By Derek Lawrence
September 26, 2018 at 09:00 PM EDT
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WHO IS IN THE CASKET?!

That is the big question coming out of Empire‘s deadly season 5 premiere (and this is after an equally deadly season 4 finale). We know it’s not Lucious (Terrence Howard), who is seen standing over the closed casket, so that leaves every other Lyon as a possibility. To get the scoop on the casualty, as well as Forest Whitaker’s surprisingly quick exit and Hakeem’s (Bryshere Y. Gray) close call, EW chatted with showrunner Brett Mahoney.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with an easy question — who is in the casket?!
BRETT MAHONEY: The idea with the flash forward, we’re going to be repeating that throughout the season and eventually we’ll catch up to them. There will be puzzle pieces, not necessarily in order, but by the end, the audience will be able to put those pieces together and we will see where we land.

So this is a season-long mystery?
The way it’s broken down, the audience won’t know who is in that coffin until the end of the season. They will definitely have ideas and there are places where they can speculate, but we won’t catch up to who is actually in that coffin until the end.

Obviously, you know who it is, so would you say it will be an impactful death and character?
I think it’s impactful.

Clearly, you can only say so much about who died, but why was this the structure that you wanted to use for the season?
The show has always relied on flashbacks — and certainly we have those as well. This season, we will be flashing back to the different events that happened in the past two years that the audience has not seen. So we will have flashback stories regarding that two-year period, which will sort of inform what is going on in the present. But then just thinking about it, the show had always had flashbacks and so it occurred to me that there could be something useful and different in implying the flash forward method.

We don’t know who is in the coffin, but someone did die in the premiere. After setting up Eddie as the new head of Empire and the new antagonist, he unexpectedly dies. Was that just an availability issue with Forest Whitaker? Were there originally greater plans for that character?
Some of it was availability. Like, if Forest Whitaker says he’s going to be available, I definitely would have made it work. But when it appeared that he wouldn’t be as free as we would need in terms of being someone who could be our villain for this season and be there for several episodes and when we needed him, this idea of allowing the character to die in the premiere kind of freed me up creatively to think differently about what we could do. And I’m happy with the way it turned out.

Eddie being gone opens up room for Nicole Ari Parker’s Giselle, Eddie’s ex-wife who is now the interim head of Empire. This episode is the most we’ve seen of and learned about her, so what did you like about elevating that character and what can we expect from Giselle?
I really like the Giselle character and I think Nicole Ari Parker’s doing great things with it, and she’s fun to write for. In true Empire fashion, we’re going to have a lot of twists and turns, and while it may appear to be the trajectory that she’s going to be the Lyons’ obstacle this season, I think you may see a change and a turn in which Giselle may actually be more aligned with the Lyons as opposed to their enemy.

Someone that didn’t die was Hakeem, whose fate had been left up in the air after Blake’s dad shot at him, Blake (Chet Hanks), Bella, and Tiana (Serayah). For the first half of the episode, it’s left open to interpretation whether he survived, which we eventually find out that they all did, but did you ever consider an alternative where Hakeem didn’t survive?
As storytellers, we have to be free from the constraints that we have to keep characters alive. This is Empire, this is a show where people do die. Death could come for anyone.

Chuck Hodes/FOX

Hakeem didn’t make it out unscathed, as the bullet damaged his lungs, leaving him unable to rap. This is really the first time that music has been fully taken away from a Lyon, so how can we expect him to deal with that?
This season is about the sons becoming men and creating families on their own, and for Hakeem, it’s a maturing season. So his masculinity, his power has always been in his ability to perform, so what happens to Hakeem when you take that away? Who does he become and how does he overcome it and how does he move forward?

Moving on to another son, we pick up with Andre (Trai Byers) in prison, the result of his role in Anika’s (Grace Byers) death. When he does get released, how will that time inside change him?
Although we have definitely seen Andre willing to scheme and do criminal stuff in the past, he’s one of the members of the Lyon family who has not been immersed in that criminal element. So when we came up with it in the room, it was an opportunity for one of the Lyons to be held accountable in the criminal justice system. And then the idea that Andre, this Ivy League guy who is obviously so smart and on top of his game, to put him in that environment, which is alien for him, and to see how he would survive or deal with it seemed creatively interesting.

When I talked to Jussie Smollett, he said this season’s married Lucious and Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) reminded him of them as the young couple making music that we have seen in the flashbacks. Did that serve as inspiration for this iteration of them?
Absolutely. It was sort of like, how do you get back that spirit between the two of them that you saw in the flashbacks of how they came together and how they created Empire? So we just took the Empire away and imagined how that would impact Cookie and Lucious, and the idea is they don’t have Empire or the material things that they’ve had, but what they have is each other, and that’s what they realize that they really need. And that’s why their relationship has gone back to this place where they are so loving and appreciate of one another, because they realize that they are truly each other’s one.

Lastly, you’ve teased it a bit, but what else can you say about what is come to in season 5?
Season 5 is a relaunch for the characters in terms of where they are and where they’re going. What we will see is Cookie and Lucious striving to rebuild their empire, but at what cost? We also really wanted to look at what a marriage between the two of them would be. And then with the boys, it’s about them growing and creating families of their own, and the question is, is that something that builds the Empire or drives them in different directions away from the Empire?

Empire airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.

Lee Daniels and Danny Strong created this Fox drama about a kingpin of hip-hop (played by Terrence Howard) and his family, who fight him for control of the empire.
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  • 01/07/15
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