“Empire” came in like a lion in January 2015 and with the premiere of its sixth and final season Tuesday, the Fox hip-hop drama has no intention of going out like a lamb.
As the series begins to come to a close, TheWrap spoke with co-creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, stars Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard, and showrunner Brett Mahoney about ending the Lyons’ reign, a process that started last spring, when the team found out not long after “Empire” was renewed for Season 6 that the upcoming installment would be its last.
“I was surprised, honestly,” Daniels told TheWrap via email. “I was told that it was possible this could happen but it has become realer and realer the closer we get to the end and I am sad. Sad that our show is done. ‘Empire,’ in my opinion, really changed the direction and future of TV. I’m proud of the work that we did.”
“Empire” follows the Lyon family — currently separated husband and wife Lucious (Howard) and Cookie (Henson), and their sons Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (now-exited series regular Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) — and their struggles to maintain control of their media company, Empire Entertainment. And at the center of that conflict is their struggle between what is more important: holding on to Empire or holding onto each other?
Howard said in an email to TheWrap he was happy to find out he could “finally put this complicated character to bed,” as “Lucious has never had a good day.” For Henson, the news didn’t come as a shock, as she “figured it was about time for it to come to an end.”
“It’s like when we all were hurt when ‘Sex and the City’ went off the air,” Henson told us. “But I understood, you want to go out while you’re on top. You don’t want to run out of stories and then it’s like a broken ‘Empire.’ You want to go out on top and leave the people something to want. Who knows, we might come back. You never know. You go out on top, you can’t drag it out too long.”
This season, the Lyons are down one of their cubs, as “Empire” viewers will remember, Smollett was written out of the final few episodes of Season 5 after Chicago prosecutors charged him with multiple counts of filing a false police report. Those charges were later dropped as part of a deal requiring him to perform community service and forfeit $10,000 bond.
Though Fox extended the actor’s option for Season 6, both Daniels and Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier have said Smollett will not return for the final season. This decision raised the question, how do you end “Empire” without fan-favorite character Jamal Lyon, who wed his fiance Kai (Toby Onwumere) on the final episode of Season 5 in which Smollett was featured?
Strong says what happened with Smollett is “a really, really complicated situation and it’s a very difficult situation and an incredibly unusual situation” — but one that they rectified in the writers’ room once it was clear he would not be coming back.
“We had very little worked out for the season, so as far as what we had to change, it was next to nothing,” Strong told TheWrap. “We had some vague ideas that we ended up obviously not doing. So as far as executing it goes, we’re able to execute it just fine because we have a reason why he’s gone from our world and what he’s going to do. I think emotionally, it’s tough on everyone. I think it’s really disappointing for the writing staff in particular, they love Jussie and they wish he was on the show. And I think the cast feels the same way. I think there is a great deal of affection for him and it is disappointing not having him there.”
Howard, who along with Henson and other cast members signed a letter in support of Smollett’s return for Season 6 back in April, feels the loss of Jamal to the Lyon family is a “tremendously painful” one.
“He was such a key component to the success and warmth of the show,” he said. “To only mention in passing someone beloved by the family and audience is a difficult hurdle. Yet, loss is half of the life principle and we have to keep moving forward or we cease to exist. I know that the show would never have had the success that we enjoyed without his character.”
Strong says that he thinks “once the episodes start airing, the storytelling will be very natural and people will get caught up in the story” and that Jamal’s absence won’t be “a hole that people are going to be missing throughout the course of the season.”
“You know, I think there’s a strong argument that if he was there it could possibly be a major distraction and could be difficult,” he added. “You can’t really win in this situation, to be honest with you.”
When asked if there was any way Smollett would make an appearance before “Empire” ends, Daniels declined to comment. But Mahoney said this: “I think one thing that we always know about ‘Empire’ is that you can never tell the future. And so there are just as many twists and turns and surprises behind the scenes as there are in front of the scenes. So I will never predict what may or may not happen in the future of ‘Empire.'”
In case you were wondering, when the story picks up with the Season 6 premiere tonight, Jamal and Kai will be in London, where they moved to escape the Lyon family drama. Mahoney told TheWrap this plot point is an important one, as “it also speaks to what’s going on with our characters here, because I think one of the major challenges for our characters this season is what’s more important: the Lyon family or Empire?”
“[Jamal] has literally said how damaging ‘Empire’ has been to the family, and he has said more than once, ‘Let it go. Let it go,’ and he hasn’t been able to get his family to turn in that direction. So he himself has decided to let it go. Now, will the others follow suit? That’s the question for the season.”
The question for the final season, which of course needs an ending — something Daniels and Strong say they didn’t have planned from the start of the series.
“I did not have a vision of how ‘Empire’ was going to end because I didn’t think that it would, honestly,” Daniels said. “There was no vision for the story ending. Simple as that. Up until ‘Empire’ there was no such thing as a black family drama. When I did ‘Empire’ it was just so that I could check off a box – saying that I ‘did TV.’ I wasn’t expecting for it to be the hit that it was. I learned all about TV through ‘Empire.’ I learned through my mistakes. ‘Empire’ gave me that opportunity.”
Mahoney says he and the writers decided to return to the beginning to figure out their end.
“I think the real creative energy in the room when we were given the mandate that this would be the final season, it was sort of like let’s go back to the first season and let’s go back to the pilot and make sure that we’re ending it and answering all the questions,” Mahoney told TheWrap. “Those characters’ journeys were started in the first season and how do we end them in the most satisfying way and tie up the show, a show that has become so iconic and so huge? Our responsibility was really to end it in the best, strongest way possible and honor the journey of the show.”
But ending strong doesn’t necessarily mean pleasing fans, at least not to Strong.
“I don’t worry about trying to make everyone happy,” he said. “I try and do what I think is the most compelling and dramatic conclusion. There’s a great saying where an ending needs to feel completely inevitable and yet totally surprising. And I think that’s what great endings are. It seems that when a TV show ends there’s often violent opinions about it and so much frustration. And I think at times there is a bar that is set too high of expectations for that. So I try not to worry about that and try to do what I think is the most powerful way to end something. Now in this case, I’m not the only cook in the kitchen. Brett is running the show and there’s a group of people involved in this, so we will see where this goes.”
While we certainly don’t know where things are going, Henson says she’s received an outline for the final episode and is very happy with the conclusion.
“I love it. I love the way it ends,” she told us. “There’s cliffhangers all over the place. People aren’t going to be excited about the way it ended, but I like it. (Laughs)”
Now let’s rewind and talk about where the end begins at the start of Season 6, which is with the Lyon family splintered.
Lucious is on the run from the Feds and Cookie is living her best life while pursuing her own career, as Andre finds himself finally sitting on the Empire throne and expecting a baby, while Jamal is living in London and Hakeem is starring in “Empire: The Movie.” Now, it’s that last plot point that might end up having one of the biggest impacts this season.
“The Empire movie to me is really the opportunity to force our characters to reflect, and force Cookie and Lucious and Andre and Hakeem to reflect on this family’s origins and where they started and where they are now,” Mahoney said. “Because we have scenes that we shoot in the movie, and then we have our characters watching those scenes and how they’ve learned and grown from those scenes. So it really gives us the tools to go, ‘OK, this is where we started, this is where we are now, how do the characters themselves feel about it?’ The movie allows us to ask the characters the question, where they want to end the series?”
“It’s like this, how would you relive an event, and if you have the opportunity to reshape it, how would you reshape it?” Mahoney continued. “The Empire movie is a living, breathing thing that Empire is creating. So you know a character like Lucious Lyon, you know he’s gonna want to rewrite history. But Cookie has her ‘herstory’ versus his history, so how do they come to an agreement as to what really happened? And then it allows them to examine each of their roles in it and how they want to proceed moving forward. And then it’s also involving the audience, because the audience was there for many of these things that happened.”
Now does that mean that all this reflection could lead to a reconciliation for Cookie and Lucious? Howard and Henson aren’t so sure.
“We hear them telling each other that they love each other,” Howard said. “Nevertheless, love doesn’t behave the way that they behave with each other. Love doesn’t keep account of the injury and does not seek its own interest. I don’t believe that they love each other based upon their interactions and are more an example of twin flames other than soulmates.”
Henson said: “I just think, it’s like in life, you know what I mean? Those relationships where you want them to be together, but at the end of the day they need to be happy. So I think that’s what you’re going to see. You’re going to see them searching for their own happiness in this final season. Will they find it together? I don’t know. You’ll have to wait and see.”
So what are the other characters up to this season?
For Andre, Strong says “he’s always been the son in the shadows, desperately trying to get out of those shadows, sometimes violently so. Ultimately he’s going to be very much exploring his strength, his leadership and him trying to find his identity independent of his father and even the company.”
Hakeem’s journey is about “the growth and maturity of Hakeem, especially with the absence of Jamal and the fact that he’s always been the bad boy son and now it’s a matter of, will the bad boy finally grow up or not?”
And what about Becky (Gabourey Sidibe) and Giselle (Nicole Ari Parker), who decided to start their own label at the end of Season 5? “They are gonna strike out on their own and we’re going to tell the story of a label starting from scratch and all of the struggles that a label goes through when it begins from nothing,” Strong said. “And they are going to be a great counterpoint to what is going on at Empire.”
Mahoney says that on top of what’s going on with our leads, “we are going to see a lot of characters from past seasons and we’re going to see a lot of old enemies and frenemies of the Lyons.”
Though the end won’t actually come until next spring, the team is already reflecting on what the Lyons’ legacy will be when all is said and done, which includes their characters’ legacy.
“I think Cookie represented so much for so many people for so long. You know, their spirit animal,” Henson said. “That’s what I remember when the show first hit, ‘Cookie’s my spirt animal! Cookie says the things I wish I could say!’ So it’s going to continue to carry a legacy and she’ll be the people’s champion, ’cause that’s what she is.”
For Daniels and Strong, the legacy will be how “Empire” affected the overall small-screen landscape.
“We single-handedly changed the conversation in TV — completely,” Daniels said. “We changed the perception of what black culture looks like on TV and what we stand for. Black culture became American culture for many. ‘Empire’ made that a reality.”
“I hope that there can be another really high profile African American soap opera on the air,” Strong said. “I mean, there are a few, you know. So hopefully this isn’t the end of an era but the beginning of many more.”
The sixth and final season of “Empire” premieres tonight, Tuesday, at 9/8c on Fox.