By Derek Lawrence
March 13, 2019 at 12:00 PM EDT
Chuck Hodes/FOX
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It’s been over three months since the last Empire episode aired, even if that seems impossible considering how much the show has been in the news over the last six weeks. But Fox’s hit series returns Wednesday with its midseason premiere, the first of season 5’s final nine episodes.

To catch you up on where we left the Lyon family: Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and fiancé Kai (Toby Onwumere) are on the rocks; Andre (Trai Byers) was flatlining in a flash forward; a return to Empire was within grasp; Lucious (Terrence Howard) and Becky (Gabourey Sidibe) were accused of data mining; and Kingsley (A.Z. Kelsey) announced to the Lyons — and the world — that he’s Lucious’ illegitimate son.

But since the drama-filled December finale, Empire has been rocked offscreen by the allegations against star Jussie Smollett, who has been charged with filing a false police report stemming from what initially appeared to be a racial and homophobic attack against the 36-year-old actor. Fox and the creative team have continued to support Smollett amid his legal issues, but still ultimately made the decision to have him and his character, Jamal, sit out the season’s final two episodes (he will appear in the seven that were already filmed).

Ahead of Empire‘s return, Brett Mahoney exclusively chatted with EW, talking publicly for the first time about what Smollett’s situation has meant to the show, the future of the series, and the “compelling” episodes set to come.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What have the last six weeks or so been like for you and the show?
BRETT MAHONEY: It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. You have someone in your family who’s going through this, while at the same time, we’re shooting the final episodes of the season, which are also just heightened emotionally. So it was a lot to deal with and a lot to go through, but we’re really just focused on finishing strong. We’re in our last week of production and I’m really proud of the work we’ve done this season, and hopefully the fans will really engage with these back nine episodes.

You’re on set as we speak, so what’s the mood been like? Are you all just trying to ignore the outside noise and make the best product possible?
That’s absolutely it. Of course, I can’t say that people aren’t thinking about what’s going on around them and what’s in the news and what’s happening with Jussie, but the cast and crew are all professionals and really just focused on finishing strong.

There’s been so much speculation and reporting and maybe even some misreporting about everything going on with the show, so is there anything you’d like to specifically clarify or share?
I do feel like there’s been a lot of rumors and people spreading things and different information that is out there, and much of that I don’t really see in my day-to-day. I think the cast and crew is really just focused on working and everyone feels good about the work we’re doing, and we’re hoping that we can be judged on that work. Everyone is really focused on getting these episodes done, despite everything that is going on around us. Also, I don’t really see it as something that is dividing people, more like bringing people together, bringing the cast and crew together in terms of let’s get this done.

Speaking of getting done, you had to rework the end of the season to account for Jussie not being a part of the final two episodes, so what did that do what you already had planned and what kind of rewriting did you have to do?
It definitely was an unexpected wrench to have to take the character Jamal out of those final two episodes, just because he is an important part of the show. But, luckily, we have such a strong ensemble and so many stories to tell. So often when you get towards the end of the season, I have so much story to tell that sometimes having to take something out means having room for something else that I’m just as passionate about, so we were able to make that work.

You all were put in a tough position and there were a lot of factors at play, but did removing Jussie from the final two episodes feel the like only option you could take?
It was a very difficult decision, but I think in terms of allowing the cast and the crew to really get the work done without a great deal of disruption in terms of the day-to-day and the stress of the day-to-day, and, in addition, allowing Jussie the time to really deal with what he’s been confronted with and allow him the time to focus and prepare his case, this seems like the logical decision to make.

Where does all of this stand now? Are you just in wait and see mode in terms of Jussie’s Empire future or have you thought about the possibility of the show moving forward without him?
It’s a matter of trusting the process and allowing the legal process to play out and see where it goes from there. And it’s too early to think about what we would have to do if we didn’t have Jussie. We have such a strong ensemble and we have so many stories to tell for all of these fascinating characters that it’s bigger than one character, but it’s too early to think about the show without him.

Moving on to what we can expect with the show’s return, where are we picking up at the beginning of the midseason premiere?
We literally pick up in real time after the bomb that Kingsley dropped on the family. It’s Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) pulling Lucious aside and confronting him, and then them deciding how they need to proceed together. Cookie tells Lucious, if we have to take Kingsley down, that’s what we’re going to do to protect our family and the empire. She asks if Lucious is down for that and he says that he is.

Lucious says he’s down to take on Kingsley, but what is that relationship going to look like now that they both know their connection? In the end, this still is Lucious’ blood, which is something that he’s been so tied to and motivated by throughout the entire series. Will he struggle with that?
That’s exactly right, the question that you’re asking, and it’s really because you know that character, Lucious Lyon. This kid is his son and he cannot ignore his blood, and despite the fact that that may be a problem for Cookie and his other sons, he can’t ignore it. For Kingsley, in getting to know Lucious, he’s learning that this narrative that he’s been fed his entire life from his mother may or may not have been true. So Kingsley needs to question everything he’s learned growing up, and now Lucious has to reach out to this man whose been made his enemy, when it’s actually someone who he could love and embrace.

You mentioned them in passing, but what is the reaction from the Lyon brothers going to be to this? While I anticipate Andre and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) not being too kind to it, Jamal seems like he could be more accepting of an outcast brother.
Each one of them will be going through something that makes them see Kingsley differently and treat him differently. What you have to think about regarding Jamal is that Jamal is fiercely loyal to the Lyon family and he feels that Lucious has done him wrong — and yet he’s still loyal to Lucious. So despite this kid Kingsley believing he’s been treated badly by Lucious, Jamal doesn’t really feel that’s justification for what Kingsley has done.

Could Kingsley actually be a more powerful enemy now that his true identity is known to the world?
I think it’s more like with Kingsley being outed as a family member it’s now hard for the family to just deal with him with gloves off as they might with someone outside of their family. They’ve got to treat him differently because it’s almost like an enemy within. Andre has a line in the premiere where he goes, “If he’s telling the truth, I say we treat him like family…tear his ass down.”

Moving over to Jamal, we left him and Kai at a crossroads with Jamal seeming to choose his family over his fiancé, so where do we pick up with them and what’s the current dynamic there?
That’s going to be a struggle for them in the back half of the season. Whereas they had this idyllic life in London, now they’re here in New York and Jamal is back with his family and what does it mean for Jamal to be a Lyon? And is Jamal tired of apologizing for being a Lyon? And is it going to be up to Kai to either accept him or will they have to go their different ways? And for Kai, he’s going to get a real glimpse of what it actually means to be a Lyon, and he has to make a decision for himself if he wants to be associated with the family.

We last saw Andre in a flash forward, where he appeared to be on his death bed, so where — and when — do we pick up with that story line?
In the back nine episodes, we will no longer have flash forwards, so we’re going to catch up to all the flash forwards that we saw in the previous nine episodes. So that scene we saw of Andre flatlining is very close to our finale episode.

And with you now working on the finale, can you definitively say when we will learn who is in that coffin? Will that be finale based?
There are hints and fingers are pointed and you can get a feeling all throughout the back nine, and the question is finally answered in the finale.

You introduced this mystery in the season premiere, so have you known the identity of the fatality since the beginning or did you figure it out as you went?
I have always had a couple of candidates for who could be in the coffin. And there have been different places in the season in which we went back and forth as to actually who it is. And we’ve had arguments in the writer’s room, but story-wise, it’s always been a couple of candidates — and it’s one of our candidates.

So you’ve officially locked in on the final unlucky candidate?
Exactly. Because it’s not a coffin for two [laughs].

What else should we expect in the final nine episodes?
The direction is, be careful what you wish for. You have the Empire, but at what cost? What we’ve seen at the beginning of this is that the family was really brought together in this struggle to get Empire back, but each of them has a different vision of what that should be. And Cookie really wants Empire to be better and that’s going to be a stressor in her relationship with Lucious and a test of their marriage. Because while the Empire is often a wonderfully great thing, for some it’s also sort of poisonous. And what we will also see is the boys becoming men and creating families of their own.

Lastly, you’re gearing up on the final days of shooting season 5 and you have yet to get an official season 6 renewal, so are you feeling pretty confident that you’ll be able to continue this story?
I’m confident about it. I know that the network and studio is really happy with what we’ve done creatively this season. I’m not surprised that we don’t necessarily have a pick up at this point as I think last season we waited until May. All the indications I have are that we will be. And we do have so many of these stories to tell, so I can’t imagine we won’t be able to tell them.

As previously discussed, there have been rumors flying around, but it sounds like you never put any stock in the suggestion that the recent drama could put the show in jeopardy?
No, I would never have guessed that.

Empire returns Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.

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