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‘Empire’ Showrunner Says New CEO Surprise Is ‘Not Smooth Sailing’ (SPOILERS)

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read ahead, if you have not watched “Empire” Season 12, Episode 15, titled, “More Than Kin.”

After a season-long fight for the throne of Empire, the new CEO has been chosen — make that two.

The board ultimately decided to select both Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and Lucious (Terrence Howard) to be co-CEOs of the company, which was not music to Lucious’ ears, as the episode ended with the Lyon patriarch deadpanning the camera so creepily that he brought all new meaning to the phrase, “if looks could kill.”

“Well, it could mean a million things, but it certainly took Lucious by surprise,” “Empire” showrunner Ilene Chaiken says of the facial reaction Lucious gave immediately after learning Cookie would be his co-CEO. “Lucious’ look suggests to me that he’s going to have to figure out his next move now.”

Before Lucious and Cookie were named the heads of Empire, Lucious got more-than-cozy with another woman, Harper (Annie Ilonzeh), the beautiful journalist who has been following the music mogul for a story. The duo hooked up, but after the steamy scene went sour, Harper backfired on Lucious with a major game-changer — she told Andre that Lucious’ mother is alive.

Pregnant Anika (Grace Gealey) was rushed to the hospital for a health scare and none other than Cookie — aka the baby’s grandmother — was by her side in the ambulance. After a turbulent ride for soon-to-be-father Hakeem and his fiancé Laura (Jamila Velazquez), the newly engaged couple made up, after a brief breakup.

Speaking of tonight’s episode, Chaiken says, “It’s one of my three favorite episodes of the season. I think it’s just vintage ‘Empire’ and beautifully conceived, directed and performed.”

Here, Chaiken talks all about that intense hookup, who’s getting married this season, plus what’s next for Cookie and Lucious.

At the beginning of the episode, Hakeem was spinning out of control and Laura broke off the engagement, but by the end, they’re back together. Why did you decide to write such a quick resolution for their relationship?

Hakeem has made huge strides forward. He’s really grown up in a lot of ways. We’ve seen him behave in a much more mature, thoughtful way than he would have been capable of when we first met him, but he’s still a kid and he’s still Hakeem and after what happened to him in last week’s episode, he did what Hakeem would do. That’s not the Hakeem that Laura knows. She’s never met him. He’s drunk and hiding out in a strip club for three days when he tells her that he’s going to have a baby with another woman. It’s just an impulsive and natural reaction [breaking off the engagement].

But then they work things out with Hakeem displaying perhaps the most maturity we’ve ever seen — he is excited to be a father to Anika’s baby, but Laura is sticking by him. They’re really in love and in it for the long haul, aren’t they?

They’re really in it. These two people really care about one another. She makes him better in all the ways that he wants to be better. After his momentary backslide, he really pulls it back and does something that very few men in our world of “Empire” would have been able to do. It really shows a depth of character in Hakeem that we’ve hinted at, which promises something for the future man he might become. For us, it’s a really hopeful moment for Hakeem.

The Lyon family, especially Cookie, seems to be coming around to Anika being pregnant with Hakeem’s child. Is the bad blood resolved?

Anika possibly has moved beyond the dark place that she went to on discovering that she’s pregnant with a Lyon baby, after all they’ve done to her. She’s finding a way to make peace with it and finding a new relationship — though it’s still a pretty tenuous relationship — with the members of the family. Maybe it’s going to work out for her and she’s going to have the baby and have a place in this world, after all.

Michael (Rafael de la Fuente) came back into Jamal’s life, and he seems to be a really positive influence. Will we see more of Michael in the coming episodes?

Not this season. Michael came back in Jamal’s life in a very realistic way, as a friend and as an ex lover with whom you had a bad breakup, but with whom you have deep history, and showed up in the right moment so that you remember the good things. He’s a real support and Jamal needed him as he was there for him. We’re not going to see any more of that this season, but that does not mean that’s the end of it.

You recently told me that there is going to be a wedding this season. I guess we can now cross Michael and Jamal off that list?

Yeah, I think you can cross Michael and Jamal off the list. Michael and Jamal aren’t going to rush into a wedding. If I were writing it all over again, I could imagine a scenario where Michael and Jamal got married — but Hakeem and Laura are getting married! Right?

I hope so! 

[Laughing]

Why isn’t Lucious happy that Cookie will be his co-CEO?

In Lucious’ world and in Lucious’ mind, Cookie always been his Michelle Obama — the woman behind the man who’s there to support him. It’s what she appeared to be doing. She helped to get his company back because she believed it was the best thing for their family, and I don’t think that either of them expected this. Cookie wasn’t seeking it. It came to her.

Is it safe to say that their new business partnership won’t be a smooth transition?

I think that would be safe to say. I think it should be a long term proposition, but I think Lucious and Cookie as co-CEOs is not smooth sailing by any means. The relationship between Lucious and Cookie will always be complicated because they will always love each other, but there will always be scheming of some kind.

Harper finally had her big moment: she had an intense hook up with Lucious, but then he ended up screwing her on her story so to get revenge, she told Andre that Lucious’ mother is alive. How did she get those photos?

She’s a reporter, and a good one. She may have found out something while she was hooking up with Lucious that enabled her to get what she was after. We’re just used to seeing men use women. Harper went for it and doesn’t have to pay a price for it necessarily and didn’t sell out just because she and Lucious are hooking up. She hooked up with him because she wanted to and she pursued her story — maybe with a little bit more of a vengeance because Lucious was such a dick to her!

That hookup scene — why was there so much slapping going on?!

I don’t know [laughing]. I think you just found two interesting, twisted, dark people. How can I say this? Some people have predilections and when they find another person who shares their predilections, things just go that way. That’s certainly a side of Lucious that she brought out.

After Harper and Lucious hooked up, he really defended Cookie. Why does he speak so highly of her, after everything they’ve been through?

What that scene says and is that Lucious may look elsewhere, but there is deep love and respect. There’s a line that you don’t cross with Lucious — he does not tolerate people speaking ill of Cookie. That’s indicative of his deep love and respect for her. Whether they can ever make it together is another question entirely, but there’s no comparison between his feelings for Cookie and a woman like Harper who may be really hot.

Harper seems like a real threat to Lucious. Will we continue to see Harper around?

You haven’t seen the last of Harper.

What’s next for Andre, now that he knows his grandmother — who is mentally ill, like him — is alive?

There could not have been a bigger bombshell for Andre and you can be sure that it will provoke a reaction and series of events.

Lucious and Jamal are really butting heads over their ASA nominations. Is there any resolution in sight?

The hostility between Lucious and Jamal is provoking something in Jamal that’s really important to him — it’s all about musical purity and why he got into this in the first place. It’s about the differences between him and his father. They’re the two Lyons who really have the gift of music, but if Lucious is a musical genius, Jamal may surpass him. That freaks Lucious out. They both make extraordinary music, but Lucious makes it with a heart of darkness and Jamal makes it from a place of light. I find the music that Jamal did in this episode to be some of the most exciting music we’ve done.

Speaking of musical performances, Cookie said that there’s going to be a performance at the ASAs with the entire Lyon family. When will that come?

You can absolutely look forward to seeing that in the very next episode. That story continues as Cookie who recklessly made that promise has to make it reality. Bringing the whole family together for a musical performance isn’t going to be that easy, considering where they are.

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