‘Empire’ Showrunner Dishes on the ‘First Big Arc’ of Season 2

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read on if you have not watched “Empire” Season 2, episode two, titled “Without a Country.”

As if Lucious (Terrence Howard) and Cookie’s (Taraji P. Henson) relationship wasn’t dramatic enough, the Lyon matriarch added more fuel to the fire on Wednesday night’s episode, forming her own record label, Lyon Dynasty, and she took youngest son Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) with her. With Hakeem and Cookie on one side of the music rivalry, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Andre (Trai Byers) banded back together to protect their father’s Empire Entertainment — and all while Lucious remains in jail.

“Episode two sets up the central conflict of the entire season, or at least the entire first big arc of the season. Cookie and Hakeem are starting Lyon Dynasty,” showrunner Ilene Chaiken tells Variety. “It’s Empire versus Lyon Dynasty, David against Goliath. These two music companies at very different points in their business lives are going to be going at one another — and the individuals behind them are going at one another to win.”

Besides family feuding, episode two welcomed a slew of guest stars, plus saw the return of Tiana (Serayah). We met new characters including Lucious’ new lawyer Thirsty Rawlings (Andre Royo); recurring guest star Kelly Rowland, who played Lucious’ mother in a mysterious flashback; pop singer Becky G, whose character Valentina auditioned for Hakeem’s new girl group (and ended up hooking up with him, naturally); and Ludacris as a prison guard who has beef with Lucious — who managed to get out of jail by episode’s end, thanks to Thirsty, whom Chaiken promises is a “very big character.”

Below, Chaiken tells Variety what to expect now that Lucious is free and Cookie is starting Lyon Dynasty. Plus, the showrunner and exec producer reveals a last-minute scene that was added into the episode, and talks Hakeem’s love life, including an upcoming love triangle.

First off, last week’s premiere brought in huge ratings. What was your reaction?

I was surprised — not that I didn’t think we were going to do well, but I had tempered my expectations.

Cookie’s new label, Lyon Dynasty, is ripping apart the family with Hakeem on her side, and then Andre and Jamal on Lucious’ side. That’s going to start some major drama, I assume?

By the end of this episode, Andre just doesn’t have the heart for it, so Andre jumps ship and Cookie and Hakeem are left with one another, which is a whole new relationship in the world of “Empire.” It’s two people who struggled to even find a relationship in the first season are now partners. They are mother and son who have mother/son issues yet to resolve, and now they’re also business partners going up against the massively successful Empire.

What is up with Andre, by the way?

He’s going to be a father. He’s also found his faith and is clinging to it — it’s really his everything, his salvation in the wake of things that have happened and acts that he’s perpetrated and that weigh heavily on him. His faith is everything to him. Empire has been Andre’s life far more than either of his younger brothers’, and from a very early age. It’s what he’s been about. He always believed it was his destiny. It’s not just that Lyon Dynasty is too scrappy for him — it’s that he fought so hard for Empire, and he’s not ready to stop fighting for it, especially now that he has a child coming.

Back to Lyon Dynasty, Hakeem is starting a girl group. Will that be a big part of his storyline? 

It’s something he really believes in and he’s certainly not ready to give up on it. Yes, he will continue to fight for his girl group.

Speaking of girl groups, Hakeem wants Tiana to be part of it and she doesn’t seem to be having it. Now that she’s back, can we expect any more romance to arise?

Professionally, that relationship certainly will develop. Tiana is family now — she’s music family. She’s in Cookie’s world, Cookie is very devoted to her and she and Hakeem seem to me to have maybe a little flirtiness, but it’s almost a sibling relationship. Her drama will come into play, but she’s a part of their world and their dynamic.

So Tiana will be part of Lyon Dynasty, and won’t go over to Empire?

Not for the foreseeable future. But it’s never off the table, as Empire is going to go after Lyon Dynasty in every possible way.

Back to Hakeem’s romance, Becky G guest starred as Valentina, a fiery singer who auditions for the girl group, and then hooks up with Hakeem in the bathtub. He’s back in the tub! He was in there with Camilla (Naomi Campbell) last season!

Well, it’s one of his go-to moves — what can I say?

Is Becky G going to stick around for any more episodes?

Well, I could tell you that, but that would be a spoiler. I can say that she’s with us for this episode and the next, at the very least.

With both Tiana and Valentina in the picture, can we expect a love triangle for Hakeem?

There will be love triangles with him, though not with Tiana and Becky G. Hakeem is just prone to love triangles.

So does that mean new women coming into his life?

Well, Hakeem loves the ladies, and the ladies love the Hakeem.

Besides Becky G, there were a lot of guest stars in this episode. Will we see Ludacris or Kelly Rowland any more after tonight?

Ludacris is a single episode. Kelly Rowland plays a very important role throughout the season.

How was it having Ludacris on set?

Ludacris brought his own martial arts trainer. He’s an awesome fighter. He’s done these incredible fight scenes in other movies and he said, I’d love to choreograph my fight scene, so he brought this fierce trainer. He really brought that to it, and we really had fun working with him and letting him play the villain in a way. When I was talking to him about his role on “Empire,” he just loved the idea of going up against Lucious.

What was it like working with Kelly Rowland? Any opportunity for her to really show off her singing skills coming up? And what can we expect, now that we’ve seen her in flashbacks as Lucious’ mother?

We were really excited to have her, and  to use her in this unexpected role. We didn’t want to do something obvious. Kelly is so special. The idea that she’s Lucious’ mother seems to us really deep. You learn a lot of things, and we reveal them slowly — it’s a very slow burn over the course of the season. In this episode, you just get a little hint of what’s to come. You just get a sense that there’s something just not quite right here. Who is Lucious Lyon? How did he become the person he is? This is the story we’re telling with Kelly Rowland in the flashbacks. And the reveals will ultimately be very consequential.

There was more Lucious rapping than we’ve ever seen before in this episode. How did Terrence enjoy getting to show off his musical skills?

It was great, and it was a song that we really loved that Terrence wrote with one of the musicians who also played in the scene. He loves doing music. I think he’s even said, if he had to choose, it would be music. It means so much to him and he’s so gifted and he actually writes songs for some of the other actors and characters on the show time to time. It’s very collaborative. Sometimes he brings us songs and says “I have something for you if there’s a place for it,” but often, I spend a lot of time talking to Terrence about the stories we’re telling, especially since the music that he makes in this season is very linked to story.

Lucious got out of jail, but when he was in prison, he was coughing — do we need to be worried about his health?

No. It’s a story that really gets resolved in the episode. His medication was being withheld, it was captive by the prosecutor and once his new lawyer, Thirsty, ultimately manages to get Lucious’ meds restored, he’s fine. This is a health maintenance issue for Lucious. He has an illness, but as long as he gets good medical care, and he maintains himself, he’ll be fine.

Andre Royo’s character is very interesting, and obviously had a lot to do with Lucious getting out of jail. What can you tell us about Thirsty Rawlings?

That’s a very big character introduction in this episode. [He] inserts himself into Lucious Lyon’s life, and will perhaps ultimately become the new Vernon (Malik Yoba), although it will be a very different character and relationship.

Any fun behind-the-scenes secrets you can share from filming this episode?

The opening of the show, which I think is very cool, we re-shot it. It was initially a different scene, a different opening with a lot of the same information, but when we watched it, we realized that this needs a more dynamic opening for the conception of Lyon Dynasty and we re-created it, and Dee Rees who directed the episode came back to shoot this opening with us. We did something that was new to us, and just kept it on its feet, as we tried this stylistic approach to telling a story and introducing a new concept. So that was an after-the-fact kind of re-thinking of the opening of the show.

“Empire” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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