'Empire' Boss Breaks Down Finale Shocker and Season 4's "New Direction"

Showrunner Ilene Chaiken also opens up to THR about Demi Moore's "integral" role going into the fourth season.
Courtesy of FOX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's season three finale of Empire, "Toil and Trouble, Part 2."]

Empire upped the ante yet again with Wednesday's season three finale.

For the most part, the season three ender brought happy news to the Lyon family. Lucious (Terrence Howard) showed Giuliana (Nia Long) the door and revealed to Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) that he had been in love with her all along. Not only that, but he wanted to leave the business behind and travel the world with her. Subsequently, Lucious gave Andre (Trai Byers) control of the company. But his younger brothers weren't left empty-handed: Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) was finally reunited with baby Bella and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) met a handsome and extremely talented up-and-coming singer.

However, in true Empire fashion, not everything was what it seemed. The object of Jamal's new affection turned out to actually be a member of the DuBois family as part of Diana's master plan to bring the Lyons down. Lucious' mom framed Anika (Grace Byers) for Tariq's murder by putting her fingerprints on the knife, and she was arrested.

But those twists were nothing compared to the final moments of the hour. Feeling guilty about his father's change of heart, Andre desperately tried to stop his seasonlong plan of killing his father, but his co-conspirators were already too far along and the car bomb went off moments after Andre told his mother and father to get away from the vehicle. While Cookie survived, Lucious was much more gravely injured. Flash forward three months to Lucious lying in a coma with his worried family surrounding him, as well as a nurse (Demi Moore in the first of her multi-episode arc). Lucious suddenly woke up, only to seemingly have no memory of his family.

In light of that surprising twist, The Hollywood Reporter jumped on the phone with showrunner Ilene Chaiken to talk about Lucious' "challenges" in season four, his "twisted" relationship with Moore's character and a potential Empire-Star crossover next season.

How did you decide to end the season in this way and to put Lucious in this position?

Well, we set ourselves two tasks for this finale. One was to really follow through on the stories we were telling, to stay in it, answer the questions, be true to all of these character trajectories that we spent so much time pursuing and at the same time, to do a complete reset, to really give the audience and the characters and the actors who portray them something really new in season four. This is how we solve those two seemingly conflicting agendas.

Lucious and Cookie finally did get where we've all been waiting for them to go, I think: obstacles swept aside, love declared and anticipation and happiness within the grasp, and, well, it all gets blown up in that last moment literally as well as figuratively. But not by Lucious doing something feckless or treacherous or anything like that. And then, who is Lucious now? Who will he be going forward? Will he find his way back to himself and how long might that take and how might he be different and how will he change all of the family dynamics? I think those are the questions we hope we've posed at the end of the season.

How quickly after that finale does the season four premiere pick up?

Not immediately. We're not jumping ahead a year, but we're going to deviate once again from our usual pattern of picking up in the moment and move ahead a little bit beyond that.

Can you elaborate on how this will impact the rest of the family once they realize he doesn't remember who they are? How that will change them?

I don't want to talk about that too much because that's season four so I would just talk about the obvious: Lucious has always been the linchpin of this family. Everything that's happened to every one of the Lyons has happened in large part because of Lucious or about Lucious. He's the king. With the king incapacitated everybody has to step up in a different way. Andre, clearly, will have guilt to deal with. There's the question of whether or not anybody knows or finds out the extent to which he is responsible to what happened to Lucious. Cookie has, up until now, been very much about her desire to reclaim the life that she lost and then she had it within her grasp but now going forward, what's she pursuing? What are her drives and responsibilities? Is she going to hold her company and her family together?

Speaking about Lucious' condition, how did Terrence and Taraji react to this twist?

They're actors and smart storytellers and they embraced it. They were excited about it. I think each of them relishes the opportunity to take their characters in a whole new direction and to play relationship dynamics that are completely new and different for these characters. It's pretty apparent what Terrence Howard has to play as Lucious. I'm not saying exactly where we're going or what state he's in when we come back, but clearly Lucious is going to be contending with some new challenges and I'll tell you without telling you what that we're also planning a story for Taraji that's as new and fresh for Cookie as this story is for Lucious dealing with the aftermath of a terrible accident that has presumably caused damage to his body and mind.

Going back a little bit earlier in the episode, Lucious seemingly does this huge 180 when he splits from Giuliana and declares his love for Cookie. What's behind that?

Well, it's not a change of heart for Lucious. He's been playing a long con not to con Cookie, but because he knew firstly he wanted that club, he wanted to pay Giuliana back for what she did to him all of those years ago and he knew he had to play all of his cards very close to his chest. He essentially couldn’t trust anyone but himself to get this done so he took it all on himself. He knew from the very first episode of season that he loved Cookie and wanted her  that's where he started. His seasonlong drive was to win Cookie back and you might have thought in the second half of our story that he had changed courses and veered off towards Giuliana, but what I hope you learned in that last episode is that he never stopped wanting Cookie or doing it for Cookie, He did it all for Cookie. He even had to live with Cookie's anger, he had to live with the discomfort of hurting her so that he could ultimately give her the ultimate gift, which is his love and commitment to her, to his family and this gift of doing her show. He realized this was the way to finally demonstrate that he had come into the light.

He also decides to give Andre the key to the castle as he says and step down from the business. What elicits that decision?

The decision is in the moment, inspired by Barry from their past, and his wife having done a similar thing except that they haven’t lived treacherous lives. Barry has always been the pure, the straight-and-narrow, and seeing that it turned out well for him and taking inspiration from him is what inspires the moment. But then in looking at their three sons, I think, finally, Lucious realizes what I believe Cookie has known all along, which is that it always should have been Andre. The other two boys already have their thing; they already have their lives. Andre's life has always been the company and he's the one most qualified to lead it. Why has Lucious spent so much time and effort undermining him? Lucious finally realizes the error of his ways, but is it too late?

No matter what, Andre gets control of the company so he could just as easily let Lucious die in that explosion. What makes him try to save his father even after everything his father put him through?

Had he gotten the company by his original plan, he would have gotten everything he's always wanted except for one thing: his father's love. I think we've seen over the course of these three seasons how much he's longed for that and he finally got it. And if he can have it all, that's better than stealing it in a moment of violence.

What kind of a leader will Andre be given the inner turmoil he'll be facing?

That remains to be seen, what kind of a leader he'll be, whether he'll be able to reap the benefits of that promise that was made to him given what happens in the moments after. The only thing that I can say for certain is that he's going to living with a tremendous amount of guilt.  

Shyne (Xzibit) also played a big role in what happened to Lucious so how much will he factor into season four?

It remains to be seen, but he certainly played a big role and he's going to have to be dealt with, whether he's going to have to be dealt with just by Andre or whether others find out, he's a big part of where the Lyons are now.

Demi Moore's character had been kept under wraps for so long. Now that she's made her series debut, what can you say about why she was the right fit for this particular part?

Well, we were thrilled to have Demi for this role. First and foremost, we wanted somebody alluring and mysterious who felt like a match for Lucious and Cookie, and I'm not saying this as a love triangle, but this certainly is a triangular relationship that she would challenge each of them in a way that neither of them has ever been challenged before. What we know and what we can say is that she is going to be an integral part of the family dynamics, as Lucious will be heavily dependent upon her and entwined in some kind of a relationship with her that already promises to be a little twisted.

You could have easily wrapped up the DuBois family at the end of this season but instead you introduced two new siblings, one which is going after Jamal. Why did you want to continue with that family and that storyline?

Well, we felt like Diana DuBois certainly wasn’t finished. As she says, the Lyons ruined one of hers, her favorite and most beloved son. She's not going to stop until she's exacted a fitting revenge on them so that's from a character point of view where we pick her up and the whole DuBois family. From a storytelling point of view, we found the DuBoises to be the best adversaries we've ever had for the Lyons. Phylicia Rashad is a fabulous nemesis for both Lucious and Cookie and we love the adversarial dynamic between these two families.

So it's safe to say they'll play a big role in season four?

Absolutely, yes.

Another twist was Anika being framed for Tariq's murder, what does that to her? What can you say about her state of mind in season four?

She'd be a fool if she doesn’t finally see that trying to be a part of the Lyon family has been a non-winning proposition for her and maybe she needs to extricate herself one way or another. But whether you can ever extricate yourself from the Lyons once you've been entangled with them becomes the question for Anika.

What other characters or new dynamics are you most excited to explore going into season four?

Who is Cookie without Lucious? And I'm not saying that Lucious won't be there but with Lucious in an incapacitated state, which is certainly where we'll start, who is Cookie?

Now that Empire and Star are airing back-to-back in the fall, what kind of talks have there been after doing a formal two-show crossover and welcoming some of the Star characters onto Empire?

We've played with it a little bit. I think they're two separate shows, each stands on its own and we don't want to cross them too much, but they are two shows that live on the same planet so there might be a little. … We teased when Star was making its debut that Lucious and the Lenny Kravitz character know one another so there could be, at some point in the future, some kind of cross.

Empire returns in the fall for season four Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on Fox. In the meantime, go behind the scenes with showrunner Ilene Chaiken in THR's exclusive video below:

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