'Empire' Postmortem: EP Danny Strong on Ending the Season the "Polar Opposite of Where It Began"

The co-creator talks with THR about the events of the hip-hop drama's finale and hints at what's ahead.
Chuck Hodes/FOX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from "Die But Once" and "Who Am I," Empire's two-part season one finale.]

"Heart and fear." Those were the two key elements Empire co-creator Lee Daniels felt the first season finale absolutely had to have. And Fox's hip-hop drama delivered on that in spades during Wednesday's two-hour season finale.

During the breakout hit's freshman season ender, Lucious (Terrence Howard) learns he doesn't actually have ALS and isn't dying — but he still picks a successor (Jussie Smollett's Jamal) for Empire Entertainment. Even better: Lucious actually displays genuine affection for Jamal as the father and son bond over music, with the head of Empire also revealing his real name to his son. Additionally, Lucious accidentally reveals to Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) that he killed her cousin Bunkie (Antoine McKay), and he believes his ex is the one who turned him in for the murder when he ends up behind bars.

Meanwhile, Jamal shows how far he would go to earn his father's respect, and ultimately, the company. He not only puts aside some of his artistry in order to wear a business cap, but also turns violent with Beretti (Judd Nelson). Teaming with his father has him turning into his father in ways that will surely have repercussions come season two. It puts golden child Jamal on the outs with the rest of his family, who all come together — even Anika (Grace Gealey) — in a bid to regain some power for themselves.

And because Empire is Daniels' version of Dynasty, the season finale also features a murder when a pregnant Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) walks in on Vernon (Malik Yoba) fighting her husband, Andre (Trai Byers), in their home and hits him on the head with a candlestick.

The fast-moving soap opera ends with just about all of its core characters turning 180 degrees from where they started the season. To hear Empire co-creator Danny Strong tell it, the surprising new alliances and role reversals were the key element of the finale.

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"One of the things about the show that is so important to me and Lee and [showrunner] Ilene [Chaiken] is that even though we’re doing this fabulous, heightened soap opera, there’s a truth to it and a reality and emotional depth," Strong tells The Hollywood Reporter. "That’s always been one of the main goals of the piece, so choices are just driven by trying to tell the truth — in a world that still has juicy soap opera turns."

Here, Strong talks with THR about the events of the finale, how it sets up the previously announced second season, and key reflections on the show so far.

Let's start with Lucious. Many wondered if Howard's days with Empire were numbered, but his clean bill of health answers that question. Is he powerless now that he's behind bars?

Lucious being misdiagnosed was in my original pitch. Lee and I pitched the show to four different networks, and it was always in the pitch that he was going to think he had ALS, but toward the end of the first season, he’s going to find out he was misdiagnosed. I’ve heard a few stories about that; my ex-girlfriend’s father was misdiagnosed with ALS, but also my grandfather had an autoimmune disease that crippled him but then it just reversed itself. ALS is misdiagnosed with a particularly high percentage. It’s a very hard disease to diagnose. I’ve been asked how we were going to do a show with a character dying of ALS a hundred times, and maybe one person brought up misdiagnosis. It never seemed to cross people’s minds, which I loved because it was kept a surprise for the audience. But Lucious going away to prison as the final moment of the episode had been planned out quite a while ago. We wanted to end the season with Lucious and Cookie in complete role reversals — where Lucious is in jail, and Cookie’s in the mansion. It’s the polar opposite of where it began.

Yet Lucious' ego isn't bruised by being behind bars. Why end it there as opposed to on his successor, or even on the media commenting on him being behind bars?

It’s a cool opportunity to show a different perspective and viewpoint of the Lyons. We thought it would be a much cooler ending to end it on Lucious — our protagonist/antagonist — and where we’re heading next season.

Lucious is quite spiteful at times. Was there ever a possibility of having him say "Screw you" to all of his sons when he finds out he isn't dying and not choosing any of them as a successor?

We say it in episode 12: There still needs to be a succession plan now that [Empire is going to go public]. So, he’s picked a successor, and that’s why. Next season we’re still going to see some conflicts because of the decision, but this whole season was about who was going to inherit the empire, and we felt like we needed to pay it off, but it was also very logical under these circumstances.

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What was the process like to decide just how far Jamal would go, not only for the title, but ultimately for his father? Lucious is a man who hurt him so much for so long, yet he still proved he would do anything for him.

All sons ultimately want the love of their fathers. The more abusive the father is, the more the son wants that love from him. We always had this Michael Corleone-esque arc planned for him where we were going to see, over the course of the season, him slowly start to turn into his father. That’s ultimately why his father chooses to make him the heir. Because [Jamal], at the end of the day, is the most like him.

Season one kept stressing how much of an artist Jamal is, but now that there's a glimpse of him in the business role, it seems he'll be sacrificing a lot of that.

I can't give season two away! (Laughs.) That’s a very astute observation, but that’s all I’ll say about that!

It's sad to see Jamal on the outs with Cookie because that bond was so beautiful, but it gave Taraji some really nice vulnerability to play in the finale.

Where we leave [Cookie], she’s still desperately trying to bring her family together. We’re trying to keep the emotional core, her emotional response, in our stories as truthful and honest as possible. There’s also a breakdown of the sort of tough veneer of the prisoner; it’s emotional growth for her character. It’s about trying to make her a well-rounded character for an amazing actress to play.

Why was it important to show Cookie and Anika uniting against Lucious?

It seemed like a natural progression of the storytelling that people who hated each other would be working together. In some cases, it was something that was mapped out from the get-go, and then some [cases] were setting up season two and where the alliances had to be for season two. There are a lot of reversals in the finale — we really do end up in a different place than where it all began. Jamal now appears to have a resentment toward his mother. Hakeem [Bryshere Gray] and Cookie, who hated each other, are now working together. It doesn’t mean it’s going to go well! But alliances have shifted and new pacts have been made.

Was it always Vernon who wouldn't survive to see season two? Yet the moment didn't happen until the finale, which seems like it can launch some interesting drama in season two, once characters catch on to the fact that he's dead.

Yeah, we planned on doing that quite a while ago. To me, it felt like a very satisfying conclusion to this season — a fulfillment of arcs but also a reset to where the story needed to go — that’s what we were going for!

There were some fun callbacks to the pilot in the finale episode, including Cookie picking up a broom again. How did you choose which moments to revisit?

None of it was about specifically making a recall to the pilot. The broom thing was a gag that we put in, but it also shows the progression of the relationship. In the pilot, she beat him with the broom, but now she’s sweeping up around him while she’s trying to recruit him to team with her. It’s a full reversal from how the series started. It was a result of the storytelling as opposed to trying to give some sort of nod to the pilot.

Olivia's (Raven-Symone) storyline was something in the original pilot but cut for time. With so many characters on Empire — the core cast and those who came in and out — how did you manage getting certain characters to certain individual points while still serving the overall themes and focus of the season?

The stories stem from my ADD. Early on, I liked the idea of having a fast-moving plot with intersecting stories. Lee and I loved the idea of subverting the genre and having a gritty, urban family drama at the core of it that tackles mental illness and homophobia, but combining it with a fast-moving soap that has multiple plotlines of different genres — the music plotline, the crime plotline, the family plotline. That’s always how I envisioned the show, and you never know if it’s going to work. Cuts happen in so many different stages. I was worried in the conceptual stages that I couldn’t sustain a narrative with just music plotlines. That was one of the reasons I put in a crime plotline. I told Lee I didn’t know if just the music storylines could take us through all of the episodes, but I thought if we had the crime [element] and the family and the music, they could all balance off of each other and be something special. I was worried it would be boring [otherwise]!

The show started out using flashbacks really heavily in the pilot, but as episodes went on, there seemed to be fewer of them. Did that come about because when you had to make cuts, anything that wasn't moving the current story along was the first to go?

The flashback motif stayed throughout the whole season but some episodes had more than others. There’s quite a few in the last two, but there were full scenes of flashbacks in the pilot, where it became more short sequences in some of the later episodes. One of my favorite flashbacks of the season happens in episode 11, where Lucious is working on the song, and we zoom in on little Jamal singing along with him, and we see this kid starting to get into music.

What did you think of the season finale? What are you looking forward to seeing in season two? Sound off in the comments section below and stay tuned to The Live Feed for more Empire coverage this week.

Twitter: @danielletbd

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