Post Mortems
empire recap season 3 premiere

Empire EP Explains Why [Spoiler] Met a 'Grisly' End in Season 3 Premiere

To put a perverse twist on a Hakeem Lyon jam, a series-regular character went “drop-drop, drop-droppity-drop” — with fatal consequences — in Empire‘s Season 3 premiere.

That either Anika Calhoun or Rhonda Lyon — last seen in the Season 2 finale brawling at the edge of a high-rise balcony — plummeted into the open arms of the Grim Reaper seemed an inevitability. But according to showrunner Ilene Chaiken, she and series creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong didn’t decide who was damned until well after that fight sequence was shot.

Before we dive into the hows and whys of — spoiler alert, obvs — Rhonda’s smashing exit, a recap of the action from the Season 3 premiere, “Light in Darkness.”

WHITE CHICK, DOWN! | As the hour opens, Rhonda plummets from the roof of Lucious and Anika’s impromptu wedding hall onto a parked car. The look on her face says it all: She dead. As Andre anrgily confronts Anika up on the roof for killing his wife, his father’s new bride (¡who happens to be carrying his brother’s child!) ups the drama with a perfectly timed breaking of her water. (It’s the cirrrrrcle of life… and death!)

THERE’S GOT TO BE A MOURNING AFTER… RIGHT? | Aside from Andre’s declaration that he and God are officially done, nobody’s exactly reaching for an extra Kleenex in the wake of Rhonda’s demise. In fact, Lucious slips into the delivery room in faux support of Anika and whispers threats and strategies into her ear. “Speaking of push, you see those cops out there,” he grins, in a moment that would fit comfortably next to “putting young Jamal in a trash can” on his Top 10 Nastiest Moments. Lucious concocts a story that Rhonda tried to jump and take Anika with her — and he expects his new bride to sell it like Mirage a Trois made us all crave mimosas for a hot minute back in Season 2.

I almost expect another murder to happen when the doc’s all, “Congrats, it’s a girl!” and Lucious (who’d been told by Anika that she was carrying a male heir) screws up his face up in a misogynistic scowl that is the opposite of #ImWithHer. Perhaps it’s just a homicide delayed, though, since Anika (having to look like a real spouse to avoid testifying against Lucious) is forced to move into the Lyon patriarch’s mansion, where his knife-wiedling mother is hissing, “I know you’re trying to poison me.” I know one grandma who just got crossed off Boo-Boo Kitty’s “potential babysitters” list.

1emp-s3_301-sc5-ch_0416_f_hires1GUESS WHO’S COMING TO (DISRUPT) DINNER? | Lucious’ law-enforcing, vengeance-seeking half brother Tariq accepts a dinner invite from Papa Lyon, and uses the opportunity to rattle the cages of every member of the family. Fake-ass Lena Horne locks lips with Lucious — the better to stop Tariq from accepting her hubby’s invite to examine their bedsheets — while Tariq crassly wonders why Cookie is willing to “play second fiddle to this mulato bitch.” Our Lady of Legendary Wednesday Night Quips declines to serve up verbal bitchery for the interloper, though, instead asking if he’d like a to-go bag and directing him to the exit. Make no mistake, though: Cookie may be putting on a united front, but her feelings toward her ex are about as warm as Elizabeth Warren and that wretched Wells-Fargo CEO. She ends the hour telling him “After tonight, I think I’m done, Lucious” and asking for a wall in which she handles Empire’s music, he handles Empire’s business and they stay out of each other’s business. And he agrees to the terms of the deal — to prove he loves her.

IT AIN’T OVER ‘TIL THE WHITE LADY SEETHES | Talk about me burying the lede! Rhonda returns at the end of the hour — in Andre’s imagination — and she is in full Machiavellian, “tell me about how you took Deputy Mayor Alvarez in the bathroom” mode. As Andre weeps that his inaction ruined everything, Rhonda whispers, “Andre did mess up — but you should’ve thought about that before you let that bitch murder me.” And then she reminds Andre that without her, he doesn’t know how to manage his meds, his father, his existence. “Without me, you’re just some Philly thug with mental problems.” Damn! Death has made Rhonda cold in more ways than one! Here’s where I hallucinate Tim Gunn on my living room couch asking, “What about Andre? Who’s looking out for Andre?!

1emp-s3_301-sc24-ch_0112_f_hires1IN OTHER NEWS | Lucious’ latest scheme involves dressing like a Great Gatsby character, playing poker with hip-hop power players and trying to buy the catalog of a rival rap legend for his new streaming service. Jilted groom Hakeem shows up at Tiana’s and while her mouth says “pull up your pants, fool,” her eyes look misguidedly wistful about the visit. Shyne is back, and no longer playing the drunken jester: He crashes Hakeem’s recording session, violently assault’s Hakeem’s producer, and (improbably) winds up (with his own protege Nessa) laying down tracks for the youngest Lyon son later in the week. (Their resultant jam, “Bossed Up,” is pretty hot, though.) Jamal, still recovering from being shot by Freda, is becoming reliant on painkillers — but they can’t prevent a bout of PTSD during a huge Empire event where he flees the stage at the start of his “Need Freedom”/”Free Freda” political anthem. No worries, Nessa grabs the mic and slays — all day — like she’s heeding Beyoncé’s call to get in formation. Oh, and Tariq’s got a hidden camera in a teddy bear in Bella’s nursery!

Now, let’s get to our Q&A with Ilene Chaiken to break down the premiere’s pivotal moments.

empire-rhonda-diesTVLINE | Why did Rhonda have to die? And did you know she was going to be on the losing end of that brawl with Anika when you wrote the Season 2 finale?
When we wrote the Season 2 finale, we did not know who was going over the balcony. We love both of those characters and both of those actresses — and we didn’t want to lose either one of them. It was an incredibly difficult situation that we wrote ourselves into. After we shot the scene, I said, “You realize what this means? One of these women is not coming back.” And my two dear colleagues [creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong] went, “No, no, they have to come back! We love them!” And I said, “Well, it’s not too late. We could change our minds and not use the scene.” And they were like, “No, we love the scene. We love the scene.”

So, while we were all devastated by this scenario, we live in a world where if someone gets thrown off of a balcony 50 stories up, that person dies. [Laughs] We had to honor that, and we had to make our choice. We didn’t make that choice based on anything in the real world, nothing along the lines of, “I like this person better.” But in that moment, when you look at Andre’s face, it felt like [Rhonda] was the one who fell. And while we had every intention of having both of those characters in our stories for years to come, we had to think about how we’d set up the Anika story for Season 3. What is the point of having Anika marry Lucious in that twisted scene at the end of our finale if we’re not going to go forward and tell that story? Ultimately, that tipped the decision.

TVLINE | Since last May’s finale, I’ve seen some back and forth in the TVLine comments section pointing out that the death of Rhonda would mean killing off the only white series-regular character in your ensemble — not that we don’t see the sole black character get killed all the time on any number of network TV shows. I also saw a recent reader remark that it would be especially cruel to kill Rhonda considering she’d already been pushed down a flight of stairs, lost her baby, and didn’t have anyone believe her when she realized Anika had assaulted her. How would you address those types of complaints?
I would say that death doesn’t take any of those factors into consideration. Death makes her own decisions. She doesn’t reason these things out the way we do. And in real life, fairness is not the deciding factor in these random events. Someone to whom all those terrible things happened is certainly not less likely to meet with a grisly end, is she?

TVLINE | You did manage to bring Rhonda back at the end of the hour — via Andre’s hallucination. Did that scene spring from your desire to not say goodbye quite yet to a cast member who’s been with you since Day One?
Yes, it was a way to keep Rhonda and Kaitlin Doubleday on the show. We adore her and her presence in the show. But we wouldn’t have done anything that didn’t seem right or interesting or true to character. Because of Andre’s mental issues — and because we’ve spent a lot of time inside his head, and in his psychological-emotional inner life – it felt like a real opportunity to reflect his process of grieving, coping and coming apart.

TVLINE | Will we see more “Rhonda” in upcoming episodes?
We might very well. I don’t want to answer any further than that.

TVLINE | I have to say I loved Anika’s delivery scene — with Lucious whispering into her ear about “pushing.” Which raises the question: How does Anika fit in the Lyon family going forward? That whole scenario is pretty messed up.
Isn’t that the beauty of it? Anika is in a predicament. They all are — but Anika is, in particular. The Lyons have accepted to some extent that she’s still in the mix, but they haven’t embraced her warmly. And now she’s living under the same roof with Lucious and Leah — and crossing paths with Cookie and Andre — and it’s going to be uncomfortable to say the least. Certainly, there will be ramifications to all of it. Suffice to say, that story is not yet resolved.

empire lucious season 3TVLINE | Is Lucious possibly more sinister than ever?
There will always be dark corners that we haven’t yet turned with Lucious Lyon. And I said this to you after last spring’s finale, the theme of Season 3 of Empire is dark versus light, the battle for the soul of the Lyon family and the empire. And Lucious, not too surprisingly, represents the pull to the dark side.

TVLINE | We saw Lucious taunt Jamal during a PTSD flareup, express anger over Andre not returning to work right after Rhonda’s death, and antogonizing Hakeem about taking his place as Bella’s father. Did you feel like it was necessary to go there to justify Cookie’s decision to truly break from him romantically?
In truth, we didn’t write him to behave that way in order to give Cookie that motivation, but it plays into it. It’s who Lucious is and it’s what Cookie is coming to see. But at the same time, Lucious will always show two sides. He has a remarkable ability to be vile and loving — both at once. And in this episode, you see Cookie trying to really separate from him, and we give her lots of reasonz to do so. But going forward, you’ll see more of the old tenderness between them, too, because Lucious can bring it. He’s not going to make it easy.

TVLINE | The other last-minute surprise was the “Teddy-cam” in Baby Bella’s nursery — one that Tariq is watching intently.
You’ve got the nanny cam that allows Lucious to watch the nursey through his internal surveillance system, but that bear is there unbeknownst to Lucious, Anika or anyone else. It will definitely have a consequence.

What did you think of the Empire Season 3 premiere? Were you shocked that Rhonda died? Was it the right move to kill her off? Grade the hour in our poll, then sound off in the comments!

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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  1. laurelnev says:

    MAN…I had SO HOPED it were Anika who was to go down. I only hope she goes down proverbially now.

  2. Greg says:

    Lol you really liked that Bottomless Mimosas song.

  3. William says:

    I’m enjoying Tariq’s presence on the show because he isn’t intimidated by Lucifier. It makes absolutely no sense at all to me how Cookie and the kids continue to protect this ungrateful man, who purposely goes out of his way to emotionally toy with each of them. It honestly makes me dislike Cookie because I want to see her win independently. I’m ready for Lucifer to be exposed, to face the consequences of his despicable behavior.

  4. Jason says:

    I’m amused by the notion that death wrote that scene on the balcony. I didn’t notice that writing credit. Also, it’s hard to call something “random” when you’re actually creating it. Unless they have a dart board with a bunch of assorted tragedies written on it. Maybe they almost landed on “Andre gets trampled by elephants” or “Lucious has a heart attack while riding a tilt-a-whirl.”

  5. Brian says:

    Not at all surprised Rhonda died, but still sad about it. I liked her way over Anika.

  6. Suso says:

    Thanks for bringing up my specific complaint to Ilene, Slezak. You rock. It’s a pity her answer was such a cop out… Since obviously “death” doesn’t write “Empire.”

  7. E.Thomas says:

    I was so disappointed Anika was alive! Why didn’t you save the baby and kill her off??? Let Lucious Mama kill Anika off!!! Lucious and Cookie belong together

  8. I had completely forgotten how last season had ended so seeing the first scene and that it was Rhonda was a SHOCK.

  9. Bernadette says:

    Please bring Rhonda back. She added Balance

  10. Hazel Harris says:

    I absolutely love Empire, I wanted Anika to stay around so she can get her ‘just deserts’!!!!

  11. abz says:

    That entire dinner scene was ridiculous to me. I understand the need to suspend disbelief and how overtop this show is and of course that was part of the draw and I enjoyed it, but there comes a point where the characterization and the behaviours that the characters exhibit have to make some sense. Sure Jamal went off on Lucious after his panic attack at the concert, but hearing Jamal list ALL of the terrible things Lucious has done just to him alone and then ending it with “but that’s my father”. I can understand that Jamal was just trying to outline that no one outside of their family unit can break them down, but this was just another example of the problematic writing I see. Lucious repeatedly keeps hurting and destroying the lives of everyone around him (Cookie, Jamal, Andre, Hakeem) and they lash out at him but they keep getting sucked back in. They’re all stuck. They know what a toxic presence he is in their lives, but they keep failing in their attempts to get rid of him.
    I hope this season will actually focus on taking down Lucious. I know Lucious has been necessary to keep the villain role on the show and create the drama, but after two seasons, it’s getting tired. It’s not realistic of everyone constantly forgiving Lucious’s behaviour and moving on. If they had any strength left in them, they’d work together to push him out of their lives for good.

    • Crys says:

      Be glad you don’t watch Shameless. The same thing has been happening on that show for WAY more seasons. And I don’t know if your correct; people in real life stay with the toxic members of their families forever as well. I hate Lucious and Frank (the dad from Shameless) but I continue to watch so maybe I’m one of those people who keep toxic tv characters around. Lol.

      • Cas says:

        I love Shameless! And Frank is awesome but a terrible person and parent. Gives me many laughs though. But I agree that people in real life stay with their toxic family members for way longer. I think it is easy for someone to say “well I wouldn’t” when they don’t actually have a toxic family member.

    • Annie says:

      He is their father, and Cookie’s first love, so it makes sense that they don’t completely turn on them. It’s actual the most realistic thing about the show. They are stuck, because they have this need for his approval, love, and money, but they also know that he is going to continue hurting them. From a drama standpoint, they all need to be stronger. They don’t have to win all of the time, but it is not fun to see Luscious winning all of the time, or to see that on one in the immediate family has a backbone.

      • abz says:

        Yeah I understand how people can be stuck and continuously getting sucked in by a toxic family member. It just feels like Lucious is on a whole other level sometimes especially given the heightened soap opera dramatic nature of the show.
        Hearing Jamal list some of the things Lucious did to him and the fact that he got shot because of Lucious and then in the same moment defending him was a little ridiculous. I was absolutely disgusted at Lucious’ actions after Jamal’s panic attack and when Lucious did the hand gun sign on Jamal’s neck. In the end, I agree. It just isn’t fun to see them constantly losing to Lucious all of the time. I hope they can finally start taking him down.

    • Ms Paige says:

      Aaaaamen!!! I couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s actually becoming phony and unbelievable the rate at which they forgive him and/or continue to deal with him. Hopefully it’ll all make sense eventually, or this is just bad writing.

    • asg says:

      That is reality.I have a toxic family member that I’ve had to deal with and still deals with for a long time.My mom.She continues to hurt me mentally and emotionally but I get sucked in every time to her malicious and methodical ways.I am stuck for real.I thought I had moved on but I get drawn back in.

  12. Matt C. says:

    I was so shocked and mad that Rhonda died that I was barely paying attention for the next 20 minutes or so, but by the end of the episode, I was hooked once again. I just hope they don’t spend this season giving Anika a redemption arc. I already disliked her character from the start, but killing Rhonda was the point of no return.

  13. Yolanda says:

    I love how they decided to kill the only regular white character. And the only character who was actually good.

    • S says:

      Rhonda added nothing to this show. They couldn’t figure out what to do with her so they pushed her off a building. Problem solved.

      With this show devolving into a daytime soap, maybe she’ll return from the dead, or her evil twin will show up.

    • Annie says:

      Based on the ending, she is still on the show. She’ll probably have more screen time this season that she did last season. My question, are you as upset when shows kill off the only black character?

  14. S says:

    This show has turned into a tire fire. I hope they can get it back on track this year.

  15. I really hope this season the writers show Cookie with a little control of her life instead of always showing Luscious with the upper hand. Every time it seems Cookie is going to be independent and run her own (or her share of the family business), the writers have Luscious swoop in to take away any power she may have. As far as Rhonda is concerned, it will be interesting to see if Andre can hold it together.

  16. Anthony Ejiofor. says:

    I really don’t like that Rhonda died. But since the creators have really put up that scene at all,
    I think the only choice was to take out one of them. Since the series has to go on. I think and I have expected it would be Rhonda that would go. Anike would make up good stories in the subsequent episodes I think. so it is only slightly good that Anika stayed. I
    wished that scene never came at all. it would have been better.

  17. Mrmcgee says:

    If the balcony scene had happened mid season 2, it would’ve been Anika to die because they had no clue what to do with her character last year (remember the blind wig?). I liked that This was ambitious and devious in her own way, but her character was always on sidelines our in her own bubble story.

    I did think the premiere was decent though. No Cookie in a gorilla suit or fifty guest stars. I wish Becky and Tiana had more to do since they’re regulars.

  18. niloofar says:

    terrible Anika lives, eww! 😒

  19. dancmh says:

    Far too many Value City Sofas had to be skinned alive to make Cookie’s outfits last night. it was like an unconventional challenge on Project Runway.

  20. LOL says:

    Everything they just said screams bad writing/planning. They wrote themselves into a corner basically and had to kill off one of their more likable characters to get out of it. Anika as a character has been a mess from day one. It was her time to go.

  21. Curly Gurly says:

    Well, that scene where Andre was choking Anika must’ve been awkward, as they are married in real life now! LOL

  22. Sashema Toney says:

    I really wished it was Anika who fell. You shouldn’t have killed off Ronda! Since u killed her off, can u at least let the truth about her fall come out???

  23. Tennisnsun says:

    This was my first time watching Empire for an entire hour. I tried several times to get interested last season but after 10 minutes I was gone. I forced myself to sit it through this time after reading that several fine actors would be joining the show. I am glad I did. The balcony scene was a great way to get my attention and I laughed my head off when Lucifer whispered threats in Anika’s ear as she was giving birth!

  24. andrew hass says:

    I knew it had to be Rhonda who died because there were story possibilities for Annika since she just married Lucious because itf it had been Annika who died then there was nothing stopping Lucious and Cooke from reuniting.Also i don’t think Empire would have killed a pregnnat woman.Plus i’m wondering Annika starts hallucinating Rhonda or Rhonda keeps appearing to Andre in different ways.

  25. “Nessa grabs the mic and slays — all day — like she’s heeding Beyoncé’s call to get in formation.”
    LOL, excellent recap. It was fun and a great read. And you couldn’t help yourself with the droppity drop reference, could you? Poor Rhonda. She went boom, boom, boom, boom, drop, drop, bang, bang *hangs head in shame * (I’m no better). Too soon.
    I appreciate hearing from showrunner Ilene Chaiken but I have to say, there’s something disingenuous about saying, oh we love the character and had every intention of telling her story for years to come, and oops, “Death” chose her and we decided to go along with it to keep that one cliff hanger scene that could have been written differently. Which is it? Are you in control of the story or not? Pfft.

  26. Lori says:

    I was rooting for Team Rhonda all summer, bye Boo Boo Kitty, not :(

  27. suleman says:

    Men. I only hoped Anika goes down there

  28. Tina says:

    Bring Rhonda back

  29. Linda says:

    I knew all along that it would have been Rhonda. They wouldnt’ have killed off Anika just after marrying Luscious and knowing that the actress is married to the actor Andre, they weren’t going to get rid of her.

  30. Shanna says:

    Yall in that dinner scene with tariq i died. Cookie was trying to hold back jamal. But who they really should of been holding back was andre cause baby when he snapped at the man i thought he was bout to hop across that table. He play that part a little too well cause even i was a little scared lol frfr

  31. madgavkar says:

    This sucks so hard. I’m sick and tired of Anika, Rhonda will be sorely missed. Poor girl never even got to prove Anika was the one guilty of pushing her.

  32. Allison says:

    I feel cheated… Rhonda was the most sane of that entire twisted family and suffered continually at the hands of “Boo Boo Terrible” eventually leading to her death. Seems like Boo Boo can do no wrong and gets away with murder (pun intended). There are enough dastardly characters in the show to keep it interesting. Personally I would have preferred Anika to go over that balcony.

  33. Becky says:

    I love Empire but was really disappointed in the 1st episode! Rhonda should have lived. This episode was ugly…nothing good happened. Too dark, not funny. If this continues I am giving up on the Empire!

  34. Angela says:

    Spell check before you post.

  35. c day says:

    Wow, I’m so disappointed with Empire tonite. I’ve been a huge fan, but for them to use the show to ostersize their white audience by trying to show every white officer is a racist is upsetting. Obviously, they don’t care if they offend their white audience while promoting more violence. I understand there’s a few bad apples in LE but we can only
    hope the good outnumber the few or where does that leave us as a society.

  36. i would have liked to see Rhonda live and go all psycho and steal the baby or have anika fall and she dies but the baby lives and Rhonda and Andre raise it. since what goes around comes around and Anika cause Rhonda to lose hr child. i love it when Luscious plays the hot smoldering always on the edge of losing it over cookie especially when there is another man sniffing on her trail. Too hot!!!