After a freshman season that saw Fox’s hip-hop family drama Empire break all the recent rules of television and jump up week after week in viewership since its January 7 debut, the Lee Daniels- and Danny Strong-created series had its two-hour season finale tonight. Daniels, Strong, showrunner Ilene Chaiken and fellow EP Brian Grazer packed a lot into those 120 minutes as some of this season’s issues of race, sexuality, succession, betrayal and class came to a soapy climax.
With endings both literal and figurative and new beginnings, two overriding plotlines were resolved, with Terrence Howard’s Lucious Lyon discovering he wasn’t actually dying of ALS and middle son Jamal, played by Jussie Smollett, anointed heir to the empire over his two seething brothers Andre and Hakeem, played by Trai Byers and Bryshere Y. Gray. With Mario Van Peebles directing the first hour and Debbie Allen helming the second, the season’s 12th episode also had fist fights and hair pulling, the murder of cousin Bunkie by Lucious was revealed to Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie, another member of the inner circle was seemingly killed, and the season-long prepared IPO of the company went off – with a behind-bars hitch.
Drilling into the shame of racism in America, subverting the soap genre, the influence of Norman Lear, and where the January 17 announced Season 2 stands, Strong chatted with me about tonight’s finale and the secret of the show’s success.
DEADLINE: You promised no cliffhangers last week, Danny, no “Laura Palmer,” and yet you ended Season 1 with Lucious Lyon arrested, in jail and promising “Game time, bitches.” How is that not a cliffhanger?
STRONG: Well, I guess it is a cliffhanger. Our showrunner Ilene and I co-wrote Episode 12 together and I didn’t really view it as a cliffhanger because for me, it was the fact that we resolved Lucious’ ALS this season and who was going to inherit the empire. That’s sort of what I was referring to when I said no Laura Palmer.
DEADLINE: So Lucious isn’t dying, he’s just watching his IPO sink and the company stock collapse from inside a cell?
STRONG: Well, but that’s a new twist. Yeah, it’s a cliffhanger.
DEADLINE: Yes it is and it made me think of how Lee Daniels has talked about wanting to bring Empire back to the street and look at the ghetto and poverty today in Season 2. Is that what we’re seeing some of in the finale? Is there going to have to be a rebuild for Lucious both personally and for the actual company?
STRONG: You know, I can’t answer that question because, A, we only have vague notions for next season. I mean, we were just discussing it, and B, we’re just starting to break the season right now. So I’m just not so crazy about talking about what we’re doing next season because the process is literally just beginning. As for going back to the ghetto, that’s just Lee. He’s not afraid to censor himself or his thoughts, but we’re still just in the very early stages of starting to break the next season now.
DEADLINE: OK, let’s leave Season 2 and talk about the just-completed Season 1. This has been an incredible ride, with Empire growing week after week to become the No. 1 broadcast show. One reason for the success could be because it looks honestly at issues of diversity and race in America. Issues that often are treated as ones that we would rather turn away from than face directly.
STRONG: I remember when The Butler came out and reading reviews, and it wasn’t as if the film was poorly received, but there would be some reviews where I felt like you’re not talking about our movie whatsoever. You’re talking about whatever kind of warped race issues that you have, and occasionally, I would read stuff on Empire, and it’s the same thing. It’s such a volatile subject for people.
DEADLINE: Why do you think that is in 2015?
STRONG: I think there’s a lot of shame in American race relations. There’s a lot of suppressed guilt that lashes itself out still. I see that all the time, and whereas opposed to sort of trying to address the issue in an up-front way, they’re attacking and thus perpetuating the problem thinking that they’re being sophisticated and post-racial, when, in fact, they’re being completely regressive.
DEADLINE: Was that partly why there was the timely BlackLivesMatter reference at Lucious’ press conference in the finale?
STRONG: One of the great things about our show is we can do that. The finale is not a race episode whatsoever, but, all of a sudden, we can just throw that in, and it’s perfectly organic to the storytelling. In Empire, we’re able to look at social issues that are important and to keep discussing them in a way that’s not preachy or in your face. It’s just completely organic because in the real world that would happen. I love that we get to do that on the show.
DEADLINE: Another topic addressed on the show is homosexuality and the prejudice that Terrance Howard’s Lucious feels towards his middle son Jamal for being gay. The show started out with him mocking Jamal, a flashback to Lucious putting him in a garbage can when he was young, and the season ended with Jamal being given the company by his father. A lot of raw honesty and a dramatic shift.
STRONG: Lucious has had the most profound arc of the season when it comes to his understanding and acceptance of his son’s sexuality, and it was sort of one of the driving ideas of the season thematically with addressing homophobia in a way that was honest.
It’s interesting how you and I even getting into a big race discussion, when, in fact, the show isn’t really about race. The show is about class. It’s about artists creating art. It’s about the diabolical nature of the music business. It is about this family tearing itself apart over money, where they came from a poor background, and now they’re incredibly wealthy. We’ve seen what that money has done to them, and one of the main concepts thematically of the season was, like I said, tackling homophobia and addressing it in a way that was honest. And now that we see that Lucious has come to this new place or come to a place of acceptance in a way that I find very lovely and very touching, now we got to take the story to a new place next season.
DEADLINE: Do you think the fact that Empire has the opulence, has hip-hop, the intrigue of a primetime soap and at the same time tackles issues like class, race and gender is why it has been so successful from the very beginning?
STRONG: I think that it’s a foundation that’s there, and I think it elevates the material. One of the earliest conversations that Lee and I had after he said let’s do it as a TV show instead of a movie was we instantly starting talking about Dallas and Dynasty. We also, in that same conversation, probably within the next minute, started talking about subverting the genre by taking on social issues and by making it a gritty, urban drama while simultaneously it being a soap.
I think that’s one of the secrets of success to the show. That it’s working on both levels, and the layered character drama grounds the juicy soap turns. So the soap turns are a blast, but we have this drama there that also keeps it emotional and real.
DEADLINE: Lee has brought up the influence of Norman Lear in the past and the notion, and these are my words not his, of Trojan Horse-ing certain topics into the American conversation via TV, like Lear did back in the ’70s with All In The Family and other hits of his.
STRONG: Lee’s close to Normal Lear and brings him up in that way. For me, it’s very much what I just do with my work, period. I’m not interested in working on things that don’t have some element of social justice or aren’t addressing some type of social issue in a way that I think is important, or interesting, or layered. Lee’s the same way, and I think that’s why we’ve had this successful partnership on these two projects. We both have the same desire in storytelling.
For me, it’s less about being a Trojan Horse and more about what I think is the purpose of art, is to enlighten and discuss. For me, writing is about entertaining and also talking about subjects that are important to me, but I also think that it really elevates the material and makes it just a better, more dramatic, more exciting viewing experience. I think it makes everything better. It makes it more interesting, but it makes it more dramatic because the subject matter, in and of itself, is dramatic.
DEADLINE: Speaking of dramatic, there was a real tone change from the first hour to the second hour of the finale. For one thing, there were a lot of fisticuffs – Cookie and Anika, Andre’s seemingly fatal fight with Vernon.
STRONG: Yeah. I think the fact that we have these two blowout fights is just a natural progression of the storytelling to the build on the finale, and we felt like we’re in a finale. We’re in our final episode of the season, and shit’s going to go down, and that’s what happens. It went down.
DEADLINE: Another thing that went down is we learned Lucious Lyon’s real name – Dwight Walker. Is there a hidden message in that name, a Good Times shout-out?
STRONG: I can’t just give those things away. You’re just going to have to keep watching because I bet you it may not go away.