SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details of tonight’s midseason finale of Empire‘s sixth and final season.
“I think what we’re seeing here is that this family truly loves one another, but they have a lot of baggage and they have a lot of drama,” Empire showrunner Brett Mahoney says of the Fox series’ Lyon clan as they head toward their final episodes. “So, the question is, at the end of the day, do they have enough love to keep them together or will the drama pull them apart?”
To that question, halfway through the supersized sixth and final season of the Lee Daniels- and Danny Strong-created hip hop drama, tonight’s midseason “Cold Cold Man” finale ended with a typical Empire bang — at least that is the implication.
With a humiliated and heartbroken Tracy Kingsley (Amanda Detmer) pointing a pistol at Terrence Howard’s mogul Lucious Lyon, and the divorce-desiring Cookie (played by the incomparable Taraji P. Henson), the episode penned by Diane Houston and Jamie Rosengard also went to some new places for the onetime blockbuster.
“I’m black, trans and broke, Jamal was black, male and rich, whether he came out of the closet or stayed in there the rest of his life,” Melody Barnes schools Cookie as the latter tries to get the former to take a public stand at the fictional American Sound Awards. “I don’t want to be your trans butterfly,” the character adds after the reference to the role played by the now-departed Jussie Smollett for the first five seasons.
Having just finished up work on the Henson-directed 13th episode of Season 6, Mahoney chatted with me about where Empire is going, whether there will be more, and could Smollett return. The EP takes a took a look back at the legacy of the groundbreaking series as it heads towards its twilight.
DEADLINE: Let’s start where it ends, with the distraught Tracy pulling the gun on Lucious and Cookie, a classic Empire cliffhanger. Who lives? Who dies? Or does anybody?
MAHONEY: (laughs) I do think that people have to tune in to the midseason premiere to find out.
DEADLINE: Going into these final episodes there was all this talk that the exit of Empire is going to be large. Do you feel you guys are fulfilling and finding the closure you want to bring to the show after a tumultuous six-season run.
MAHONEY: I think so. The thing about the idea of this being the final season freed us up to go places and to be big and to think about the themes of the show and the themes of the pilot. It also made us think about how we wanted to answer those questions and how we wanted to bring it to a conclusion. In a way, it’s enough just to be free and to be big and to be bold.
DEADLINE: So, bold, but also bittersweet, especially with the end of Empire but also all that has gone on off-screen with Jussie Smollett this past year…
MAHONEY: Yes, and certainly it’s bittersweet in the sense that I think many of the cast and the crew and the writers are all so talented, and it’s all been such a privilege to work with them. To think that it’s coming to an end is certainly a sad thing. But that we get to end it on our own terms and in a big way is sort of exciting also. It also comes with a lot of responsibility just in terms of how the show started and was so explosive out of the gate, and it’s just a desire to land the ending well and land it in an Empire way.
DEADLINE: What is that to you?
MAHONEY: You know, to that end, we have lots of people involved. I mean Lee [Daniels] and Danny [Strong] like to have their voices in, in terms of how they want to see the show they created end. There’s so many — the studio and the network and so many people care about it — so it’s nice to have their different input and voices as we make these decisions for the final episodes
DEADLINE: With where you are in terms of those last 10 episodes and tonight’s whirlwind fall finale, how are you feeling after a couple of seasons steering the good ship Empire and now towards its end?
MAHONEY: I’m feeling good about it actually.
MAHONEY: Yes, I’m feeling like I’m really happy with much of this work that we’ve done in the first half of the season and I’m excited as I see tests coming in and stories and scripts coming in for the back half of the season. We’ve just had these creative conversations as to the series finale and I’m excited about that. I also feel like the actors are doing great work. They’re sort of blowing me away as I see tests coming in. I think the music has been great, so, yes, I’m feeling good.
DEADLINE: Where you guys are right now in the process of the final episodes, do you have how this is going to end locked down?
MAHONEY: I have a general shape of it, yes.
DEADLINE: When you talked about Danny and Lee getting involved, is that ending something they participated in heavily?
MAHONEY: Oh, yeah, absolutely. They created the show.
DEADLINE: So, in that vein, is this the finale that Empire fans expect, or is this something very different?
MAHONEY: That’s a good question. I don’t know if it’s as they’re watching it’ll be what they expected, but I think in reflection they see the inevitability of surprise. It’ll be like it’s going to be an Empire finale.
DEADLINE: Are we going to see any special guest stars or returning cast, like Jussie Smollett?
MAHONEY: I think we have a few people from the past as we had in the flash forwards. We saw some of the old villains. We still have some of them coming back, but really, we’ll just keep focusing on the core family, that’s all I can say.
DEADLINE: What about a spinoff?
MAHONEY: (laughs) I do think that there are conversations being had. I don’t know what has been agreed upon, yet.
DEADLINE: Does that impact the way you’re devising the finale for this last season?
MAHONEY: Actually, and I know this may surprise you, but it does not.
DEADLINE: You spoke earlier about wanting to be big and bold with this last season. In tonight’s midseason finale, we see the introduction of a member of the trans community to a significant role. I think we start to see Lucious developing a sense of consequences, which is a huge deal on this show. We see the return of the issues Andre (Trai Byers) has with reality, to put it mildly. So, what are some of the big swings here that you’re intending and, more importantly, what do you hope lands with the viewers?
MAHONEY: Really, essentially, it’s going down to the roots and talking about family, when the show first came on the air. I think what we’re seeing here is that this family truly loves one another, but they have a lot of baggage and they have a lot of drama. So, the question is, at the end of the day, do they have enough love to keep them together or will the drama pull them apart?
DEADLINE: Transparent’s Alexandra Grey joined Empire for the final season as the outspoken Melody Barnes. Why was now the time for Empire to have a trans character?
MAHONEY: I just felt like it was in the ethos. I thought it was just something we couldn’t ignore. I felt like Empire is a show that deals with current issues and topics, and it just felt like we couldn’t shy away from that one.
DEADLINE: What do you feel the reaction will be from your audience?
MAHONEY: Compassion and understanding.
DEADLINE: So, with that, what is the legacy of Empire as we go into the last episodes next year?
MAHONEY: Clearly these characters are larger than life and it’s big and it’s dramatic. But it’s not just dramatic, it’s operatic. Hopefully by also showing and bringing characters of color that are three-dimensional and not just one-note characters but really holistic — we brought something new in our storytelling. Now we’re seeing these characters of color in a wide variety, but it wasn’t like that when Empire began. We’re seeing all the dimensions of what people of color in the world are and they’re reflected in this show. That’s a very important legacy to me.