Credit: Chuck Hodes/FOX
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Empire is ready to go out as only Empire could.

The hit Fox series returns Tuesday for its sixth and final season, and what showrunner Brett Mahoney promises will be a “big and dynamic” ending. Mahoney and company have a tough task in topping last season’s drama, which included an illegitimate son, a heart transplant, and a high-profile arrest. Well, that last one happened off screen, with star Jussie Smollett getting involved in a real-life scandal that rivaled the show’s own story lines. After an attack on Smollett was later suspected of being staged, the actor was arrested, and while the charges have since been dismissed, series co-creator Lee Daniels has said Smollett won’t return as Jamal.

In addition to clueing us in to Jamal’s whereabouts, the final season of Empire has a lot left to wrap up, whether it be the future of Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and Lucious (Terrence Howard) or the question that was posed at the outset of the series: Who will take over the Empire?

To get information on all the above, EW chatted with Mahoney about the decision to sign off, the return of a vengeful Lucious, and Cookie finally taking care of herself.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Early in the season, have you been energized by this being the end? You guys are never shy with wild stories, but now there’s really no excuse to hold anything back.
BRETT MAHONEY: It’s kind of the energy but also the responsibility: How do you end something that was such a phenomenon in a way that it lives up to everything that it once was? As we started breaking the season, one of the things we did is we went back to the pilot episode and rewatched it and focused on all the questions and character issues that were raised that first season, and wanted to make sure that in the final season we were answering all those questions and finishing up all those journeys in a really satisfying way.

What went into the decision to end show?
It was more like, if it was going to end now, how best to end it? That was sort of the framework. Like, if I had to tell more Empire stories, I could of course tell more Empire stories, because there’s so many strong characters and family dynamics. But once told this could be the end, it was more like let’s make sure we end it in a great way.

Have you already figured out the ending?
We have the final endgame. Now the question becomes, will it change based upon what we film and the stories that develop organically? Because you always have a plan and a map, but sometimes you find a detour from the map can bring you great stuff and take you in a different direction. But we definitely have an idea. And it’s also just really focusing on certain questions and dynamics that are raised in the pilot, so if you look at the pilot as one bookend and then you look at this final season as the other bookend of it, how did it start and how should it end organically from that?

Last season ended with Lucious going on the run and Cookie refusing to come with him. When he returns, what’s his mindset? Is this a return to the old Lucious?
I think he was so hurt at that airport when Cookie refused to get on that plane with him. From his point of view, he did all that he could to be a good guy and to change for her, and for her to abandon him, it almost makes him say, “Why was I trying so hard? Why was I trying to change for her?” So when we see Lucious this season, he will be coming back with a vengeance and almost going back on the progress he’s made in terms of becoming a better Lucious. He may have lost that because he lost his reason to be good.

What will that mean for Cookie and Lucious as a couple? Taraji told us that Cookie is finally looking out for herself.
A lot of season 6 is a test of their relationship. Cookie decided at that airport that she couldn’t get on that plane with Lucious because she finally had to put herself first. Now the issue is she has sacrificed a lot for her family and she lived a lot for her family, but at the beginning of season 6, she’s taking those steps to live for herself and put herself first — but it’s not easy. I think a lot of women will be able to relate to, they’d like to put themselves first, but at what cost and what’s the baggage that you have to drop in order to put yourself first? And I think that’s where we see Cookie as we start season 6, which is about six months after you last saw them at the end of season 5.

Credit: Chuck Hodes/FOX

In your mind, is it inevitable that these two will be together?
No, because where I do think that a lot of the show is about their relationship and their romance, I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that these two people have to be together. I think it is a foregone conclusion that they love each other. Whether that’s healthy or unhealthy, they do love each other, but I don’t think that necessarily means they have to be together.

What is coming up for Andre [Trai Byers]? I think he finally deserves some smooth sailing!
You’re actually going to see a very different Andre. Trai looked at the stuff that we were giving him and he was surprised, he was like, “I haven’t done this before.” Because for the first time we’re going to see Andre having all his dreams fulfilled. He’s sitting on the throne, he’s got a wife and baby on the way, so it’s Andre in a way that we haven’t really seen him before. It’s Andre on the throne having to fill the shoes of his father, and I think the question for him this season will be, does he follow the path of his father or is there some new way he can run the empire without being corrupted by it?

How about for Hakeem [Bryshere Y. Gray]?
Hakeem has some exciting stuff. All through last season it was sort of about the sons becoming men, and they’re still on that journey this season. And that’s what Hakeem is experiencing. One of the new projects Empire is doing this season is that Andre has launched under his leadership the making of Empire: The Movie, so they’re doing a pavement-to-the-penthouse biopic of Empire. It’s very meta, they’re making the movie of the origin of Empire as they’re working at Empire. Hakeem is going to be playing Lucious Lyon, so Hakeem, who idolizes his father, over the course of making this movie is going to have to look at some of the choices his father made — some of the good ones, some of the bad ones — and he himself will learn and grow up from it.

When it comes to the third Lyon son, we know that Jamal won’t be around because of what has gone on with Jussie, so how will Jamal’s absence will be addressed?
I think it’s very much like when a member of the family moves away and you just don’t see them regularly but they’re still a part of the family. For Jamal, it’s more of an organic thing, where he has been telling the family all along that they need to get rid of Empire, that Empire is a bane to the family. He just got married and he’s decided to take a break from the Lyons and he’s living his life in London, the best life he could possibly lead with his new husband.

What would be your big tease for the sixth and final season?
We’ve tried to make almost every episode feel like an event, and every episode is answering questions that have been raised throughout the series. Also, what we’re doing is we’re bringing back some of the old favorites. You’ll see very quickly that we have a new device this season, different than the “Who’s in the coffin,” but there’s a new question that’s going to be asked in the first episode that is going to allow questions to be raised and the audience to see some old faces. It’s going to be big. We’re really excited by a lot of the stuff we’re doing. The one thing about it being the final season and it being Empire, we want it to feel big and dynamic, and so that is what we’re trying to achieve. You’ve looked at how Empire has impacted the Lyons, and a question that Lucious will have to ask for the season-long arc is: What is more important, the Lyons or Empire? And what’s his real legacy? Is it his sons, is it the Lyon family, or is it Empire?

Empire returns Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Fox.

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