"Never in million years did I think it would end like this," Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) pondered at the start of this week's Empire. The episode, titled "Stronger than My Rival," kicked off with another flash-forward nine months into the future that alluded to Cookie's untimely demise.
Those ominous words followed the startling scene in which we again saw the Lyon family matriarch rushing to her car and sitting inside before the black luxury vehicle explodes -- presumably with her inside. This time, however, she read a mysterious note that enraged her. We don't know what lead her to this moment or if she's still behind the wheel when her car goes up in flames. What's clear, though, is that something bad is going to happen to Cookie, and it probably has to do with her estranged husband Lucious (Terrence Howard), whose shocking death was also teased earlier in the season.
Empire has never shied away from killing off major characters who aren't core members of the Lyon family in grand fashion -- remember Boo Boo Kitty's (Grace Byers) tumble over a balcony in Season 4? -- but with the show poised to end after this season, it looks like no one is safe, not even Cookie.
"I was blown away like the car," Taraji P. Henson told TV Guide of her initial reaction to the flash-forward. The vignette suggests that Cookie will die in the near future, but as we've learned from the past, that might not necessarily be the case. "On Empire, things are never what they seem," she teased.
Although Cookie's fate remains painfully unknown, Tuesday's episode left no questions about the status of her relationship with Lucious. Still bitter that Cookie left him at the airport last season, Lucious has been at odds with her, leading to a tumultuous back-and-forth that saw Cookie publicly announce that Empire was founded on her drug money. Lucious denied this claim, revealing that he blew through her cash in months and was forced to steal from a friend in order to fund his debut album and thus the company. Hurt and tired of fighting, Cookie finally put an end to their current feud over their luxe mansion by yielding the home to Lucious. The hour ended with Cookie yet again walking out on her husband, though it appears to be for good this time. It's been a long time coming for a character who, in the past, has had trouble leaving him and his never-ending issues behind.
"This man has been manipulating her since she was a child and now she's an adult with three grown children and she still can't free herself from his pull," Henson explained. "I think a lot of people will identify with her this season, the struggle to find herself in that and to free herself from that because she knows that it no longer serves her."
Cookie's decision to leave her toxic marriage wasn't just made on a whim. It's the result of her ongoing therapy sessions, which have helped her deal with her conflicted feelings about Lucious. "He's been doing so well putting a guilt trip on her. He's a great puppeteer and he's been pulling at her heartstrings for years and that's just not something you can easily free yourself from. That's why she's in therapy," Henson added. "It's bittersweet and it's heartbreaking, but Lucious has a hard head. He's stuck in his ways. It's his way or the highway, so she chose the highway."
A good chunk of this season will see Cookie continually receiving professional help from her therapist (Keesha Sharp) as she attempts to break free of that vicious cycle with Lucious and finally start taking proper care of herself. "Cookie is trying to spread her wings. At some point, before she turns to dust in the ground, she needs to live a life that fulfills her needs instead of fulfilling everyone else's needs," Henson said. Given her family's penchant for drama and Lucious' persuasive nature, however, that might be easier said than done.
With Empire winding down and Cookie's journey nearing the finish line, the reality that Henson will soon have to let go of the animal print-loving powerhouse is starting to sink in. "It's bittersweet because she's meant so much to so many people for so long. But I'd rather go out on top and I'd rather the people just have a great feeling about her as opposed to riding the thing out. Do people want more? Who knows, maybe we'll give them more. A lot of shows are coming back," Henson said. "Well, we have to see if these characters make it out alive first."
The show hasn't even wrapped yet but Cookie's legacy as one of TV's most unforgettable characters has already been cemented. Her bold fashions, fierce attitude, and sharp one-liners have left an immeasurable imprint not just on pop culture at large, but on Henson herself.
"Playing Cookie has really made me lean into my 'Don't take no sh-- from nobody.' I've always been kind of like that, but she reminds us that you're free if you come from up under the shadows of your fear. It's just like if you know who you are and you own it, no one can use your past or you against you because you already beat them to the punch."
"This has been one of the most incredible joy rides of my career," she continued. "This show taught me about my power in this industry and about my worth because Cookie came in kicking down the door, and that's where I got 'roaring like a lion' from. I felt like I was held back in this industry. You keep telling me I don't sell overseas and then Cookie came through waving the .44 like, 'What?' It took overseas by storm. This job, this role, this experience, this beautiful cast, this brand I will have for the rest of my life."
Empire airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on Fox.