SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of tonight’s Season 2 finale of Empire.
There was a subpoena served, an unexpected wedding, a catfight, a not-altogether-desired blast from the Lyon family’s past and an almost literal cliffhanger ending on Empire’s Season 2 finale tonight. “We set out to do it in a way that we hadn’t before and set the table for a new season,” executive producer/showrunner Ilene Chaiken says of the finale, offering plenty of teases about Season 3.
Coming just days after both Empire and co-creator Lee Daniels’ upcoming Star strutted their stuff at Fox’s upfronts presentation, tonight’s “Past Is Prologue” season ender helmed by Sanaa Hamri certainly ratcheted up the soap action and the stakes. Coming after last week’s shooting of Jamal (played by Jussie Smollett), tonight’s Chaiken and Daniels’ co-written finale will see one character surely meet her death.
While the second-oldest son of Terrence Howard’s Lucious and Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie survived, the feds are still closing in on the Lyons. The long-mentioned Shyne Johnson, portrayed by Xzibit, finally made an appearance and threw some punches. Partially because of that as well as a subpoena served on the pregnant Anika (Grace Gealey), the luxurious wedding of Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) and Laura (Jamila Velazquez) fell apart. Although there were still nuptials, as Lucious quickly marred Anika to prevent her having to testify. Afterward, Rhonda (Katlin Doubleday) confronted Anika over pushing her down those stairs earlier in the season and causing her and Andre to lose their unborn baby. The confrontation saw the two women fight it out not once but twice, including on a high balcony and one of them seemingly go over it at the very end of the show.
With Season 3 of Empire set to premiere in September, Chaiken took the time to chat with me about tonight’s finale and what’s coming next for the biggest show on the Big 4, slow burn and all. The executive producer also discussed the Queen Latifah-starring Star, the Lethal Weapon TV series that will be Empire’s lead-in next season, and lessons learned from the expansion of Daniels and Danny Strong’s series this year.
DEADLINE: So, I have to ask, was it Rhonda or Anika who went off that balcony at the end of the finale?
CHAIKEN: I’m not going to tell you. I know you had to ask, but I’m not going to tell you. Either Anika or Rhonda. One of them went over the edge I’m pretty sure.
DEADLINE: Seems pretty sure that Anika admitted that she pushed Rhonda down the stairs earlier this season, causing her to lose her baby…
CHAIKEN: In that final moment between her and Rhonda, Anika admits it, but we’re about to find out in Season 3 whether that secret lives or dies with Rhonda.
— Empire (@EmpireFOX) May 19, 2016
DEADLINE: That’s classic soap move with a lot of setup for Season 3
CHAIKEN: I think it’s a great episode of Empire full of those gasp-worthy moments. Really, we set out to do it in a way that we hadn’t before and set the table for a new season. It’s something that I admire on a couple of the cable shows that I love — the way that the second-to-the-last episode goes huge and the finale sets you up and lets you know where we’re going.
DEADLINE: So where is Empire going in Season 3?
CHAIKEN: Well, we’re well into it. We’ve broken season arc, we’ve grouped in all of our colleagues at the studio and the network, and we’ve delivered some stories. We have written the work and we know the story we’re telling you in Season 3.
And the finale really set the table for it. In Season 3 we’re telling the crime story that was set up early on and that’s been in the ether of the show. It’s really coming to the fore, and it’s going to provide the framework for our third season.
DEADLINE: The past is coming to bite back?
CHAIKEN: Absolutely. We are talking about and looking at Season 3 as a Godfather-styled opus of crime and hip-hop. An opus in which we really are referencing the history of the music and the legendary stories of the music — plot-wise, that’s our framework.
Dramatically Season 3, and we set it up in this finale, is a battle for the soul of Empire. It’s dark versus light, it’s Lucious versus Jamal in large part, because Jamal after being shot vows to end this thing. Cookie’s fighting for the souls of each of her sons, knowing that Jamal is on the far side slouching towards the light, and Lucious is throwing down his dark gauntlet and trying to claim everyone’s soul.
DEADLINE: Will finally seeing Shyne Johnson, played by Xzibit, in the finale mean that character is going be a big part of Season 3?
CHAIKEN: Well, Shyne Johnson is a character who was spoken of in the pilot and mentioned once or twice in Season 1 before, and we met him in the last episode of Season 2. Shyne is going to be a big character in our third season, as is Lucious’ half-brother Tariq who happens to be a fed with a very, very personal agenda to finally be the one to make this case against Lucious Lyon and Empire.
DEADLINE: With Season 2 having had an 18-episode run across the whole season as opposed to Season 1’s 12 episodes in early 2015, what lessons of that are you bringing to Season 3?
CHAIKEN: I think you saw it a bit in the latter half of Season 2 and you’ll see in Season 3 more than ever, is that we’re going to slow burn our stories a little bit more. The show is Empire. It will always have those big Empire moments, but every moment, every story that we’re telling, is driven by character.
We really are taking our time with them and, going forward in Season 3, we’re being rigorous with ourselves about earning every moment and giving our characters and our stories time to play out. And I think that you’ll see that in a really satisfying way in our third season. And when you think of it in terms of the 18-episode order, it certainly makes it possible for us to really keep the stories alive without having to reach for moments and lob bombs from out of nowhere. As I said, we’re trying to earn every moment of our story.
DEADLINE: With Lee working on his new show Star and other projects and Danny directing his J.D. Salinger movie, how much were they able to be involved in Season 3 planning so far?
CHAIKEN: They both are very involved in every season. But in Season 2, Danny was more a presence in the room in day-to-day. In Season 3, Lee is much more present.
Lee and I have spent a lot of time together from the end of Season 2 and starting into Season 3. Lee has sat with the writers, we’ve talked to him a lot about what he wants to tell stories about, he’s told us the stories from his life that are important to him that he wants to reflect, and his voice will permeate this third season.
DEADLINE: How so?
CHAIKEN: Well, before we’ve talked a bit about sex in hip-hop, gender in hip-hop. Now, we’ll certainly talk about it more with different characters. Firstly, Cookie of course is the standard-bearer for us, but we’re introducing another new character in this third season that will go right to those things.
DEADLINE: We got a glimpse of Star at Fox’s upfront presentation this week – what did you think?
CHAIKEN: It was exciting. It feels to me very different from Empire and yet certainly an extension of Lee’s brand. I had seen bits and pieces of it before, but it really came together in that trailer. It feels like a rich gritty Lee Daniels world, and it tells me that there’s another story you can tell with music that’s not Empire but that has every bit as much character and drama that’s told through the music of the story.
DEADLINE: Empire, of course, had a hefty presence in this year’s Fox upfront. How was that from your perspective?
CHAIKEN: I thought it was spectacular. I was incredibly proud of our Empire artists on the stage. I felt like they really have become such top-tier musical artists, I didn’t feel like I was watching TV actors performing characters. I felt like I was watching really some of the best artists out there doing their thing, and I was excited about Fox’s schedule.
DEADLINE: A schedule that will see the TV version of Lethal Weapon as Empire’s lead-in in September.
CHAIKEN: Yes, I’m excited about it. It felt right, and just like a great fit for Empire. It feels to me like it’s going to be additive, like these two shows on one night of television could be a powerful night of television.
DEADLINE: Unlike Season 1, Empire’s second season had a big break that saw you guys off the air from December 2 to March 30. You’re still the biggest show on the Big 4, but the ratings were down. Did that break hurt, and could another such break in Season 3 hurt?
CHAIKEN: I’m not going to say the break hurt us. I think the break was good and necessary, and if the audience loves the show the audience will be there for it. I’ve seen other shows suffer from a break, but I’m grateful and happy with where we are. I hope the show will grow and be even bigger in the third season, because I think that we’ve got great new stories to tell.
CHAIKEN: Yes, grateful. Firstly, I’m grateful for it because it’s a really long haul, and secondly, it’s how we make television these days. So let’s just embrace it. We’ll do a great midseason finale next year that hopefully will have the fans clamoring to come back in the spring, and Star is going to run during the time that Empire is off the air. I think that that’s going to be a fabulous thing too.