At one point in the series finale of “Empire,” the Lyon family sits around a table and discuss canceling the premiere of the Lucious and Cookie biopic that they produced because of safety concerns after Lucious’ (Terrence Howard) nefarious dealings have someone gunning for him — literally. It’s a moment that is both quintessential “Empire,” as the media dynasty family discuss their strength to stand against enemies, but also unexpectedly timely, as the production of the Fox musical drama’s final few episodes were halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, making this 18th episode of the final season a forced series finale.
“We looked at the series premiere and said, ‘How can we end this in the most poetic way possible and honoring that really great series premiere?’ That was our inspiration for the true series finale, and we just had to let that go when I wasn’t able to shoot that,” showrunner Brett Mahoney tells Variety.
Originally, the sixth and final season of “Empire” was supposed to be 20 episodes in length, but the show shut down production on March 13 while they were in the middle of filming their 19th episode.
“When it was clear we were going to have to shut down [production] for the health and safety of our cast and crew, which of course came first, I realized there was an element of Episode 19 that had the spirit and the feeling of the season finale in terms of the Lyons coming together for their family and one another,” Mahoney says. “So I could build the elements to that — meaning taking out elements of 18 to make room for these elements of 19 to combine them and hopefully give something that was satisfying and had the spirit of a series finale. But we’re still hoping to one day shoot the real series finale.”
Mahoney notes that they don’t yet know when production can resume, nor who will be available to them when they do. But, he says, “in terms of my conversations with the cast and the other executive producers, the studio, the network,” being able to shoot the “true” series finale he and his writers’ room worked so hard on “is the hope and the dream.”
Mahoney adds that the final three episodes were originally designed as one arch to the end, complete with some big tentpole moments, including the concert production of BossyFest, the premiere of the Lucious Lyon biopic and “at least one big event” that he is keeping under-wraps for the time being because it is still planned for the “real” series finale he hopes to shoot when the shelter-in-place advisories lift.
Additionally, Mahoney admits that the season-long question of, “Who shot Lucious Lyon?” won’t get answered by the end of the 18th and for-now final episode of “Empire,” entitled “Home is on the Way,” that airs April 21 on Fox.
“At one point I had it shoehorned in there but it made me groan — I’m sure it would have made the fans groan,” Mahoney says. “I wanted to make it as much of a finale as possible, but I wanted it to be satisfying.”
Both BossyFest and the movie premiere made it into the episode, though, and provide moments of growth for Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), Lucious, and Cookie and Lucious as a team.
For Cookie in particular, it was important to Mahoney and his writers’ room to showcase forward movement with her therapy. A particularly vivid dream at the start of the episode sees her step into the shoes of a blacksploitation hero, which she is then forced to deconstruct.
“The montage that you see when Yana’s singing and Cookie and Lucious are looking each other across the stage, we absolutely were supposed to have that feeling of longing during the song, but we didn’t script those flashbacks until we knew this was going to be the series ending,” Mahoney says.
It has certainly not been an easy road for the Lyons getting to this series end. There have been weddings and births, but more illnesses, deaths, attempts at company takeovers, and breakups, as well. And admittedly, off-screen, there have been bumps too — notably having to write out actor Jussie Smollett after he allegedly faked a hate crime. Although his character Jamal, the middle Lyon son, was an integral part of the show for the majority of its run, he does not appear in the finale.
At the center of the story has been the rocky romance between Cookie and Lucious, a couple who fell in love as teenagers with big dreams but fractured when her sisters called the cops on their drug business, hoping to separate them by sending Lucious to jail. Instead, Cookie ended up doing 17 years in prison, and Lucious sent her divorce papers instead of love letters.
“He’s been on a redemption journey, and it’s been hard for him, but he’s been on that redemption journey for Cookie — to prove he is a viable choice for Cookie to make. His whole journey this season, he has put Cookie ahead of Empire but also put the Lyons on top of Empire. It’s not only Empire that’s his legacy, it’s his family that is his legacy,” says Mahoney.
The idea that “despite all of the drama and all the in-fighting and all the battles, they’re going to put their family first above everything else” is the legacy Mahoney hopes “Empire” leaves from a story level. But the show itself has had an even greater impact.
“When you’re telling compelling universal stories, it doesn’t matter if it’s an African American cast, a white cast, an Asian cast, a Latino story — if you’re telling true, great stories that audience is going to come. I think that’s what this show has showed us and laid the groundwork for all of these other stories from people of color that are out there and doing so well. You can have great success with casts of color. And then in terms of behind the camera, all of the writers, directors, costume designers, DPs of color that have the opportunity to do brilliant work on ‘Empire’ and now they have these other opportunities and all of these other shows are providing opportunities for these artists of color, it’s a legacy I’m so proud to be a part of,” he says.