‘Empire’ Boss on Finale’s Heart-Stopping Casket Twist, Lucious-Cookie Cliffhanger and Jamal’s Future

“Mortality needed to take a Lyon and so we had different candidates for the coffin,” showrunner Brett Mahoney tells TheWrap


(Warning: This post contains spoilers for tonight’s Season 5 finale of “Empire”)

Welp, we finally know who is in the casket ladies and gentleman — and we gotta say, we were floored by that twist. Wednesday’s Season 5 finale of “Empire” revealed that Kingsley (A.Z. Kelsey) was the one Lucious (Terrence Howard) has been mourning over in all those flashforwards and that is definitely not the Lyon son we thought would die.

What’s more, Andre (Trai Byers), the family member fans were set up to believe would die, survived because Lucious’ actual first-born son — whom both Lucious and fans only learned about this season — killed himself and thus, in a weird twist of fate, became the heart donor Andre needed to survive.

TheWrap spoke with “Empire” showrunner Brett Mahoney about that shocking turn of events, as well as the episode’s closing moments in which Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and Lucious split — possibly for good — and what Jussie Smollett’s “Empire” future looks like now that Fox has renewed the show for a sixth season and “the studio has negotiated an extension to Jussie Smollett’s option for season six,” but says there are “no plans” for Jamal to return at this time.

Read out Q&A below.

TheWrap: I gotta say I was shocked by the casket reveal and had conflicted feelings about it being Kingsley because I didn’t want it to be Andre — but Kingsley dying so that Andre could live turned out to be a blessing, I guess? Was that what you were going for there?

Brett Mahoney: I think that’s exactly what we hoped to achieve with what happens. But when we introduced Kingsley, Kingsley was not necessarily introduced to be in that coffin. I felt like it was time in terms of the high-stakes life that the Lyons lead, that mortality needed to take a Lyon and so we had different candidates for the coffin and as we moved forward he just — we were trying to determine, moving forward into Season 6, who would we sacrifice and put in that coffin that would impact the stories we wanted to tell moving forward. And so, in the end, it ended up being Kingsley. But let me tell you, there were different candidates and I don’t think we firmly decided Kingsley until we started moving into the back nine.

I think it’s a very “Empire” twist, because “Empire” — despite having great moments of escapism, and fun, and greatness — some of that is always balanced by darkness. When you think of the pilot, you have that flashback of Jamal being thrown in the trashcan. You also have Lucious shooting Bunkie in the face in that pilot. So I think this was sort of reminiscent of that.

Lucious and Cookie split at the very end of the episode, after she’s been conflicted regarding him deciding to assist Andre’s ultimately unsuccessful suicide and her feelings for Damon Cross. Should we be worried this breakup is for good?

I think that this season was a test of their marriage. They got married at the end of Season 4 and everything seemed to be rosy. But it was really a test, because can these two people, despite loving each other, they still have a lot of baggage and a lot of betrayal between the two of them. So this is a test of that. And at the end of this, I think some people would say that Cookie is finally standing up for herself and is gonna find herself and who she is apart from Lucious and apart from Empire. Now that doesn’t mean necessarily — and she even says it in that scene — it doesn’t mean that the two don’t love each other, but it means if they do come back together, maybe they do it with eyes wide open and a little bit more maturity. But who knows if that will happen.

When it came to writing Jamal out of the final two episodes, how much did you have to change of what you had planned? Did things go about the same way they would have if Jussie had appeared on the final two?

No, he would have been, as opposed to being off on his honeymoon he would have been like, “Well, we can’t go on our honeymoon, cause I’m here.” What made it slightly easier was he had that huge wedding episode and I could rely on, “OK, well he’s off on his honeymoon.” But still taking him out was not easy. He’s of course an essential part of that ensemble. So there were things I wanted to do in the last two episodes that I was not able to do.

Because Fox says there are no plans for Jamal’s character to return at this time, have you figured out how you would go about writing out Jussie’s character?

I actually can’t answer that yet, ’cause I don’t know. I haven’t reconvened with the writers to focus on the creative for Season 6 as of yet, so I don’t really have an answer for that question yet. I think I’m still going to just echo what the statement was in terms of there are no plans, as of yet.

How much say did the executive producers have regarding the Jussie decision and what was the impact of the letter sent by the cast to the producers and Fox?

I mean, I think all of the executive producers had opinions that weighed in. I think decisions were made at the highest levels, but I think all our different viewpoints were heard…. But I can’t tell you what the impact of the letter was, really, I’m actually not sure. But I think it’s always good to hear what the cast thinks and what the writers think and what the executive producers think, so I just think it’s fine that they were voicing their opinion.

Would you want Jussie to come back, even if it’s so you can write off the character properly?

I think I just want what’s best for the show, so we’ll see what that is as we move forward.

Andre’s journey this season fortunately did not take him to the casket but it was very dark and ultimately ended happy. How did you plot this out for him?

For the character of Andre, this season was sort of like it was his journey to redemption for what he’d done to Anika and what he’d done to his father in the past. He felt that he’d crossed so many lines that he’s given up on the idea that he can have a happy life of his own. But I think he learned this season, and particularly in the finale when he learns he’s going to be a father and he gets married, that there is hope for him and there are good things and he might find happiness and happiness is a possibility.

Why did Becky and Giselle decide to go out on their own and what will we to see with them starting their own label and competing with Empire next season?

I think it’s a story that is an example of what women do in the working world, where they are showing up, doing work, getting s–t done, but not getting the credit for it. And these women are tired of it. So they are now going to branch out on their own and start their own thing and their own empire and we’ll see what happens.

Jamal wasn’t mentioned as much in the final two episodes, was that intentional?

Well, Cookie mentions him at the top the finale when he calls and can’t get the flight back and she mentions she gets a text from him when we’re waiting to see how Andre pulls through surgery. But I just wanted it to be natural in terms of not ignoring that their brother wasn’t there and why he wasn’t there. But I didn’t think it needed more than that.