(Warning: This post contains spoilers for the “Empire” series finale.)
“Empire’s” reign at Fox came to an end Tuesday with an episode that was never intended to be the show’s series finale but was instead forced upon the show due to production shutdowns amid the coronavirus pandemic.
TheWrap spoke with showrunner Brett Mahoney ahead of the hour, titled “Home Is on the Way,” about how he managed to cobble together elements of the completed 18th episode of the sixth and final season and the halfway finished Episode 19 to make an end for “Empire,” when it was supposed to close on Episode 20. And though what you saw tonight was the “spirit” of a finale, there are still questions unanswered and moments Mahoney had to leave out because they weren’t filmed — and because he and creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong maintain that they want to shoot a proper final bow for Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), Lucious (Terrence Howard), Andre (Trai Byers) and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) some day.
“In a season finale, in all our season finales and our premieres, they’re always jam-packed with huge moments,” Mahoney told TheWrap. “What it would have been, was Yana’s (Kiandra Richardson) death was intended for the end of 18 and then picks up again at the start of 19. But that’s basically how it went. It’s not that far off from how we intended it. At the end of that scene, Yana dies, and at the start of 19, we pick back up with both Damon (Wood Harris) and Lucious mourning her death.”
After Yana’s death, Damon and Lucious get into a deadly fight in which Damon is the one to perish and Cookie, having realized her love for Lucious and desire to be with him, runs to him and saves him from almost dying himself. The series finale ends with Cookie, Lucious and their boys all at the Empire movie premiere, with Hakeem performing and Andre having chosen to stay with his family and try to be with his infant son.
“That was the intended ending of Episode 19, but then something happens and it all gets turned upside down,” Mahoney said, not telling us what that “something” is. “So, I knew what we had with the movie premiere and the lights going down and the movie going up, in my mind, when I was like, ‘Is there a way I can end this series with the elements I shot?’ And then it hit me, ‘Oh, well that is sort of a closing point.'”
“And we do have it reflect the series in the spirit of how we wanted to end ‘Empire,’ in terms of the Lyon family recognizing their love for one another, recognizing that the family is more important than ‘Empire,’ and recognizing Cookie and Lucious together,” he added. “So, I was like, I have this element and that’s sort of the spirit we want to end to, I can build to that. And what it required was just cutting out elements of 18 to make room for those concluding elements that were in 19.”
Mahoney doesn’t want to give away what he left out of the episode to keep for the real series finale — which will answer questions like who shot Lucious and who blew up Cookie’s car — “because we hopefully will be able to shoot it and then the fans will be able to see it.”
However, he did tell us what he had to *add* to this finale to make it work.
“So for instance, in the montage scene, when Yana is singing Lucious’ song and we see Cookie and Lucious’ relationship flashback, that’s something we didn’t intend and we were like, ‘If this has to be a finale, how can we really bring it home?; So then we added that,” he said. “We did, in the original script for 19, when Hakeem is performing at the premiere, I always knew we could put a montage in there, but we didn’t have it in the script, but it was always a possibility. We knew that song was always intended to depict the journey of ‘Empire’ and the life of ‘Empire’ through Lucious and the Lyons, but it was just intended for the movie.”
He also told us that including a photo of the whole Lyon family and cutting to a clip of a young Jamal being thrown in the trash by Lucious for wearing heels is how he decided to pay tribute to the character, due to the fact actor Jussie Smollett was fired from the series last year after filing a false police report and claiming to have been the victim of a racial and homophobic assault.
“Yes, that was absolutely the idea there,” Mahoney said.
As for the other Lyon brothers, the “Empire” showrunner did what he could to give them the closer he wanted them to have — for now, at least.
“I wanted to give Andre a happy ending and the intended conclusion was that Andre end in a happy place,” he said. “And I don’t know if Teri can accept him because he has put her through a lot. But I do think she will see that Andre is stable, he’s on his meds, he’s taking care of his mental health. And so I think the happy ending for Andre is that he will be a part of his son’s life, that he will be a good father to his son and that he can have that family element for himself and be happy with that and really fulfill his dream of being a father.”
“And then with Hakeem, the debate is with Hakeem, so as you see in what we shot here, he and Maya (Rhyon Nicole Brown) are finding their chemistry and that they have true feelings for each other after this sudden marriage that they had,” he added. “So the debate we had in the room was, ‘Does he belong with Tiana (Serayah McNeill)? Could he end up with Maya? Or does he need to be with either one?’ Now, who knows what the answer to that question is. But for Hakeem and Andre and the whole family, they have realized they can be together as a family, they can be together as Lyons, but that doesn’t necessarily include ‘Empire.’ So Hakeem could go off to LA and become a film star, Andre could be a good father to Walker without having to work at ‘Empire.'”
But really at the heart of “Empire,” and the heart of this unintended finale, was Cookie and Lucious’ relationship and Cookie’s decision to be with Lucious.
“Cookie had to go on a journey where she had to do the analysis herself to see what it meant to be with Lucious,” Mahoney said. “Did she need to be with Lucious? Or could she realize that she’s Loretha and she’s Cookie and then make a choice to be with Lucious and make it an educated choice for herself as opposed to just accepting it because she loves him and then accepting everything just because it’s what’s there? It was important to really allow her to grow.”
And as for the real, real, real series finale?
“In terms of, ultimate answers, the Lyons love each other, the family loves each other and they are together,” Mahoney said. “They realize they are more important than ‘Empire.’ But hopefully, we’ll be able to go that last lap to really show you where they go to in the end and answer those questions that are still lingering from the season and that each character can have a satisfying endpoint.”