“Empire is all about conflict, the unexpected and high drama,” executive producer Ilene Chaiken says of tonight’s explosive Season 3 finale. Based on the episode, certainly no one can ever accuse Empire of going out on a whimper when there is a bang available, and that’s what Fox’s hip hop drama created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong ended on — literally and figuratively.
After a murderous penultimate episode last week that would have been a finale for many series, the Chaiken- and Joshua Allen-penned “Toil & Trouble, Pt. 2” concluded Wednesday with Terrance Howard’s Lucious Lyon almost dying in a fiery bomb blast and then coming out of three-month coma seemingly without any memories. In short, as showrunner Chaiken says, it’s a “reset” for one of the biggest shows on TV as it heads to Season 4 in the fall.
Before everything blew up, it looked for a moment like there might be a happy ending for Lucious, Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie and the Lyon boys. But of course, nothing is that simple or subtle in Lyonland, no matter how many declarations of love and legacy are made. Tonight’s show may have wrapped up with the bomb that son Andre (Trai Byers) planted in his father’s car detonating, and the on-screen introduction of Demi Moore to the series, but it started in the sky. Opening with a copter delivering Lucious to Vegas in style, the 18th episode of Empire’s third season had missing babies returned with strings attached, brotherly love anew, set-ups and betrayals, and the opening of the Inferno show in Sin City.
As both Nia Long’s Giuliana Green and Eva Longoria’s Gaming Commissioner Charlotte Frost were cast aside by the now-united Lyon family, we also saw a window open to a new life for Lucious and Cookie. As the former revealed he was playing Green and Frost and sang out his love for the latter onstage, Andre was made head of the company at long last with the support of brothers Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray).
And then it all went Peter Tong, so to speak.
As she digs deeper into getting the opening episodes of Season 4 in shape, I chatted with Chaiken about why Empire is resetting and what’s in store for the wiped-clean Lucious and the rest of the Lyons next year? The EP also discussed the shift to 8 PM in Season 4, the importance of Moore and other possible guest stars, and why you’ll never hear Donald Trump’s name on the show.
DEADLINE: So, you’ve said this finale would be a reset. So are we going into Empire 2.0 now?
CHAIKEN: I never called it Empire 2.0, but in the [writers’] room we do talk about Lucious 2.0, so I guess you are right on point with us. If we are talking about Lucious 2.0, than I think it is fair to say its now Empire 2.0.
DEADLINE: Fueling that, will Lucious’ apparent memory loss last over the season or be dealt with pretty quickly in Season 4?
CHAIKEN: I don’t want to go too deep into this because of course this is story for us in Season 4 and I’m not going to give any of it away. But suffice to say that Lucious in Season 4 is going to be dealing with the aftermath of this event, the damage to his mind and his body. Whether or not his memory is permanently or just temporally impaired is certainly one of the questions we’d begin the new season with.
Who is Lucious now? What is he dealing with? How has it affected him? How has it changed him? And how has does effect every member of his family depending what the answers to those questions are. That is a big part of our story in Season 4 and that is a real reset. I’ve done serialized drama before…
DEADLINE: You mean a little show called The L Word?
CHAIKEN: [Laughs] …and it’s a challenge to keep it going year after year. With this reset and the dynamics we have in place, it is still very much to us about the world of music, about a label, and about the culture. But as the culture changes — and it changes radically and so fast today — we’re running to keep up and excited about telling those stories of that. Twinning that with all these new soap operas dynamics of Lucious possibly having a traumatic brain injury. A trope that would have been called amnesias in another era of television. We’re hoping to reinterpret that trope in a more realistic way that has some kind of scientific and medical credibility, but it still is a really interesting thing to explore with a character we’ve come to know very well. In fact, every one of the Lyons is hugely important to us and we felt we owned to them to give them all individually and collectively a huge challenge at the end of the season.
DEADLINE: OK, but staying with Season 3 still, after that three-month jump right at the end from the explosion to Lucious in a hospital bed in a coma and the introduction of the Demi Moore character, are we to assume that Dre has been running Empire after all?
CHAIKEN: We intentionally didn’t answer that question. All you’re to assume in that moment is that we’re in the hospital room with the family on the day when Lucious regains consciousness for the first time and three months have gone by. Has Andre been running the company? Does anyone know anything about his role in the car bombing that injured Lucious? What’s happened to each of the other sons? What did the Dubois’ require of Hakeem in exchange for the baby? From those cliffhangers than we set up that are now three months in the past, we’ll answer those questions as we go forward.
DEADLINE: So, then why a series reset now?
CHAIKEN: There are a couple of answers to that. Firstly, we brought the Lyons to a near-perfect moment. Of course there were some unresolved issues, but it was a moment when there was peace among the sons and Lucious and Cookie have finally found their way back to one another. But we can’t leave it there, because that’s not what Empire is all about. Empire is all about conflict, the unexpected and high drama. So the only reason we would come to a moment like that is to blow it up, literally or figuratively – which we did indeed.
So how do we move on beyond that?
What we wanted to do in a practical sense is give these great actors, especially Terrance and Taraji, something really new now to sink their teeth into. Also, to give our audience some completely new and fresh stories. How can we shake it up and make it fresh? Making Lucious not Lucious – that creates a new dynamic for us to play with.
DEADLINE: Some of that freshness has to be the anticipated on-screen introduction of Demi Moore as Lucious’ therapist, a role that clearly is meant to rub Cookie the wrong way. Will she be a major part of the reset?
CHAIKEN: She’s very important in this new season. We will see quite a bit of her in Season 4 as Lucious’ private rehabilitation therapist. She’s unconventional, but having taken on challenging situations like this before, she’s also a psychologist. She’s going to be in that triangular relationship with Lucious and Cookie, it’s a whole new dynamic. It’s not just another women who is a threat to the romantic relationship, it is somebody who has control over Lucious and importance to him in a way that nobody ever has and therefore threatens Cookie in a way that nobody ever has before.
DEADLINE: Looking at guests for Season 4, are we going to see more of the Eva and Nia characters?
CHAIKEN: We left it open because we love those characters and those dynamics. We’ve envisioned a lot of ways we could bring either of them back, but I don’t honestly know right now if either of them is coming back.
DEADLINE: You guys obviously are coming back for another season but with a time-slot shift from 9 PM, where you have been since your debut, to 8 PM now, as a lead-in to Season 2 of Lee’s Star. How do you think that will affect Empire?
CHAIKEN: Nobody has said to us that we need to soften or pull back on anything at 8 o’clock. I’m betting it is no going to change the nature of what Empire is one iota — I feel like our job is to tell these stories and make the show, and the network’s job is to program and promote it and all of that. We trust that they know what they are doing.
DEADLINE: Certainly a big change in the real world has to be the election of Donald Trump. You guys started out with Barack Obama as someone Lucious would chat with on the phone and in the environment his administration created, an environment that is very different now…
CHAIKEN: God yes…
DEADLINE: So what is Empire in the Age of Trump?
CHAIKEN: The issues that are important to us have taken on a new urgency as they have in most of our lives. You’ll certainly see those issues reflected in the stories that we tell and the way in which we reflect them we will acknowledge the new reality of the Age of Trump.
We used to love to talk about Obama, and Lucious’ relationship with Obama, but to be honest with you, we all share the conviction that we don’t want to mention that other guy by name. We just don’t want to talk about him. We just don’t want to give him anything more because he so dominates everybody’s waking moment, every news cycle, every tweet, so we decided, let’s keep him out of our mouths on Empire.
DEADLINE: This season has seen Empire hit a number of series ratings lows. Why? Do you think that long midseason break of more than two months costs the show some momentum?
CHAIKEN: I have no idea why the television universe goes the way it does, really. We do our best, we try not to be too reactive, and hope that we’re capturing the biggest audience that we can and that still loves what we have to say and what we’re talking about. That’s my job.
DEADLINE: You guys were off the air from mid-December last year to March this year. Are we going to see another big break in the middle of Season 4?
CHAIKEN: I’m pretty sure that Fox is staying with that as their programming plan.
DEADLINE: Another Empire trait is big guest stars – Demi has joined for Season 4, Anyone else we should expect to show up in Lyonland?
CHAIKEN: Well, we are certainly writing roles that we hope to cast brilliantly. That’s really how it’s done here now. In the second season, as I’ve said before, we made the mistake of jumping through hoops for certain guest stars because they were there. It took the show off track a little bit. Now we let the stories guide us and then we cast the hell out of it, so stay tuned.