'Empire' Boss Discusses Gruesome Death, Finale "Reset" and Timeslot Move

Showrunner Ilene Chaiken also discusses the possibility of another death in the final episode. "Life is fleeting in 'Empire' land," she says.
Jean Whiteside/FOX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's episode of Empire, "Toil and Trouble, Part 1."]

The Lyon family took Las Vegas by storm in Wednesday's penultimate episode of Empire's third season. Affectionately dubbed "Cookie's 11" by showrunner Ilene Chaiken, the hour saw #TeamCookie, led by the woman herself (Taraji P. Henson), pull an elaborate, multi-person heist that would definitely make George Clooney proud, in order to get Giuliana's books. Unfortunately, gambling commissioner Charlotte Frost (Eva Longoria) only demanded more bribery money from Lucious (Terrence Howard) when she saw Giuliana's fraudulent ways – that is, right before she and Andre (Trai Byers) shared a steamy and surprising kiss.

However, Lucious suffered another, more devastating blow when his mother Leah (Leslie Uggams) stabbed his half-brother Tariq (Morocco Omari) in the neck just as Tariq was about to tell Lucious that it was Leah who kidnapped his granddaughter Bella. While the two half-siblings had started out on shaky ground, the episode saw them finally beginning to build a relationship, that is until Tariq bled out on the floor and died. "I'm sorry it took this long," Lucious told Tariq shortly before his death.

To get the lowdown on that gruesome ending, Andre's unexpected hookup and what it all means for next week's finale "reset," The Hollywood Reporter jumped on the phone with showrunner Ilene Chaiken.

What went into the decision to kill off Tariq in this episode? Why was the right move?

Leah is not straight-forward, so suffice to say that this isn't simply Leah killing Tariq. This is part of a larger plan on Leah's part. She's had mixed feelings about Tariq all along. He's the bastard child so she dislikes him, but she tolerated him for a moment. But we certainly have teased the idea that Leah has a homicidal nature to begin with. She's wanted to kill various members of the Lyon family, but one in particular. And there will be a connection.

What can you say about Bella's kidnapping given that Tariq is now dead? Will viewers get some closure to that storyline in the finale?

I wouldn't say we'd get some closure to it. I would say that we get further developments in that story that take us to a season-ender cliffhanger. But from a story-motivated point of view, the decision to have Leah kill Tariq in that critical moment also served our purposes. Lucious was on the verge of finally finding his granddaughter. His strategy was correct — Tariq is the one person who can do this. He had it within his grasp and now it's gone. Will he ever recover that moment? How is he going to find out what Tariq knew? Or is he? It's lost for now, but in the next episode, that story certainly doesn't go away, but it takes us to the brink of season four.

Lucious seemed to be finally warming up to Tariq in this episode. How genuine was that? If so, what elicited that change of heart?

It was genuine on Lucious' part. In part, what we're saying is they finally bonded. They are brothers and finally, in this moment when they needed one another, they saw that they have a real connection. But there's also the fact that in this episode and the next, Jamal might finally be getting his wish. His father is stepping into the light and making choices that will enable him to become a better man.

Given where they were in their relationship when Leah kills Tariq, how does that affect Lucious' relationship with his mother going into the finale?

It will affect that relationship going forward, although there are events that take place in the finale that upend everything. Going into the finale, it's just a problem for Lucious to deal with. He's got a lot on his plate and suddenly he's got a mother who just committed a murder in his home, and he just simply has to deal with it so he can make sure that the rest of his agenda, his urgent agenda doesn't get derailed.

One of the more surprising Lucious moments was seeing how quickly he fires Thirsty (Andre Royo) just because Giuliana (Nia Long) tells him to. This is normally a man who won't be swayed by anyone, so why is it different this time? Why does she have so much power over him?

I would have to ask you to wait until the next episode to ask that question, because it's a very on-point question: Why is Lucious so enamored of Giuliana? Why does she appear to have so much control over him? Why is he letting her distance him from all of the people who have been his confidantes?

You also touched on Jamal (Jussie Smollett), and he makes the decision to wait on releasing his album and perform at Inferno – basically picking his father over his mother. What's behind that change of heart?

Well, what we know, what's already on the surface is what I alluded to a moment ago, which is Jamal's season-long drive has been to get his father to step into the light, to open himself up to leading the family in a more positive and uplifting way. Jamal sees this as possibly being within his grasp in this moment. He believes his father when Lucious says, "I'm doing this to help you, not to do destroy you." Maybe performing in Inferno really is a good career move, it's also an opportunity for Jamal to get much closer to his father. Whether there's another layer to it, we'll have until the next episode.

Why is he not more worried about hurting his mother and their relationship with this decision?

That's a very, very good question and again, I'm going to ask you to let it be answered in the finale because it's explicit in our story.

One of the interesting new pairings was Andre and Charlotte. What can you say about this new relationship going into the finale?

I would say that it plays into Andre's overarching plan. Andre told us he's going to kill his father and take all of his toys away. And Andre is positioning, he's positioning to enact his scheme. He hasn't forgotten about it, he hasn't let it go by the wayside. He is careening toward making that ultimate move that he's been threatening to make all season. And Charlotte is a part of that.

How worried should viewers be about Charlotte getting closer to Andre? One minute you think you have her figured out and then she's taking bribes and showing a very different side …

The question I guess that we should be asking at this point is, are they working together or is one going to play the other?

The episode really felt like a homage to Ocean's 11, so what went into breaking this episode and deciding how Cookie put together this scheme? Why did you want to do Cookie's 11?

Our last two episodes, we knew that we were paying off this Vegas story and we approached them as a two-parter so [episodes] 17 and 18 are both part and parcel of the same story, but we knew that we wanted to do a caper. Ocean's 11 is the ultimate Vegas caper and we wanted to do a Cookie-led story where Cookie is really driving the action. It was loads of fun for us. We kind of challenged ourselves with can we — in the context of Empire and staying true to our characters — actually pull this off? Can we do a caper? Can we make Cookie George Clooney? And we thought it worked. We had loads and loads of fun doing it, and the next episode is a continuation of the story.

When we talked previously, you said the finale sets up this "total reset" for the show. Now that we're closer to the finale, what else can you say about that?

Nothing without giving it all away. (Laughs.) By the end of the finale, you'll know what the total reset is, and it involves all of our characters. Each of them has a new drive or adversary or challenge. It involves the introduction of the Demi Moore character, and that's all I can say without just totally spoiling the whole finale.

There was already a big death in this episode, so how worried should viewers be about more bloodshed in the last episode?

You should always be concerned that someone else might die. There's certainly another death dangled because Andre is still planning to kill his father. Whether that happens remains to be seen. But life is fleeting in Empire land.

Fox just announced that Empire will move to 8 p.m. next season. How concerned are you about not getting to do some of the racier scenes like Cookie with the baseball bat at an earlier hour?

Firstly, nobody has said to me, "You're going to have to tone it down and make it a more family friendly show," or whatever it is 8 o'clock seems to mean to some people. I don't believe that's the case by any means. I can't imagine that anybody would ask us to do that. Empire is Empire, and I think that we're going to continue to make our show. Fox does the programming, we do the storytelling and I think we're still all on the same page about what the show is.

Empire's season finale airs Wednesday, May 24 at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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