[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday’s episode of Empire.]
Can Cookie ever catch a break? The season 2 finale of Fox’s soapy hip-hop series delivered some seriously salacious drama, with the top of the hour revealing Jamal’s (Jussie Smollett) recovery after being shot by Freda (Bre-Z). But his homecoming wasn’t all about colorful balloons and chicken soup, as Jamal expressed deep regrets about returning to music and continuing the family’s cycle of “death and incarceration.”
And that was just the beginning: Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) blasted Anika (Grace Gealey) for causing her miscarriage in a blow-for-blow smackdown, while Shyne (guest star Xzibit), a mysterious character from Lucious (Terrence Howard)’s past posed a serious threat to Empire’s future and caused significant damage at Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) and Laura’s (Jamila Velazquez) wedding. Laura ultimately it called off before she walked down the aisle, but nuptials took place nonetheless: Lucious said “I do” to Anika in a last-ditch attempt to keep her immune from federal investigation. Poor Cookie crumbled at the news, though her reaction nearly paled in comparison to Lucious’ face when he found out that he has a half-brother.
The finale ended in classic Empire fashion when Rhonda sucker punched Anika in the evening’s second catfight, which cut to black just as someone – who?! – fell over a balcony railing. So what’s the rational behind the crazy cliffhangers? EW got executive producer Ilene Chaken to spill details about THAT bananas balcony scene, the new characters that appeared, and what’s ahead in season 3.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Can you confirm that someone actually was thrown from the balcony?
ILENE CHAIKEN: I’ll say this: Based on the scream that you hear and the look on Andre’s face, I’d say someone went over.
Can you say who?
Did someone die in the finale?
If someone went over that balcony, I don’t think there was any chance of survival. You saw how high up we were.
Was it pure coincidence that the season ended with a catfight, just as season 1 did? Is this going to be an ongoing tradition?
It wasn’t, ‘Let’s do another catfight to end the season.’ It was more that we had to! How could we not? [Laughs] I have no idea what the last scene of season 3 will be. If it’s something new and fresh that we haven’t seen, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t be. But what I will tell you is that [show creator] Lee Daniels loves a good catfight more than life itself!
Presuming Anika lives, what does her future look like on the show? She’s had quite the character arc, going from girlfriend to fiancée, then from sidepiece to baby momma, and now to wife.
I can’t even answer that because I don’t even know whether she survives. Her future could be very short, a matter of seconds. If she’s not the one who went over, then that’s an intriguing question because she just got married to Lucious, and it wasn’t a love marriage. It was a marriage of necessity. She’s carrying his grandchild and she just lost every ounce of goodwill she ever had from Cookie, so were she to survive, she has a lot to sort out.
When Andre was speaking to his brothers, he had a lot of bravado about the status of his marriage, but at the core he seemed unsure about the future of his relationship with Rhonda. Is there a chance of a split in season 3?
Before Andre waked out on that balcony and saw Rhonda and Anika locked in a death match, Andre’s relationship with Rhonda was certainly tenuous. She really pushed him in this episode. She pushed him to embrace his darkness, which is contrary to everything Andre has tried to do. She challenged him in front of his family and then walked out on him. They’re going to have to figure out if it’s a marriage that can be saved.
Did the team always plan on introducing Lucious’ half-brother?
We always loved the character, but we didn’t know he was Lucious’ half-brother until a writer named Attica Locke said very tentatively, ‘I have a pitch. What if Tariq is Lucious’ half-brother?” I think she was expecting to be shut down, and instead we all turned and looked at her, and said, ‘Oh God, yes!’
Will Tariq have a big part to play in the season ahead?
Yes. We’re working on season 3 right now, and the finale, with all of its big cliffhangers, really sets the tone for what’s next. The third season of Empire is a Godfather-styled opus of crime and hip-hop. That’s really what we’re doing, and the fact that Tariq is Lucious’ half-brother makes it that much more dark and twisted and personal.
The finale also saw the introduction of another character: Shyne. Is he someone that will be an important part of season 3?
He’s a very important character. Both he and Tariq are very much in the mix in our third season. Shyne isn’t necessarily an adversary, although I think he could become an adversary. Lucious has a long history with him — history that’s going to come back and bite Lucious for a lot of earlier slights. If you have a guy who’s not afraid to die, not afraid to go to prison, that’s a very dangerous adversary.
Did Xzibit have to audition for the part?
We made him a straight offer. We were all in for getting him this role. He’s so good as this character. It feels like we’re really in it, and representing the world we’re purporting to represent.
Will Grandma Lyon be seen next season?
Oh yes. She’s not going away soon or easily as much as Lucious would like. He can no longer pretend she doesn’t exist. And she’s going to be a huge challenge for him. She’s his Kryptonite.
We saw Cookie and Lucious make tremendous strides in their relationship, only to see it all come crumbling down with Lucious’ decision to marry Anika. What are the consequences on the relationship between Cookie and Lucious?
The consequences are huge. Lucious and Cookie really went through a big evolution in this season in which they fell for one another and finally, with the path cleared, there were no obstacles. Nobody was cheating, and they were ready. They love one another. They pretty much said it, and then this happened. And when Cookie said she was done, I sure believed it. She’s not up for having her heart broken by this man one more time. So that’s a very, very big story for us in season 3.
How do you even begin to think about upping the ante on the fabulousness that is Cookie Lyon?
Nothing was more important to us than having a really big, great story for Cookie going into season 3 that was every bit as great as her story in season 1. We’re telling a story in season 3 that’s just as life-altering and gripping as what happened to her in season 1 that I’m really, really excited about.
Did you learn anything in season 2 that will impact the season ahead — whether it’s tone, story, pacing or guest stars?
All of that. The subject of guest stars is something we’ve talked about a lot. We had too many stars in the first half of the season 2. Now, the casting and the guest stars on the show will always be story driven. It won’t take over our stories and it won’t necessitate us going off story in order to accommodate someone. It’s just not as good for the show and the storytelling. The other thing we’re going to do is take more time with our individual stories and really do them justice. The show got more grounded in the second half of season 2, and season 3 will be even more grounded. It will always be Empire, it will have those great gasp-worthy moments, but I think you’ll definitely see us do more of a slow burn with character and story and really play things out in great detail, taking advantage of every moment of the drama.
What kind of themes will be explored in season 3?
Luscious, who is the ultimate narcissist and controller of everyone else’s fate, is very thrown and shaken by the revelation of his half-brother, and especially by the gauntlet that Tariq throws down. “Our father was a good cop but a bad man. It looks like each of us got half of him.” That’s going to really stick in Lucious’ craw and be a big part of his drive going forward. Thematically, season 3 is all about the battle for dark versus light, the battle for the soul of Empire, in which Lucious is trying to claim everyone’s soul and the forces of good largely represented by Jamal slouching towards the light with his conviction to end the cycle are opposing luscious. That’s our season 3.