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When Empire returns for season two, there will be a new Lyon leading the pack.
“He’s going to be a very passionate leader,” Jussie Smollett, who plays Jamal, told The Hollywood Reporter Friday at a Television Academy panel. “He’s going to lead with his heart and sometimes that’s going to get him in trouble.”
When the first-year phenomenon went off the air in March, Empire Records CEO Lucious (Terrence Howard) was put behind bars, and his middle son was put in charge. However, the battle for control of the company is just getting started.
“If season one was [about] who will inherit the throne, season two is warring kingdoms,” said showrunner Ilene Chaiken.
One of those people fighting the hardest will be Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who will return to her more ruthless beginnings when the show returns. “She’s getting back to what she did when she built the empire,” said Henson. “She’s been tucked away for 17 years. Now she’s been out for some time, so you get to see the Cookie that actually built Empire back in the day, starting from nothing.”
Despite her character’s extremely close connection with Lucious at times during season, Cookie will embrace going solo for as long as she can. “She think it’s good for her, because women — we’re always the brains behind the operations anyways,” said Henson. “But at the core of who she is, she knows he won’t be in there long. He has money, he has lawyers, he has people. Her thing is: how much I can accomplish before he gets out?”
Cookie will also be busy with “two new love interests,” this upcoming season, according to Henson, and those aren’t the only new faces coming. In the season finale, Andre (Trai Byers) and Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) learned they have a baby on the way.
“Its lovely to watch the growth of that actually becoming a family,” said Byers. “It makes him more mature, it centers things for him a little bit more, and whatever he does is for his family now.”
Andre’s newfound spirituality will also continue to play a role in his evolution. “Andre is trying to become something different with his spirituality and with his baby on the way, so I would say that that would affect him in the way that he deals with the people in his family, even Jamal,” said Byers. “Ultimately, there’s a lot of rivalry but there’s a lot of love in this family.”
Like the first season, which welcomed the likes of Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige and Snoop Dogg among many others, season two will see the arrivals of Alicia Keys, Lenny Kravitz and Chris Rock, the latter who “will be a person from the past,” said co-creator Danny Strong.
However, Chaiken said the writers are making sure to not let the famous faces popping in overshadowing the core group. “The biggest challenge, I feel, is to stay true to the stories, to stay true to the characters,” said Chaiken. “To make sure that Empire continues to be about this family and these relationships and not to loose sight of that in the midst of all of the fabulous opportunities to bring great guest stars onto this show, which we are going to do, but Empire is the Lyons.”
Another challenge facing the writers is the increased episode order. Season two will consist of 18 episodes — six more than season one — and be split into two parts — the first part running for 10 episodes, according to Chaiken.
“I was concerned about doing 18 episodes, about keeping the show at the same level of quality as first season. I wasn’t confident about it, but I’ve been told that that’s what it is, so now we’re jumping in and we’re just trying to do the best we can,” said Strong. “It’s a really challenging show to put together. It doesn’t have a cookie cutter model.”
Chaiken is more confident that the show, and also the songs, will remain up to par. “I believe there are endless stories in this universe,” said Chaiken. “We just had to take a deep breath and dive down to do our 18 episodes but we ‘re confident that we’re going to deliver every single episode with the same level of quality, with the same number of musical moments as we did in season one.”
But most importantly, will Cookie’s infamous one-liners continue make waves, and memes?
“It’s a little soon to say but I have great faith that Cookie will continue to deliver in every way,” said Chaiken.
Empire returns for season two on Sept. 23 on Fox.
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