'Empire' Series Finale: Why Jussie Smollett Isn't in Any Flashbacks
Warning: Do not proceed if you have not watched Tuesday’s series finale of Empire. You are entering major spoiler territory.
Empire said goodbye (for now) to Lucious and Cookie Lyon, sending them off on a high note.
At the end of Tuesday’s series finale, which wasn’t the intended ending producers had in mind, the Lyon family came back together for good, after six seasons of near-death experiences, family in-fighting and power shifts — and so, so many delicious Cookie one-liners (i.e. “Bye Felicia,” “Boo Boo Kitty”).
“This is what we wanted to end with,” showrunner and executive producer Brett Mahoney tells ET of the series’ final episode, cobbled together from the 18th and 19th episodes. “The family is together and these family bonds — despite all the drama, despite all the things that have pulled them apart — they’ve come together, unweathered and are celebrated and happy.”
Of course, the Lyons wouldn’t be the Lyons without some major drama kick things up to 100. After family nemesis Damon Cross fatally shot his own daughter, aspiring singer Yana, his original target, Lucious, took it upon himself to bring Damon down once and for all — but not before writing a farewell love note to Cookie in case things went awry. Fortunately, things didn’t go haywire for the Lyon patriarch and after killing Damon in a bloody fight, Cookie and Lucious — realizing their epic love story wasn’t over — reunited, with their sons, Hakeem and Andre, by their side.
As Mahoney tells ET of the series finale, producers are holding out hope that they’ll finish out the Lyons’ story on their terms. But until that day comes, the showrunner reveals what would have happened in the original swan song, why embattled former star Jussie Smollett is nowhere to be seen in flashback footage and if a spinoff is really in the cards.
ET: Empire was one of dozens of productions that abruptly shut down due to the coronavirus outbreak. The show is in such a unique spot because it isn’t returning next year. How much did you have to tweak this episode so it could still serve as a fulfilling series finale?
Brett Mahoney: It was a great deal of work because this isn’t what we intended to be a series finale. We shut down as we were in the middle of shooting our penultimate episode — episode 19 — and so we still had half of 19 and we had all of our intended series finale [left to film]. But luckily there were elements in what we had shot of 19 that had the spirit of what we wanted to eventually go through in our series finale, in terms of putting the Lyons over Empire, in terms of Cookie and Lucious recognizing their love for one another.
What was supposed to happen is there was a moment in episode 19, which you see here where the family comes together and is celebrating this moment [at the Empire movie premiere]. And then it gets all turned upside down as we go into our series finale. And then they come back together at the end. But because we had that moment on film — it had the spirit of what we wanted for the finale — I thought I could make that work as as a finale, and if it had to be our series finale. It was a matter of cobbling together what we had had shot because we had finished episode 18, cutting out parts of 18 to pull forward elements of episode 19 that we had shot to make it one hopefully fulfilling episode.
Was there anything in the unfinished episode 19 and the series finale that you wish you could have filmed or fans could have seen?
Well, I want the whole series finale to be seen, and our hope and dream is that whenever production starts again that hopefully one day we’ll be able to shoot the actual series finale. There were all sorts of elements in episode 18 that I had to pull out that I miss. Maybe we’ll put those deleted scenes online at some point because there was the whole Becky storyline that has to come out that is really funny and light. It’s about her working on the Bossyfest. And then there’s Cookie confronting her about her cocaine use and her turning away from the drug. There’s a whole element of that that had to come out.
You touched on this briefly, but Lee Daniels and Danny Strong both expressed desires to one day film a “proper” ending. What conversations have you all had regarding that? What are the chances of that actually happening someday?
That’s a conversation that the creators and the executive producers and the network and the studio all had. We think the show is so important that we do want to end it in the way that we intended it. I don’t know if it’s going to be possible. Who knows when we’re going to be able to start shooting again and who’s going to be available and what will happen? But I do think that there is a spirit from all of us to really want to film the actual ending that we intended. If for some reason we can’t, we’ll find some creative way to get it out there, whether it’s releasing the actual script or doing something. We’ll find some way.
It was determined pretty early on that Jussie Smollett wouldn’t be back for this final run. How difficult was it to come to that decision?
I think it was tremendously difficult in the sense that Jussie is such a big part of the show, especially when it’s a family show. He is a very important member of the family, so it was very difficult to think of closing and ending the series without him.
He isn’t in any of the flashback montages in the finale. Was that a calculated choice? Was that intentional on your part?
You see him as young Jamal, so Jamal is represented, but Jussie is not there, that’s true. I would talk to the network about their choice about that.
What was the original ending for Jamal if things had played out differently? Did you have that scene in mind?
No. Beyond the fact that he was definitely living his life in London, happily married because they adopted a baby. The idea that he would always be, to some degree, critical of Empire in some way, but I don’t know what I would’ve [done]. If I had the opportunity to have him, I would’ve come up with something important and great and integrate it into the story.
I feel like Lucious has defied death so many times on the show and death stared him in the face twice in this finale. Was killing him off ever a viable option? I feel like I ask this question myself every season, multiple times…
(Laughs.) Yeah. Because you have to think about the way this show is and the way that the creators designed the show so that he could be fearless. You have to think that everything could have been on the table.
In the end, Lucious and Cookie rekindle their romance and they’re also back in control of Empire. Was this always the game plan?
Definitely. The game plan was to recognize that the two of them loved each other and that they were a family.
What does their life look like now that they’re reunited again?
I think that’s a good question and if we ever get to actually shoot the real series finale, it speaks to that. One thing for sure, I think you recognize that these two love each other.
Andre has a change of heart and decides to stay instead of going on the mission trip. Does he reconcile with Teri?
What I will say is I’m not quite clear he could reconcile with Teri, just in the sense that Teri has been through a lot. But I do think that he will have smoother waters moving forward. He’s going to find happiness and he’s going to find happiness in the sense that he is going to be a stable influence and be able to raise his son and be in his son’s life. And that’s the happy ending that we’ve given him.
What about Hakeem?
The idea — and this is giving away a little bit of [the original series finale] — but the idea is that they all move forward with plans for themselves, recognizing that they all are Lyons and love each other. But being a Lyon and family is more important than Empire. So that means Hakeem can go off and be a movie star and live his own life, possibly in L.A. It doesn’t have to be in the day-to-day of Empire and same with Andre. He can go and live a productive life without having to be under the roof of Empire, but that that family will always be together.
Who did you want to bring back that you couldn’t in the final season?
Well, the one person who I didn’t… (Pauses.) I’m not going to give it away… We were able to bring a lot of people back to this one. I don’t think there’s anyone who I longed for that we could not [get], beyond the fact that it was difficult to craft it without having Jamal.
Empire broke a lot of barriers on television. What is the Empire legacy to you?
Absolutely and I think it is amazing, as a viewer and now having worked on it. I think that the legacy will be that you can have a show, a drama with an African American cast that is going to have universal appeal and be a mega hit. It has changed the landscape, not just on television but also on film. I think that Empire laid the groundwork to allow for Black Panther. You can have television shows that celebrate these people of color and a universal audience will come if you’re telling truthful, great stories and you have great actors like we had.
In addition to that, it’s not just the in-front-of-the-camera legacy of diversity that this has contributed to. But the writers of the show who have been through the show… where the writers, the directors, the cinematographer, the costume design people, these are all people from Empire who will go off to greater things but also, when you see other shows, other movies embracing diversity and creating jobs and allowing people to really succeed and allow these diverse communities to succeed, I think that’s the legacy.
Earlier this year, there had been rumblings about possibly continuing this universe in some way, shape or form, and whether that means a spinoff. Is there any truth to the rumors?
I’m not involved in any, but I can imagine that these are such beloved characters and I can imagine many, many, many stories that many of these different characters have to tell. So I could imagine both the studio and the network wanting to do that. I don’t know firmly what those plans are, but I mean, it would make sense to me.
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