After a season of cryptic flash-forwards, Empire finally revealed who wound up in that grey coffin Lucious (Terrence Howard) was seen mourning over. The revelation came in a dramatic Season 5 finale that also hinted at the end of Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and Lucious' tumultuous relationship.
Wednesday's finale, titled "The Roughest Day," delivered the Shakespearean drama we've come to appreciate from Lee Daniels' modern hip-hopera as Andre's (Trai Byers) rapidly declining health put the family on high alert. In one of the episode's most heartbreaking scenes, Cookie suffered an emotional breakdown over the prospect of losing her son, who'd entered heart failure and was in desperate need of a transplant.
Andre's health scare also hit Lucious hard and the Lyon family patriarch found himself buried in work and unable to tend to his eldest son, Kingsley (A.Z. Kelsey), who desperately sought his attention. Tormented by his mother's harsh words that he'd never be considered a real Lyon (and that he should have been aborted), Kingsley confronted his father before taking his own life, thus bringing the casket mystery to a tragic end. Kingsley's untimely death also provided Andre with the heart he needed to survive. However, it looks like the fallout from that will carry over into Season 6 after Tracy alluded that her signing off on the surgery was more of a quid pro quo.
But while Andre lived to fight another day, the Lyons weren't out of the woods just yet. Still hell-bent on putting Lucious away for good, FBI Agent Conway (Alicia Coppola) found an ally in Damon Cross (Wood Harris), who sought to bring down Lucious so that he could have Cookie all to himself. Realizing that the walls were quickly closing in on him, Lucious tried to flee with Cookie until things settled down. But his fur-loving ride-or-die was done with all lying and scheming and looked to do things differently. Putting her foot down, Cookie declined his offer to run away, but not before revealing that she did, indeed, sleep with Damon.
The episode ended with Cookie and Lucious going their separate ways, a sign that this split might actually be permanent. With their relationship hanging in the balance and several other questions demanding answers, TV Guide hit up showrunner Brett Mahoney to get to the bottom of things. The Empire boss opened about Wednesday's finale, including where Lucious and Cookie stand, why Kingsley ended up in that casket, and whether or not we've seen the last of Jamal (Jussie Smollett) now that he's off in wedded bliss with Kai (Toby Onwumere).
This episode ends with Cookie and Lucious going their separate ways after she basically told him that she's done being his ride-or-die, and she revealed that she slept with Damon Cross. So where does that leave them in their relationship?
Brett Mahoney: That's been the journey for Cookie this season, in terms of, does ride-or-die really work, and what has it meant for her to be in this relationship this man, and how many times has she put herself second? After what happened with Andre and Lucious, keeping [that suicide pact] from her, that was just the straw that broke the camel's back. And I think they're both looking at it like yes, they love each other, but does that mean that they should be together? They may be separate for a bit and if they come back together, it's gonna be a matter of eyes wide open, versus what happened this time around when they jumped into a relationship without necessarily thinking about what it was actually gonna take to stay together.
So much of the show has been about their relationship and how they love and support each other, so it'll be interesting to see them explore this new direction.
Mahoney: Absolutely, it's love and support, but remember, particularly in the first season, it's also about competition and a little bit of antagonism between them. There's a push and a pull.
Does that mean we're going to see an even stronger and more determined Cookie now that she's finding herself outside of Lucious?
Mahoney: She's always been strong and so determined, but now, what does that look like without focusing on Lucious? What does that look like when she puts herself first instead of defining herself in terms of the empire and defining herself in terms of Lucious? I mean, she's always gonna be Mama Lyon to her boys, of course, but it's sort of like, what does it mean to be Cookie as opposed to being Cookie at Empire or Cooke as Lucious' wife or Cookie in love with Lucious? So it's about what does it mean to be Cookie.
It sounds like the show is moving back towards that intimate family dynamic we saw in Season 1. So does that mean Empire is moving away from the more over-the-top storylines like Ghost Rhonda and Boo Boo Kitty hallucinating over a balcony?
Mahoney: Part of the over-the-topness is definitively Empire. It's rooted in pure emotion and character dynamics that are organic and real, but I don't mind an over-the-top moment if it's earned. I think that's part of Empire.
The casket mystery was finally solved in the finale and Kingsley was revealed as the mystery person from those flash-forwards. Did you always know that it would be Kingsley, or were you going back and forth about it in the writers' room?
Mahoney: We went back and forth in the writers' room. The whole idea of the casket is the Lyons having a high-risk loss. We felt that mortality should definitively affect them viscerally. We knew it wasn't gonna be Cookie and Lucious in the coffin, but we definitely wanted it to be a Lyon or someone close to the Lyons who made a difference. So we had different candidates leading up to it, and then we just narrowed it down to Kingsley, I think, as we went into breaking the back nine episodes.
Who were some of those candidates?
Mahoney: I mean, it certainly could have been Andre. We felt that in the course of the season, we had done such quality stuff with Andre and built the character out. I felt like he could really be a story engine moving into Season 6, so that's why we moved away from some characters and moved toward others. It's just a matter of who we thought was gonna be the biggest story engine in the future and who would less be of that.
How do you think Kingsley's death will affect the Lyons, particularly Lucious, who was present for his demise, and Andre, who now has his heart?
Mahoney: I think it's going to continue to have an impact on the Lyons. When Tracy (Amanda Detmer) decided that she was going to allow Kingsley's heart to go to Andre, she said it's not gonna be easy, it's not gonna be cheap, and I think she meant that.
There's also Giselle (Nicole Ari Parker) and Becky (Gabourey Sidibe), who, fed up with not receiving credit for their work, decide to strike out on their own and start a new record label. They've been so essential to Empire's bounce back, so how do you think the label will fare without them?
Mahoney: What's interesting about the Becky-Giselle thing is not that they're striking out on their own, but they're striking out on their own to do a project that's for women, about women, that employs women and is creating media and music for women. I think that's so timely. They felt they were women who weren't being paid attention to, so they're gonna start their own thing. As their fempire rises, I don't know what that might mean for Empire.
I want to address the elephant in the room, which is Jussie Smollett. Fox has said that there are no current plans for his character to return, so where does he fit into the show now? Have we seen the last of Jamal?
Mahoney: I don't think any decision like that has been made as of yet. I haven't convened with the writers yet. We haven't started the room for Season 6, so those are things that we'll also tackle as we begin next week.
So the jury's still out on whether or not Jamal will return?
Mahoney: Yeah, we don't have specific plans right now, but we haven't broken the story for that season yet.
It's still early in the process, but what are some themes or stories that you're hoping to dive into next season?
Mahoney: Certainly, we're gonna explore the Cookie-Lucious relationship, which is central to the show. Whether they're together or apart, we're still gonna feel that push and pull between them and what that means. And then, what does it mean for many of the principal people in the family to walk away from Empire? What does it mean that for Empire to survive on its own, with Lucious being on the lam and with Cookie having walked away? There's also gonna be some focus on the fempire in terms of Nicole Ari Parker and Gabby [Sidibe], and they're starting their own business, and what does that mean?
Now that you are entering Season 6, have you begun thinking about the end of the series or has that never crossed your mind?
Mahoney: No, I think that definitely has to be a part of the conversation. Whatever we do, we wanna make sure that it ends strong and so, that's something that's in the back of my head for sure.
So does that mean you know how it will all end?
Mahoney: [laughing] It absolutely does not mean that.
Empire returns for Season 6 this fall on Fox.