'Empire' Boss on Cookie's "Heartbreak," Jamal's "Burden" and Anika's "Obsession"

"It's very, very painful for Cookie to be estranged. He's been her everything," showrunner Ilene Chaiken tells THR about that pivotal scene between Cookie and Jamal in the season premiere.
Chuck Hodes/FOX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the season-two premiere of Empire, "The Devils Are Here."]

Not so fast, Cookie. The season-two premiere of Empire wasted no time diving right back into the heated dealings of the Lyon family. Although Lucious (Terrence Howard) remained behind bars, he still pulled a fast one on his ex-wife. After Cookie brought in investor Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei) to help her and her boys get a controlling share of Empire and subsequently remove Lucious as CEO, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) went behind Cookie's back and convinced Mimi to invest with him and Lucious instead.

The middle Lyon son's betrayal of his beloved mother was just the beginning. The episode ended with Jamal kicking Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), Andre (Trai Byers), Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) and Cookie out of his father's house, even after Cookie tried to slap some sense into him, twice. "If season one of Empire was about who will inherit the throne, season two is warring kingdoms," showrunner Ilene Chaiken tells The Hollywood Reporter about the next move for the rest of the Lyon clan.

Chaiken also talks with THR about Jamal's "suffering" this season, Hakeem's "huge evolution" and what to expect when Cookie's other sister comes to town.

That was quite a transformation for Jamal. Why did he take his father's side over the rest of the family?

Jamal spent his entire life longing for his father's love, and he finally got it. [It's] such a big story for us in season one and such a big deal in this young man's life — to finally get his father's love and acceptance. When this divide occurs between his mother and his father, and it looks to him as if Cookie might actually have betrayed Lucious, he's torn. But he got the empire, and Cookie tried to take it away from him, and he feels betrayed by her. So he takes his father's side.

He didn't necessarily have to go so far as to kick them all out of his father's house. What was the motivation behind that?

Because he so felt so profoundly betrayed. They all acted against him behind his back. I feel for him. I believe that action was motivated.

It was such a moving scene because of how Cookie reacted. She slaps him not once, but twice. How does that rift with Jamal affect her going forward?

It's a huge heartbreak for her, and I think you see it most in that moment, but we play it throughout. It's very, very painful for Cookie to be estranged. He's been her everything. As you know, he was the only member of her family who stood by her throughout her entire 17 years in prison. When she came out, it was all about the relationship between the two of them. She lifted him up, she helped him to become the man is, to get where he is, and she helped him to reconnect with his father because she cared so deeply and selflessly about him, and she lost him because of it.

What can you say about her relationship with Hakeem after this because they were much closer in the premiere than they were last season?

Three months have gone by, and you can presume over the course of those three months, she did reconcile with Jamal. There's still a little tension between them before the reveal that she led a hostile takeover, but they definitely reconciled. Were it not for the hostile takeover, they would have repaired their relationship. But in the meantime, she and Hakeem and Andre have been working together and getting to know one another. She spent the first whole season of the show desperately trying to create a relationship, to build a relationship with her youngest son, whom she has no relationship with. This is the beginning of a relationship between her and Hakeem. It's a big deal for both of them and a relationship in which Hakeem is really growing.

What is the next step of his evolution this season?

He has a huge arc in this season and a huge evolution. It's a real growth story; it's a story of a boy becoming a man, and you really see it, and he plays it beautifully. It's one of the things that I'm most excited about this season because it's what we set out to do, and it feels like we're doing it very successfully. You really see him coming into his own, learning skills, changing his behavior, backsliding and then recovering. It's something that we play repeatedly throughout the season to a real pointed conclusion.

Hakeem and Anika are still together in the premiere, but viewers don't see too much about their relationship. What can you say about their relationship going forward? How does that affect his relationship with his mom?

Hakeem and Anika are not a couple, and the relationship is a vague and undefined relationship for both of them. It's something that they each got into for reasons that have to do with things other than love and affection — not really a good place to start a relationship. Anika is someone in whom he takes comfort from time to time, and she helped him through a lot of difficult moments. They want different things from one another, but Cookie will make it very hard for Hakeem to continue in that relationship.

Anika proved in the premiere that she was willing to do whatever it takes to be a part of this company. Why? What is her driving force?

She wants to be a part of the company, and she has a kind of unhealthy obsession with the Lyons. She just invested so much of herself in her relationship with Lucious and in his company, and she'll do anything to stay in that mix.

Going back to Jamal, he had trouble balancing being at the head of Empire and being an artist in the premiere. How will he come to handle that in future episodes?

Jamal becoming the head of Empire, especially with his father in prison, is very much a case of: careful what you wish for. The second he gets the opportunity, Jamal will bust out of his corporate chains because Jamal is an artist at heart, and he is really suffering under the burden of responsibility. He needs to get back to making his art. He needs to get back on his journey to becoming a star, which he had just begun when he got derailed by Lucious' incarceration.

Marisa Tomei made a big entrance in the show when she switched sides in the premiere. What can we expect from her working relationship with Jamal and Lucious?

Her relationship will primarily be with Lucious. They really connect, and she did him a solid, to say the least. It's going to be an interesting working relationship between two powerful titans, each with an agenda.

Lucious went out on a limb for Cookie in the premiere in having his allies take care of Frank in prison. How does that change their relationship?

It doesn't change anything. It's just what they do for one another. The essence of their relationship is articulated in that scene when Cookie comes to him. It's a relationship between two people who love and hate one another with equal passion, and they can't get away from either of those feelings, and he will defend her to the death. He'll defend his family, but especially Cookie, and yet, they will never stop being the bane of one another's existence.

What is next in terms of Lucious' incarceration?

He's not going to be in jail for too much longer. In the second episode, he finds the means to work the system, as he inevitably would. Lucious Lyon knows how to work the system, and we'll see it work to his advantage.

Will there be any blowback or ramifications from what Lucious did to Frank, or is that close-ended?

We're not going to be dealing with another murder case for Lucious. I think he managed that situation with Frank pretty well. He's well covered. It's not going to come back and bite him the way Bunkie did, but the act itself has seasonlong ramifications for him regardless of that. It's definitely an act that continues to feature in his life, his relationships and his story.

Andre still is dealing with the aftermath of Vernon's death in the season-one finale. How does that struggle take a toll on him going forward?

The struggle takes a big toll on him psychologically and pushes him further into his faith as he grapples with what he's done and the moral implications of it. That’s ongoing for Andre and for Rhonda. It's an issue in their relationship, an issue when they contemplate bringing a child into the world, but this specific story with Vernon, the thing that happened in the last episode of our last season, also has a very explicit consequence in the early part of our season. It plays a big role in Andre's faith.

News recently broke about Vivica A. Fox playing Cookie's other sister. What hints can you give us about that relationship?

We'll see the relationship among the three sisters and explore family in their scenes and their story together. It's something that [co-creator] Lee Daniels has talked a lot about and promised, which is, as well as being a story about family, it's an exploration of class and culture. It's an opportunity to talk about where Cookie came from and where she is now and the disparities between extreme poverty and extreme wealth that are hard to talk about and fascinating. Particularly in the hip-hop culture, there are those stories of people who come from the most abject circumstances becoming unthinkably wealthy, and what does that do to not only the individual, but the family relationships?

That's something that was touched on in the premiere because Cookie's sister was trying desperately to get in touch with her about the rose from Frank, and she had a lot of trouble. How much do you think Cookie has changed from the beginning of the series to now?

Clearly, in some ways, she's intrinsically who she is, but she's changed. Even if she hasn’t changed, people will accuse her of having changed. There will always be people, particularly those closest to her, who resent her or want something from her and think she owes it to them.

Empire airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox. What did you think of the season premiere?

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