When Fox’s “Empire” ended last season, Lyon family patriarch Lucious (Terrence Howard) was just waking up from a coma after almost getting killed by a car bomb. Though he survived the attack physically, he lost his memories of his family and of himself. When the show returns for its fourth season, it’s three months later and he still doesn’t have his memory back, but the family is pushing on with their business – and a milestone with the 20th anniversary of their company.
“It really sets the template for the season,” showrunner Ilene Chaiken tells Variety about the anniversary celebration that will open the premiere. “In this episode, it serves as the framework for telling the story of where Lucious is and what it means to everyone.”
Chaiken says the premiere will also see a break in format, in order to better tell this story. The episode “book-ends” the story by starting the action at the 20th anniversary celebration, begging the question of whether or not Lucious will be well enough to “walk onto the stage with his family and step back in his old shoes,” Chaiken says. (The show will answer that question back at the celebration at the end of the episode, she promises.)
But first, the premiere will flash back 24 hours earlier to tell a “very intimate and intense story about where all of these characters are, what they’re dealing with and what they have at stake,” Chaiken says.
Where exactly the show finds the characters three months after that fateful moment by Lucious’ bed last season will not only answer just how injured Lucious is but also how Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and their boys have been holding up and keeping the business afloat. Although many of them “certainly want the old Lucious back,” per Chaiken, they have their own struggles to overcome, too.
Andre (Trai Byers), in particular, is dealing with “tremendous guilt” over the role he played in his father’s attack, orchestrating it and failing to call it off in time. “He realized his mistake in those last moments,” Chaiken says. “Whatever’s happened to Lucious is on him, and he wants not to be found out, but he’s also filled with guilt and remorse. And he also is entrapped by Shine, who’s the only other person that knows.”
Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) is struggling to be a single father, without his father around to guide him, after making an “unholy alliance” with Diana DuBois (Phylicia Rashad). “We’re going to find out what that alliance is about and what she’s trying to extract from him,” Chaiken promises, adding that things are further complicated for the youngest Lyon given that his baby’s mother Anika (Grace Byers) is in jail.
And also being played by the DuBois family, although he doesn’t quite know it yet, is Jamal (Jussie Smollett). “While Jamal has been focused on his father, we’re going to find that Warren has played the role of the good boyfriend and given him time,” says Chaiken. “And when we come back into our story, Warren is finally feeling like he’s gained Jamal’s trust, and now we should be anticipating what he’s there to do and how that’s going to pan out.”
The Lyons certainly have a lot pulling them apart this season, but Chaiken says the key things bringing them together are Lucious and Empire. The theme of this season, says Chaiken, is: “Who is Lucious now, and who will he become, and what has he lost? What is the family, but especially Cookie, doing in the face of the aftermath of Lucious’ injuries?”
“Empire” season 4 premieres on Fox Sept. 27 at 8 p.m.