[Warning: The below contains spoilers from the series finale of Empire, “Home is on the Way,” so if you haven’t seen it yet, come back for what’s yours later.]
Empire may have just aired its series finale, but we may not have heard the last of the Lyons.
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, production on the groundbreaking music soap’s final season was cut short, forcing Fox and the powers-that-be to craft a Plan B for bringing the saga of Lucious (Terrence DaShon Howard) and Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) to a fitting close. “It’s not what we hoped for it,” says executive producer Brett Mahoney. “But it did have the spirit of what we wanted.”
In addition to Lucious’ fatal — and fittingly unexpected — showdown with Damon Cross (Wood Harris), whose bullet meant for Lucious wound up killing the Empire mogul’s protégé and Cross’ own daughter, Yana, the last hurrah set the stage for a Lyons family reunion that definitely felt final. Eldest son Andre (Trai Byers) decided to bail on a spiritual mission out of the country, MIA middle kid Jamal was spotted in a brief flashback, youngest offspring Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) settled into his marriage to social-climbing Maya (Rhyon Nicole Brown), and Cookie embraced her inner Loretha and, together with her ex-husband, managed to wrestle back control of their record label from trifflin’ Giselle (Nicole Ari Parker) and Kelly Patel (Pej Vahdat).
After that, they gathered for a poignant look back at their lives so far and introduced the world premiere of the long-in-the-works biopic about Empire Records starring Hakeem as his father.
“When we realized we had to shut down, we were halfway through shooting episode 19,” continues Mahoney. “We had so much planned to shoot in our series finale, which would have been episode 20, that when we first found out we needed to shut down, I was like ‘Okay, if i can just have five more days of shooting, I can pull together elements of 20 into 19 and give it the ending that we intended.'”
When that option became impossible — “we had to shut down for the health and safety of our cast and crew” — Mahoney instead started to “look at creating a finale from the elements I already had,” ultimately editing in scenes from the partially shot 19th episode into what became the finale.
“I realized that the movie premiere, with the family coming together, with Cookie and Lucious recognizing their love for one another, we definitely have the spirit of what I had intended for our true series finale,” he offers. “It’s almost the idea that the family is more important than the empire. That the love that they have for each other is more important than anything else … that’s definitely where we’re headed in terms of the actual series finale.”
As for what didn’t make the cut, Mahoney admits that he had hoped to finally answer the questions of who shot Lucious and who blew up Cookie’s car. “I was not able to answer that in a satisfying way with what we had shot, so that’s why I’m hoping that we can really still shoot our intended series finale and answer those questions,” he explains.
There was also an expanded arc about Becky (Gabourey Sibide) that was hinted at during her birthday visit from her drug dealer that wound up getting cut. “But hopefully we can actually release those deleted scenes because as a whole, the Becky storyline was really just funny and lovely,” he says.
And that Lucious-Damon throwdown we mentioned earlier? “I will tell you, that was not scripted that way,” laughs Mahoney of the WTF?! moment that saw a near-death Papa Lyons beat back his arch nemesis with an artificial appendage! “I got a call from the writer, director and producer who [were on set] in Chicago that day, telling me that Terrence wanted Lucious to kill Damon with his prosthetic leg. And immediately I was like, ‘Well, it’s crazy…but it could work in a very Empire fashion.’ So I spoke to Terrence and he said, ‘Listen, you know who I am, you know what I do. You just have to trust me.’ And I think it really worked.”
Still, there may be one last verse for hip-hop’s answer to Dynasty. “We have a series finale that we were all so excited about,” Mahoney reiterates, fully aware that it will all depend on when productions are cleared to start up again, cost, and of course, cast availability. “But we have the will to do it, we’ve just got to find a way….and if we’re not actually able to shoot it, you know, maybe we’ll find some creative ways to at least get the script out.”
So stayed tuned folks. This Empire might strike back, too.