The Fox hit comes roaring back with a more focused season but still heavy on the drama
The second season of Empire left us with a major cliffhanger: Who died falling off the terrace — Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) or Anika (Grace Gealey)? Viewers will find out who survives within the first minutes of the season premiere — EW can promise one of them is definitely dead.
Andre (Trai Byers) will become closer to his grandmother Leah (Leslie Uggams), bonding over their shared mental illness. “Leah and Andre are the most, I guess, alike in Andre’s world,” says Trai Byers. “She has from the beginning seen something in Andre that she identifies in herself. It’s almost like the two are looking at each other but they’re looking into a mirror.”
Meanwhile, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), who was shot by Freda Gatz (Bre-Z) in season 2’s penultimate episode, will struggle with PTSD and find himself romantically drawn to his counselor Phillip (Juan Antonio). “It’s someone that for the first time gives no f—s about Jamal’s fame,” says Smollett. “He just genuinely is not affected by the money, and it’s a very, very honest relationship.” Jamal’s best friend Becky (Gabourey Sidibe) will find herself between a rock and a hard place when boyfriend J Poppa signs with a new label and wants her to flee Empire with him. “Becky has loyalty to this place,” says Sidibe. “Becky has loyalty to Lucious and all of the Lyons and she can’t imagine leaving it. But she might have to start thinking about doing so.”
As for the youngest Lyon, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) will try to rebound with Tiana (Serayah) after he was left at the altar by Laura (Jamila Velazquez). Problem is Tiana has a new boyfriend, rival rapper Gram (Romeo Miller; original actor Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi was recast). Other guest stars confirmed for this season include Mariah Carey as a pop star named Kitty, Phylicia Rashad as the mother of Taye Diggs‘ politican Angelo DuBois, and Sierra McClain as Nessa, Shyne’s (Xzibit) protégée and a romantic interest for one of the boys.
Speaking of young love, we’ll learn how the king and queen of Empire first fell for each other as teenagers. “We call it, ‘When Lucious Met Cookie,'” says executive producer Ilene Chaiken. Cookie’s budding romance with Diggs’ Angelo inspires her to reminisce about her own past choices. “People are gonna find out Cookie isn’t from [the wrong] side of the tracks,” teases star Taraji P. Henson. Adds Diggs, “[Cookie] had an opportunity to be with an outstanding young man when she was younger and she chose Lucious (Terrence Howard), so I think that plays a part in her wondering if she has another chance to make a better choice.”
Childhood demons also haunt Lucious, who will be doggedly pursued by his Fed half-brother, Tariq (Morocco Omari). “He’s trying to take Lucious down,” says Chaiken. “We’ll find out that he’s been involved and possibly was even behind the investigation early on, but now he’s coming forward with added conviction. It’s an obsession to take Lucious down.”
Shyne will also continue to cause problems for the head of the Lyon family. “He knows too much to be overlooked or dismissed or mistreated,” says Chaiken. “He is just a bull in a china shop. He creates problems and Lucious has to manage him.” And oldest son Andre will also become involved in Shyne’s musical operations.
Overall, the Empire writers this season channeled a classic film structure. Says the EP, “Season three is a kind of a Godfather-styled opus of crime and hip-hop. That’s the big framework.”