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[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the sixth episode of Empire‘s first season, “Out Damned Spot.”]
Another week of Lee Daniels and Danny Strong‘s Empire on Fox and so much has changed. Not only have Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) both completed singles each are sure will be hits, but a few ghosts from the Lyons family’s past resurfaced to create a new set of complications during Wednesday’s hour.
First there was Elle Dallas (Courtney Love), a former top artist for Empire Entertainment who has spiraled down a rabbit hole of expectations and drugs and is now in need of a comeback. Then there was Malcolm (Derek Luke), the young head of security who is already making new rules and catching Cookie’s (Taraji P. Henson) eye — in more ways than one. And finally Olivia (Raven-Symone), a young woman looking to be famous by association and who comes back into the Lyons’ lives with a kid that may or may not be Jamal’s.
And that’s all without even discussing what the actual Lyons got themselves up to this week.
THR caught up with Empire showrunner Ilene Chaiken to talk about the new developments and what they mean for the second half of the hip-hop drama’s freshman run.
Let’s start with that yet-another-big-twist ending and the bombshell that Olivia dropped that she just might be Jamal’s baby mama. Is she just trying to get what she thinks is hers here?
That is the question that we’ll explore in the next episode: Is this really Jamal’s child? And part of it is, who is she? Is she just somebody coming back, looking to associate with wealth and fame? The back story will come out. It’s mostly coming out in them talking about the past, but there is one flashback that includes Jamal and Olivia. This is a story that was actually in the pilot, but it got cut out because it was long and Danny and Lee had to make tough choices.
Within the episode, Jamal had an opportunity to come out publicly and chose not to take it. How much of his upcoming decision to come out, which you have already teased, is now influenced by Olivia’s return?
[Olivia] comes back just for one episode; she comes back again in episode 10, so she’s not an ongoing character, but she’s a really important character. It was fabulous having Raven do this little turn because the truth is, this character wasn’t going to play as big a role until it became Raven. Obviously learning out of the blue that you have a child is a huge thing in any person’s life, so the story is a really important story for us — for Jamal — for the rest of the season.
There have been a few really interesting story threads introduced only to go episodes without being more deeply explored, with this Olivia story being the latest one. What goes into the decision of when to play out which storylines?
Partly it’s parsing out characters. Knowing we have a story we want to tell and knowing it’s going to play over the course of the season. We have places we want to go and story beats we want to hit, and it’s a very big dramatic story, so we have to craft a number of other story beats around the big moments that hit [in specific episodes] so it has an impact on a number of things around it and it belongs in the episode. Sometimes it’s driven by the characters: we know we’re going to do this, so let’s build a story around it. And sometimes it will be dictated by the story we’re doing: “Oh this would be the perfect place for us to tell this story that we’ve been building towards.”
Jamal has been changing in the last few episodes — hardening a bit. Is this him building a protective shell around himself after thinking his brother set him up, or is this the real Jamal, that’s only now coming out because he has more confidence?
Ultimately and most importantly, it is who Jamal really is: he is the strong one. He’s extremely talented, but he also has a strength that qualifies him in an unexpected way … and his strength is both innate and a result of the hardships of his life. Ironically but also somewhat intentionally, all of the horrible things that Lucious [Terrence Howard] did to him have made him stronger.
Speaking of confidence, then there’s Hakeem, who really borders on arrogance. How do you walk that fine line when writing him?
Hakeem and Jamal are flip sides of the same coin, coming at the same goal from opposite directions. Hakeem was always told this was his birthright; [he] was entitled. But he didn’t have to fight for it and doesn’t have as strong a sense of self as Jamal. It seems to be bluster; he’s filled with self-doubt while having to pose as somebody who feels entitled to the thing that he’s been all but promised.
Hakeem has started to find the things he can rage against in his music, but is there even more outside of the women in this life, things from his past we may learn about?
There’s still more coming. A lot of Hakeem’s anger is directed right now to the women in his life, and that of course stems from the fact that the most important woman in his life was absent for most of his life. But the things that he really has to rage about and that are going to ultimately make him the man and the artist that we believe he truly is are yet to come.
This time Lucious is actually supportive of his son’s controversy. Is that a genuine show of support or just a display of how badly he wants to win?
He’s most driven, at this point, by needing to win, but he also recognizes that this kind of controversy and this kind of real anger is what works in Hakeem’s genre. Rap is a world of controversy; Lucious said that in episode two; it’s what sells, and the authenticity and the genuine rage is really key to being a real artist and having a successful label.
Hakeem and Tiana [Serayah McNeill] seem like a perfect business arrangement. Is that a realization they themselves will come to in the next few episodes?
Hakeem doesn’t necessarily see it the same way Lucious does, and it might just slip away from Lucious as a chess piece to move around.
Is Elle Dallas just one of many Empire Entertainment artists we will meet outside of the hip-hop/R&B genre?
We refer to the fact that Empire is a bigger label, and the company represents artists in many genres [but] we won’t meet too many. And that’s just because of storytelling real estate. If we were to tell a specific story, then we would delve into it in detail, but hip-hop and R&B are the primary musical worlds in which the show will continue to live.
Looking at Andre’s storyline — his decision to set up Jamal was reckless and seemingly impulsive. Was it a manic decision? Should we be worried he’s still not quite balanced when it comes to his meds?
That event was a very conscious move; it was consistent with the way that he and Rhonda [Katilin Doubleday] have approached everything [this whole time]. I think he’s completely in his right mind when he makes that move. When he’s not in his right mind, you’ll know it! Right now and when he is taking care of himself — when he is well-medicated — his decisions are balanced. He’s not acting out of any kind of pathology or any mental illness, but there are certain triggers that can set him off-balance. I would say there are events in episode eight that cause him in episode nine to start to lose his footing.
Lucious just proposed to Anika [Grace Gealey], but his ALS symptoms are certainly getting worse. Is the wedding just a way he can distract himself? Are we building toward a second season that is potentially Lucious-less if these symptoms keep increasing exponentially?
Terrence Howard isn’t going away. (Laughs.) Lucious’ main drive throughout most of this season is he has to accomplish two huge things before he becomes too ill to hide it any longer: he has to take his company public, and he has to make Empire and himself immortal — and in the course of that, he has to position one of his boys to be his successor. There’s a clock ticking on that, we should be living in fear that he won’t accomplish one or both of those things before it’s too late. Everything else is just in service of that. Marrying Anika or not marrying her, whether he’s with Cookie, so much of that is driven by this overarching need, drive, this life’s mission to secure his legacy.
But there’s no way Lucious will keep Malcolm around if he catches wind of Cookie’s [Taraji P. Henson] interest in him, right?
That’s a good question, but the question also becomes: “Who does Cookie want to be with?” And who does the audience want her to be with, and more importantly, who is she ultimately more drawn to? She might have come out of prison with the fantasy that she and Lucious would be back together but that very quickly became a fantasy unfulfilled, so can she find somebody else?
Empire airs Wednesdays on Fox. Which storyline are you most excited to learn more about at this point? Sound off in the comments below and come back next week for more Empire coverage.
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