'Empire' Writer Talks "Uneasy" Alliance, Andre's Descent Into Darkness and That Ghost Threesome

EMPIRE: Taraji P. Henson -episode- One Before Another- Publicity-H 2016
Jean Whiteside/FOX



[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's episode of Empire, "One Before Another."]

Empire came back from an extended World Series-induced hiatus with a bang (but thankfully no bullets). After being off the air for three break, Wednesday's episode began with Shine (Xzibit) kicking into attack mode after Lucious (Terrence Howard) and Andre (Trai Byers) had beaten him to a bloody pulp in the prior episode.

"We knew we wanted to come back with a really dynamic opening," co-producer and the episode's writer, Joshua Allen, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "When it came time to actually write the opening sequence, it almost wrote itself because we knew we wanted to make it as tense as possible and really get the suspense going to really make people excited for this next batch of episodes."

No one died at Shine's hands, thankfully, but by the episode's end, he already was planning other ways to take the Lyon family down, just as the three Lyon brothers cratered on the brink of self-implosion thanks, in large part, to Shine's sister and protege, Nessa (Sierra McClain).

THR spoke with Allen about Shine and Tariq's "uneasy alliance," Andre's descent into darkness and that ghost threesome.

First, Shine seems ready to gun the entire Lyon family one by one, and then he agrees to a truce thanks to Anika. The episode ends with him, however, aligning with Tariq (Morocco Omari). What is his endgame?

By the end of the episode, you realize Shine actually has changed strategies. It's sort of a kneejerk reaction to the violence. By the end of the episode, he's starting to put together a grander plan and realizes there's an even more devastating way that he can take Lucious down. So he's starting to learn how to play chess the way that various members of the Lyon family, and Lucious especially, have been so good at for so long.

What can you say about that apparent alliance between Shine and Tariq going forward?

It's an uneasy alliance, so it's one to watch because even though they are working together against a common enemy, of course, it wouldn't be juicy if each one of them weren't working his or her own angle. So that's something to watch as that alliance moves forward, how these two characters work within the alliance when it benefits them but then also making their own side moves, as well.

Will Shine definitely be working with Anika going forward? If so, what can you say about that working relationship?

We're sort of slow-burning that story, Anika's return to the music world as she tries to carve out her place in this whole new world order. Of course, she's married to Lucious, and he's sort of got her locked down in the house for most of the time, but of course, we introduced her in the world, in the pilot as a formidable A&R executive, so we're trying to slow-burn her return to the music world. That storyline's going to play out over several episodes. She'll come into contact not just with Shine but with other artists and people in the music world.

This is going one more episode back, but Shine is out for blood in this episode because of Lucious and Andre attacked him in the fourth episode. We've come to expect behavior like that from Lucious, but not Andre. How much concern was there in the writer's room about whether that was going too far or too dark with Andre?

It wasn't a concern. I actually think we looked at season three at large as an opportunity to take the Andre character on a journey. He's certainly been through more loss than a lot of people have in their lifetime in two seasons, so we wanted to really try to be honest in terms of what that kind of loss does to a person, the nihilism it might give. How does it shake their world view? How does it change the way we behave? So we really, as a room, were excited by the prospect of seeing what kind of darkness we can awaken in Andre, so that's actually a season-long thing that we're exploring and we're really excited to see what the fans think of it.

The Andre-Nessa relationship has been a very surprising development. What made her the right person for him at this time and what appealed to the writers about putting these two characters together?

It's interesting because Rhonda represents a different kind of relationship, not just for the obvious reasons but also just because this was the person Andre wanted to be with when he got the Ivy League degree and when he was sort of a buttoned-up suit kind of guy. Nessa represents something totally different to him. She comes from a different world, but it's also a world that Andre's familiar with because in season one, if you remember in the flashbacks, he was the one hiding the gun in the LEGOs. He's the one who actually has memories of the gangster world that his father came up in, and so as he makes his transition on his journey to the dark side, it represents a new and more interesting relationship for him to be in.

What was the thinking about the timing of this relationship? Obviously, he's still dealing with the death of Rhonda in a big way.

Obviously, timing is not always on our side with things, and opportunities for new relationships and new alliances can come up at any point. So we chose not to wait until we felt like, "Oh, Andre is going to be further along in his grief process before we introduce another person." We thought, "How can we play with the complication of it? How can we play with the back-and-forth and the complication of having someone new that is intriguing you come into your life when maybe you're still wrestling with letting go of some other things?" I think that's partially what led to episode 304 ending the way it did, that got a lot of reaction with the fans – our little ghost threesome (Laughs.)

Speaking of that, will we still have more Rhonda sightings in upcoming episodes?

I will say we are not entirely done with Rhonda in whatever form she may take.

It was a daring move to have Rhonda come back in this way after her death in the premiere.  Especially, as you said, there was a lot of fan reaction to her last appearance on the show. How has it been navigating those waters and figuring out where and how to use Rhonda after her death?

One thing that became pretty clear as we were working on integrating Rhonda into our stories in the room was that we didn’t want to make it American Horror Story: Empire, you know what I'm saying? We're not suddenly a ghost show, but we wanted to use her to highlight moments in Andre's psyche when things are sort of up in the air or when he's feeling uneasy because we know that for two seasons, she was his rock, she was the person helped him with his meds, who sort of guided him and helped him, so for her to suddenly not be there anymore, we thought, well that's going to have a damaging effect on somebody's psyche, especially somebody with as fragile a psyche as Andre. So we're sort of playing with Rhonda as a manifestation of what Andre's going through physically rather than just a ghost who haunts him, if that makes any sense.

After their big blow-up, where do the brothers go from here?

It's going to take a little bit of time for them to move on. Of course, like in life, there are going to be external events that force you to work together with somebody you might not be feeling in the moment against a common enemy. We're definitely going to see this in the next couple of episodes. Whatever relationship stuff is going on between them, they'll have to keep it simmering while they have to band together against a common foe.

The way the argument was shown was almost like through the lens of a reality show, with the camera panning back to show people watching their argument on large screen in Times Square. What were you trying to say with that scene and the specific way it was presented through the viewpoint of the streaming site?

I think what we really wanted to do with that moment was broaden the world and remind the audience that this is a really famous family whose drama is often broadcast in front of the whole world. We also wanted to make the point that fighting does attract eyeballs and that is a secondary motivation for Lucious to do what he did and the scheming because he knows that if he starts conflict, and the conflict plays out live on the air and all their business gets aired, then of course that's going to attract more attention because they want to be in on the TMZ of it all. I think we were trying to make that point, that in the larger world, that is definitely a thing, and it's certainly a thing in the music world. People are constantly blogging, they're looking up who's fighting who and who's beefing with who and who's winning. So we definitely wanted to make that a part of the show because it's a part of the music world that we're trying to portray.

Becky's future at Empire seems to be in question this season. What was her thinking when she went against Cookie's wishes? What can you say about her future?

Becky's struggling with a lot this season because she's obviously put in a lot of time at Empire and grown close to Lucious and various members of the Lyon family. But she's also looking at her career and seeing if there are other ways for her to break out, and so she's caught in a tug of war between her loyalty to Empire and then maybe also trying to figure out what other kinds of opportunities she can pursue. So in the process, she's going to tangle with the new head of A&R, Xavier, there's a little bit of a Working Girl dynamic between the two of them so that's going to play out, and obviously I can't spoil how it all works out, but let's just say Becky finds out that she can actually jump from the frying pan into the fire.

This episode showed Cookie and Angelo's relationship continuing to blossom. It's always been clear the writers have a great time writing for Lucious and Cookie together, but in the writer's room, what have been the biggest highlights about the Angelo-Cookie dynamic?

It's interesting, I think we've always had this idea in the writer's room that Cookie would see herself as a person who can operate in certain lanes. Like in the pilot, she looks Andre in the face and says, "Are you ashamed of your drug dealer mom?" So to her, there's a whole rarified world that she does not have access to, and I think Angelo is helping her to see that she can go to the opera, she can move in certain circles and still be herself, so I think that's an important lesson for Cookie to learn and that's the thing we're trying to do with Angelo. Angelo, obviously he is polished and he comes from black royalty, but he also wears earrings in his ears and he also is not afraid to be around people like Lucious and go toe to toe with them. So I think he's showing Cookie that she can live in both worlds.

The next episode sees the introduction of Angelo's mom, played by Phylicia Rashad. What can you say about her and Cookie's interactions?

Well, I think it's an interesting dynamic because they spend a good deal of time sort of circling each other and sizing each other up. I think each one of them has preconceptions about the other one that get shattered fairly quickly, so that's really exciting to watch both of them learn who the other one is and size each other up so that's always going to be fun.

The date for the midseason finale of Empire was just announced, so what can you tease about that episode?

We're going to bring certain things to light that make you see characters you thought you knew in a different way. Certain ghosts from the past are not dead, let's say.

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