‘Empire’ EP Ilene Chaiken Says ‘The Bunkie Story Lives On’ as Uncle Vernon Resurfaces

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read ahead if you have not watched Season 2, Episode 4 of “Empire,” which aired on Oct. 14.

The FBI raided Empire’s headquarters and Lyon Dynasty’s offices on Wednesday night’s episode of the Fox hit, but even the feds couldn’t dig up what the “Empire” writers brought back from the past: Uncle Vernon.

Killed by Andre’s (Trai Byers) pregnant wife Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) — back in the season one finale when she hit Vernon (Malik Yoba) over the head with a candlestick — the man who Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) believed was out to get him in the Bunkie murder case that put him behind bars resurfaced when the couple dug up his body.

“We knew that this was going to be the episode in which the Lyons turn this situation around. We were going to shut down this case. We’re going to put the Vernon story to rest, and we wanted Lucious to find out what had happened to Vernon,” showrunner Ilene Chaiken tells Variety. “In other words, we’re no longer looking for Uncle Vernon and trying to find out where they’re holding him in the witness protection program so they can shut him down. Whereas the Bunkie story lives in. The Vernon story is over, now that Lucious knows.”

While Andre got back in Lucious’ good graces, by way of Vernon’s dead body, the tension between Lyon brothers Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) came to a head at a shoot for a music video — which was thought up by co-creator Danny Strong — when Hakeem’s jealously hit a new level. But fear not: Hakeem found a ray of light when he found new talent in a beautiful new singer (Jamila Velazquez) who Chaiken teases as a potential love interest for the young rapper.

“It amounts to a different experience and a different relationship for Hakeem,” Chaiken says of the new cast member, who will have a bigger role going forward.

Another role that will continue to expand? Marisa Tomei’s Mimi Whiteman, who butts heads with Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who gets thrown back in jail this episode — and then, of course, finds her way out.

With a dead body, feuding brothers, an FBI raid and a budding romance, “Empire” fans are sure to be excited for what’s to come, but in light of the recent ratings decline to the still-impressive number of 13 million, Chaiken says the creative team is focused on telling the best story possible. “We’re deep in it trying to make the best story we can and to continue to amuse and entertain and move and engage the audience,” she says, adding, “The numbers are beyond our control, but they’re still pretty damn good. It was inevitable that it would even out and settle. My expectation is that we’ll vacillate over the season.”

Here, Chaiken tells Variety about Mimi Whiteman’s future drama, Hakeem’s new lady singer, Andre’s status with Lucious and the dead body that ended the episode with a jolt. Plus, she shares a behind-the-scenes story from that music video scene.

When the FBI raids the Lyons, the family seems to bond together — at the very least, for face value. Is there any hope, or are Cookie and Lucious still at odds?
It will continue for some time to be Lyon Dynasty versus Empire, Cookie versus Lucious. I think when the world is against them, the family unites, and when the world isn’t against them, they’re one another’s worst enemies.

The episode opens with the FBI raiding Empire’s headquarters and Lyon Dynasty’s offices. Why did you decide to take that approach with Lucious’ case, other than the fun drama playing out on screen?
We talked about how to tell that story and really, the idea that this is not just a murder case — this is a persecution, in a sense. This is Roxanne Ford coming after Lucious trying to make her bones as the woman who takes down hip-hop.

Prosecutor Ford really is just out to get Lucious. But Lucious really got back at her with Vernon’s dead body in her car. How will that ending scene now turn the tables?
This is the last we’ll see of Prosecutor Ford. Lucious finally put her away. That put her over the top. We’ll learn going forward that did the trick. She went after him. He bested her.

How will Bunkie’s story resurface? Will others find out that Lucious shot him?
The Bunkie story continues to play in our stories. It’s a fact of life with the Lyons, and one that is still yet to unravel. Not everyone knows anything. Hakeem in this episode asks if he killed Bunkie, and Lucious lies to him so there’s definitely still more between them, in regard to Bunkie.

Prosecutor Ford went as far as using Cookie to toy with Lucious. That won’t have any repercussions going forward?
Cookie actually played the prosecutor. She gave her a piece of info that seems meaningful, but really, it only served Cookie’s interest. It was in Cookie’s interest to get the radio deal shut down. Cookie is resolutely not a snitch — she really never will be. She found a way to make the prosecutor think she was working with her, when in fact, she didn’t violate any of her own principals.

When Cookie is in jail, she is just tormented by flashbacks. Despite how eccentric she may be, her love for her sons really drives her, doesn’t it?
That, more than anything, is what drives Cookie — the pain of the long separation from her children and her family. The desire to do right by then. That sequence makes it clear that Cookie has yet to come to grips with what happened to her, and that is something that Cookie still needs to deal with and that we touch on in episodes going forward.

Mimi Whiteman also drives Cookie crazy.
With good reason, I think!

How much more of Marisa Tomei will we see this season?
We’ll see more of Mimi Whiteman throughout the next handful of episodes. She’s in five episodes. The last episode is episode 10, which is our midseason finale, and she will play a significant role in the drama of episode 10. The next several episodes build toward that. Mimi might not be exactly who or what she appears to be. I think you’ll never see it coming, what it actually turns out to be. I think that it’s one of the more jaw-dropping moments of the first part of our season.

Back to Vernon: Andre finally got back on Lucious’ good side by digging up Uncle Vernon’s body. That’s pretty morbid, even for “Empire,” no?
It was a devil’s bargain. And I think for the first three episodes, we’ve seen Andre’s increasing desperation [and] his life’s ambition slipping away from him. He finally realized that he had one card he could play and it was the only one that would mean anything to his father, and he played it.

Now that Andre is back in Lucious’ good graces, how will that father/son relationship impact that between the three brothers?
Andre comes back to Empire with a new conviction, a conviction that he plays out through the course of the season to be a better man — a man of faith and honor. He is going to work really hard to resist the temptation to fall back into his old treacherous behavior, but he’s made a deal with the devil: his father. He’s going to continue to fight against those demons who are coming for him.

Hakeem and Jamal have an awesome music video together. What was the inspiration behind that scene?
Huge props to Danny Strong, who is directing his second episode of “Empire,” and I think is a formidable director. Danny also wrote the episode, and he always knew the story that Jamal and Hakeem were going to do this video together… and the story of the video was always a symbolic representation of Lucious’ fight against his oppressors who are trying to take him down, but the original concept for the video itself was quite different. Danny came into the room and said to the writers, “What do you think? Is this a video that Jamal and Hakeem would make in 2015?” And his room full of writers kind of looked at him so he said, “Okay. Tell me then what should we do!” And then Danny came up with this concept and said, “I want to do a thunder-dome!” And he went back to the art department and he had them build him this dome, and then in the course of that, came up the Black Panther idea, which I think is so on-point with the story and this moment in time. It was really cool to see it come together in the way that it did.

Obviously the song is symbolic of Lucious’ story, but is it also meant to be a social message?
Absolutely. I hope that it operates on many levels. It’s narrative within the story, but it also really carries a social message.

At the video shoot, Hakeem looses it and goes crazy on Jamal. Will he be able to overcome his jealousy for his brother?
Hakeem has grown so much, and in this episode, you see him really teetering on that precipice on being a man who’s overcome a lot of his childish, foolish behavior, and still struggling with being the child of Lucious and Cookie Lyon and all of those emotions that seem to rule him in the first season of “Empire.” In the beginning, he’s so strong, he’s got Cookie by his side and it feels like a new Hakeem — and the minute she’s gone, he just can’t quite stand up in the face of his newly empowered father, his brother who’s got everything that he was supposed to have and he just loses it.

Will Hakeem and Jamal’s brotherly relationship get any better?
Their brotherly relationship is fraught, but there’s also so much love between them and such a deep brotherly connection that it’s always going to circle back to that. It’s a relationship that’s never settled, but really hard to blow up.

There is some resolution for Hakeem when he spots a new female singer. In that moment, I saw some of Lucious in him, in that he really sparked up when he spotted new talent. Will this girl be his new star?
That is exactly the perfect way to characterize it — he has that in him that his father has. He’s moved by talent, he really is a mogul in a way that neither of his other brothers are. Lucious’ initial belief in Hakeem, even though it was largely self-serving and egotistical, it was in a way deserved, but Hakeem hasn’t earned it yet and now we see him really becoming that man.

Will Hakeem try to take her on and sign her with Lyon Dynasty?
That singer is an important person in the stories going forward. Hakeem will try to take her on for Lyon Dynasty and make her into the singer he dreamed of discovering, and she will prove to be a different girl to any of the other women that he’s dealt with in his life.

So is she Hakeem’s new love interest that you had teased before?
Certainly, any time you see Hakeem looking at a pretty girl in that way, you’ve got to think something is going to happen. That scene is full of promise.

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