'Empire' Boss Discusses Major Death and What's Next: "She's Not Out of the Show"

'Empire' showrunner Ilene Chaiken breaks down the many big moments from the hip-hop drama's season 3 premiere including a major character death.
Chuck Hodes/FOX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's season three premiere of Empire, "Light in Darkness."]

After leaving fans wondering about the fate of Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) and Anika (Grace Byers) all summer, Empire wasted no time answering that very question in true series fashion.

After the season two finale ended with the two women fighting on a balcony, it was revealed that it was Rhonda who fell off the balcony of the high-rise building and died. Moments into the season three premiere, Lucious (Terrence Howard) and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) left the hotel just as Rhonda's body fell with a thud on top of their car, her lifeless eyes staring at them as blood trickled out of her mouth. Her husband, Andre (Trai Beyers) was left standing on the balcony screaming "No," at the top of his lungs right before turning angrily to Anika. The stress caused her go to into early labor, and she delivered a beautiful baby girl – yes, not a boy as she originally had told the Lyons – with new husband Lucious by her side.

Suffice it to say, Empire kicked off its third season with quite a few bangs. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with showrunner Ilene Chaiken about Andre's "dramatic journey" ahead, the decision to reference the Orlando shooting in the premiere and why viewers haven't seen the last of Rhonda.

Can you talk me through how you and the writers came to the decision to kill off Rhonda and not Anika? What was the thinking behind that?

All I can say about that, because we love both of those actors, and we love both of those characters and in terms of losing one or the other from the show, it was an inconceivable to us that either one of them wouldn't be in the show. But we knew that somebody died on that balcony in that moment and so we just had to look and say, "Who? Who died?" And this was the story. I want to give you a disingenuous answer and say, it told itself, but I think as you know having seen the episode, Rhonda dies but she's not out of the show. I'm not going to say how long that convention persists, but it's an important part of Andre's story and his psyche and it really tells the story of his state of mind. And we were excited by it, not just because we didn't want to let go of Kaitlin, but because it felt very, very real and right to us.

Certainly, everything that we set up for Anika, was designed to promise this season. In other words, Lucious marrying Anika in that kind of shotgun way at the end of season two, it would have been a shame had she died. (Laughs.) Because then we never would have gotten to really pay that off so I guess that, more than anything, was how that decision got made.

So Andre will definitely deal with these hallucinations beyond the first episode?

Rhonda does not go away immediately, that's true.

Watch Empire's tribute to the late Rhonda below:

How does this loss impact Andre going forward? From the beginning of the show, it feels like so much of their identities were wrapped up in each other.

As you said, their identities were wrapped up in each other so this is an enormous change for him. This is a complete resetting of his life, his function, his state of mind, his goals and there will be things that happen to him going forward and beginning with the next episode that push him even further. He has a very, very dramatic journey this season, Andre does, and the loss of Rhonda is just the beginning of it.

The other big moment in the premiere was Anika giving birth, at which point we learn she lied about the sex of the baby. However, Lucious still really takes to the child. He puts his own name on the birth certificate and acts more like a father than a grandfather. Why is that?

We've already established that Lucious actually has a soft spot for babies, and that legacy means a great deal to him. One of the reasons that Anika is even still alive, and apart of the family at all, is because she was carrying that grandchild that Lucious wanted so desperately, so we knew the importance of that baby to him early on in season two. And now, here she is and she's going to continue to be central to Lucious' thoughts about his own legacy, but she also is Hakeem's child and she represents, for Hakeem, his struggling to regain his dignity, his respect, his adulthood and it's a carrot that Lucious dangles for him because, as always, Lucious is in control far more than he should be.

What can you say about Lucious and Anika going forward?

They're in a difficult situation. They're two people who are forced to live a charade under one roof, I should say there are three people because Leah is living under that roof too. (Laughs.) And there's no love lost between any of them and the dynamics among them are twisted and corrupt in every way.

Lucious' mom played a big role in the premiere. What do you think that character adds to the show that wasn't there before?

Apart from her just being a fabulous presence, and a fabulous character and a thrilling actress, Leslie Uggams, to be working with, there's nobody else that affects Lucious the way she does. She's his kryptonite. Cookie has a powerful effect on Lucious but nobody discombobulates him in the way his mother does.

Someone asked Lucious early in the episode, "What is a king without his queen?" What can you say about that exploration and his fractured relationship with Cookie this season?

It's one of Lucious' season-long drives to win Cookie back. He loves her so deeply and profoundly, and it's about more than just love, it's also just simply represents his kingdom and the consolidation of power to him. But Lucious will spend virtually the entire season in one way or another, fighting for Cookie. He's fighting against her at the same time, but he's always fighting to somehow get her back.

What can you say about Cookie's journey?

Cookie's story this year [is] a very big story for Cookie, and it's a very different story from any we've told for her. In this premiere, we're just setting the stage for her. She came out of prison in the pilot and said, "Cookie's back, I'm here to get what's mine," thinking that what that meant was: "I'm going to get my family back and Lucious back and everything that I lost, I'm just going to it all back together and regained what I lost for 17 years." And she's finally come to a harsh realization that maybe that's never going to happen and she has to start over in some ways. They're all fighting for her empire; the music is her's, she believes in it, and she's going to fight Lucious for it – to control the music of Empire. But as far as her own life is concerned, she's going to try to start over, to take a different path. What I would say to you about Cookie's story is that it's a Pygmalion story, which is exciting to us. We've never told a story like that for Cookie, in which, again, she's a fish out of water, trying to find her way in a world that's unfamiliar to her.

It's been hinted this is the political world and will involve Taye Diggs' character. What can you say about Empire's dive into the political realm and telling that story?

We already know that Lucious dabbles, he's friends with Obama. It's not outside of our world, the world of entertainment certainly intersects with the world of politics so that enables us to tell stories that cross in all kinds of organic ways. But this is a love story, this is a story about Cookie torn between two men and the fight for her heart and her own battle within herself to try and choose a path that maybe she could have chosen a long time ago and maybe would have spared her a lot of heartache. Can she possibly make that choice after all that she's been through with Lucious?

The premiere had a big flashback to when Cookie and Lucious first met. Why did you think it was important to show that?

It's thematic for the entire season. Those flashbacks will continue through the entire season and they, thematically, reflect the story that we're telling in the present that I was just talking about --the story between Lucious and Cookie and Angelo, the Taye Diggs character. We're calling the flashback story 'When Cookie Met Lucious,' and it's a story we'll tell all season long and it gets picked up in a lot of different threads in our season. I think that it's a defining story for Empire in season three, when Cookie met Lucious.

Jamal has a mini breakdown when he's about perform and is forced to leave the stage. How does his PTSD and the aftermath of being shot weigh on him this season? How will he deal with that going forward?

That's very much Jamal's story for the season. The whole season is his story of recovery and it's a musical recovery, it's a health recovery and it's a recovery of values. Thematically, this season is really built around this notion of dark versus light, the battle for the soul of the Lyon family, Lucious is dark, Jamal is light, and Jamal is determined to change the narrative of the family and to get the rest of the family to follow him towards leading a better and less tormented life. He's urging his father to leave the family, but if Lucius won't leave then he'll take Lucious on and he'll fight for the souls of his brothers and Cookie and Jamal will be very much on the side of light more or less versus Lucious, who is determined to prove that nobody is better than he is.

What drives Jamal towards that particular goal?

Well I think that it's very inherent in Jamal's character. Jamal has always been one of the most beloved characters on the show and somebody who really has a heart. It really is crystallized in the events that occurred in the last two episodes of season two. After Jamal was shot and Frieda went to jail, I think Jamal has become fixated on this idea that the family is going down a very dark path and that these kinds of dark choices have determined too much who they are and how they compose themselves and that's what he's determined to change. I think getting shot is a fairly understandable catalyzing moment for a life choice like that.

I have to ask about the song that he and Nessa (Sierra McClain) sing in the premiere, "Need Freedom," because it touches on a lot of timely events that happened this summer like the Orlando shooting. How did you and the writers decide to address gun violence in the premiere and to specifically address it in this kind of way?

It's really what Jamal does and it's what his music… in this episode, actually in the finale of last season, but again in this episode, he capitulates his intention to only make music that's going to make the world better, that's going to bring light to the world. He wants to end the cycle of violence in his family and in the world at large and that's what his music is about and he feels connected to all of these events that he sings about. And that's the impetus for that song for him, for the creation of the song.

But what was the conversation like in the writer's room to tackle these topics on the show?

The conversations were just that – that this is what drives Jamal in this season and he's not without flaws., he's not without missteps and he's got some drama in his life certainly. He's compelled to continue to drive towards the light. And it really will be reflected both in his music and in his actions.

The show famously took on "Black Lives Matter" in the season two premiere. Are there other ways you plan to address these topical issues in future episodes? What can you say?

These are the stories of the lives of our characters. We don't view it as taking on an issue so much as we view it as telling a story that's going to affect the lives of the characters in this show. We definitely will be telling stories that evoke all of those themes and issues. I think some much more explicitly than others and it will be clear when we tell those stories what we're talking about, yeah.

Bre-Z, who recurred as Freda last season, is listed as a series regular for season three. However, she doesn't appear in the premiere and she ended last season behind bars after shooting Jamal. What was behind the decision to bring back that character and what kind of role will she play going forward?

She went to jail and that's where she starts and that's part of the story. She's still very much in Jamal's mind, she's in our world, and we're taking our time. I think that we don't see Freda until episode four and in keeping with this kind of ethos of this show, we're really telling our stories and finding these characters where they are, when they come into our stories and we don't feel compelled to service everyone at every moment. Freda has an important story in season three. It's thematic. It really goes to what Jamal is dealing with in his story of recovery and all the things he is grappling with, and when that story gets activated, Freda returns to the narrative.

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

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