'Empire' Showrunner Previews Season 2's "Shifting of Alliances" and "Ethical Dilemmas"

"The best is yet to come," showrunner Ilene Chaiken tells THR about the second season of the hit hip-hop drama.
Courtesy of Fox

After a bevy of guest star announcements, fresh footage and new tunes – the second season of Empire is finally (almost) here. But after soaring to the top of the ratings (not to mention the Twitter trends) in it's first season thanks to shocking plot twists and the emergence of one of the most beloved TV characters in recent memory – "the name's Cookie, take a bite!" – where does Empire go from here?

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with showrunner Ilene Chaiken about season two's "shifting of alliances," the "controversy" ahead and the show's expanding cast of characters

In the finale, there was a huge role reversal with Lucious and Cookie. How does that role reversal change them and where will we see them when the new season picks up?

We're not picking up seamlessly. When we begin season two, a little bit of time has gone by. Not a great deal of time but enough time that we're going to have to deal with the things that happened in that short period of months. … Lucious is still in prison when we come back and there definitely is a role reversal, and its not just Lucious is in prison and Cookie was last time but there's a shifting of alliances. When we ended season one, it looked as if Jamal and Lucious were aligned with one another and Cookie and Hakeem were starting to form a relationship so we get to explore all of that.

Lucious also discovered he doesn't have ALS anymore. These are two huge changes in his life. How does that impact him going forward?

Not having ALS just frees him to be a megalomaniac… and regardless of how long he stays in prison, that does a number of things for him. It ignites his rage and anger, his rage against the system and those who have oppressed him and it also connects him with his roots. Luscious Lyon came from the streets, but he has been far from the streets. When we met him in season one, he was a billionaire very far removed from his past and you saw that in the relationship between him and Cookie. She spent 17 years in dire circumstances while he went on and became rich and privileged.  When he comes out of prison, he's going to be a lot closer to where he came from.

What's next in Cookie's evolution?

I'm not going to talk too much about it because it would be a major spoiler. But Cookie was trying to take the company back from Lucious and whether or not that happens, Cookie's journey is about trying to really take her place in this empire and to be on par with Lucious. Because they were partners when they began and he had all of this time to surpass her, but she still considers herself to be the rightful co-owner of Empire so she's still on that journey. I would say this is her time.

Jamal suddenly had this alliance with Lucious and he changed a lot from the pilot to the season one finale? How will being at the head change him? How will he balance his work as an artist with being the head of this company?

That's a big part of Jamal's story is balancing those two things, and learning that it's much more difficult than he ever imagined it would be. It's a little bit of a careful what you wish for story. It's also just a story about the journey to superstardom.

Where does that leave Hakeem? For a little while it seemed like he was going to take over.

Hakeem is the underdog now, and underdogs are really interesting. Hakeem is the character who has the most growing to do, so it's possibly the most exciting story to see how much growth he can accomplish in the course of this season.

How does Vernon's murder play out over the course of the season?

It's an important story point and an important event that affects a lot of the drama of the season. It plays out. It's not a repeat of Bunky's murder, in other words we're not playing a murder case but it's definitely a very important event in the lives of the Lyon family that has consequences for everyone.

In the first season, you've tackled a lot of controversial tropics like Lucious' feelings about Jamal's sexuality. Are there specific topics like that that you think will become bigger conversations in season two?

We've really endeavored to be a part of that conversation. To reflect what's going on, not in a ripped-from-the-headlines kind of way, but just to talk about the issues in the lives of our characters that are the same as the issues in the lies of many Americans. There's a lot of content, a lot of social content, a lot of controversy and complexity and politics and ethical dilemmas that we take on. As much as we did last year, it's in the mix. Jamal hasn’t stopped being gay and just because he came out of the closet and because his father actually took some strides in overcoming his homophobia doesn't mean it's not still an issue. We take it on and we delve into that experience of being a gay black man more deeply and with more nuance, as we do with a lot of the other issues that touch on the characters in the show.

There's also the question of mental illness. How will that come up this season?

Andre and Rhonda are now having a baby and bipolar [disorder] is a heritable illness and that's certainly something they're going to consider and something they're going to have to deal with.

What will that pregnancy bring out in those characters that we haven't seen before?

It brings out a lot and it's coupled with Andre's newfound faith, which is also something that we're dealing with extensively in the second season. What does anticipating being a father bring out in Andre? It brings out a sense of destiny and responsibility and possibly a desire, coupled with his faith, to take a new path.

You had a large ensemble in season one and you promoted several recurring actors to series regulars this season. You also have a lot of great guest stars. How difficult is it to find that balance to service all of those characters?

We're very, very clear that Empire is the Lyon family. They're the core of every story we do and we never lose sight of it. For the most part, the guest stars on the show fit into our stories. They're casting roles that we had already conceived and stories we already wanted to tell. We're not jumping through hoops to say, "How can we tell the story for X guest star?" We're saying, "Oh, so and so wants to be on the show and she would be great in this role." Occasionally, somebody will come along and we'll say, "What can we do for this person?" We'll spend some time in the room spinning a story, and if it fits, we'll do it. We never, ever will sacrifice our core stories to accommodate a guest star.

Of the new guest stars and the new characters, is there one you're particularly excited to introduce?

I'm really excited personally about the character that Andre Royo is playing. He's fabulous and feels like an Empire character and is fun and exciting and really fresh on the show. … There are a couple things that we've already done that I know are going to pop. Becky G is fabulous on the show, but the best is yet to come.

What can you say about the balance between music and story? How is that process of creating more original music?

The music that I'm hearing is just spectacular. I'm really excited about it. I would say, with anything there's going to be a little more music in the show, but the music is very much like the guest star question. It doesn't drive the story. The story drives the music.

At first there was a question of episode order. Now that you're more into the writing process, how do you feel about the episode order?

I always anticipated that it would be a larger order. Because Fox broke it up the way they did, I feel really comfortable with it. I thought it was a really smart way to break up the season, both in terms of the way the show will air and the opportunity that it gives us as the writers and producers to look at it in two chunks, to get through a certain amount of work and then take a little break if we're not too far behind. It just feels very manageable.

Going into the second season, what were your big goals?

To continue to be as successful in season two as we were in season one. To have new stories to tell. To really evolve these characters, take them some place new. To keep the show alive, and I don't mean to just keep it on the air, but to keep it dynamic and vibrant and full of fresh surprises.

With a show like this, when it breaks out so much, there comes a certain amount of speculation. How much do you pay attention to that?

You can't. I'm aware of it, and all I can say is, I hope that the show is as good if not better. We're doing everything we can to make a show that is as good if not better, and I hope the audience thinks it is.

What are the challenges that you've faced on season two so far that you hadn't faced on season one?

It's a little more work. Doing 18 episodes is harder than doing 11 new episodes. It's really much the same for us. We're doing the same thing we did last year. We're just all in telling the best stories we can. I know people talk about what happens to a cast in season two, especially on a hit show. They're our partners as much as they were in season one. They care about the show. It means everything to them as much as it does to us, and we have the same process. They're invited into our process. They come into the writers room. We have an open door.

Are there any other ways that season two will differ from season one?

It's the same show. It's a show about this family, and their battles and their relationships and their romances. All of the wild turns that we took in season one; there will be comparable turns in season two.

Empire returns Wednesday, Sept. 23 at 9 p.m. on Fox.