SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “Noble Memory,” the Sept. 27 fourth season premiere of “Empire.”
When showrunner Ilene Chaiken and the “Empire” writers room broke the story for the fourth season premiere of Fox’s family drama, they wanted to be clear that the accident Lucious (Terrence Howard) went through in the third season finale would lead to permanent injuries that had long-lasting consequences, not only for him but for his family as well. In addition to the amnesia he revealed at the end of that third season, he also lost part of his leg in the car bombing his son Andre (Trai Byers) orchestrated.
This kind of physical impairment led to Lucious’ pain throughout the premiere, as well as his son’s guilt and other family members’ empathy – an emotion not often expressed for the man who has been so vicious and violent in the past.
Chaiken talks with Variety about the events of the episode, if Lucious truly is a changed man, and where the season will go from here – including the possibility of another crossover with “Star.”
Why did you want to start the season three months after last year’s finale left off?
We wanted to be clear about what Lucious was going to be dealing with. Mentally, it’s not permanent, but it’s serious, it’s fixed, and it’s going to be a long-term challenge for him. We wanted to jump ahead because it just was dramatically interesting. Three months later means not that much has changed, but enough has changed that we can feel the difference in our characters.
His amnesia seems to make him a more pure, child-like person. How long can that last before memories come back or he just has to fake it?
That really is what his story is about this season: How long can he remain that way and what happens when memories start to encroach? Will he return to the old Lucious, or is there going to be a whole new Lucious – a kind of amalgam of this innocent we’ve seen with the scarier and more violent man we’ve known? What you’ll see over the course of this season is a really incremental evolution from one to the other.
Do you feel like this more innocent version of Lucious is more closely aligned to who he truly is and the other version was a persona he put on, or vice versa?
I think it’s more the former, but it’s sort of true of all of us. Most people, whoever they become, were once children, and as children, for the most part, we were innocent. It’s an authentic innocence, but that doesn’t mean that it can last in this world or with this man who is so many other things to so many other people.
Was there temptation to come back and reveal that he was just playing those around him and he really did know who he was?
We’ve talked about it, and that might happen. It remains to be seen. It was certainly one of the very first thoughts we had when we settled on this as Lucious’ story because that’s what you’d expect from Lucious Lyon.
How did you decide from what other injuries he would suffer?
When we broke this story last season, we knew it would lead to a traumatic brain injury in which memory and brain function were the issues for Lucious. And we did a lot of research, and we had doctors and other medical experts come in and talk about that, and the rehabilitation process that Lucious is going through with Claudia is based, in large part, on that research. But then we wanted this to have real, long-lasting consequence. This was a huge explosion, and we all know people that have had these kinds of accidents or soldiers that get blown up in wars, and we didn’t want to be phony about it. We thought, “Let’s not be tentative about this. Let’s be brave and tell a story that we can’t go back on.” Because there’s no going back on this story.
In just mentioning Claudia [Demi Moore], so far it seems like she genuinely wants to help him without an ulterior motive. How true is that?
That remains to be seen, and it could change. Maybe her motives are pure, but she certainly is becoming very attached to him, and I would just say: Frankenstein’s monster.
What is Andre’s greatest conflict as episodes go on: the police investigation, Shine [Xzibit] knowing the truth about his involvement, or his own guilt?
There’s an investigation that’s freaking him out, and Shine is holding him hostage, basically, but it’s the guilt, more than anything, that’s tormenting Andre. Nobody can ever know what Andre did. Andre has got to protect that secret. His father has lost a part of his body and his mind, and it’s his fault.
There’s a moment in the premiere when Lucious admits Cookie [Taraji P. Henson] wrote one of his songs. But she wrote it when she was in prison, so is that going to come back and bite them with legal implications later this season?
Oh that’s not anything we’re playing with. What we’re playing in that moment is the old Lucious never would have gone there. It’s simply a different Lucious up there being completely open and honest and giving people credit for their work.
At the end of the premiere, Cookie is determined but also seemingly confident that Lucious will remember her and the love they shared. What steps will she take to ensure he does, and how important is that to her overall arc this season?
Cookie wants more than anything to recapture that perfect moment she had with Lucious at the end of season 3, before the car bombing. She starts out wanting to trust and believe that Claudia is dedicated to rehabilitating Lucious’s memory, but with a healthy skepticism. She’s going to watch Claudia closely and monitor her progress with Lucious, and if Claudia gives Cookie any reason to mistrust her, you can be sure that Cookie will take matters into her own hands. But, while we’ve seen Cookie go up against female competitors in the past, Claudia, with her background in psychology and her unique mind meld with Lucious — or Dwight, as she refers to him — would be a whole new kind of adversary for Cookie, and she’ll need to acquire some new weapons to take her on.
At that same 20th anniversary event for Empire, they mentioned releasing 20 albums over the course of the year. Does that mean the show’s soundtrack will be super-sized this season?
Yes, it does. We’ll focus largely on our main artists because they’re the characters we care most about, but there should be the sense that this is a big record company that’s celebrating its 20th anniversary and making 20 records, one for each year of the company’s existence, and will really represent the scope of artists the company represents.
Does that mean Jamal [Jussie Smollett] will be more focused on his music than his new relationship as the season goes on?
I would like to think that neither precludes the other one. Jamal is making music, and that’s a very big and important part of his life, but his relationship is a very big part of the story this season. We already know that Warren [Terrell Carter] is deceiving Jamal, and there’s going to be a consequence to that. Whether Jamal really falls for Warren, is Warren really going to fall for Jamal, and is he going to be able to right the situation before it all comes crashing down is the big question.
Where does that leave Hakeem [Bryshere Y. Gray]?
I think this is one where he’s really on his own. Diana [Phylicia Rashad] is holding their alliance over his head. In that scene when she comes to him, she says if he backs out now, his mother’s going to find out and it’s not going to be pretty, is it? Hakeem doesn’t know what she wants from him, but he knows that’s true, and he’s got to find out what she wants from him and where it’s all headed. He’s very trapped here because nobody in his family would forgive him, and nobody would say anything other than “You’ve got to come clean.” And he doesn’t feel he can.
And we have to talk about the crossover with “Star” because the way Carlotta [Queen Latifah] left it, asking Lucious to help the girl group and him agreeing, felt like it could be setting up another crossover.
To the best of my knowledge, there are no other crossovers. In the first episode of “Star” there was some “Empire,” but I don’t know that there is any more history to these characters than what was discussed.
“Empire” is on Fox Wednesdays at 8 p.m.