Ever since Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) left Lucious (Terrence Howard) in that airport hanger at the end of last season, things have been pretty rocky between the pair on Empire. Their tumultuous back and forth reached its boiling point in Tuesday's midseason finale with a tense standoff that leaves their relationship status up in the air.
The episode, titled "Cold Cold Man," saw Cookie reach a point of desperation in escaping from Lucious for good by holding a gun to his face in an attempt to force him to sign the divorce papers. Rather than give in, Lucious made an emotional plea for them to stay together in one of the season's most memorable scenes. That intimate moment was interrupted by Tracy (Amanda Detmer), who was cruelly rejected by Lucious, and the episode ended with her holding the couple at gunpoint.
With plenty of questions looming as we head into winter hiatus, TV Guide spoke with showrunner Brett Mahoney about that finale shocker and what we can expect when the show returns for its final 10 episodes.
This episode ends with Cookie pointing a gun at Lucious and demanding he signs the divorce papers while Lucious makes an emotional plea for them to stay together. What can you say about their current mental state and what they want out of this relationship?
Brett Mahoney: These are two people who clearly love each other. Whether they're meant to be together is another question. With Lucious, he feels he's done everything she wants in terms of being a better man so he doesn't understand why she's not being there for him, because he was there for her. With Cookie, she knows that he loves her. She knows that she loves him, but she's at a place in her life where she's [questioning things], "Did I make the right decision when I came out of prison? Who am I in a relationship with this man? And maybe I need to see who Loretha is apart from him." She doesn't know whether she can do that with him.
Do you think they're too broken to be repaired or is there still hope for them to potentially make amends?
Mahoney: Neither one of them feels they're too broken beyond repair. I do think [Lucious is] learning, I feel he's working on himself and she's working on herself. But of course, love's all about timing so whether they can come together when they're both healthy and can make the healthy decision to be together, I don't know, but I think there's hope.
They are the heart of the show so it would be interesting to see how they end things. Well, if they're even alive for that.
Mahoney: Regardless, I think whether they're together or apart, they'll always have love for one another. They'll always feel that way.
It was surprising to see Cookie wave that gun in Lucious' face and then shoot above his head. Do you think she's actually capable of shooting him?
Mahoney: In this episode, she is so desperate to be free because that's what she feels she needs for her own mental health. Seeing Yana (Kiandra Richardson) being drawn into Lucious's orbit just reminded her of young Loretha being drawn in the same way, and she just could not stand it anymore.
In true Empire fashion, we have that big emotional scene which is then interrupted when Tracy comes in pointing a gun at both Cookie and Lucious. What is going on with Tracy and how does that set up the second half of the session?
Mahoney: In the back of Tracy's mind this entire time, she's always loved Lucious. Even when she wouldn't admit it to herself, she hoped they would always end up together. She was drawn fast into Lucious' orbit, which is not a healthy place for Tracy, and then she thought she was getting what she wanted... She thought she was finally getting her man and for him to play her like — that sends her back to drugs and into a downward spiral.
Andre's (Trai Byers) story has been really interesting this season. It's like he's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with this alternate Kingsley persona. How will that affect his marriage and his ability to run Empire in those remaining episodes?
Mahoney: [Andre] is in a place in his life where he has everything he could have wanted. He has Empire, he has a beautiful wife and child. All his dreams are coming true, but in his subconscious, he doesn't feel that he's worthy. So, he's created this Kingsley persona to take these things away from him because he just doesn't feel he's worthy. The only path to wholeness for him is to realize that he is worthy and find some sort of healing. If he doesn't do that, he'll lose everything.
It's like imposter syndrome on steroids almost.
Mahoney: Absolutely. It also plays into his being bipolar with all his anti-rejection meds and his heart transplant, it will wreak havoc on his very carefully calibrated bipolar meds. So, there's a chemical imbalance happening as well.
Becky (Gabourey Sidibe), Giselle (Nicole Ari Parker) and Cookie have this incredibly fun dynamic at Bossy Media, but they also have very strong personalities which makes it difficult for them to work together. What are some of the challenges they face in the back half of the season?
Mahoney: They have all the challenges of a struggling label and a new startup but then they also have these strong personalities all trying to work together and roam in one direction That can be challenging trying to work together particularly when they don't have a foundation of trust. For example, Giselle doesn't trust Cookie and [vise versa].
At the beginning of the season, you teased the deaths of both Lucious and Cookie in flash forwards. What was the thought process behind potentially killing off both of your most iconic characters?
Mahoney: It really comes from Lee Daniels who just wanted to be fearless and courageous and willing to tear the whole house down and end in a big way as we come to a conclusion. Nobody is safe.
Can we expect to see more clues about their supposed deaths in the second half of the season? What should we be looking out for?
Mahoney: In the midseason premiere, you're going to see who's pointing that gun at Lucious and you're going to see who's responsible for blowing up that car with Cookie.
What do you hope to accomplish before the show ends?
Mahoney: It's just really finding a way to end it. It's such an iconic series and it was so explosive out of the gate. It's just finding a way to bring it to a conclusion in a way that satisfying and surprising and shocking.
What has that process be like, bringing such an iconic series to a close?
Mahoney: It's really challenging because so many people have so much invested in it and you just want to stick the landing. I think we've had a lot of really great creative sessions about how to get there. It's nice that so many people, you know, from the creator to the studio to the network care so much that we end it correctly.
How would you describe the second half of the season and what can fans expect coming up?
Mahoney: I would describe it as definitively explosive, but also what the fans love most about Empire, about this loving, dysfunctional, but can't-live-with-each-other family. Those are sort of the issues we're dealing with as we close it out in the back 10 episodes. It's about what builds up a family and what tears it down, those two forces coming up against each other, and seeing whether the Lyons can come through that.
Empire returns to Fox with new episodes in 2020.