[Warning: This post contains spoilers from Empire's series finale. Read at your own risk.]
With Jussie Smollett written out of Season 6 amid the actor's legal woes, questions remained about whether or not he would return as Jamal for Empire's series finale. Though star Taraji P. Henson previously expressed her hope for Smollett to appear before the show ends and showrunner Brett Mahoney said it would be weird not to see him in those final episodes, doubts loomed over the actor's potential return.
Ahead of the final season, Fox entertainment chief Michael Thorn confirmed that Smollett would not come back for the finale, noting that the episode would likely mention him in some form. Forging ahead without the actor who'd been an integral part of the show for the previous five seasons, producers were left with a huge conundrum: how would they pay tribute to this central character without using Smollett's image?
Smollett did not physically appear in Tuesday's finale, titled "Home is on the Way," but the series still found a way to recognize Jamal Lyon during the nostalgic hour. Smollett's character was first referenced late into the episode during a conversation between the family about the precautions they would take with Damon Cross (Wood Harris) still alive and threatening their safety. Lucious (Terrence Howard) spoke on the importance of family, and the camera quickly panned to a photo of the Lyons, Smollett included, standing together.
At the end of the episode, as Hakeem performed a song that touched on his family's legacy, a supercut of their journey across six seasons flashed across the scene. From Lucious' luxuriously permed hair in Season 1 to Cookie's (Taraji P. Henson) shoe-throwing antics to Hakeem's (Bryshere Gray) baby mama drama and Andre's (Trai Byers) mental breakdowns, the montage offered up a two-minute retrospective of the family's tumultuous journey so far. But when it came to Jamal, the series stuck to archival footage of the character during his younger years in lieu of Smollett's adult version.
"The character was a huge part of this show and to the extent that we could, we wanted to honor that," Mahoney told TV Guide.
Cookie and Lucious' second son, though not present in this last season, was a central figure in some of the show's most groundbreaking storylines. The show's depiction of Jamal in a normal and loving relationship with Kai, who is HIV positive, educated viewers on the realities of living with the disease while also chipping away at some of that stigma. Plus, their marriage at the end of Season 5 broke ground as primetime's first gay black wedding. Jamal's legacy within the show is hard to ignore and owing to that, the show did right by the character in those final moments, even if they couldn't include Smollett.