SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of tonight’s Empire Season 4 finale.
“That’s Empire for me, it’s earning those big moments,” says executive producer and showrunner Brett Mahoney of the Fox hip hop drama that ended its fourth season tonight in an hour that often felt like it was almost nothing but big moments – and that’s saying something for the Lee Daniels and Danny Strong created series.
Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson’s Lucious Lyon and Cookie lost their record company and media empire but found what looks to be a last love and a City Hall marriage. Now that would usually be enough of an ending for most shows as they pivot to their recently announced fifth season, but this is Empire. Which meant overdoses, revenge, corporate takeover, pregnancies, bad dads, blasts from the past for “The Empire Unposess???” episode. It also meant a body count too as original cast member Grace Byers’ just appointed Empire CEO Anika Calhoun took a fatal fall.
It also meant a reset of sorts for the series going into its Daniels directed Season 5 opener, as Mahoney told me.
Stepping out of the writers’ room as he, Daniels and the team map out how to tell the tale of the Lyons and their sons Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Grey), Andre (Trai Byers) and Jamel (Jussie Smollett) in an America where they are no longer on top, Mahoney talked the finale he co-wrote and taking over mid-season as solo showrunner from Ilene Chaiken. Having joined Empire this season, the Code Black and CSI: Miami vet also revealed where Season 5 is going and the role Donald Trump will play in the new world of the Lyons.
DEADLINE: So, this is Empire and when people seem to die, sometimes they stay dead and sometimes don’t stay dead. Let’s get this out of the way, is Anika Calhoun truly dead?
MAHONEY: It’s absolutely the death of Anika. There’s no take-backs of writing that. Anika’s dead.
DEADLINE: And Rumer Willis’ Tory Ash?
MAHONEY: She too has passed.
— lee daniels (@leedanielsent) May 24, 2018
DEADLINE: OK, now we have that out of the way, there was a lot of karma at play bringing Kaitlin Doubleday back from the dead again in a hallucination for newly minted Empire CEO Anika, no?
MAHONEY: Oh yes. I think it was a matter of when we saw it at the end of Anika, who were the people that she most aggrieved? And she most aggrieved Andre. So, we wanted him to part of her end, and then just in terms of satisfaction for the audience and in terms of karma, we also wanted to have Kaitlin’s Rhonda character there. Again, who did Anika most wrong? She took Rhonda’s life and Rhonda’s child, so it just made sense to have Rhonda there, as well.
DEADLINE: As with most Empire endings, there is a lot to unpack with the Season 4 finale – Anika’s death, Jamal off to Europe, Blake’s racist dad emptying a shotgun on Hakeem and kin, the Lyons losing Empire and Lucious and Cookie’s City Hall marriage, as the showrunner where do you want to nudge viewers to look?
MAHONEY: I think Anika’s death is huge, and it’s given a great deal of real estate in the way we’ve played it out with Andre and having Rhonda there was very dramatic. For me, I think one of the biggest things emotionally was actually the marriage of Lucious and Cookie. Because, to me, that’s the love story that we’ve been playing and then dealing with through Season 1. To actually see them get married, to me, is huge
MAHONEY: It’s sort of in the vein of Godfather where you have this beautiful, happy ceremony, but what’s going on around it, unbeknownst to the people there. You know when Cookie says in her vows that she knows that she and Lucious have been through the fire, and she knows that storms and floods are on their way, but they’ll get through them. So, what it’s supposed to show is they’re having this beautiful, happy moment, but there are still trials and tribulations that they’ll be dealing with to come.
— Empire (@EmpireFOX) May 24, 2018
DEADLINE: Like I said, a truly loaded Empire ending…
MAHONEY: Well, I don’t know that it was so much more loaded than other finales. I think it was all the story that we’ve been following not only just through the season but moving forward with many of the stories that have been going on throughout the series-It was bringing those long stories to a conclusion at the end of Season 4 so we could move forward cleanly into Season 5.
DEADLINE: Is that something you wanted to have as a clean deck of sorts for your first full season as showrunner?
MAHONEY: I think, actually, it’s not so much the question of being showrunner, moving in and how I wanted to do it in Season 5. It was actually where did these stories lie, and what did we have left in terms of story. So, to me, it was really about how we wanted to move the story and come to a dramatic conclusion in Season 4.
DEADLINE: With that and you taking over totally this mid-season, how do you keep a series like Empire fresh and not burn your own bridges in trying to light too many fires?
MAHONEY: I think it’s a huge challenge. You know, we just returned from our writer’s retreat in Mexico where we were focusing on what we were going to be doing in Season 5, and I think one of those things is allowing it to start anew and going back to our roots.
It’s almost like hitting a reset button in the sense that the Lyons have lost the empire and questioning how they’re going to get it back. They may not have just lost the empire, but also a certain amount of their wealth. So, what do they do when they don’t have those things? What does it mean that Cookie made a decision that they could sacrifice the empire for Lucious’ freedom? What does this mean for this family and this relationship?
— Empire (@EmpireFOX) May 24, 2018
DEADLINE: In that vein of freshness and reset, Empire, brought FOX huge numbers, it brought us some new stars, new music and it brought us a new way of looking at many aspects of African American life, at American life. It’s also show that started out in the Obama era and now continues in the Trump era. So, what would you say is Empire in the America of 2018 going into the 2018 / 2019 season?
MAHONEY: That’s exactly the right question for Season 5. Literally, I left the room to take your call, and that’s the conversation we’re having. Lee is with us, and Lee will be directing our premiere episode in Season 5, and that is the question we’re discussing. What is Empire in the Trump Administration? What’s our answer to that? What role do the Lyons play? I’d have to tell you that we’re discussing and debating and coming up with those answers right now.
DEADLINE: What are those answers starting to look like?
MAHONEY: Well, to your initial question, as an African American myself, the amount of pride that we had we had when the Obamas were in office was immense. We all sort of like had our chests puffed out, and we just couldn’t believe that this dream had been realized, and now with the Trump Administration, for myself as an African American, the African American community, almost feeling as if it’s been a slap to the face. It’s something you just can’t ignore. It’s so woven in, so it’s hard when we’re a topical show and we are trying to respond to what’s going on, to not say anything.
DEADLINE: And that’s going to become a part of Season 5?
MAHONEY: I think, we’ll allow the Lyons to experience that, just as the African American community is experiencing it now. That’s why also taking them off their pedestal, taking them out of the empire, taking away their wealth also puts them in a place where many other African Americans actually are. They want Empire back but the Lyons are going to have to deal with what’s going with what many African Americans deal with on a regular basis.
DEADLINE: That feels like some of the flashbacks we saw in Season 1…
MAHONEY: I would just say it’s like a great opportunity as we move into Season 5, we’ve had Lee involved. Lee is in the writer’s room right now talking to the writers. There’s this new start, this reset in terms of Lucious and Cookie being married and how that will play out. Hopefully that’ll play out in terms of we’ll be able to tell the story, what it is to have a marriage like that. What are the challenges and what are the difficulties? Then just in terms of we’re going to be telling these stories in terms of what it is to start a label in 2018 and what’s really happening currently in the music industry all through the prism of the family that we’ve come to love.
DEADLINE: I have to ask, Empire was co-created by an African American and now heading into its fifth season the showrunner is an African American man. What does that feel like for you?
MAHONEY: I think I feel humbled, and I think it’s a great opportunity. To me, it was scary to step into this job, that’s why it was also an honor. I’ve been working and writing for almost 20 year and I never worked in a room with majority diverse writers. It’s amazing. It’s an amazing opportunity, and not just because of the diversity, but because these are some of the most talented people, talented cast, talented writers that I’ve had a chance to work with. So, it’s an amazing opportunity.
DEADLINE: Were you really scared, I mean you are such a seasoned pro…
MAHONEY: Oh yeah, it’s totally intimidating. The show was so huge and so important to so many people. As a viewer, as a fan, I was amazed by so many of the things that they did. I was just talking about this the other day in terms of that pilot that was so fascinating and so special. It had the audacity of Cookie, the fierce darkness of Lucious, and the poignancy of Jamal, and then the music, and all seen through the prism of this African American family. That’s why it was so special, so scary and why I felt honored that I could be a part of this legacy.
DEADLINE: For a show that treads the high wire between drama and sheer soap, what is that legacy for you?
MAHONEY: I think that that’s very true what you’re saying because of the fine line in terms of what’s too much and what’s too little in terms of the soap. I think the show has always tread that line between the aspects of it that are gritty, dark, violent, and very Sopranos in terms of a family drama. Then there are aspects of it that are Dynasty, these great heightened, soapy moments/ Actually, the audience loves both those things. So, it’s finding, in terms of Empire, what is that fine line? What is the balance between the two?
DEADLINE: What is it for you now you are the boss?
MAHONEY: I want those big heightened moments, but I want them to come from grounded storytelling where I think we’ve earned them. So, I think you can have, like in the finale Blake’s father shooting at Hakeem, Tiana, and Blake, and Bella if it’s coming from some place within the story. You could have Andre taking down Anika if it’s coming from this long, simmering feud that they’ve had. He didn’t plan on killing her, but he’s going to embarrass her at this press conference. Then it turns into something else. That’s Empire for me, it’s earning those big moments.
— Empire Writers (@EmpireWriters) May 24, 2018