SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “What Is Love,” the sixth season premiere of “Empire.”
Before “Empire” could go forward with its final season, it had to look back.
Every season of the Fox musical family drama has ended with a cliffhanger to tease the turmoil that awaits upon the show’s return. But for the 20-episode sixth and final season, showrunner Brett Mahoney didn’t want to just pay off dangling threads from the end of the fifth season such as what Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) would set her sights on without Lucious (Terrence Howard) and how far Lucious would run from the FBI; he wanted to go all the way back to the pilot to see “how the stories and how the characters were introduced,” he tells Variety, to answer the question of, “What is the biggest, best, boldest way to finish those character arcs and answer the questions that were raised in the pilot?
“The show is so epic in a way and so important to so many people and the characters are so beloved, finding the right way to honor them has been the biggest challenge,” he continues.
The sixth season premiere, entitled “What Is Love,” set out on this path most notably with Lucious himself. A flash-forward showed Lucious staring down the barrel of a gun. “The life he’s led has led to that. The question is, does his redemption save him from that? It might not,” Mahoney says.
Lucious didn’t seem to believe the person would actually shoot him, but he was wrong, and he was hit multiple times before falling through a glass table. The camera stood in for the shooter, leaving that part of the story a mystery for now. (“You will know who is holding that gun by Episode 6.11,” Mahoney shares.) For some long-time viewers, the scene may have felt like a book-end to the series premiere, when Lucious told his family he was dying and set them on a path of destruction as they fought to take his place at the head of their media company.
“When Lucious thought he was dying, he pitted his sons against each other to see who would take the throne and take over Empire, and it was asking, is that the legacy: Is the family more important or is Empire more important?” Mahoney says. “Certainly in the pilot he was putting Empire over family. And so the question becomes, after these six seasons, does he have the same value structure?”
Although Lucious started the final season in hiding, he was never too far from his family and still made sure to be back in front of them when it was necessary. Because at its core “Empire” is a family drama, Mahoney admits he does feel a responsibility to see these characters together in the final season. After all, it is those dynamics that shot the show to success in the first place.
Back in 2015, the series premiere of “Empire” exploded for Fox, grabbing the attention of almost 10 million total live viewers and steadily growing that number each week in the first season until the finale, which saw more than 17.6 million total live viewers. It ended the season a high, rising to the No. 5 spot on the Nielsen chart, and scoring an Emmy nom for lead actress Taraji P. Henson, as well as a Golden Globe nom for drama series and a Golden Globe win for Henson by the end of the year. (Henson went on to score a second Emmy nom the following year.) As seasons went on and peak TV refused to actually peak, “Empire” declined in ratings but never slowed down its storytelling. The Lee Daniels and Danny Strong-created series saw shifts in showrunners, as well as in cast members; most notably, the final season is absent one pivotal Lyon family member in Jussie Smollett. (Daniels announced on social media back in June that Smollett would not be returning to the show after the actor was indicted on multiple felony counts about allegedly lying to police about the nature of an alleged hate crime he reported in January.)
While all of the Lyons are on very different, individualized paths from the outset of the sixth and final season — from Cookie trying to figure who she is outside of Lucious to Andre (Trai Byers) finally fully running the company in his father’s absence and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) prepping to play his father in a movie about the family, by the family — it is Jamal (Smollett) who is literally out on his own. Last the character was referenced in the fifth season, he was on his honeymoon, and during the sixth he will be off-screen living in London with his husband.
“Jamal has been on that journey where he has said several times that Empire is killing the family. He’s already on that journey; he is separated from the family because it’s going to kill him,” Mahoney explains.
While Mahoney admits that “this is just the way it happened with the events,” Jamal’s story had come to a “natural conclusion” in Season 5. The character started off the series in the closet publicly but came out on his own terms, by performing a remixed and slightly rewritten version of one of his father’s songs. After seeing “what it meant” to come out and “what it meant to be gay in this family,” Mahoney feels that seeing him for the last time “at a beautiful wedding, marrying his partner, embraced by his family, with his father and his mother walking him down the aisle — that’s a great sendoff for that character.”
But just because Jamal is gone from the show does not mean he’s forgotten. Like any family member that moves away, Mahoney says he will be talked about, with characters mentioning what he’s up to as episodes go on. And because the next new business venture for at least some of the Lyons is to create a biopic about Lucious and the company, there are opportunities to revisit past moments through a new lens.
“We’re not going to go through the nuts and bolts of everything in terms of the making of the film, but it does allow these characters to go through filming events that we’ve actually seen throughout the series. It forces these characters to reflect on what they’re seeing. Do they want to rewrite their history, or do they want to admit how their history impacted one another and do something from it moving forward?” Mahoney says.
The final season of “Empire” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.