'Empire' EP Talks a "More Calculated" Andre, That Crushing Farewell and Recent Ratings Dip

"It's going to get very ugly and very dangerous," Sanaa Hamri, who directed the episode, says of the family feud brewing.
Courtesy of FOX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's fall finale of Empire, "A Furnace for Your Foe."]

Andre's descent into darkness reached a new crescendo on Wednesday's midseason finale of Empire. After falling into new depths of despair over the death of his wife, Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), earlier this season, Andre finally let her go with the help of new love Nessa (Sierra McClain). Andre said an emotional goodbye to the ghost of Rhonda and threw his wedding ring into the ocean, in exchange promising her to take down the person responsible for killing her and their child. The episode ended with a seemingly recharged Andre making a pact with Nessa's troublesome brother Shine (Xzhibit) and saying he would let him know when it's "time to kill my father."

Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) also faced new obstacles in the episode. Lucious seemingly destroyed the mayoral campaign of Cookie's new beau Angelo (Taye Diggs) but banded together with his ex to send Jamal to rehab for his painkiller addiction.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with executive producer and episode director Sanaa Hamri about the "more calculated" Andre to come, the decision to address Jamal's addition issues head-on and the show's three-month-long hiatus.

One of the most emotional moments in the episode had to be that goodbye between Andre and Rhonda. What made Andre OK to finally let her go?

I think Andre was grappling with trying to move forward. He meets Nessa, who is attracted to his Machiavellian ways, and I feel this was the right moment for him to let go of Rhonda specifically so then he can totally avenge her death, so to speak. She tells him, "Make sure that whoever did this to me will pay for it," and I think it's all encompassed in one moment. It's a very crushing scene. When I was directing it, I wanted it to feel epic and movie-like. We're saying goodbye to a character that is a fragment of his mind, and with that being said, we'll see what happens with him and Nessa, and what Andre's emotional state will be without Rhonda's ghost haunting him.

We've seen him to continue to depend on her even though she's no longer alive, so how does this decision to let her go impact him going forward?

Well, I think Andre's going to be more determined, more calculated, more in competition with his father, and I think with his strategy of wanting to take Lucious down, he's going to be fixated and all about that. He's going to do whatever he can do to achieve his goal, and I think having Rhonda constantly interrupt his flow is not needed anymore. I think he's now on a path -- even though it's demonic and crazy, it's focused, and he has the support of Nessa to carry him through. Before he didn’t have the support of Nessa, and when Rhonda died, his partner was gone and he was all alone, and now he's not anymore. He's coming back bigger and badder and stronger than ever.

What makes him so determined to take his father down in the final moments of the episode when he's talking to Shine?

He's seen how Lucious has destroyed so many people's lives. Lucious never respected him, he always thought he was crazy. He was the supposed untalented one, if you think of all the brothers. Hakeem: great rapper, great performer; Jamal: amazing singer, great performer. They are the talent, they are the money-makers, so to speak, and Lucious holds them in a certain regard, and Andre was the one who had no talent. His talent lay in finances, but obviously he wants to have that kind of specialness that his other brothers have. He learned his father hid a lot of stuff: the family history, his grandmother's mental illness. Lucious never tried to help Andre when he was having signs of bipolar disorder when he was younger. All that led to this state of mind. I think once Rhonda died, he just snapped, adding more to his tormented mind, and I think in episode six, during the hack, we start seeing that he's planning or plotting something and it's overtaken every molecule in his body. And I know in his twisted mind, he feels he's doing it for the good of his family as well.

Going back to the scene with Rhonda, is that the last we'll see of Kaitlin Doubleday on the show?

I think right now we're saying goodbye to Rhonda. However, again, Andre's mind is not all there, so she could make an appearance again at some point. We don't know. We'll see where the story goes, but for right now, we've definitely said goodbye to her.

What was it like filming that scene with Kaitlin then?

It was sad. First and foremost, it was sad when she died in the [season premiere]. So we had already gone through that mourning process as a cast, but it was bittersweet, and I feel like you can sense that on camera as well between the actors and also what Kaitlin brought to the table. I think that was the real goodbye that Andre has to go through, and we went through as well.

Jamal heads to rehab in the finale. Will the midseason premiere pick up right after the events of the finale, or will some time have passed? Will jamal still be in rehab when the show returns?

There is a bit of a time jump, and Jamal has to deal with being in rehab first and foremost and kind of healing from, first and foremost, the physical withdrawal and then also psychologically, having to use it as a crutch to perform. We wanted to talk about a lot of artists and very important people do a lot of drugs…it goes hand-in-hand with the music industry, so we feel like it's really important that we address Jamal's addiction and the rehab process. It's going to be interesting to see how the family reacts.

So we'll definitely see him in rehab?

Yes.

His parents were the ones who sent him to rehab, even though he didn't want to go. How does that affect those relationships in the second half of the season?

First, just to address that whole moment, I feel like that's the magic of Lucious and Cookie. No matter what, they got together and realized that they both made the decision together, hand-in-hand, in tandem, to get their son some help. You can see, Cookie says, "You're going to rehab," they got the family together, and then Lucious comes over at the end and says, "It's time." That's what we love about Luscious and Cookie. [Cookie] had to do what she had to do to get him onstage, but at the same time, she's also aiding her son and she cares about her son so much. Nobody wants to see their children go into severe physical withdrawals. It's awful, you have to be hospitalized practically, so I think Jamal is going to see it for what it is, and hopefully he'll trust his mother again.

His relationship with Lucious was already strained, so what can you say about that dynamic in the second half of the season, particularly as he deals with these other issues?

Honestly, his relationship with Lucious has always been complicated, and I think you're going to see that there's a big push-and-pull between them. Sometimes it's not all bad, but sometimes it's really horrific. If you watch how Lucious is with Jamal, there are times when he does these things that we think are really bad, but ultimately, in the larger scheme, we realize that he's trying to teach his son a lesson. That's very much the old school of parenting that Lucious has, which doesn't work with Jamal's progressive vibe of being who he is and being free, so of course they're going to butt heads. It's going to get very ugly and very dangerous, especially with Andre in the mix as well.  

Finally, the ratings have dipped a bit this season, and now the show is about to go on a three-month hiatus. How concerned are you about the numbers, considering how long the show will be off the air?

We never like taking breaks because we love our show and we want our show on all the time, which is just not realistic. But also, things are different now. It's not about overnights, we're not sitting there counting numbers. I mean, people take their time to watch shows in general, so the break is a time for everybody to brush up on their episodes, maybe re-watch them before we come back on again. You have many ways and platforms, whether it's online or streaming and then also on demand, so to me it's a time to kind of brush up on the show and on the story.

Empire returns with new episodes on Wednesday, March 22, at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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