SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of tonight’s episode of Empire.
“What I can say is that the first two episodes launch us into Season 2B and then it takes off like a demon,” Empire showrunner Ilene Chaiken said of the return tonight of the blockbuster Fox series after nearly four months away. “I think it is some of the best work we have done.”
Well, there is no doubt the Lyons were roaring tonight in the Danny Strong-written and directed “Death Will Have His Day” episode. With Terrence Howard’s Lucious losing control of Empire to Marisa Tomei’s Mimi Whiteman and her wife Camilla played by Naomi Campbell, tonight’s show saw youngest son Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Grey) voted in as CEO and back together with Camilla.
As Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie schemes to gain the company back before Lucious takes possibly fatal revenge on Camilla and Hakeem, eldest son Andre (Trai Byers) begins to crack under the strain. For Andre, it wasn’t just the business chaos but the loss of the baby that he and his wife Rhonda were expecting after Kaitlin Doubleday’s character was seemingly pushed down the stairs in their home by someone with red-soled pumps.
And that’s just where things started in return of the Lee Daniels- and Danny Strong-created show. There also was Lucious’ not very thinly veiled threat against Hakeem as he admitted to his son he murdered Bunkie in Season 1 because he crossed him.
With tonight’s season 2 return, EP Chaiken chatted with me about the episode, the war between the Lyons and Camilla, who pushed Rhonda, and where the show is headed the rest of the season and into Season 3. And, there was also some talk of a certain classic 1972 film by Francis Ford Coppola that made a verbal appearance tonight.
DEADLINE: Obviously Lucious’ fight to get Empire back and the betrayal and divide among the family is key, but what is the core thrust of the second part of the season?
CHAIKEN: Most importantly, the second part of Season 2 really coalesces around the family. The family comes back together at Empire. Our episodes are all about them and their relationships, their interactions, the coming together against an external adversary, and all the ways that they vie with one another within the context of that battle that they fight as a family.
DEADLINE: Both Lee and Danny have said that maybe you guys went too far with guest stars at one point. Are we going to see a decrease in such appearances going forward?
CHAIKEN: The show has an opportunity for there to be lots of fabulous guest stars and we will have some, but they should always be in the context of and in the service of our stories. We shouldn’t be jumping through hoops to accommodate them in the stories. There are fewer guest stars in Season 2 Part 2 because we’re telling stories about the Lyons. That’s what the show is, and if we would even admit to having made a course correction, that would be the course correction.
DEADLINE: Of course you have one rather fabulous guest star in Naomi Campbell, who returned towards the end of the first part of the season and is in full throttle on the first episode of Part 2 of Season 2.
CHAIKEN: I would say that bringing back Naomi, bringing back Camilla, was a given because it’s classic soap. You had to see those women, Tarjai’s Cookie and Camilla, go up against one another. You had to see the woman, Camilla, who Lucious vanquished in such an ugly way, in such a foul way, come back at him and try and take back her dignity. Those are gauntlets that get thrown down that have to be responded to.
DEADLINE: From the look of the season return, that response, at least from everyone in the family except Hakeem, is intense, bordering on murderous, no?
CHAIKEN: I don’t want to give it away, obviously. Let’s just say Camilla’s story will be resolved in the way that the Lyon family resolves those kinds of situations.
DEADLINE: What about the situation of who the lady in the red-soled shoes was that pushed Rhonda down the stairs and caused her to lose her and Dre’s baby?
CHAIKEN: That’s not going to be left open. It will be resolved by the end of the season, but it’s not easily resolved. It’s not quickly resolved. It’s not as evident as it seems.
DEADLINE: There was a pretty big Godfather reference in the Season 2 return. Now obviously the Corleone saga has become a big part of overall hip-hop culture, but is it something you are incorporating now for a particular reason?
CHAIKEN: There are definitely moments and story allusions to The Godfather. From my point of view, it’s about mythological storytelling, but it also plays into that other mythology, which is the mythology of The Godfather in hip-hop, so those two things work perfectly together.
As often happens on Empire, you start out with one thematic idea, and it dovetails into another thematic idea that seems to come from a whole other place. That’s what’s happening here. The Godfather is a big reference for us and it comes through here, and it seeps in there.
DEADLINE: That Fredo line by Lucious was more a flood than a seep…
CHAIKEN: That line about Fredo, that was an ad-lib. Terrance Howard ad-libs sometimes and he did with that line. Terrance knew that we had The Godfather in our minds as writers and filmmakers, but clearly, it came to him.
DEADLINE: There was no break like the one you guys have just ended in Season 1. This time round, the show has been off since December 2. What was that like for you in an 18-episode season?
CHAIKEN: What it did is it enabled us to be as good as we want to be and the second half of our show is stronger, we come back stronger. I think if we hadn’t had that break, it would have been hard to hold ourselves to the standard that we hold ourselves to, and I really feel like the work that we did in the latter half of this season was some of the best we’ve ever done.
Really, it’s great Empire storytelling. It just goes deep. It’s really delicious and fun and dark and intriguing in all the ways that Empire should be at its best. Having that break just gave us enough space to be able to be as good as I think we all seek to be.
DEADLINE: So, what surprises and twists should we expect in the Lyon saga in the rest of Season 2?
CHAIKEN: What I can say is that the first two episodes launch us in to Season 2B and then it takes off like a demon. I think it is some of the best work we have done.
There are a lot of big revelations that answer questions that we’ve raised. In the second half of Season 2 the audience is going to learn a lot more about who Lucious Lyon is and the things that made him who he is today. Things that have a tremendous impact on every member of his family, and there will be some stunning moments embodied in characters who you might not ever expect to meet. The past comes home to roost in a lot of different ways. You can expect weddings and funerals.
DEADLINE: Can we expect another baby?
CHAIKEN: There are certainly babies on the horizon.
DEADLINE: Speaking of on the horizon, what about some non-Empire projects of your own that are in the works? Are we going to see anything soon?
CHAIKEN: I hope so, but right now, all we’re talking about is Empire. I do hope so but I’m focused on moving into Season 3 and making sure that it’s everything that Season 1 and Season 2 were and more. But yes, I have projects of my own that are kind of hovering around.
DEADLINE: Looking toward that third season, what are some of the lessons you learned along the way that will inform the way that season turns out?
CHAIKEN: The lessons are the Lyon family is the show. That doesn’t mean that they’re small stories about a family. It means that whatever stories we tell, whatever guest stars we bring, whatever tributaries spring from the core story, they have to start with the family. It always starts there and not from the outside.
Definitely, while we love the fabulous guest stars who want to play on Empire, the biggest lesson we learned is that we want our stories always to create those opportunities for us, and then we fill the opportunities with people who want to work with us on the show. They have to be driven by these characters and the things we know about them, the things they want, the things that our audience cares about, that we care about, that our characters care about.