'Empire' Boss Breaks Down Fall Finale: Lucious Is "Pushed to the Edge"

"Losing his company is possibly the worst thing that could happen to Lucious Lyon," showrunner Ilene Chaiken tells THR of the CEO's shocking ouster.
Chuck Hodes/FOX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Empire's season two fall finale, "Et Tu, Brute?"]

The king has fallen from his throne.

After spending the first half of the season at war with Lyon Dynasty, Lucious (Terrence Howard) was removed as CEO of his own company in Empire's fall finale thanks to a power play of epic proportions. Not only did Mimi (Marisa Tomei) betray him, but she revealed she had been working with Camilla (Naomi Campbell) — aka her secret wife and Hakeem's former lover. Once Camilla was back in the picture, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) solidified his estrangement from his father by voting with her to have him removed. Stunned and devastated, Lucious took out a gun and started firing shots in his home until Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) calmed him down.

It's not just Hakeem with whom Lucious is now at odds: he and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) are also on shaky ground after it was announced the two are up against each other in the coveted "Song of the Year" category at the fictional American Sound Awards. The news came after the two shared tense words about Jamal's sexuality.

The final — and perhaps biggest — jaw-dropper of the episode was when Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) took a nasty tumble down the stairs of her beautiful new Long Island mansion in the middle of the night, leaving her health as well as that of her unborn child's in serious jeopardy.

In the wake of those major events and with three months to go before Empire returns in March, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with showrunner Ilene Chaiken about Lucious' "retribution," Hakeem's "growth," the "repair" Andre and Rhonda will have to do and Cookie at her "most empowered."

How did you decide to revisit Lucious' issues with Jamal's sexuality in this episode and in such a big way? How do you think Alicia Keys' character added to that conversation?

The themes of Empire have a lot to do with identity, self-identity, representation, the ways we fit in the world. The story that we told for Jamal in the first season, the coming out, the coming to terms with being gay especially with a severely homophobic father — that story doesn’t end. We know a man like Lucious, he made a huge move towards tolerance … which was further than you'd ever think that Luscious Lyon might have gone, but that doesn't mean that he's all the way there. That his homophobia has been eradicated. That Jamal doesn’t have to deal with his father's homophobia or the homophobia of society at large any longer. That story's not over but how do we go on telling it having told that first big story? We wanted really to talk about the nuances of identity and in a way that pushes beyond just the obvious and the things that everybody knows and has seen portrayed.

The episode ends with Luscious very jealous about going up against Jamal's in the song of the year category. Where does their relationship go from here?

This clearly is going to put a big strain on that relationship. I think it would have been foolish ever to assume that that relationship would continue unchallenged.

The lyrics of Jamal and Skye's song, "I matter, you matter, we matter" was very socially conscious and really touches back to the season premiere, which also dealt with the black lives matter movement. How do you and the writers discuss when and how to bring up these kind of issues?

Those are certainly themes that we deal with a lot in Empire, and that are important to us, and that are in the lives of our characters and in the life of the show. We knew that we needed a song that did that storytelling job for us. … When we first talked to Alicia about playing this role, we wanted to talk about not just the relationship between Skye and Jamal but also — and she wanted very much — to tell a story about biracial identity and some of the challenges of it. So we knew that we wanted her and Jamal to perform a song that would create a backlash for her character, and we put that in the works. We knew exactly what that song had to do from a story point of view, and we sent that information off to our music people and that's the song we got back, which I think is fabulous song.

Jamal is coming off of several ASA nominations and this huge Pepsi campaign. What will be his journey in the second half of the season?

From the point of view of personal drama, he's just become such a threat to Lucious that that's going to be something Jamal has to contend with and Lucious has to contend with. Lucious is not ready to be surpassed by any of his children, not the least his gay son. That's going to create problems. Further to that, Jamal is an artist who will always struggle with telling his truth and living in his truth versus living in a world of fame and living in his celebrity status, which to an artist like Jamal, can be corrupting, and that's going to be a challenge for Jamal.

Things don’t look good for Andre and Rhonda's unborn baby. How will their relationship be tested by this incident and what's coming up for them?

Firstly, we hope the baby survives. We hope Rhonda survives. And, depending on the outcome of both those things, how will Rhonda and Andre repair themselves — that's going to be a big part of the story for the second half of the season. Rhonda and Andre figuring out whether this was an accident, a cruel twist of fate, whether it was something that God meant to happen or that somebody did to them for some other nefarious reason is going to be a very big story for us.

I think an obvious suspect is Anika, who is also pregnant with a Lyon baby. How will she use this pregnancy to her advantage? What kind of interactions will she have with the family in the second half of the season?

Obviously, Anika would be a prime suspect. It's something that the audience knows, but it's not anything that any of our characters have a reason to know at this point. Nobody else knows that Anika is pregnant, and although she clearly has motive and should be a suspect, I wouldn’t assume that she's the one who did it.

Luscious is so devastated to be removed as CEO. How will this change him? What can you say about his relationship with Hakeem going forward?

Well, his relationship with Hakeem has already been strained and now it may be strained beyond repair. It certainly is in for some rocky times. Lucious is certainly pushed to the edge. Losing his company is possibly the worst thing that could happen to Lucious Lyon and retribution will be first and foremost for Lucious. Lucious has two sides: he can travel in the most elite circles and go to the White House and rub shoulders with other billionaires, but he also comes from the roughest and meanest [place]. I would venture that that's a side of Lucious that's going to come a little bit closer to the surface in light of these events.

Camilla made such a great return to the show in this episode. Why was it important to bring her back into the mix? What does she add to the show that wasn't there otherwise?

It was delicious in all the ways that we hope Empire is delicious. It was also one of the harshest things Lucious did in season one, and it felt like it deserved a comeback.

Camilla is still pulled towards Hakeem even though she is married. What can you say about their relationship?

Hakeem wasn’t expecting it. It's a big complication for him and how he reckons with it is going to be a big determiner of his growth, of his manhood.

Where do all these movements at Empire leave Jamal and Andre? Will we see Lucious move to Lyon Dynasty?

All of that is up in the air now. What's going to happen to Lyon Dynasty? What about the partnership between Cookie and Hakeem and everything that they built and all of the commitments they've made to one another? How will that fit in with Hakeem's move for Empire? Will he get Empire? Where does that leave Lucious, Jamal and Andre? Those are all the questions that start to get answered in the first episode of the second half of the seasons. They start to get answered, but they don’t all get answered for some time because it's a big battlefield.

This was a very emotional episode for Cookie when she went back to prison. What is coming up for her?

Going back to the prison is a grounding moment for Cookie, and it's not anything that's ever going to go away in her life or her story. But really what lies ahead for Cookie is, in the wake of the events that really come to a head in this episode, the need to really galvanize her family, to bring everyone back together in some way. We know that Cookie is at her strongest when the family and the empire is threatened and she needs to get everybody to stand together against an external adversary and that's where we've left her. We're going to see her in her most empowered personage — that's really Cookie when that's what's motivating her.

The first half of season two was really about warring kingdoms and Lyon Dynasty vs. Empire. Now that Luscious is out as CEO, what is the theme of the second half of the season?

The theme of the second half of the season is really the family coming together to fight for the empire. Hakeem, obviously, is the outsider, but still everybody is fighting for the empire against interlopers who have infiltrated the kingdom.

What other themes are you excited to explore in the second half of the season? Or storylines you're looking forward for the audience to see?

We're really excited to explore the rekindling — and I don’t want to say this with too much emphasis because that's just something that I don’t mean — but the relationship between Lucious and Cookie in the face of all of this. That moment at the end of the episode when Cookie finds Lucious in his office and she comforts him and tries to pull him back — that's really a core moment for these characters and the beginning of where we're going in the second half of the season. We're excited to explore that relationship and these two people who are so intertwined and who will never, ever leave one another as long as they're in this world; as much as they might go at one another in all kinds of vicious ways. That's really a big story for us.

The big competition between Lucious and Jamal and the ferocity with which Lucious refuses to be surpassed by any of his sons is a big story for us, and where Jamal finds himself and his artistry and his humanity in the midst of all of that. The story of whether Hakeem emerges a better man from all of this. He has had such a big growth arc this season. Can he really go the distance and is that really, ultimately what will make him a man — taking the empire from his father? Or is there something else that's really going to embody his adulthood, his manhood? And, finally, how will Rhonda and Andre recover, regroup after this tragic event? And, of course, what's Anika doing? What does she want? And what will she get out of it all?

Empire returns with new episodes on March 30 at 9 p.m. 

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