Taraji P. Henson won't settle for abrupt Empire series finale: 'This will haunt me'
Warning: This article contains plot details from Tuesday's Empire series finale, "Home Is on the Way."
"To the Empire!"
With those words, Empire is over… for now. The Fox musical drama, which became a cultural phenomenon when it debuted in 2015, ended its six-season run Tuesday with an unintended series finale. "Home Is on the Way" was supposed to be the 18th episode of the season, leaving two more installments to wrap up the story of the Lyon family and resolve many of the remaining cliffhangers, including the flash-forward mysteries of who shot Lucious (Terrence Howard) and who blew up Cookie's (Taraji P. Henson) car. But as with just about other every TV series, production shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, and unfortunately for the Empire cast, crew, and audience, the decision was made to craft an ending with the completed episode 18 and what had been filmed for episode 19.
Despite the less-than-ideal circumstances, showrunner Brett Mahoney and company delivered a jam-packed finale that featured Andre (Trai Byers) deciding to stay and fight for his young family, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) and Maya (Rhyon Nicole Brown) embracing married life, Cookie and Becky (Gabourey Sidibe) pulling off Bossy Fest, Damon (Wood Harris) inadvertently killing his daughter Yana (Kiandra Richardson) when he fired a gun at Lucious, and Lucious later just barely fending off death in a fight with Damon. In the end, the remaining Lyons (Jussie Smollett's Jamal appeared in a photo but not in the flashbacks) convened at the Empire movie premiere, ready to move forward together.
To mark the conclusion of the record-setting drama, EW chatted with Mahoney and Henson about being disappointed over the abrupt ending, wanting to eventually film their planned finale, and disagreeing on the future of Cookie and Lucious.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We’re only hours from the finale airing, so how are you feeling? Are there mixed emotions considering this isn’t what you envisioned?
TARAJI P. HENSON: It’s pretty sad. Because we’ve developed such an amazing family over the years, and it’s just sad that we didn’t get to say goodbye the proper way. We didn’t get to throw our wrap party, the things that you do when you come to the end of a successful series like this one. I got everyone lovely letterman sweaters for our senior year/graduation, and I wasn’t there to give them out with a hug — and that hurts.
BRETT MAHONEY: And it was such an abrupt way that everything was shut down. It was the middle of the day and we were literally in the middle of shooting episode 19, with an episode and a half to get to the end. So you just feel like you were cut short. And then story-wise, we wanted to really land some of these character arcs, which we would have done in our series finale. I mean, I do feel that I was able to put together something that ends with the spirit of what we intended, in terms of the Lyon family coming together and the love between Cookie and Lucious. It’s not what we had hoped for, but it’s what we have in the moment.
What were the conversations like about trying to figure out your options, and then eventually arriving at the decision to end the show for now and not film the final two episodes?
MAHONEY: There were discussions happening before even the final shutdown, because we knew the virus was certainly breaking out, so we were strategizing different ways we might do it. Earlier in the day before we shut down, I was thinking if we could eke out five more days of shooting, then perhaps we could have pulled in elements from the actual series finale, episode 20, and combine it with 19 and finish that way. But then it just became so clear that for the safety and health of the cast and crew, there was no choice, we had to shut down. So then it was a matter of figuring out what we had shot in 19 that I could combine with 18 to make, hopefully, as satisfying a conclusion as we could. With the premiere of the film, there’s a moment there that had the spirit of what we wanted to end on, with the Lyons all together and Cookie and Lucious acknowledging their feelings for one another. So I was like, “Well, we have that, we have it shot, so what can I build that will end with that?”
That big final performance from Hakeem felt like a fitting Empire end, even if it wasn’t intended to be. Were the intercut flashbacks always in, or did you go back and add those to give it a series finale feel?
MAHONEY: The flashbacks were not in the original script. Because that performance by Hakeem is basically describing the whole journey of Empire, I always knew that we could lay in flashes from throughout series to really bring it home emotionally, and then when it became "This is it," this is going to possibly be the last images, then we chose those flashbacks.
Taraji, you haven’t seen the final episode yet, right? Like you don’t even know what the end will look like.
HENSON: I have no idea. I will find out with the audience. I’m excited, because it’s the first time in my Empire career where I don’t know what’s happening.
MAHONEY: [Laughs] I hope that you will be pleased.
HENSON: I’m sure I will be. You had to pull a rabbit out of a hat, like a purple rabbit with a unicorn horn. So I’m sure it’s going to be incredible. But that’s what we do. Our show is good working under fire and under pressure.
MAHONEY: Very true.
What can you say about the ending that we sadly didn’t get to see? I don’t know how much you want to hold back in case of the possibility of it eventually coming to life.
MAHONEY: I will hold back, because I’m hoping that you will get to see it, and that it’s shot and done properly.
HENSON: I’m pushing for that. Just know that Cookie is pushing! These posts and DMs that I’m getting, they are heart-wrenching. As an artist, to not be able to finish something that you started, that hurts me. I feel incomplete. I don’t ever start something and don’t complete it. And so, for me, it’s deep; I have to finish, or this will haunt me for the rest of my life and career. As it would the audience. And I don’t think we should deprive such a loyal fan base of that ending. They deserve to be in their feelings. They deserve more than this abrupt ending. And I get it, where we are right now, we have to be responsible. But I think when the dust settles, at the end of the day, the audience deserves it. Because they pay my bills! [Both laugh]
MAHONEY: All our bills! And what we weren’t able to do in this finale was answer that question of who shot Lucious, and who blew up Cookie’s car. At one point, I did shoehorn it in, but it wasn’t satisfying, it made me groan, it would have made the audience groan. And those answers are in our true finale, so I would really like to give that to them.
Diving into what we did see, this episode explores Cookie’s identity and who she, Loretha, is outside of that “Cookie Lyon” brand. What did you both enjoy about finally exploring that?
MAHONEY: I think it’s part of the whole journey that we had for Cookie this season, exploring who she was outside of Empire, who she was outside of that relationship with Lucious, and finding her own voice and finding the Loretha that she may have left behind. So I love that first sequence in the episode with Taraji in the Foxy Brown blaxploitation sequence, and that was tying into the discussion about how many black women are burdened with the idea that they have to be superheroes and that they can’t show vulnerability. And that very much tied into Cookie’s journey.
HENSON: And I have been loving that story line, because that’s what I preach in my real life. Any interview that you’ve seen me do, I hate the mythological character of Cookie the superhero, or black women being strong all the time. I am vulnerable. I don’t want to be strong all the time. I have moments where I go into my closet, shut the door, and cry real tears. I allow myself to be that vulnerable. Yes, I can get through things, but saying that I’m so strong and that I wear this invisible cape takes away my humanity, takes away my vulnerability. That means I can’t feel anything. My son gets gunned down in the street and I’m supposed to just forgive everybody and move on. I’m supposed to be okay with that, I’m supposed to rise above. At the end of the day, that’s not fair. That’s not fair to me as a human, so don’t put that on me. And I love for our community that she dealt with it in therapy, because there’s such a stigma around mental health. I was so excited when that story line came up, because as they say, art imitates life, and it ties right into the things that I believe to my very core, with my foundation and my advocacy for mental health and eradicating the stigma around it in our community.
Like you said, so much of this season was about Cookie finding her own way and putting herself first for once, and the series ends with her launching her own thing with Bossy Fest. We’ve obviously seen how valuable Cookie is to the business, but showing her do something separate from the Lyon name, was that something that felt important to demonstrate.
MAHONEY: For me, that was the evolution of our whole arc. I love that Cookie and Lucious scene where Cookie is saying to him that she thought she was being strong by going to prison for him, but really it was that she didn’t have the confidence in herself. She was like, “Oh, Lucious is the musical star, so I should go to prison so he can provide for the family.” But that’s only because she wasn’t believing in herself and what she could do. And I think in the series itself and what we see in the episode, it’s so clear that Cookie could have done great things, and this was her opportunity to show it.
HENSON: And that was so beautiful, because it shifts the paradigm a bit. When you go through so much for a person, the first thing you want to do is blame them. “Why did they do this to me? And that’s why I ended up in jail for 17 years!” And then when you finally go in and do your work, go deep down in yourself by going to therapy and talking it out, you get a truly objective opinion that is going to challenge your way of thinking. And it shifted the blame, she was able to look in the mirror and go, “All of this I had control of.” She could not blame anyone else anymore. And that is when you are truly free. That is what I hope audiences take away; I hope they free themselves of whatever they’ve been going through, whatever monsters they’ve been dealing with. I hope they were able to do that through this show and this family.
You mention the Cookie and Lucious scene. What do we think their future looks like? Can they ever truly be happy and together? Cookie had a line where she said she can love him but not be in love with him.
HENSON: You go ahead, because we butted heads on this, Brett. [Both laugh]
MAHONEY: We did. I think that the show is very much about the Cookie and Lucious love story, and so I think where we arrive at in the end is that Cookie could make the healthy choice and choose to love this man, and that he recognizes her value and that his obstacles the last few seasons were to make him a better man for her. He’s been on a redemption journey, which was primarily provoked by her, and these two can now come together.
HENSON: As friends! [Both laugh] I don’t know, I see where that can happen. I understand that the audience will die if Cookie and Lucious can’t be together. But I’m a little bit on the grimy side. When I say grimy, I mean life doesn’t get tied up like that all the time. I really honestly don’t know how it ends, so I’m guessing you’re saying that it’s still open-ended.
MAHONEY: It depends on how you view it. They definitely come together. So remember that scene when the family is coming through the tunnel, you two are like, “We did it. There’s nothing we can’t do." And then Hakeem does his performance and you’re seated in the audience together, curtain opens, movie goes up, and it ends.
Yeah, I think it’s open-ended a bit. We don’t think they’re guaranteed to live happily ever after together.
HENSON: That’s good, leave the audience with whatever they want to think. They can create their own story.
MAHONEY: Exactly. I think anything with the Lyons is not necessarily going to be easy and simple, but I do think these two people recognize their love for one another.
HENSON: They both morphed into their better selves.
The hope is to finish this story in the proper way, but, if for whatever reason this is it for the Lyons and Empire, how do you reflect on the experience? What have this time, show, and characters meant to you?
HENSON: I just keep going back to the notion that I was to believe that I didn’t translate overseas. No one ever really said it like that, but it was like, “Black movies don’t really do well over there.” And I wouldn’t understand, because I would travel and see that people are culturally diverse, and they understand it, they get it. And then Cookie and Empire became this big hit overseas — didn’t see that coming — and I go over there and they know me. That was just an eye-opener and blessing for me. Who knew a television show could do that on that level? It was the ride of my life. I will never forget this opportunity. I thank [co-creators] Lee Daniels and Danny Strong and all the producers and Fox for saying yes and believing in us. It’s done wonders for my career; I believe it’s a huge part of why I have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I mean, thank you, God. Everyday I say, "Thank you, God" for this blessing of Empire.
MAHONEY: The show made a tremendous difference in the careers of all these artists of color. Prior to Empire, it was like, “Well, we can’t have a cast of color because it’s not going to be a broad success and won’t speak to a larger audience.” But it just shows that you can tell these universal stories that appeal to everyone, and you can have this tremendous success with these artists of color. Empire broke — and smashed — down those doors. Of course we don’t have enough, but you see so many more people of color and artists of color working and toplining projects and being successes. I think that’s a lesson that we’ve learned from Empire: Diversity works.
HENSON: If you tell the truth and stick to stories that transcend color, people will come! Like, how am I able to relate to Friends or Sex and the City? I relate to that because that’s my girlfriends. And that’s what happened with Cookie. When Cookie hit Hakeem in the pilot with the broom, I knew mothers needed that, because I’m a mother, and if my son ever got that bold with me, he wouldn’t even get the word out of his mouth, it would be over right then. So I knew that mothers of any race would get that — and they did.
MAHONEY: And it was that rawness and truth that really reached the audience. What we got to do with the show was depicting culture, but also sometimes educating and leading culture. When the episode aired after Cookie had her heart attack, one of the Fox executives was shopping at Trader Joe’s and they saw this older African-American woman buying all these fruits and vegetables, and she literally said she was doing it because Cookie had a heart attack and she needs to protect herself and live a healthy life.
HENSON: That’s why I became an artist, because I know how art changed my life. That’s the only type of work I’m interested in. So if you’re ready to push the envelope, let’s do it.