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'Empire' Finale: EP Ilene Chaiken on the major twists and the creation of 'Game time, bitches'

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Chuck Hodes/Fox

[SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE SEASON FINALE OF EMPIRE!!!]

The bona fide blockbuster that is Empire went supernova last night in both drama and record-breaking ratings for its final episode fo the season. Someone died (Vernon). Someone is pregnant (Rhonda). And someone went to jail (Lucious). EW talked to executive producer Ilene Chaiken about all the twists and turns of the two-hour finale. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you guys go into this finale and think, “We’re gonna blow this out”?

ILENE CHAIKEN: Yeah, we definitely wanted the finale to be heightened in every way. If this whole season is a build, then the finale is the big boom.

Was it always a two-hour finale? Or was that a scheduling decision?

It came with scheduling. After we had broken the stories but before we wrote the script. I went into the writing of 11 and 12, knowing that they were gonna air as a two-parter and that we could kind of play with that idea a little bit, but each episode needs to stand on its own.

Everyone seems to be talking about the ALS misdiagnosis. Was that always planned?

Yep, from the very beginning. I think in my very first meeting when I was sitting with Francie [Calfo] and Lee at Imagine and Danny was in New York so we were Skyping with Danny. He was on a huuuuge screen at the front of the room. The first time I ever met Danny Strong he was kind of God-like on this enormous screen. We talked about any number of things. Of course we talked about the ALS and what’s going to happen because Terrence is the star of the show. And Danny said, “Well I always thought it would be a misdiagnosis.” And I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah.” In the room, we talked about whether or not that was the best story solution and in the end we thought, “Yeah let’s just go for it!” We researched it extensively to make sure it was credible. But it’s actually quite supportable with research.

Was Jamal always planned as the son who would get the empire?

That was not quite so planned. But what Lee and Danny put forward in that same group of meetings was we look at him like a Michael Corleone character. We want to see him rise to the occasion, surprise everyone by being the most cunning, the most gangster at the end of the day. Then, all of the rest of that story was broken in the room and we worked it out throughout the season. All the writers on our staff have various connections to the world of hip-hop and told me all the great and mythological stories of hip-hop. Pretty early on, we landed on the idea of Jamal has to hang somebody over a balcony.

The catfight was incredible. Was that a direct homage to Dynasty?

It was truly an homage to Dynasty in that way and for that we owe Lee. Lee is the devotee of Dynasty who’s always said, “I want this to be that.” I delivered the first draft of the script and that scene was there but the catfight wasn’t there. Lee read the script and said to me, “Ilene I want my catfight.” As he was saying it, I said, “Oh my God. I just missed an opportunity. It’s right there!” I said, “Well Lee of course you want your catfight. This is where it belongs!”

Taraji then read that scene and came to me and said, “Cookie’s been in prison for 17 years—I would clock her and she’d be out.” Then we kind of talked it through and said, “You’re absolutely right. It’s not Joan Collins and Linda Evans. A catfight with Cookie is whole other deal. We wanna see that punch. We want to see you clock her and then she’s out.” But then it’s like The Terminator. Nobody is ever out. Everybody rises from the ashes.

Vernon was killed off last night. What was behind that decision?

It definitely wasn’t, “Oh that actor’s annoying. Let’s get rid of him.” Or, “We can’t think of any more story.” It was entirely story-driven. We had had conversations with the studio and network about, What do you need to do in this day and age to get people’s attention? We talked about all those things theoretically. We were sitting in the room talking about this moment when Vernon comes to Andre. It just kind of emerged. What if Vernon and Andre are having this epic fight about their relationship and then out of the blue Rhonda comes in and misunderstands what’s happening and Vernon is dead? And we just all thought, “Yeah. That’s how to do it.”

Do you then think season two will follow the hiding of that crime?

We think that a little bit. We don’t know. I can answer that in the context of the Bunky murder: Lee and Danny had made a pilot and somebody got murdered. Nobody knew if that would be followed through and we made a season worth of story out of it and I don’t think it’s even over yet. I don’t know what we’ll do with that storyline in season two because we haven’t even begun but I do know that as there will clearly be a story about Lucious in prison and getting out of prison and whether he does and whether he beats the rap, the fact that the star witness is dead is an opportunity.

I love the reveal of Lucious’ real name. Do you think we’ll dive more into his past in season two?

I think there’s a good chance that we will. Nothing is firm but we’re very interested in it and it’s something we talk about.

The episode’s final line,“Game time, bitches,” uttered by Lucious, immediately started trending. Are you surprised by that reaction?

I can’t say I’m surprised at this point. I don’t know if you know this, but that was an improv by Terrence. That was not the line we wrote. Terrence improv’d that. I saw it and I said, “That’s it! That’s the button on the season end.” I just loved it. It worked on me so I’m glad it worked on the audience. 

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