As “Empire” heads into its final stretch, speculation is sure to heat up that Jussie Smollett might make one final return to the series that he exited nearly a year ago. But according to Fox entertainment boss Michael Thorn, that’s not going to happen.
“He will not be coming back,” Thorn said. “As you would expect when you’re finishing an iconic series like ‘Empire,’ that Brett, as the showrunner, along with his producing partners, would certainly have discussions about what’s the best way to finish the show. In this case, Jussie will not be coming back for the finale.”
Smollett left the show toward the end of last season, shortly after Chicago law enforcement accused Smollett of staging a high-profile hate crime against himself. The producers, responding to intense public pressure, wrote Smollett out of the final episodes of Season 5 despite protests from Smollett’s supporters on the cast.
The show’s producers have never given serious indication that Smollett or his character, Jamal, would return — Fox said prior to the start of the current season that there were “no plans” for him to reappear — but showrunner Brett Mahoney recently told TheWrap that given the show’s nature as a family drama, it would be “weird and particularly challenging to do [the finale] without him.”
“Our hope at Fox — and I know the producers feel the same way — is that the show, to us, is much bigger than some of the personal stuff that’s unfortunately happened for Jussie, where we just want the ending to be as epic as the beginning,” Thorn said.
“Empire” is currently midway through its final season, with the last run of episodes set to air later in the spring. Smollett’s absence throughout the season has been explained away by his character’s move to Paris.
When it first debuted in 2015, “Empire” was a phenomenon, putting up impressive viewership numbers throughout its first season. However, ratings have declined sharply over the course of the show’s run, and a surprise return for Jamal would surely boost viewership for the final stretch of episodes.
“I will tell you on all of our shows we always talk about how do you boost ratings and in this marketplace it’s very challenging,” Thorn said. “When you’re a pop-culture phenomenon, like ‘Empire’ was, you burn bright for as long as you can. Unfortunately, when you’re doing 18 episodes a year … some viewer attrition is just unfortunately inevitable. But we think this season has been fantastic. Have we talked about how to goose ratings? Of course. Did we talk about exploiting Jussie’s situation to do so? No.”
“What I will tell you is what Brett and Danny and Lee and Imagine [Entertainment] have planned is awesome,” he continued. “And I’m really excited. It’s bittersweet, obviously, for the show to end, but I’m really excited, ’cause I think they have an incredible creative plan for the finale and I hope people come in droves.”
The sixth and final season of “Empire” returns this spring on Fox.