'Empire' Boss on Lyon Family's "Huge Loss," Cookie's Confession and Lucious' Test for Hakeem

"There are some strange, surprising alliances that come," Kaitlin Doubleday tells THR about how the loss of Rhonda's unborn baby will impact the characters going forward.
Courtesy of FOX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the midseason premiere of Empire, "Death Will Have His Day."]

The Grim Reaper is no stranger to Empire, but the loss at the center of Wednesday's midseason premiere was unlike any of the other sudden, shocking, over-the-top deaths that came before it. After getting pushed down the stairs at the end of the winter finale, Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) lost her unborn baby with Andre (Trai Byers).

"It hardens her," Doubleday tells The Hollywood Reporter. "At first, [Andre] thinks somebody pushes her and she doesn’t believe it, and then she thinks somebody pushed her and he doesn’t believe it."

Andre's struggle with mental illness, which was first uncovered in season one, will resurface as a result of this unforeseen tragedy. "It’s like, 'Do you think somebody pushed me because you're having these visions? Is that your mental illness? Are you taking your medication?' There's a lot of drama for them dealing with this horrible thing that's happened to them," Doubleday says. "There's some dramatic, scrappy stuff that Rhonda does at the end. There are some strange surprising alliances that come."

Rhonda isn't the only one with strange bedfellows. The hip-hop drama's return saw Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) side with Lucious (Terrence Howard), Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Andre after Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) voted to have his dad removed as CEO. But while Camilla (Naomi Campbell) convinced him to turn against his own family, she wasn't able to get Hakeem to turn off his feelings for Laura (Jamila Velazquez). Instead, Hakeem professed his love for her and the two consummated their relationship.

So what's next for the Lyon family after that eventful midseason return? Showrunner Ilene Chaiken spoke with THR about the mystery surrounding who pushed Rhonda down the stairs, the new person about to enter Jamal's life and why Hakeem was "born" to lead Empire.

How will losing the baby impact Andre and Rhonda going forward? What obstacles will they face in the second half of the season?

This is a huge loss for Rhonda and Andre, and it will certainly challenge their relationship and it will challenge each of them individually. Andre is going to have to come to grips with some questions of his faith that get raised in that first conversation between him and Rhonda: Why did this happen to them? And, especially, now as a man of faith, why would his God have let this happen to him?

Rhonda also has to, once again, reclaim her place in the family. Everything changed for her when she was carrying that heir, and will she be able to maintain her special status? And if not, what does that mean to a woman who fought so hard to finally be accepted by the Lyons?

There's still the question of who pushed. What can you say about that mystery and when or if that will be revealed?

We will certainly find it out, but we won't find it out quickly. It will play up the mystery over the course of the season. And the answer might not be quite so obvious and simple as some people seem to expect it to be.

That was a heartwarming revelation cookie made about her own miscarriage — why did you choose to include that?

The notion that Cookie is the person who reveals the most, who really is about the family — that's what that scene is about. Everybody else is playing, and particularly Lucious is constantly positioning and manipulating, and Cookie is trying to bring everyone together and still trying to reclaim what was lost. To be able to reveal something that tender and personal is what makes Cookie Cookie.

This episode also showed a tough side of Cookie when she beat Hakeem. Why was that important to show? Why does she have such a strong reaction to his betrayal?

If you recall, in the midseason finale, she told him what was what. She spoke to him about priorities: "Yes, we fought for the company. Yes, if I have to put your father in your place in order to protect him and us, I will, but Empire is our legacy," and Hakeem has put their legacy in danger. He's committed one of the worst offenses in the Lyon family to expose them all to losing their company, this company that means everything to them. Her anger is justified and it's certainly not out of the blue. Everything she's done, including going to prison for 17 years, she did for this company.

How does this change their relationship going forward? They made a lot of progress working together on Lyon Dynasty in the first half of the season?

Part of the drama of the second part of the season is, will it change their dynamic? All of that incredible progress they made, the reclaiming of their relationship that they never had a chance to build because she was gone, is that all going to be lost by this reckless decision that Hakeem has made? Or did she reach him enough? Did she get through to him? And is Hakeem going to be able to course-correct in order to preserve his relationship with Cookie and in order to help her to preserve the family?

Hakeem makes a big decision in this episode by sleeping with Laura even after Camilla tells him to get rid of her. Why?

He really loves Laura. When Camilla went away, he thought that that was the end of his life and he recovered. And in the course of making a new relationship with his mother, he grew up a lot and he met someone much more wholesome who really represents, to him, a more aspirational life. And he really loves her, and I think he has a moment when Camilla comes back and says, "Forget everything that happened. I'm back and we're back on track." A moment of thinking, do I just go for this? And then, a real, profound realization that love trumps it and that he's going to go with love.

Camilla makes it clear she wants Hakeem to be CEO. How will Hakeem differ from Jamal and Lucious?

Hakeem makes a speech when he takes that CEO job that's indicative of who he is. I've always believed that Hakeem, although he might not be ready, is a natural born hip-hop CEO. He's grown up with the values and in the mold, and as he says, with all the swagger of the men that actually do make it in this world. It's not a conflict for him. It was a conflict for Jamal to be both an artist and a businessman. Jamal couldn't reconcile those two; he's too pure an artist, whereas Hakeem, they're one in the same. You can look at the hip-hop billionaires and see that these two things live comfortably within them. They're artists, they're rappers, they put their work out in the world and they make money and they make money for themselves and other people — that's Hakeem. He's born for this.

Speaking of Jamal, he had some issues in this episode will his personal life and particularly the public perception of his personal life. How will that issue play out going forward?

Jamal hasn't yet figured out that his father is actually responsible for stoking those flames. So his father is using those issues to undermine him. I think the audience sees it, the audience saw it in the midseason finale, and it continues, but Jamal hasn't yet figured it out. He's trying to put it back together himself, thinking, 'I'm not going to let the world judge me. I'm not going to let Jameson judge me for the personal choices that I make.' And he's yet to discover that all of those perceptions that seem to be hurting him, that he has to push back against, are being fanned by his father.

There is all this talk around his love life, but he doesn't have anyone at the moment. What can you say about that aspect of his life coming up?

Jamal is trying to be fine on his own, and own who he is, and someone will come along and will present him with yet another set of challenges that he has to grapple with.

That was a very layered scene between Hakeem and Lucious to close out the episode. Lucious brings out a gun and says he'll stop at nothing to get his empire back, but he wouldn't actually shoot his own son, would he? What is going through Lucious' head?

He shot his best friend. (Laughs.) I would like to think that Lucious is trying to help Hakeem become a man, and help him to understand the seriousness of his actions and to make the best choices, and I think he's also testing him. I'm not sure that Lucious knows what the outcome will be, but he's testing Hakeem to see what kind of a man he is and whether he's worth the trouble he's caused.

What do you think is going through Hakeem's mind?

In that moment with Lucious, Hakeem realizes, 'I made a huge mess. How am I going to fix it?' And the next episode is about the choices Hakeem makes to fix the mess he's made.

You knew going into season two that the episodes were going to air in two parts. When you were in the writers' room, how much attention did you pay to resetting things in this episode? How much of a role did splitting the season in two parts influence the writing?

We always knew where we were going with this season. Of course, it becomes clearer as you go forward, and we did, to some extent, look at them as two separate parts of the same story. So throughout the first half of the season, we told that story of Empire in disarray, of the family fighting for one another, for control of Empire splintering off and then finally — in the midseason finale — Camilla coming and seizing the company, that brings them back together. We always knew that the second half of the season would be all about them coming back together in the wake of that event, to take their company back from this external adversary.

Do you see this second batch of episodes as having a different tone or a different pacing at all as compared to the first half of the season?

We see them as being much more focused on the family. A different pace? It's still Empire. There are still those big moments and reveals, but I think they're much more driven by character. They come from inside the stories and inside the characters rather than from somebody who comes in from the outside and suddenly changes the course of events.

Empire airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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