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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday’s season four premiere of Empire, “Noble Memory.”]
Fox’s Empire returned Wednesday with a physically and mentally changed Lucious (Terrence Howard) at the center of the drama.
Months after the terrible car explosion that robbed him of his memory, the series picked up with a kinder, gentler Lucious. In the most shocking development, the premiere also revealed that Lucious lost part of his leg in the explosion — something that was kept under wraps in the finale as he was hidden by blankets while he was in the hospital. In the episode, that was revealed to viewers at home and also the public at large within the show when Lucious showed his injury to attendees at a special Empire anniversary special.
Lucious‘ damaged state left everyone else in the family trying to pick up the pieces and trying to piece him back together. His sons stepped up for a big Empire anniversary special telecast in their own special ways. Meanwhile, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) struggled to not only to fill Lucious‘ spot as the head of the company but to also compete with Lucious‘ nurse Claudia (Demi Moore) as his right-hand woman.
The Hollywood Reporter jumped on the phone with showrunner Ilene Chaiken to discuss reinventing Lucious, the “dire consequences” ahead for Andre (Trai Byers) after his failed attempt to kill his father and the thinking behind Lucious‘ severe leg injury: “We wanted to give Lucious something to live with for the rest of his life, or to live without.”
The season premiere opens in an unusual way, with Cookie and the other members of the Lyon family talking directly to the camera. What was the thinking behind that opening?
We always knew that we wanted to open this episode with that performance, which is the celebration of the 20-year anniversary and Lucious coming and appearing onstage for the first time. And then, flashback to the day before. We always knew that that was the framework of the episode and that day before, in which Lucious loses his nerve and tries to back out and we reveal everything that there is to reveal about where Lucious is in his recovery. That that was going to be the emotional core of the episode. And then in the course of that, that opening in which we jump around in time and all the other Lyons are talking to camera, we just wanted to get into how emotional the family was feeling in the wake of what’s happened to Lucious, their leader, their founder. It just seemed like a really great way to make an homage.
Lucious has changed so much from when we saw him before the accident. How much did that impact you and the writers after writing for the character for three seasons? How did it feel different in the room this season?
It was really exciting for us as writers and I think for Terrence as an actor and also for the other actors working with him. It’s what we looked to do and what challenges us as filmmakers, as television-makers — how to continue to tell these stories and yet find something new for each of our characters and for the show in each season. This is as new as you get, to have a legitimate reason to re-create Lucious, to create a whole new Lucious, For him to really have a dramatic journey to go through to basically get back to his old self, to rediscover himself.
How did you settle on what this new version of Lucious would act and sound like?
We talked about it amongst ourselves and talked about how we wanted this new version to have a kind of innocence, to take Lucious to a time back before he became that hard and violent and scheming man that we’ve come to know, and to really tell a story of his reckoning with who he became. In terms of how that was realized, that was a lot up to Terrence. That was a lot of the actor finding that character. We had our literary and cinematic references, but none of them really means anything once it gets in the hands of an actor.
One of the biggest reveals of the premiere was the extent of Lucious‘ injuries, particularly his amputated leg. Why did you write in an injury of this magnitude? What was the creative thinking behind that?
The thinking behind that, apart from the fact that it’s just great drama and story, was we want to tell stories with consequences. Back in the day, you could shoot someone on television and the next day they would just be back to normal. We saw huge events at the end of last season with that explosion, and people don’t go through things like that without being profoundly altered and usually without losing not just pieces of their psyche but parts of their body. That’s what happens to people in wars. What happens to Lucious is comparable to what happens to someone who’s blown up in a war. We really talked about it a lot in the writers room and said, “Let’s just not be lame about this. Let’s not pretend that it didn’t happen.” It had consequences, and that’s a thematic consequence. We wanted to give Lucious something to live with for the rest of his life, or to live without.
There’s that great moment at the anniversary special taping where he shows the crowd his injury. Given everything that’s happened to him, what’s his motivation to do that and to be so vulnerable with that huge crowd?
I think that he wants to reach people. If you want to talk about the new Lucious versus the old Lucious, the old Lucious didn’t ever show vulnerability, so maybe this is the new Lucious saying to the world, “I’m going to show you who I am. I’m not ashamed of who I am.” Maybe he’s showing strength.
Lucious then tells Cookie that he was just pretending and he has no interest in going back to Empire and he leaves with Claudia. Given the extent of his memory loss and his other injuries, what is his motivation going forward?
This is Lucious‘ story and in large part the story of Empire in season four as we begin. Is Lucious going to come back? And what is the family without Lucious? Has Cookie lost him again? Has she lost him to Claudia? Or is Claudia really trying to help to bring him back? That is the tension of the story and certainly of that triangular relationship. It’s not the old kind of triangle that we’ve played before in which Cookie is fighting for her man against some new and scheming woman who wants to take him away. It’s a much more profound story about identity, but it’s still about whether she can ever reclaim that moment. Whether Lucious is lost to her and to the world.
How does this all impact Cookie going forward?
It impacts her in so many ways. Firstly, it puts more responsibility on her. She’s going to have to fill the void left by him at Empire. We’ll see whether or not she does, and how she does. What does it look like when Cookie really has the empire and she has it by herself? Is anybody else coming for it? Cookie’s real drive is she had a perfect moment with Lucious. I think she says in that scene in the kitchen: “We had that one moment where I thought I finally had everything that I wanted, and now it’s gone.” And she wants to reclaim that moment more than anything else.
Conversely, what can you say about Claudia’s intentions? What else will we get to know about her?
Claudia is very much in the show and with us for the immediate future; we’ll get to know more about her backstory and we’ll learn whether or not she arrived with an agenda or whether an agenda evolves for her. But it’s going to be one way or the other. And what is that agenda? She’s in the process of helping to rehabilitate Lucious, or Dwight, but are her intentions at odds with those of the rest of the family, and especially Cookie? What motivates her? I think you can look at this a bit as a Frankenstein’s monster kind of a story. Claudia is creating this new man, and I think it’s fair to say that she might fall in love with her creation.
You have both Demi Moore and her daughter Rumer Willis on the show this year. Will there be any fun scenes with them together this season as kind of a wink to the audience perhaps?
No, we’re trying to stay real in this world. Tory Ash, Rumer’s character, is Tory Ash. We’re not going to play with the fact that Demi is her mother in real life because there’s no connection between the characters in the show, so we will keep them separate.
Willis was promoted to series regular for season four and we saw Tory in the premiere talking about the 12 steps. What will we see for Tory going forward?
She’s very much in the show, but the story will really take on steam as we get towards the end of the first season and it is a story about artists and addiction. That’s how her character was introduced, she met Jamal [Jussie Smollett] in rehab, and there are so many important and powerful prototypes for that artist and that story about substance abuse and the dangers of living such an intense life and the way that artists are even more vulnerable for so many reasons and in so many ways. That’s what Tory’s story is ultimately about.
We also didn’t see Anika (Grace Byers) in the premiere after she was arrested in the finale. What does her journey look like this season given that development?
You will see Anika. I’m not going to say what her journey is, but we’ll resume that story in the second episode and it has all of the drama that Anika always delivers.
In the premiere, we see Shyne (Xzibit) call Andre and then kill someone in cold blood while they’re on the phone. What is he trying to say? What can you say about their dynamic?
What I think Shyne is trying to say is, ‘You’re in this with me, and now I own you. We can’t get away from what we did together, and you made me a promise and you’re going to have to follow through.’ Andre is living with a lot of guilt, and Shyne isn’t going to let him off the hook.
We see Andre’s guilt even at the beginning of the episode. How does that impact his relationships with the family as he deals with that?
It is very much what his story is about in this season. Because in the finale of season three, Andre’s parents actually gave Andre everything that he’s ever longed for and then he couldn’t stop this terrible thing that he set in motion. He’s overwhelmed by guilt. And being somebody who deals with the psychological issues that Andre deals with, and then piling that guilt on, is going to have dire consequences for Andre.
Jamal appears to really be falling for Warren (Terrell Carter), who is secretly plotting against him with the rest of the Dubois family. What can you reveal is coming up for that storyline?
I would just say that it doesn’t bode well. The audience is ahead of Jamal right now, ahead of the Lyons, because nobody else knows that Warren is a Dubois, and you can be sure that there will be explosive — and I mean that metaphorically, in this case — consequences.
The Lyon family has faced many opponents in the past. How does the Dubois family differ?
The Dubois family is the most formidable opponent they’ve ever had, and particularly Diana Dubois [Phylicia Rashad]. Diana Dubois is highly, highly intelligent, strategic and driven, and I don’t think that the Lyons have ever faced such a fierce opponent. And they’re facing her when Lucious is benched and Cookie, because Lucious is benched, is distracted by so many other things.
How long will this battle go on?
It’s a major story in the first half of the season. Viewers can expect that family versus family rivalry to come to a head in very dramatic ways.
What else can viewers expect coming up in the first half of the season?
Viewer can also expect the introduction of a wonderful new character in the second episode played by Forest Whitaker, who will become very much a part of the Lyon world, and will stay with us even through the midseason break and into the second half of the season.
What do you think his character adds to the ensemble that wasn’t there before?
He adds an incredible warmth and gravitas. He adds this great feeling of authenticity. When you see Forrest, especially with Cookie and Lucious, you really feel the history of these lives in a very rich way. Because this is Empire, you know that that history, that those relationships, are going to lead to something unexpected. But to begin with, he just brings so much more texture to the world.
Empire airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Fox.
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