Everyone knew that the first-ever winter finale of Empire was going to go out with the soap and melodrama volume cranked way up. And with at least three twists that individually would have been enough for most shows, tonight’s episode of the Fox’s hip hop series co-created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong did not disappoint.
Tonight’s one-hour “Et Tu, Brute?” episode brought a boardroom coup dethroning Terrence Howard’s Lucious Lyon, the return of an old nemesis in the fur-cloaked form of Camilla Marks (played by Naomi Campbell), and pregnant Rhonda Lyon (Katlin Doubleday) knocked out cold in a mysterious pushed fall down the stairs. The 10th episode of this second season also had Lucious and son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) facing off for the top prize in the fictional American Sound Awards, and a dalliance plus a jailhouse concert by Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) among other developments.
Strong, currently working on the 14th episode of the 18-episode season, will be helming the “Death Will Have His Day'”episode (which he also wrote) that brings Empire back on March 30. However, today the executive producer spoke with me about tonight’s suspense-filled show, what he thinks about its recent ratings dips, the currently expanded run, who you’ll see a lot of in the rest of the season, and what media mogul and Oscar nominee you probably won’t see at all.
DEADLINE: You had a ton of drama and big moves on tonight’s episode. Was the plan to go as big as possible for your first midseason finale?
STRONG: Some things were premeditated early early on and some we got here organically over the course of this season. We had certain story points that we knew we were going to do at the end of the first season. We knew Camilla was going to come back and we knew Rhonda was going to go down the stairs. As we were writing the show over the first six or seven episodes, our plan was to save that Lucious boardroom coup move to much later in the season, but once we were saw where our story was going it kind of organically brought us to that point where we thought it should happen here and now and play out over the course of the second half of the season.
DEADLINE: From your perspective, how has Season 2 so far been different from Season 1?
STRONG: Look, on this show we try to mix dynamic juicy soap plots with a gritty urban drama that looks at current political and social issues. That, combined with musical numbers, is the recipe of the show. That’s how we designed the show in the pilot and executed it in Season 1, and we wanted to and I think we have done that in Season 2.
I don’t think we’ve amped anything up in Season 2 compared to dealing with homophobia and mental illness issues. If anything I think there is a little less of it compared to what we did in Season 1, at least percentagewise. Look we’re just trying to keep making this thing work, making it thoughtful, thought-provoking, juicy and sexy.
DEADLINE: OK, to that, let’s go to the sexy soap stuff. Is Rhonda’s unborn baby going to survive that fall?
STRONG: I can’t answer that question! (laughs) You have to come back for that. Is Rhonda going to survive? You’re going to have to wait to find out.
— Empire (@EmpireFOX) December 3, 2015
DEADLINE: What was with not only bringing back Naomi Campbell’s Camilla but having her now as the wife of billionaire investor Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei) and taking over control of Empire after the board tossed Lucious? Looks like she is going to be a big part of the second part of Season 2 …
STRONG: She certainly is. I don’t know who in the writer’s room came up with that but I thought it was so genius and I loved it so much. The idea that Camilla comes in at the end of the first half of this season and takes over Empire…well, I remember when I saw the first cut of tonight’s episode and Naomi shows up, I just started cheering it made me so happy.
DEADLINE: With Mimi’s health issues and saying that she is handing over the day-to-day running of Empire to Camilla, are we going to see a lot less of Marisa in the second half of the season?
STRONG: I don’t really want to say. I don’t like to give stuff away, you know.
DEADLINE: Well, are we going to see another cameo by Lee Daniels or by you on the show?
STRONG: You won’t be seeing me and I don’t believe you’ll be seeing Lee again unless something changes.
DEADLINE: To that, do you feel there has been too much emphasis on the guest stars this season?
STRONG: I do think we’ve had too many guest stars and we’ve already started course-correcting in the last portion of this first part of Season 2, especially in the tail end. We’ll be seeing even less guest stars going into the second half of the season as the show will get a little tighter, more focused on the Lyon family and our core group of characters.
I do think too when the story calls for it, the guest stars are terrific – like Alicia Keys, she was wonderful on the show. But I think, maybe because we were rejected by so many people in the early part of the first season and now we can get anyone we want, we were too guest-star heavy for a while.
DEADLINE: So this idea that Lee threw out there earlier this year that Oprah may show up on Season 2 of the show isn’t happening?
STRONG: Something Lee does is whoever he had a conversation with that day he’ll tell everyone and suddenly it’s out there. But it’s just preliminary conversations. As far as Oprah goes, I don’t think she’s going to be on the show this season. I think she’s talked about it with Lee but nothing was ever firmed up. She totally digs the show but I think it was premature for anyone to talk about it publicly.
DEADLINE: This first half of the second season has seen some ratings drops for you guys after the seemingly endless growth of Season 1. Why do you think that was?
STRONG: I think the ratings declines were completely natural. At first it made everyone very nervous because it hadn’t happened before and we had this crazy ratings success. I think when we leveled off where we did and we stayed in the same range for several episodes in a row, for me, at least, I felt good about it. Where we leveled off was still as the No. 1 show on broadcast television and that’s not a bad point to level off too.
DEADLINE: Do you think being now on in the fall as opposed to the winter and the fact that you weren’t the new new thing played a factor in the ratings?
STRONG: Absolutely, I think both those things were factors. I think that there was this novelty to the show in Season 1 and it became a cultural zeitgeist moment, which was thrilling to see and be a part of. It just was really new and when we went into Season 2 it wasn’t really new anymore and there was a lot more competition. Yet, people are still watching the show in really huge numbers.
Where we have seen our ratings drop in our live performance have been in the 25-and-under age range where all shows have dropped because they watch the show on DVR. That age range watched live in Season 1 but once we had been on for a while they went to watching the show in their normal viewing habits.
DEADLINE: Has the expansion from the 12 episodes of Season 1 to the 18 episodes of Season 2 been hard?
STRONG: Yeah, it’s much harder doing 18 episodes than doing 12. Doing 12 episodes beat it out really nicely last season. When we were at episode 12 this year, knowing we were only two-thirds of the way through, we were thinking “Wow, we were done last season.” It’s a lot. And I now totally get why cable shows keep their order down and why creatively that is such a good thing for those shows. It makes things tighter.
DEADLINE: With a season and a half on the air now under your belt, how do you see Empire?
STRONG: I think this show is incredibly difficult to execute, that’s my feeling. I’ve worked on projects that were not fragile, that a scene there or a scene here doesn’t throw the project. This show isn’t like that. It’s tough — it’s tough to keep it exciting, it’s tough to keep it fresh, and it’s tough to keep it from becoming repetitive. And there are times when it doesn’t work and we have to pull back. I just find it incredibly challenging.
I haven’t really enjoyed the success of it because I didn’t really stop working on it. I mean, Ilene Chaiken (Empire showrunner) and I literally only had a few weeks’ break before we went right back into breaking the next season because Fox wanted us back on the air so fast. I’ve also gotten to direct a couple of episodes, which I love, so it’s all very challenging but I’m very proud of it. You can’t sit back and drink a martini when you are trying to make it as good as you can.