The winter finale ended with Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) taking sides with his cougar ex Camilla (Naomi Campbell) and voting against his father, Lucious (Terrence Howard), taking his company Empire Entertainment away from him.
“He did an impetuous, impulsive, reckless thing,” showrunner Ilene Chaiken tells Variety of Hakeem’s betrayal. “His father pushed him to it, but every individual in the family is going to have a reaction. I don’t think Hakeem is going to get a lot of love from his family.”
Who may turn their back on Hakeem remains to be seen, but a fair assumption is that his relationship with Lucious will be prickly. Chaiken suggests that Empire is on the line for the Lyons.
“What will Lucious do to get his Empire back, and will he succeed? And will Hakeem be able to hang onto the Empire? Will Hakeem get himself to be appointed CEO or did he just make a reckless move without a plan?” Chaiken says. “He could have just lost the whole damn company.”
Now that Camilla is at the helm of Empire, Hakeem is put into an even-more compromising situation, since he’s in business with the woman with whom he used to be in bed.
“Hakeem was completely taken off guard by her return, and the thing that he least expected was that when he looks at her again, he doesn’t necessarily feel the way he did when she left him — he’s fallen in love with somebody else,” Chaiken says, referring to Hakeem’s girlfriend Laura (Jamila Velazquez). “He’s faced with an impossible choice because she holds the fate of his company in her hands and she wants him back. Hakeem will have to make some very, very tough choices because he’s either going to have to give up the woman he loves or the loyalty of his family to finally get Empire.”
Aside from the Empire crumbling out of Lucious’ hands, one more big cliffhanger from the December finale remains — actually, two. Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) was pushed down the stairs by an unknown enemy and her lifeless, pregnant body was splattered across the marble floor of her and Andre’s mansion.
“Assuming that Rhonda survives, it’s going to be an ongoing story,” Chaiken teases of the who-pushed-Rhonda storyline. Though many signals point to Anika (Grace Gealey), the showrunner warns viewers not to jump to any conclusions. “It doesn’t get resolved quickly and it doesn’t get resolved in an obvious and expected way. It’s full of twists and it’s not straightforward,” Chaiken insists.
As for the back-half of the season, Chaiken says the overall theme is the family coming together against an “external adversary” all in the name of Empire — and that will result in a big change for the last eight episodes of the season: fewer celebrity guest stars.
With an emphasis on the family dynamics, Chaiken explains there’s simply not enough screen time to fill with one-shot characters. “We have a story to tell and the story is about the Lyon family. They are the stars of the show, and we really wanted to devote the time we have each week,” she says.
However, don’t expect a complete drought of A-listers. The rapper Xzibit will appear in a new role, which Chaiken describes as “one of the best turns we’ve done because it’s so meshed in story for us.” Plus other actors will join this season, though they may not be the recognizable faces that “Empire” has seen in the past. “They’re roles that were written and then cast with great actors, opposed to guest stars that came along and we said, ‘We need to come up with something so that we can have them on the show,'” the producer explains.
And, there’s still one star who will make a debut a few episodes in, but the name will remain a secret. “There’s one other guest star that hasn’t been announced and it’s the most exciting to me. It’s a spoiler,” Chaiken teases.