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How ‘Empire’ Made a Last-Minute Series Finale – While Still Hoping to Make a Real Series Finale

Showrunner Brett Mahoney tells TheWrap drama will ”end with the spirit of what we want the series to end on“

“Empire” will air its series finale tonight, though what you’ll see in the episode is not the ending creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong and showrunner Brett Mahoney had planned to be the Lyon family’s final roar. This ending was forced upon the Fox hip-hop drama amid production shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic, which did not allow “Empire” to complete filming on the remaining two episodes of its sixth and final season.

And though the network and “Empire” studio 20th Century Fox Television waited to see if there was any way shooting could resume so that the Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard-led series could make its intended finale, the decision to end the show early with Episode 18 of what was meant to be a 20-episode season was finally announced in a teaser on March 31.

“It was really shocking and it was hard to accept — and I haven’t really accepted it,” Mahoney told TheWrap. “We shut down on March 13, but earlier that day, I had come up with a plan. If we could eke out five more days of shooting, I would have pulled forward elements of Episode 20 into Episode 19. ‘Cause we were halfway through 19 and I said listen, ‘If we just have five more days of shooting, I can pull out the elements of the finale and we can still have our series finale and just combine it with 19.'”

“But it ended up not being realistic, we had to put the safety and health of our crew and our cast first,” he said. “So once it was very clear that we needed to shut down, then it was, how can I craft a finale maintaining the elements that we wanted to get to in our series finale?”

Mahoney realized he had shot a key moment in Episode 19 that “sort of had those elements.” “And I was like, if I can combine 18 and 19 together and build to that, I can at least end in such a way that it gives the fans the spirit that we wanted to end with, if not our actual finale.”

Daniels and Strong released statements last week saying they still hope to shoot a proper finale for “Empire,” and Mahoney told TheWrap the same thing on Monday.

“We haven’t given up on it,” he said. “We all feel, and I have had conversations with Lee and Danny and the other executive producers and the network and the studio, and we hope to because the show is so important and because we want to give fans what our intended series finale is, we hope that maybe one day we’ll be able to shoot it. Now, who knows when we’ll be able to get production up and running again. Who knows who will be available then. And who knows about the costs involved. So there are many questions and obstacles to that. But that is our hope. And then if we don’t, you know, we’ll find some creative way to get the actual script out there.”

Mahoney told TheWrap that even though what you’ll see in tonight’s episode, titled “Home Is on the Way,” is not the true endings he, Daniels and Strong had planned for Lucious (Howard), Cookie (Henson), Andre (Trai Byers) and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), he hopes it will be satisfying and that shoehorning in some answers would have ultimately been a disservice to fans.

“We are going to end with the spirit of what we want the series to end on and we were able to maintain that in what we’re offering them,” Mahoney said. “Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, there were some causalities that we weren’t able to satisfy in terms of answering that question of who shot Lucious and of who blew up Cookie’s car. But those are things that we hopefully will get to when we do shoot our actual series finale.”

“But I didn’t want to just shoehorn that in,” he continued. “I did have it at one point in a cut of what we had, I had shoehorned it in and it really was not satisfying. It made me groan, it would have made the fans groan, so I just said, ‘Nope, cut it, let’s not have it in there and when we shoot our real finale, we will have that.’ But other than that I do hope people will be satisfied and entertained and I do think it is a fulfilling, good, solid episode.”

The “Empire” series finale airs tonight, Tuesday, at 9/8c on Fox. Check back with TheWrap after it airs for a post-mortem interview with Mahoney.