SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details of tonight’s Empire Season 5 finale.
“The idea of moving forward without him is a true challenge, and no decisions have been made as of yet of how we move forward,” Empire showrunner Brett Mahoney admits of the contentious Jussie Smollett’s exit from the Fox series at the end of the just-concluded fifth season.
“We’ll work that out when reconvene the room and we come up with the creative,” the executive producer adds of the upcoming Season 6 of Fox’s hip hop drama.
Although Smollett was written out of the final two episodes of the Lee Daniels- and Danny Strong-created series following his legal troubles in Chicago, tonight’s Mahoney co-written “The Roughest Day” didn’t miss a beat in turning out to be the whirlwind ending we’ve come to expect from an Empire finale.
From the near-death of Andre Lyon (Trai Byers) due to his failing heart and the revelation to the Lyon clan’s presumed oldest son that his lady love Teri (Meta Golding) is pregnant with a boy, the 18-episode season was as full-tilt boogie at the end as it was in the beginning.
Clearly still one of the leaner and meaner of Fox’s most valued crowd jewels, tonight’s Empire also unveiled who it is in that casket. With the Grim Reaper hovering close by in more ways than one, the death by suicide of Lucious’ true oldest son, the illegitimate and ambitious Kingsley (A.Z. Kelsey), saw Andre get a new heart, a new offspring, a new wife and a new lease on life as the feds closed in on the Terrence Howard’s Lyon patriarch.
This latest battle with authorities had the blast radius of pulling back the curtain on Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and Lucious’ tempestuous relationship and what looks like a fatal severance between the once ride-or-die duo.
Mahoney spoke with me about the end of the season, the challenge of the Smollett situation and what he has planned for Season 6.
DEADLINE: At the very end of the finale, Lucious is literally taking off on the run from the law, but Taraji’s Cookie says she’s not coming with him. So, where does that take us next?
MAHONEY: I think that is the open question for both Cookie and Lucious, isn’t it? Of course for Lucious, it was a drop-kick in the stomach that Cookie wasn’t going with him and that she was establishing that she needed to be on her own for a while. I think when we come back, it’ll be the question of what does it look like with the two of them separate? What does it look like for Cookie trying to establish herself outside of her relationship with Lucious and outside of Empire?
DEADLINE: Interesting that you put it like that, because with all the soapy cliffhangers and revelations than an Empire season finale usually has, this particular finale felt much more emotional …
MAHONEY: That was quite intentional because in this episode, literally, we wanted to play up what it felt like and what it meant for a life to actually be in mortal jeopardy. We also wanted to really experience what that loss would be like. It’s also for Cookie to come to a place where she could walk away from Lucious and walk away from Empire — what would it take to get there? So, yes, we were just playing completely into the emotion in this episode.
DEADLINE: Of course, there was the payoff of finally finding out that is was Lucious’ illegitimate son Kingsley (A.Z. Kelsey) in that casket we’ve glimpsed this season, when it sure looked like it was going to be Andre (Trai Byers) at more than one point.
MAHONEY: I’ll tell you, we did not know right off the start who was going to be in that coffin. I mean, we definitely knew we wanted it to be a Lyon, because in the Empire world and in the Lyon world, they live in such high stakes, and we thought it was time to have the Lyons actually have a brush with mortality. But, after all the great stuff that we did with Andre this season, you know, by the end, none of us really wanted to put him in that coffin.
DEADLINE: Well, I thought that the reveal was a long plan. So when did you guys decide?
MAHONEY: (laughs) Not quite up until the end. It’s funny, I’m just was trying to remember when exactly we decided that it would be Kingsley. I think it was as the show went into the back-nine when we finally made the final decision and we narrowed it down to Kingsley.
DEADLINE: So Kingsley is gone, having shot himself, and his heart has been put inside Andre. But what about his mother, played by Amanda Detmer? Will she still be part of the story going into next year?
MAHONEY: I think that Tracy is still very much a part of the story because when she decides to give her son’s heart to save Andre, she tells Cookie it’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be free.
DEADLINE: Are we going to see any new characters introduced for Season 6, and maybe a particular guest star or two?
MAHONEY: I don’t know about guest stars, but I definitely have some ideas for some new characters that are sort of like organic to what we’ve done.
DEADLINE: Is part of that going to be part of the newly established Bossy Records?
MAHONEY: I think definitely we’ll see some new people in relation to Bossy Records.
DEADLINE: Speaking of who will be part of the story in Season 6, one person who won’t be, at least off the bat, is Jussie Smollett, as Fox made somewhat clear last month. I know the two of you are close, but what is your perspective as a showrunner on how that seemingly partial exit played out after the twists and turns of the past few months?
MAHONEY: (pause) Well, it’s a challenge, of course, because Jussie is such an important part of this ensemble. The idea of moving forward without him is a true challenge, and no decisions have been made as of yet of how we move forward. We’ll work that out when reconvene the room and we come up with the creative. It’s difficult to see Jussie go through this because he is just an integral part of the Empire family, and then with everything that’s going on, it’s also just the challenge of getting the show done.
DEADLINE: There were two references to the Jamal character that Jussie plays in this episode even though Jussie had written out of the season’s final two episodes. I wanted to get a sense, if you feel like sharing, what it’s been like for you the past several weeks, being inside this hurricane?
MAHONEY: I think it’s just me and everyone involved in the show … you know, you’ve got to get the work done and get through it. But then you’re also dealing with real life, that these are real humans and that real people that are being impacted by these things. It’s a trying situation, no doubt.
DEADLINE: The end of Season 5 of Empire saw Terrence’s Lucious escape his own trying legal situation and get away before the U.S. Attorney and the feds got him. Will he be back by the beginning of Season 6 or will there be another time jump?
MAHONEY: Honestly, we haven’t worked all those things out, and I haven’t met with my writers in terms of convening and deciding how to move forward in Season 6, yet. Right now, I just want to make sure whatever we do in Season 6 is exciting. I’m back thinking character-driven and just exciting. I think we left it at the end of this episode where we could really turn things upside down, so we’re going to get to come back to it in an exciting, interesting place.
DEADLINE: Like a re-set interesting place?
MAHONEY: It could be. It’s interesting because I felt like the end of Season 4 that we were set up for a re-set. Instead, I realized, and I was talking with about it with some of the people who worked on the show before, that we really did set it up for possibly another re-set here going into Season 6. That’s Empire.