Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is alive, thank goodness, and Anika (Grace Gealey) has low-key admitted to pushing Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) down those steps. While neither revelation — particularly Anika's — comes as a surprise, they were sandwiched between so much other forward-looking drama that their predictability didn't feel grating. Yes, The Pushing kicked off this half of Season 2 as the central mystery but, over time, Empire managed to course-correct an initially wobbly sophomore season by shrewdly shedding fat (RIP Camilla and Mimi), doubling down on its family story and carefully introducing new plots and characters.
Now, with monsters Lucious' (Terrence Howard) and Anika united in "unholy matrimony" and a litany of new concerns, Empire feels back on strong footing. Of course, Empire is a batsh-t crazy soap, but who cares about plausibility? We're re-invested in our characters, getting fun melodrama and anticipating more bitch-slapping, which brings us back into the sweet spot.
What did we just see, and what can we expect for next season? Empire producer Sanna Hamri broke it down for TVGuide.com.
Did you all always know that Anika would be the perpetrator, or was it something the team kept up in the air for a while?
Hamri: This is what so great about Empire, and that's what I love about the writer's room: Everything is crafted for the end. It's not haphazard. That moment when Lucious walks down that aisle and said, "I know you pushed her," is brilliant. We know he's a mastermind, he gets the right information at the right time for his advantage. So things are done purposely; very twisty plots. That's what makes it thrilling, exciting and also crazy.
Anika has confessed, but for now it seems she got off with murder pretty lightly. How much trouble is she in. And is she still in love with Lucious?
Hamri: Anika is in so much trouble. And of course she still has feelings for Lucious. They shared a relationship. But everybody is out for self trying to preserve his and herself, and that's what tragic about parts of her character - she has to go to such lengths to preserve herself.
What's happening with Jamal and D-Major? A lot of us, including Lucious, are skeptical of D-Major but he was really nurturing with Jamal after the shooting. Is Michael out of the picture forever? Why's it important for Empire make this "DL" storyline prominent?
Hamri: I know don't where Michael is going to go. D-Major represents a lot of people who struggle not being their authentic self, not feeling comfortable about their sexuality. It's something we like discussing in the writer's room. Obviously he likes Jamal but he's on the down low and we'll see what happens, whether he remains on the down low on or not. People have been pretty shocked about it, but we like representing [societal issues including] race and sectionality...these stories are important. Lucious is looking out for his son. Even though he has had issues with his son, he doesn't want his son to be punked. These are things people go through in real life. It's a lot of fun, it's crazy, but we also try to reflect true relationships. I know a lot people who've been through that: being on the DL and then are like, 'I can't handle it anymore.'
Lucious called Jamal his baby and went out of his way to get vocals from Freda for him; he alternates between being a monster and then nice. Are they cool again?
Hamri: Jamal took a bullet for his father because of some revenge gangster hood issues. Because of elements of that cycle, Jamal is going into an introspective place of 'What is this life worth?' He wants to break the cycle. He represents the conscious of the show. He's a good moral barometer, who questions what's going on around him.
Hamri: I would definitely say so. Of course. Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) is learning very hard lessons. With him already we know he doesn't have tools to handle things. He genuinely was in love with Laura (Jamila Velazquez). He wants to do the right thing but he's entangled in Lucious' web. He can easily turn on Lucious as we've seen in the past.
Cookie started this season very committed to her family and getting close to Lucious - now she's walked away. How big a betrayal was the marriage to Anika to her? She's been acting like she doesn't want Lucious romantically, so why would she care? Might she leave and start her own company again?
Hamri: Remember, she has said to the kids that "The love between me and you father, it runs deep." There's a deep emotional connection, and you feel it when you see the flashbacks. They have children together; they have a bond. To her [the marriage to Anika] is beyond symbolic, and she has to walk away. I don't know what she's going to do, but Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) is always going to come back with a vengeance. It's going to be fun to go on her journey. She's still co-CEO of Empire. Does she give up Empire? Does she clap back? That'll be fun to watch.
We already know Lucious mom isgoing to be a problem. What can you tell us about his half-brother FBI agent Tariq, who we know is looking to investigate Empire?
Hamri: What's dangerous is that [Lucious'] own flesh and blood is working for the FBI and is trying to bring him down. Who has information on what? I can assure you a lot of sabotage is going to be happening,
Xzibit's character Shyne shot up a club in Vegas, which sounds a lot like the realShyne (the rapper involved in a nightclub shooting with Diddy and Jennifer Lopez). Was Empire's character inspired by Shyne? How much is the show overall based on real-life rappers we know?
Hamri:I actually don't know about the decision to have him called Shyne. It's not based on that Shyne though; I know other rappers who've shot up clubs. It's just coincidence. We stay true to things that really happen in the rap world. And with those types of things [shootings] anyway it's usually not the rapper but a member of the entourage.
Empire feels like it righted itself after a rocky first half. What do you attribute to its being reinvigorated?
Hamri: The first half of the second season was setting a lot of plotlines, infrastructure. It's a lot of information to get through to reap the benefits of the second half of the season. The family, as they get closer, it gets more dangerous as we get into season three. We're going to see what happened with what's dangling, with every skeleton falling out of every closet, and what they do with that information.
Empire is scheduled to return this fall, Wednesdays at 9/8c on Fox.