The Empire lost an heir — but maybe not the one we expected.
In the season 5 premiere, Empire unveiled a flash-forward structure that featured Lucious standing over a mysterious coffin. When EW interviewed showrunner Brett Mahoney, he called the future death “impactful.” Well, after a season of teases, the season 5 finale just revealed that the newest Lyon, Kingsley (A.Z. Kelsey), was the unlucky victim. Just introduced this season, Lucious’ illegitimate son tried to find his way into the family, but his mother and abandonment issues pushed him too far, eventually killing himself and leaving his heart to go to an ailing Andre (Trai Byers).
The reveal that Kingsley was in the coffin comes as the futures of the other Lyon sons looked more dire, considering Andre was previously seen flatlining in a flash-forward and Jamal actor Jussie Smollett has been embroiled in controversy, and upon renewing the series, Fox said there are “no plans” for him to return.
To discuss the season finale, EW chatted with Mahoney about Kingsley’s death, splitting up Lucious (Terrence Howard) and Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), and Jussie Smollett’s future on the show.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In the end, why Kingsley?
BRETT MAHONEY: This season, with the whole idea of the coffin, we wanted some aspect of mortality to touch the Lyons. They live such a high stakes life that it just seemed like life and death should touch upon them. So we knew that we wanted it to be a Lyon, but then as we proceeded, so many of the Lyon characters had such rich stories that we had to look at who would we could lose that would affect our storytelling going forward the least, and it seemed like that would be Kingsley. It was still sad to lose Kingsley, but that was the decision that was made in the end and he was put in the coffin.
Talking to you earlier in the season, you said that you hadn’t yet determined who would die, so how deep in the process was it when you settled on him?
As we moved forward, we narrowed it down, but I think we made the final decision that it was Kingsley before we started into the back nine episodes.
We didn’t really get to sit with Kingsley’s death as the episode jumped right to dealing with Andre, so what impact will Kingsley’s memory and actions have moving forward? Andre will surely be thankful, but Cookie and Hakeem should probably feel some guilt for how they treated him.
I hope that it will resonate. It’s not just his death but what he offered in his death. He actually offered Andre life in the end, so I think he will always live on with the Lyons. And the loss of him will impact Lucious and the family moving forward.
Do you think the hype of who died got bigger than you expected? People see a coffin and immediately jump to the biggest conclusions, such as losing an original character.
We definitely hoped that it would be something people would talk about and speculate about who was in the coffin. In that way, it was successful. I don’t know if we could have predicted that people would have cared as much as they did. I guess that was a little bit of a surprise. There were episodes where I felt like big things were happening and people were like, “But who’s in the coffin?” So it did take on a life of its own, but I’m not mad at that.
In the season 4 finale, you married Lucious and Cookie. Now, in the season 5 finale, you split up Lucious and Cookie. After bringing them together, why did this feel like the appropriate move?
This season was a test of their relationship, a test of ride-or-die. People tend to look at relationships through rose-tinted glasses, and this season was just a matter of, “Yes, they love each other, but what happens when they’re together, and these people who have gone through so much, could their relationship actually be problematic and something you have to fight for?” So we were just trying to show how difficult it is. Yes, they love each other, but is that enough? And that’s an ongoing question; that question isn’t answered in our finale. Even though they separate there, even Cookie says it, it’s not that they don’t love each other, it’s can they be together?
So then you don’t think the damage is irreparable? Cookie seems to want to permanently set ablaze to the relationship when she says that she slept with Damon.
That’s exactly why she does it. I think what’s interesting is if they do come back together, they will be coming back together with their eyes wide open and knowing how difficult it will be. So I don’t think the door is closed, it’s just a matter if they can come back to it — and if they do come back to it, they’ll come back to it in a more mature way.
What can you say about where Lucious is going and what he plans on doing?
What he tells us is that he’s going to disappear for awhile so he can find out what exactly Damon and the federal prosecutor have against him. But, I think that he may leave and discover some new things about himself before he comes back.
Andre has been through more than anyone on this show, and now, he’s lost a brother, but gained a heart, wife, and, soon, a child. So what should we expect for him moving forward?
He was on a journey with where he was with his faith and his belief in God and what he thought he could have in his life, and what I think he learned through this season was that beyond Rhonda, beyond losing his kid, there may be hope for him in the future. He was at a place where he didn’t think that he could have good things in his life, and now he realizes that it is a possibility.
When your season 6 renewal was announced, Fox said there were “no plans” for Jussie to come back, but are you leaving door the open for him to eventually return?
I think we are still in the same place where we don’t have plans specifically at this moment. I mean, I haven’t gotten all of the writers together so we don’t really have our plans for next season.
Obviously there are so many other factors, but, in your ideal world, would your hope be that Jussie reappears at some point before the show ends?
It’s hard to imagine. I’m not sure yet; we will see as we start things next season how things play out.
For these last two episodes, you had the convenient option to say that Jamal was on his honeymoon, but have you figured out how you will handle his absence come next season?
It’s still in the process of being figured out.
What else can you tease about season 6?
It’s season 6, so I just think it needs to be bombastic and fun and crazy and very Empire. We’re open to turning it upside-down and seeing what falls out in terms of what new stuff, what new twists and turns we can come up with to make it exciting.
Now moving into season 6, you’re closer to the end than the beginning, so have you started planning an endgame for the series?
It’s unrealistic to not think about how it should end and how do you draw the empire to an epic conclusion. So I think that is definitely something in the back of my mind and the other executive producers’ minds.
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