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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Empire’s season two finale, “Past Is Prologue.]
Empire giveth and Empire taketh away. The sophomore hip-hop drama revealed in the opening moments of the season finale that Jamal (Jussie Smollett), indeed, survived the shooting in the penultimate episode. However, the fates of other characters were left in question when Andre (Trai Byers) walked out on Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) and Anika (Grace Gealey) fighting each other on the edge of a balcony after Rhonda realized it was Anika who had pushed her down the stairs earlier in the season and essentially killed her unborn baby. Andre tried to intervene, but the final moments of the episode showed his jaw drop as he yelled, “No!,” and a woman’s scream was heard in the background.
In true Empire fashion, that was far from the only shocker in the season two finale. After teasing the wedding of Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) and Laura (Jamila Velazquez), the young songstress left the youngest Lyon son at the alter. In his stead, Lucious (Terrence Howard) took his place and married his ex-fiance – not to mention his son’s baby mama – Anika so that she wouldn’t have to testify against him. Although Lucious finally made his feelings for Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) at least semi clear, watching him marry Anika was too much for the fierce family matriarch, who said she was done with Lucious for good.
Following that jaw-dropping finale, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with showrunner Ilene Chaiken about a “devastated” Cookie, whether anyone really died in the finale and the “Godfather-style opus” being set up for season three.
In the penultimate episode, it was Jamal who was shot. Why him?
From a story point of view, we talked a lot over the course of the season. We knew in the very beginning of the year when we were first breaking the overall season arcs, we knew that in an episode that would probably be the penultimate episode, someone was going to jump in front of a bullet for Lucious, one of the three boys. There was a moment when it was going to be Hakeem and a moment when it was going to Andre, but it was really always Jamal first and foremost. We wanted it to be the son who had the most conflict with his father. We wanted to drive Jamal to a moment when this would be clearly a selfless act. A father who is competing with him viciously for an award that means more to Lucious than it means to Jamal, who’s put their relationship at stake because of that and then we very intentionally teed up that terrible scene between them in the previous episode in which Lucious says all the most vile things to Jamal so that when that moment came, Jamal jumping in front of a bullet for his father made it clear that Jamal was… really about to commit selfless act.
This episode reveals his fate and that’s been a big discussion for the last week. Did you always know he would live?
We always knew that Jamal wasn’t going to die, and we wanted to move past his hospital recovery and into the beginning of his real recovery. I will say that in this final episode, Jamal returns, he’s in a wheelchair, he’s clearly still in pain, he’s still traumatized, his recovery hasn’t even begun. He’s out of the hospital, he’s going to live, he’s going to survive, but this is the beginning of a recovery story for Jamal of his psyche as well as a physical recovery.
How will that recovery process change him going into season three?
It changes him and impact him in huge and small ways. I’m not going to tell you how because that’s frankly our story for season three and I’m not going to give it away. but the next season is, for Jamal, largely about recovery. As I said, physical pain, emotional trauma and all of the revelations that come to a head in this finale about who his family is and whether or not that’s who they’re destined to be.
After Jamal was shot, Jussie tweeted that it was time for him to do movies which may cause some to draw comparisons to Jon Snow’s death on Game of Thrones where everyone said he was dead, but he was ultimately brought back. Seeing the backlash to that, did that give you any hesitations about this storyline? Where do you draw the line between giving the storyline stakes but not risk losing credibility?
That was different because Game of Thrones was off the air. … While we wanted the stakes real and wanted for there to be real fear for Jamal just as his family feels, … we know that Jamal is a beloved character. Just as Cookie and everyone in the Lyon family is fearing for Jamal’s life and well-being, we wanted to allow our audience to have a moment of that. We weren’t ever meaning to play with anybody. I think Jussie’s tweet was simply helping to support the story. He wanted everybody’s emotions to be where the story directed them for that moment until we come back a week later.
Going into this last episode, it had been known that there would be a wedding but just who would be getting married was up in the air. How did you decide in the writer’s room to have Lucious and Anika be the ones to tie the knot?
Again, it’s Hakeem and Laura’s wedding – that was never a question. That’s the reason for all of the pomp and circumstance, all of the music and everything else, but we always knew – just as we knew that Jamal was going to take a bullet for Lucious – we knew that we were going to get to that wedding in the final episode and Laura was going to leave Hakeem at the alter, and somebody else… In fact, we always knew that Lucious was going to step in and get married. There were a couple of conversations along the way as we were breaking our stories. We might even have talked about someone other than Lucious at one time or another, but we were pretty sure that it would be Lucious and as the story evolved, we went back and forth over possibilities but when we realized that we’re telling this big crime story – which we are really just teeing up in this final episode. The final episode really is setting the table for a big story in season three – we realized that we had this great opportunity to force Lucious and Anika into a marriage of necessity. Once we saw that opportunity, we knew that that was the way we were going to go.
If Anika survives, what does their marriage look like next season after everything they’ve been through?
Well, again, I’m not going to talk about that other than to say you saw where we left it. It was very tense. These are two people who are not marrying one another out of love, who don’t know what they’re in for. Lucious has fallen back in love with Cookie, not that he was ever not in love with Cookie, but we’ve seen over the last several episodes and especially in this finale, Lucious and Cookie really just starting to be honest about the fact that they want to be together. This puts all of that [on hold] and on top of all that, Anika is pregnant with Hakeem’s child so the complications are there.
What can you say about the Cookie of it all and the impact this has on her going into next season?
She’s clearly devastated and the most important thing I’ll say is that you heard Cookie. She turned to her sons and she said, “I love you and I’ll always do my best for my family, but your father and I are through.” She’s been hurt by Lucious time and time again and every time it seems as if they’re really going to go there, they’re really going to make this commitment, something happens and he lets her down. She’s make the ultimate sacrifice for him but he clearly can’t make the same sacrifice for her so we hope that everybody’s eager to see what Cookie looks like when she really moves forward and says, “I have to start over.” She’s not leaving the family; she’s not leaving the company. She and Lucious will always be in one another’s lives and in one another’s faces, but Cookie made a vow. And Cookie is a woman of her word so let’s see what that vow looks like and what that turns out for her.
What can you say about Hakeem going forward after getting left at the altar and with a baby on the way?
Poor Hakeem. He worked so hard and in the end he suffered multiple humiliations. I think that Hakeem is going to come back fighting for respect, probably fighting for dignity and respect through hip-hop. That’s his world, that’s the only place he’s ever gotten any love and he’s lost a lot. He’s going to come back strong but he might come back strong but he might come back to some of his old ways because it didn’t work out for him so well trying to really take the high road.
What is coming for Andre in the wake of everything that happened?
In the last moment of the show, we leave Andre in a very precarious and potentially devastating place. I’m not going to answer who it is that went over the edge, if indeed someone did – and I would venture that it sure sounded like someone went over – but Andre is about to go on a huge journey. Andre is really going to come to grips with some things that he’s battled in his own nature and we heard Rhonda set him up for it and challenge him for it. Rhonda is going to continue to be a voice in his head challenging him for it so I think Andre is about to have the biggest story we’ve ever told for Andre.
You touched on this big crime story earlier, but can you elaborate on this more and talk about these new characters you’ve added? What was the decision behind diving into this story?
Tariq is going to be a big character in our third season. Both Tariq and the other character that we introduced finally in the finale, Shine Johnson, who has been teased since the pilot of Empire. Both of those men are going to feature in major stories in season three. We’re talking about season three as a Godfather-style opus of crime and hip-hop. It’s going to be wall-to-wall music, but also all of Lucious’ demons coming back to roost. [There are] a lot of real-life references that I think our audience will recognize and appreciate that go to the history of the music and the hopefulness of it and the dark side of it.
What other storylines are you most excited to explore in season three?
I’m excited about that as the framework for season three. There are a couple other storylines that I’m really excited for as well. … Then there’s a really big Cookie story that I’m not even going to tell you about it because I’m not going to drop that kind of spoiler but I couldn’t be more excited about the story that we’re telling about Cookie in season three. It’s huge and it’s exciting and it’s a Cookie we haven’t seen before, completely true to who she, is but taking her to a whole new place. And Jamal’s story of recovery is a very big story for us. Season three, I told you plot-wise what the framework is. Thematically, season three is the battle for the empire: dark vs. light. Which are we? Which will we be?
There was a recent episode that made light of how often the Lyon family is torn apart and then brought back together. How safe is it to assume that the Lyons will be united in season three?
The family will be united. The family won’t be torn apart. They are united. The are Empire. Empire is their kingdom and they’ll fight for it and fight to defend it, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be conflict among them and as you now most importantly, Lucious and Cookie, that relationship with Lucious married to Anika and Cookie just hurt — as she says for the last time, “Bye Lucious.”
Going into season three, you’ve now done one season with two distinct halves. Are you planning to approach the story structure similar to how you approached it in season two? How might that change this time around?
I would say that the similarity is that we will look at our midseason finale as a midseason finale and still have a crescendo of stories that we want to weave in that precipitous moment. We honor that convention. We like cliffhangers, we like finales that are big and that set us up for new stories, that’s Empire and always will be. But I would say that in season two, the first half of our season was quite different from the last half. We had the family split and we had two companies. [This season], we’re telling one big story and it continues to be the story of this family and the intersections of their lives with some new characters and new adversaries but it’s one season of television.
Empire returns in the fall for season three on Fox. What did you think of the finale?
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