The internet went wild Thursday as two Chicago media outlets reported that police believed Jussie Smollett wasn’t the victim of a recent attack, but instead, that he and his two supposed attackers staged the incident because the actor was being written off of Empire. The Chicago PD quickly struck those down as “uninformed and inaccurate” reports, while Fox and the Empire team strongly denied any possibility that Smollett, who has starred as Jamal Lyon for all five seasons, would be killed off the show. And while producers insist Smollett isn’t going anywhere, someone is being killed on Empire.
The Fox hit series, which returns for its spring run on March 13, has spent all of season 5 teasing a major death after the premiere ended with a flash forward of Lucious (Terrence Howard) standing over a casket. Speaking with EW after the episode, Empire showrunner Brett Mahoney revealed that the mystery death wouldn’t be solved until the end of the season, but it was an “impactful” one.
The flash forward device has continued to be used throughout the season, but hasn’t shed much light on the identity of the victim, until the winter finale provided a possible answer: eldest Lyon son Andre (Trai Byers) was rushed to the ER and the episode ended with him flatlining. Again speaking to EW, Mahoney wouldn’t confirm that Andre was the person in the coffin, but there have long been rumors that Byers has been looking to leave the show.
Back to Smollett, with the reports about him being written off Empire, co-creator Danny Strong flatly denied those suggestions, writing on social media, “There is 0% truth that @JussieSmollett was going to be written off of Empire. This rumor is totally false. He is the third lead and one of the most beloved characters on the show. Writing him off the show has NEVER even been discussed.”
The sentiment was backed up by the Empire writers’ Twitter account and a statement from 20th Century Fox Television: “The idea that Jussie Smollett has been, or would be, written off of Empire is patently ridiculous. He remains a core player on this very successful series and we continue to stand behind him.”
Talking to EW ahead of the season, Smollett was excited about the “new energy” of the show and an upcoming “groundbreaking” story line, which turned out to be Jamal’s fiancé Kai (Toby Onwumere) being HIV-positive. When asked if he thought Empire was hitting the end of its run, he suggested that it was far from it.
“Let’s get this straight, I’m in it with Jamal for the long run,” declared Smollett. “Obviously it would be up to the network, but I still do feel like we have good wattage in us, because it ain’t been that damn long. But I do think that our stories are firm and grounded. And I definitely would say that I want us to dip out while we’re still telling great stories. My whole thing is this: as long as we’re telling great stories and we’re able to entertain the fans and as long as we’re still excited about doing it then we’ll go. But I think all of us are smart and all of us are artists and all of us will know when the time is right to be, ‘Alright y’all, it’s time for the Lyons to sleep.’ But that time is not now, not with season 5 on the horizon.”
In terms of what is to come with Smollett’s character when Empire returns, Mahoney previously told EW that Jamal will be dealing with Kai asking him to choose between him and his family.
“That is sort of Jamal’s challenge in the past, and it still is,” said the showrunner. “Kai is basically asking, ‘What do you want to be, Jamal? Do you want to be Lucious and Cookie’s son, or do you want to be my husband?’ And Jamal is saying, ‘Listen, I can love you and be a Lyon at the same time. I can’t run away from my family responsibilities.’ That’s a challenge for Jamal and how he defines himself, and something he will have to deal with moving forward.”
Empire returns March 13 on Fox.