Demi Moore, Eva Longoria and Nia Long:

 

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