By Derek Lawrence
September 24, 2019 at 10:00 PM EDT
Fall TV
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The king is dead… maybe.

Empire’s final season premiere opened with Lucious (Terrence Howard) being shot and ended with the Lyon patriarch seemingly taking his last breath. But there’s still plenty of time to spend with him given that, like last season’s coffin mystery, the shooting goes down in a flash-forward. In between the glimpses of Lucious’ grim future, the season 6 premiere also featured the reveal of the fugitive’s new look and plan to to get closer to Damon (Wood Harris), as well as Andre’s (Trai Byers) deadly hands-on approach to being Empire CEO, Kingsley’s (A.Z. Kelsey) ghost, and Teri’s (Meta Golding) pregnancy complications.

To dive into the episode, EW chatted with showrunner Brett Mahoney about everything from Lucious’ fate to Lucious’ hair.

Chuck Hodes/FOX

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with a really easy one: Is Lucious dead?
BRETT MAHONEY: [Laughs] He looks pretty dead.

How far down the road is that flash-forward? Is it from the series finale?
That is from nine months forward, which will be the series finale. But I can tell you that you will know who is holding that gun in [episode 11].

You say we’ll know the shooter by the 11th episode, but how much of this flash-forward will we see unfold as the season goes on?
We will see quite a bit. I think the contrast between the coffin last season and this flash-forward is there’s a lot more twists and turns and drama that I think will shock people. And you don’t necessarily have to wait as long for the answers.

Like you mentioned, you did the coffin flash-forward last year, so what was it that appealed to you about doing a different version of that device here?
I started to play with the shock and awe of it all, and it’s an interesting way to unravel the story. And I think seeing that flash-forward kind of informs everything in each episode as we go along. In addition to it, it’s also a way that we’re going to be able to speculate on who is holding that gun, and we’re going to play with seeing a lot of people that have been villains in past seasons with the speculation that they could be holding that weapon.

We see Lucious back, but what has he been up to the in the six months since the season 5 finale? Has it mainly been working on Damon’s daughter?
What he’s been doing is trying to find a way to get back to his life, so he’s trying to find a way to exonerate himself and get the feds off his back, and hopefully, in his mind, possibly refocus things back towards Damon.

More importantly, please talk to us about Lucious’ new undercover look. It’s pretty wild. What was the thinking there?
[Laughs] I think you’d have to talk to Terrence. We had an idea for what his look might be, but then no one really tells Terrence Howard what his look might be. So I think he’s had some creative input into what that look is.

Chuck Hodes/FOX

Things take a turn toward the end, but for much of the episode Andre is finally flourishing. Was it nice to see that for once, even if it will be short-lived?
Yeah, totally. And there’s more this season where we’re actually seeing a different phase of Andre, because for the first time he is sitting on the throne, so what does that mean to him? And yet, his wife and child are in jeopardy, but who knows what happens to them?

You have this scene where Lucious tells Andre he raised him as a prince but he now needs to become a king. And we see maybe a little bit of that when he does what he has to do with Mouse. Will this transformation to a king make him more and more like his father?
I think that’s exactly the struggle for Andre this season. It’s funny because I was just on the phone discussing it with Trai. It’s really sort of a question for all the Lyons as we move through this season. What we have is each of the Lyons asking and answering, “What is more important: love and family or Empire and success and legacy?” And those are things battling each other out, and that’s something Andre will have to answer for his character.

I knew something was up when I saw A.Z. Kelsey’s name in the opening credits — I was like, “Uh oh, what’s going on here?” And then we get a brief glimpse of Kingsley after Andre kills Mouse. Is this another Ghost Rhonda situation? What can you say about Kingsley’s presence? I mean, we know he almost lives inside of Andre via his heart.
Exactly. Kingsley’s heart is literally beating inside Andre. And I think in any situation like that, there’s a certain amount of survivor’s guilt that Andre has and the fact that Kingsley had to die to be able to make him live, and that may create a situation in his psyche where Kingsley might take that space and influence him in a certain way.

Kingsley is also causing other problems for Andre, with Tracy now as a part of the company thanks to Cookie trading shares for Kingsley’s heart. What obstacles will she present?
It means, as long as Andre is sitting on the throne, he’s got to sort of manage Tracy, and if Lucious returns, that’s another thing he has to manage and deal with. It’s sort of like Tracy represents dealing with the history and past sins.

While Lucious is trying take down Damon, Cookie confronts him and says, “You owe me, bitch!” What can you say about what’s going on there between Cookie and Damon?
It’s like Cookie, Lucious, and Damon are caught in this very vicious, violent triangle with these alternating wants, needs, and desires. Cookie has separated herself from Damon and is trying to live her best life and establish herself apart from all of this, but then of course you can never really escape Empire and the Lyons. So now she’s forced to confront Damon once again for the Lyons, for Empire, for Lucious — but also for herself. Because she’s got some questions for Damon. Last season, Damon and Cookie did have a real connection; besides the fact that she didn’t want it to get any further, he was there for her and helped her get through Andre’s illness. So the fact when things got hard for him that he just turned on the Lyons family and sicced the feds on them, Cookie feels betrayed, so she’s got a beef with Damon.

You’ve given us a bit of what we should expect moving forward, but what would be your tease for the next few episodes?
Since we were told this is the last season, we really just wanted to end in a big way all the character arcs and questions that were raised in the first season. So each episode is an event, and I think for people who are fans of the show, especially that first season, we have a lot of great Easter eggs and really satisfying closure for a lot of characters.


Empire airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.

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