The Lee Daniels-Danny Strong soap was an unprecedented hit when it debuted in January, growing its audience each week. And all eyes will be on Empire when it returns on Wednesday (9/8c, Fox) to see if it will fall victim to the dreaded sophomore slump.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a little bit of pressure," Chaiken admits to TVGuide.com. "But once we sat down and started working, the only thing I feel is the need to dig deep and try to break great stories and write great stories and produce good episodes."
Rather than try to outdo themselves in Season 2, the producers made sure they didn't lose what made Empire such a hit in the first place. And that included not overdosing on big-name cameos. "I'm really excited about all the guest stars we have on the show. But when I think about the show, I think about the family," she says. "We approach the guest cast as story, and we don't jump through hoops to create something special for somebody. We say, 'This is a role that would be great for this person that wants to be on Empire."
TVGuide.com spoke with Chaiken and the Empire cast to find out everything fans can expect of the anticipated second season. Check out all the juicy scoop below:
Andre and Rhonda (Trai Byers and Kaitlin Doubleday): Andre and Rhonda have a lot to contend with when Empire returns - a baby on the way, Andre's newfound faith and a murder to cover up. "It's all-encompassing," Byers says. "He has to decide what man he's going to be. He wants to be the best he can for his family, because there's more at stake now. So it's very complicated. It's a tight-rope walk."
All this added drama will put a huge weight on the already strained couple. "I think she's having a rough time because she realizes now more than ever that she has to keep Andre's mental health in order and he already has depression issues. So adding the weight of a murder to that is not easy," Doubleday says. "He's dealing with it though, in a very different way than her, so that definitely puts a wedge between them and in their relationship. There will definitely be some hurdles that they may or may not get through."
But despite all that, what Andre is struggling with the most continues to be Lucious' apparent disapproval. However, through flashbacks to Lucious' childhood with his mother (Kelly Rowland), the audience will finally begin to understand why Lucious has such a hard time with Andre and his mental illness.
Jamal and Hakeem (Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Gray): The youngest two Lyons have switched roles this season, with Jamal becoming the arrogant apple of Lucious' eye. Unfortunately for Jamal, his father's support begins to influence him in unsavory ways. "He's really going through it," Smollett says. "He's navigating through this new life and it's not always easy. He makes decisions this season that are not all good decisions." Struggling under all the new responsibilities of running Empire, Jamal begins to lose everything that defined him - his compassion, his family values and even his music.
But while Jamal goes off the deep end, Hakeem begins to step up and mature. Rather than just expect things to be handed to him, Hakeem begins working toward earning respect - including by forming his own girl group to produce. And now that Hakeem has seen Lucious for who he is, he works hard to mend things between himself and Cookie. But sadly, reconciliation won't come so easy with Jamal.
"There's a lot of love between them, but they go at one another," Chaiken says. "And there's a strain created by the fact that Jamal got the throne. That's something that Hakeem always thought he was entitled to and destined for. He has a lot to prove, some of it will be at Jamal's expense."
Cookie and Lucious (Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard): Lucious will remain behind bars for the first few episodes of Season 2, and when he does get out, he'll be a changed man - but not necessarily changed for the better. "I think the combination of no longer living with a death sentence, and then having faced life in prison is going to leave Lucious more ferocious, more calculating, less forgiving than before," says Chaiken. "It just reinvigorates him for the fight."
And with Cookie off starting her own record label, Lucious declares war on his ex-wife. Sadly, when the lines are drawn, it leaves Cookie and Jamal on opposite sides. "It's very awkward, very weird, very strained, hurtful," Henson says. "That was her one person in the family that she really could rely on. Now that's not good for her anymore. It's very weird between them."
However, this opens up room for Empire to explore more of Cookie's relationships with her other sons and her love life outside of Lucious, including with smooth-talking concert promoter Laz Delgado (Adam Rodriguez).
Boo Boo Kitty and Tiana (Grace Gealey and Serayah): Last season, Anika and Tiana were defined mainly by their relationships with Lucious and Hakeem. But this year, all that will change. "People refer to my character as Hakeem's girlfriend. I'm, like, no, she's actually an artist signed to Empire," Serayah explains. "This season you're going to see a lot more emotional moments with her and a lot more in-depth with her character."
And while Tiana will start off standing by Cookie in this war, her allegiance to her manager isn't as strong as one might think. "Right now, she's really playing cards on who's going to get her to the top," Serayah teases.
Meanwhile, Anika is still dead-set on getting vengeance on Lucious. But that doesn't necessarily mean that Cookie, her enemy's enemy, is her friend. "I wouldn't go that far as to say they're in an alliance," Henson teases.
Though Cookie still loathes Boo Boo Kitty, she does see some benefits of using the A&R exec to her advantage. And seeing Cookie and Anika working together in any fashion would please Hakeem greatly, since the youngest Lyon wants Anika right by his side throughout this war — thankfully, in a platonic way. "What's interesting about her and Hakeem hooking up is that it's not that she's deeply in love with Hakeem. It's just that she wanted to get back at Lucious and so did Hakeem," Gealey says. "Do they have a connection? Do they have an understanding? Do they have a familiarity with each other? Sure. And I think you'll definitely see more than that."
Empire premieres Wednesday at 9/8c on Fox.
Watch the Empire cast share their favorite Cookie lines below: