Score one for Cookie on this week’s Empire — and we do mean score.
Taraji P. Henson’s magnificent matriarch finally got her man — at least for a night — when she and ex-husband Lucious (Terrence Howard) escalated their living-room slow dance into a full-fledged “Dancing in the Sheets” situation at the end of the eventful hour.
The ex-spouses succumbed to their desire after Lucious gathered his family — sons Jamal, Hakeem and Andre, plus Andre’s wife Rhonda and, of course, Cookie — to reveal his ALS diagnosis. Unfortunately for Empire’s head honcho, his fiancée Anika returned to their mansion and secretly spied Lucious helping Cookie hit a high note (if I’m not being too subtle).
We caught up with Empire‘s showrunner Ilene Chaiken to talk about Lucious’ love triangle, Andre’s devastating response to his father’s illness, and Hakeem and Jamal’s ongoing feud and continued artistic collaboration (as well as the end of Jamal’s romance with Michael and Hakeem’s still illicit affair with Camilla).
TVLINE | Let’s talk about the end of the episode — Cookie and Lucious finally hook up. Their dance and their kiss happened in the same room where a couple episodes ago we saw Lucious proposing to Anika. We also had the scene of Lucious in the ambulance — looking back and forth and deciding who was going to ride with him. You play a lot of back and forth between the two romantic relationships Lucious is juggling — and they couldn’t be more different.
Here’s what we believe: Cookie is Lucious’ one. It’s just so clear. And it was clear from the moment they appeared on screen together. It’s a chemistry between the actors, but it’s really the characters that Lee Daniels and Danny Strong created. There’s just such an extraordinary connection. That said, we also believe everything Lucious says he means. When he tells Anika he loves her, when he asks her to marry him, it’s not just scheming, it’s not just self-serving. It’s what he wants in the moment. And how many men have we known just like that?
TVLINE | Obviously, everybody loves Cookie and roots for her — but Anika showed us this week that she’s willing to play dirty by slipping drugs into Elle Dallas’ drink and sabotaging her comeback performance. She’s in a death match to hang on to what she feels is rightfully hers.
Absolutely. And Anika showed us all she’s not to be messed with. She’s a formidable opponent for Cookie — and we shouldn’t disregard her by any means. She’s playing to win.
TVLINE | I do love how Cookie calls her “Boo-Boo Kitty.” Where did that come from?
As I understand it, that was Taraji all the way. [Laughs]
TVLINE | Tonight we also saw a new side of Cookie, where she commanded a room full of potential investors. On paper, that’s crazy: She just spent 17 years in jail and suddenly she can pull of an impromptu speech to help generate support for an IPO? And yet as it played out, it somehow didn’t seem far-fetched.
We didn’t struggle with that dynamic — but we certainly talked about it. The first thing to think about is, yes, she did spend 17 years in jail, but before that she ran a successful drug business, she had $400,000 on which Empire was started. She has some skills and she knew what she was doing. That’s not something to be taken lightly. Beyond that, there’s always the possibility that she learned in jail — that she studied business. But much more importantly, she has natural skills — she knows how to work a room, she can talk the talk and she’s the smartest person in the room other than Lucious. And Lucious knows that when he chooses her. That part of the character is a lot of Cookie and a lot of Taraji.
TVLINE | This is a hard thing to articulate, but I feel like on Empire, there’s a camp factor that the character of Cookie is well aware of and plays up — she rocks these outfits, she’s genuinely funny with “Oh, and Anika, this is an ass” — but it’s not a camp factor that necessarily pervades the show itself. It’s this fine line, and it’s about an awareness of campiness rather than an unintentional campiness.
You articulated it perfectly and I’m so glad you said it, because I feel that way, too. There is some delicious camp to the show, but it’s real. It’s the camp of life. These are real characters who behave this way in life. And one of the reasons this show works is because these people are real — and why not make a show about people who are this interesting and colorful and fun and large?
TVLINE | Cookie and Lucious are so fun as adversaries — but the chemistry between them is clearly electric. How do you navigate what’s soon for them to be coming together — and how hard it might be to sustain the story if they’re on the same side?
To talk about it specifically would be giving away spoilers — which I don’t want to do. What you said is true, though, and we’ve been aware of it. But we’ve always had a specific plan that was based on what we believed would really happen. It was inevitable from the very beginning that Cookie and Lucious were going to hook up. It can’t not. You feel it, you know it’s coming. Now, whether or not it only happens once or if it’s going to happen again is another story. But we knew when in the season it would happen and why it would happen. And we know where we’re going and it’s complicated. But everything in the Lyons’ lives are complicated.
TVLINE | Did you debate whether Anika should walk in on Cookie and Lucious in bed — or was there debate about the way she’d learn of this betrayal?
It is, of course, a classic soap moment — but it’s also just a classic moment. When you cheat, that’s the way you most often get caught. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t know somebody who got caught in just that way. [Laughs]
TVLINE | Cookie’s expression in that bedroom scene with Lucious — the giddiness of that moment, the way it was shot — was phenomenal.
I love it too, and I love those actors, I love them together, they have so much fun — and we should probably do an outtake reel from that scene. Of course, it’s a little bit racier than what appears on screen — the things they had to laugh about and what they had to yell at each other about. [Laughs] The director of that episode was Sanaa Hamri (Something New) — and she’s so good and she knows how to really deliver those moments.
TVLINE | So let’s talk about the Lyon kids. Jamal’s daughter was a plot twist I didn’t see coming. How long will we play with the grey area of whether or not this is his biological child?
It’s a big part of Jamal’s story for the rest of the season — through Episode 10.
TVLINE | What’s exciting as a viewer is that Jamal’s coming-out story is not a side arc, but a central one — maybe the central one. We see his father put him in a trash can in Episode 1 — but there’s still love between them. We feel like he’s a fully realized gay man, and yet at the same time he can’t quite get to the point of coming out as a public persona. It’s already complex and layered — and now there’s a toddler thrown into the mix. Did you ever worry it’d be too much?
It’s never too much. The idea of “too interesting” is not possible. And this is a show in which you can pile a lot on and still not cross the threshold.
TVLINE | Is Michael out of the picture for good? He and Jamal seemed really close — and then suddenly they were not.
We felt like it was fraying already, and as much as we love Michael and love the relationship, it seemed clear like in so many relationships — it’s not specific to gay relationships — this is someone Jamal was going to outgrow. And more than anything it’s the story of an artist — and it’s something that happens so often with artists as they start to find their voices. Lucious, as difficult and homophobic as he is, talking to Jamal about how hard it is to be with an artist is a really authentic moment — and one of the first bonding moments between those two characters. We’re not telling the story of a gay relationship breaking up — we’re telling the story of an artist outgrowing a partner who would never be able to go as deep with him as he needed to go.
TVLINE | Cookie really planted those seeds in Michael’s head in last week’s episode — even though she’s been the No. 1 proponent of Jamal coming out publicly. Her whole idea — “you’d better have your own thing going on” — really seemed to get under Michael’s skin.
I would venture that Michael’s leaving had as much to do with that as anything. If Cookie hadn’t said that, maybe Michael wouldn’t have been quite as shaken by Jamal’s “nobody special” comment. But Michael is a smart enough man to know when and where he should cut his losses.
TVLINE | Speaking of the sons, in some way Andre has been the one we’ve focused on the least. But this week, when we see him sitting in the shower after Lucious reveals his ALS diagnosis — it was so powerful, almost this wordless scene. Can you talk me through that one?
I would count that scene as the beginning of Andre’s big story in this first season — and going forward, his story becomes more prominent and more powerful. Trai Byers is such a phenomenally gifted actor, and what you’ll see him do in these next episodes is really stunning.
TVLINE | Andre’s relationship with Rhonda is fascinating, too. She’s a schemer, but I feel like the scene where she comes across him in the shower was a true moment of tenderness. Are those two on solid footing?
We’ve always discussed — Lee and Danny and the writers — that Andre and Rhonda is probably the best and healthiest relationship on the show. They really are together and they have each others’ backs. And they’re more honest with one another than any other two characters. That’s not to say it’s a perfect relationship or there won’t be a rift. But we really look at it that despite their being twisted, it really is a good relationship.
TVLINE | Hakeem and Jamal are at the center of the other relationship that seems healthy — despite being pitted by their parents and their label as rivals, there is a genuine affection that’s been there the entire series. Tonight, when they finally agreed to put aside their differences and perform together at the Empire showcase, there was this brief, really sweet smile between them.
It’s really fun to play, and it’s one of the hardest things in the show. We know they’re rivals and we know we have to play them as rivals, but the relationship between them is so touching and so real — and we all love nothing more than to see them perform together, and to see the love between them that so often overcomes the treachery that they’re put up to.
TVLINE | Speaking of Jamal and Hakeem singing together, their new song this week, the one that samples Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing,” finds Hakeem rapping “Look Ma, I’m on TV.” One time he delivers the line to his mother Cookie, the next he’s saying it to his older lover Camilla. Was that deliberate?
[Laughs] It was verrry deliberate on my part. As we live tweeted the episode, my assistant Jamie said that was a product of my twisted mind — and it was indeed something I constructed in the editing room. I want everybody to be disturbed as much as he or she is — which all means we have our own threshold. I don’t find it mystifying at all — if you were asking me a question I’d say, “No, [Hakeem and Camilla’s] age difference shouldn’t be taboo.” But everybody has a different line they will or won’t cross. Most people understand though why Hakeem would go there — whether they approve or not.
TVLINE | Lucious telling his family about his ALS diagnosis was the episode’s other huge bombshell. Did you ever think about having him hold onto that secret for longer — even into Season 2?
Once we got into the room and we started breaking stories, it was on the top of our list. Can he keep it a secret? if he’s going to reveal it, when? And once we knew it, we knew a whole series of events would be connected — not the least of which was Lucious and Cookie hooking up. We knew for some time we were building to that moment.
TVLINE | I thought it was really telling that he told his three sons, his son’s wife and Cookie all at the same time, in the same room.
The theme of family was very central in this episode, as Lucious was touting this IPO and touting Empire as this family-run business. And that was the ultimate embodiment of family: “I’m going to gather the family together. Who’s my family?”
TVLINE | Terrence Howard’s role in the first half of the season has not been as showy as Taraji’s. I felt like this week — the scene where Lucious loses his voice, and the scene where he breaks the news to his family — gave us deeper insight into the character.
Terrence Howard is such a good actor — so restrained and specific. I agree with you — and there’s more to come. I love that he’s held back for so long, just really played it exactly where it needed to be played and let Cookie walk away with these moments. His moments are coming.
What did you think of this week’s Empire? Do you prefer Cookie and Lucious as adversaries, lovers or something in between? And what will Anika do to strike back? Sound off in the comments!