It’s impossible to distill Empire‘s Season 2 premiere down to a single line of dialogue, but under threat of a Frank Gathers dinner invite (more on that in a second), we’d go with Lucious Lyon’s cold, calculated “Who is that lesbian bitch?”
In other words, Wednesday’s explosive hour — which featured a decapitated head in a box, a boardroom scene that would make Alexis Carrington-Colby gasp and a ferocious booty-shake from Boo-Boo Kitty herself — is evidence that Fox’s critical and ratings juggernaut is on course not just to maintain the pace of its heady freshman season, but to supersede it.
“We came out of Season 1 feeling like, ‘There’s no reason this show should stop or slow down,” says showrunner Ilene Chaiken. “In fact, it’s not a challenge to figure out where to take stories, it’s a challenge to figure out which stories not to tell — because there are so many possibilities.”
And if you found yourself howling at the Lyon family’s scathing zingers — “Game over, bitches!” “You can’t even dyke right!” — rest assured that Chaiken and fellow EP Danny Strong (who co-wrote the premiere) were right there with you. “We had a blast working on the script. And it felt like the actors were really happy to be reunited with those characters,” she says.
To recap the hour: Cookie, Hakeem, Andre and Anika thought they’d managed to lock down a hostile takeover of Empire Entertainment using $250 million from investor Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei). But despite an aggressive courtship that included dangling Anika as a sexual plaything, Mimi changed sides at the last possible second, teaming up with Jamal and a still-imprisoned Lucious to maintain their power position. As retaliation, Jamal shelved Hakeem’s record, and froze out his beloved mother — leading her to slap his face not once, but twice, and express her deepest fear of him turning into his father.
At the same time, Frank Gathers (Chris Rock) — Lucious and Cookie’s cannibalistic boss from their drug-running days — landed in jail and learned that it was the Lyon matriarch who’d ratted him out (and put out that Season 1 hit on his henchman). After having the head of Cookie’s cousin delivered to her apartment door, Cookie broke down and visited her estranged ex in prison — leading to Gathers’ slow, painful murder (preceded by Lucious’ promise to sign and deflower Gathers’ teenage rapper daughter).
In other news, Cookie opened the hour by donning a gorilla suit at a #FreeLucious concert, then giving a stirring speech about the treatment of black men in the American correctional system; Andre continued to be consumed by guilt over his and Rhonda’s murder and surreptitious disposal of Uncle Vernon; and Jamal and Michael reunited (though with a new and twisted dynamic putting the middle Lyon son in a power position).
Below, Chaiken breaks down the episode’s key scenes, teases how and when the Mimi storyline will play out, ponders the odds of a mother-and-child reunion for Cookie and Jamal, and dishes the “tragedy” of Lucious and Cookie’s romantic connection.
TVLINE | You open with Cookie being lowered to the stage at a “Free Lucious” concert — in a cage, wearing a gorilla suit — followed by a scathing speech indicting the criminal justice system and what it’s done to black men in this country. How did that scene come about?
There’s so much to tell about that scene. Firstly, it’s really exciting that we get to tell a story in which those kinds of sentiments belong. They don’t feel shoehorned in. We’re not on a soap box. We’re just talking about where these characters are in today’s world — this show is located in this moment in time where these issues really would be touching their lives. So, we knew that we were opening the show with the Free Lucious concert, with Cookie and Jamal and the rest of the family at wit’s end. The lawyers haven’t been able to get Lucious a bail hearing, and whether he’s guilty or not — and everybody who’s watched the show knows he is — nonetheless, there’s this sense that an injustice has somehow been committed. [Laughs]
Danny Strong and I wrote the script — we broke it in the room with all our writing colleagues. Lee Daniels was directing the episode, and one day, pretty close to production, he calls me and says, “Ilene, are you sitting down? You know that opening scene where we see Cookie in a cage at the concert? I’m gonna put her in a gorilla suit.” [Laughs] I said, “Ohhh!” He has this inimitable way — he’s so passionate as a filmmaker, and he comes up with these fabulous and challenging ideas — and I just let it sink in. I said, “Lee, I don’t know how I feel about it.” And he said, “I know it’s really controversial, and I know it’s scary, but you’ve got to trust me on this, Ilene. I know what I’m doing — and this is what I want to say.” We had written some of Cookie’s speech, but not all of it. He said, “Cookie is going to say, ‘How much longer are they going to treat us like animals?’ Because that’s what it feels like, I’m telling you from experience.” My first reaction was, “I’m scared of this. I don’t know if I like it.” But then I took a moment and thought, “Who am I to tell Lee Daniels that this is not the way to tell this story? I’m gonna get behind him. I’d be foolish not to.” But I did say, “Lee, you know that I am obliged to let the studio and the network know. And I leave the Taraji part to you.” [Laughs] She delivers that monologue with such force. It’s thrilling. I was really excited by it, and I know she was, too.
TVLINE | Marisa Tomei enters the picture like a hurricane. She’s hitting on Cookie. She’s eyeing Anika like a trophy. They’re throwing her a party where bikini-clad girls are making out. I found myself a little shocked by how overt it all was, but then I had to check myself. If her character was a male business tycoon, that predatory behavior and amorality would’ve been expected. Tell me how you conceived the Mimi character. And was there any discussion of softening her or did you just dive headfirst hoping to have the maximum amount of fun?
The latter. We initially conceived of the storyline: Cookie, Hakeem and Andre — and tangentially Anika — are going to attempt this hostile takeover. We ended Season 1 with them still needing to raise a quarter of a billion dollars — how are they foing to raise it? And we said in the room: “There’s going to be a rich white man. Let’s call him Rich Whiteman for the purposes of this conversation.” This got us onto the idea of the dangers that people like Lucious Lyon open themselves up to when they take their companies public — especially when the company is an artistic endeavor so intrinsic to their person. You expose yourself to being appropriated, to having your art taken away from you or having it changed. And that’s the story we’re telling. We wanted to start with Cookie — and having Lucious turn things around on her.
As we talked about the arc, we realized Rich Whiteman was an important character — and he also needed to be an interesting one. At that point, someone in the room — I can’t remember who — said, “Let’s make her a lesbian.” Actually, it was probably me. And we just had some fun with the idea of the lesbian billionaire. We talked about all those male conventions you were referring to, but why not play with them? Nobody tried to pull us back, and we just went for it.
TVLINE | Grace Gealey is amazing in this episode. I don’t think anything could’ve prepared me for Anika’s ass-shake.
It was really fun to watch both of those actresses [Marisa and Grace] find their characters. Grace knows Anika so well, but that moment was something new. We knew what was going to happen in that scene, but we didn’t know what Grace was going to do in that moment when she had to dance with Mimi. It was so fabulous.
TVLINE | How many episodes do you have Marisa Tomei for? Where is that arc going to take us?
Mimi is with us for five episodes. That storyline pays off in our midseason finale — Episode 10. — airing sometime in December. I’ll just say it builds to a glorious and hopefully unexpected conclusion.
TVLINE | Can we assume Cookie will not accept defeat so easily?
Oh, she’s seething — and there will be some sort of comeback.
TVLINE | Speaking of Cookie, she and Jamal couldn’t be further apart at the end of the episode — and it’s really distressing.
That’s a big story for us — and one we really care about. As big as the show is, as soapy as some people might find it, that [arc] is very real to us. And it breaks our hearts to make those two characters estranged. But of course, there’s a path back for them, and it’s a story we tell over the course of the season — and one we relish telling.
TVLINE | Why is Jamal so much harder on Cookie? Lucious rejected him his whole life. Cookie makes this one misstep and…
Because he never, ever, ever thought she would betray him. She didn’t feel she was betraying him, but it cuts so deep for him. It’s an authentic reaction.
TVLINE | Is Jamal, as Cookie declares, at risk of becoming his dad?
Yes, I think he is at risk of becoming his dad. I don’t know that he will — but it’s definitely a risk. But [at the end of the hour], when he shuts the door and you see how he really feels, it’s a revealing and a redeeming moment for him.
TVLINE | I find it really interesting how Jamal has come out of the closet both personally and professionally — but he has that discomfort level around flamboyant men. His journey to get comfortable with his sexuality is not so black and white — and we see that through the prism of him being a major-label artist and a major-label executive, as well as the tension there is with Michael becoming a real LGBT activist.
It’s really great to be able to tell stories about gay identity that are nuanced and not so obvious. We really are delving into it this season. It relates to all of that and speaks to the idea that gayness isn’t monolithic. Not everybody is gay in the same way. It’s a parallel theme in the show.
TVLINE | Andre, not having the musical inclination, has always felt a little separate from the family — and it feels like Vernon’s death, the secret he and Rhonda are carrying, threatens to isolate him further. Is that murder going to come back to haunt him soon — or is he going to be merely haunted by the memories?
[Vernon’s death] has a very explicit consequence in the early part of the season that drives a lot of story. We don’t just drop it. And it plays a big, big role in his life. It also plays a role in continuing to motivate Andre’s search for faith and morality.
TVLINE | Given Lucious’ double-cross and the fact that he didn’t visit Cookie in jail for 17 years, it’s a shock when she finds herself visiting him in jail. And yet it’s impossible to deny that scene was crackling with chemistry and playfulness.
He says she’s ride-or-die, and the relationship is ride-or-die. Cookie and Lucious will never completely get away from one another, because as we say in the scene, they love and hate one another at the same time. The relationship will always be torture, but the love and the spark between them is inextinguishable. It doesn’t mean they won’t have other relationships. But the tragedy of both of their lives is that they’re both trying to find somebody who can replace that romance, and it will always be hard.
TVLINE | Speaking of Lucious in jail, I still can’t believe you snuck in that line he says about Gathers’ daughter, “I’m gonna slip her my bone.”
I still don’t want to talk about it. I keep thinking, when they realize it’s in there, they’re going to take it out! [Laughs]
TVLINE | You’ve set up this scenario with Gathers’ daughter — and her having this legitimate talent as a rapper. Is Lucious going to make good on his promises?
I’ll say this outright: Lucious doesn’t make good on the sexual promise. That’s just something he said to be foul. But yes, Lucious signs her — it’s a classic Lucious Lyon story. How twisted is it to kill a man, then sign his daughter and make music with her?
TVLINE | Kind of like having a baby with your gay son’s fiancée?
[Laughs] A little like that!
TVLINE | The word “Bitch” is used to hilarious effect throughout the hour: Lucious’ “Who is that lesbian bitch?” Carol’s “This bitch!” Frank’s “That bitch!” Even Lucious calling the prosecutor a “bitch in cheap shoes.” Was there any premeditated attempt to try out that word in so many ways?
[Laughs] It wasn’t conscious. It wasn’t a writerly affectation at all. It’s a word that just lives in this culture in so many different ways. It’s very expressive — and it seems to me to be all about intonation and context.
TVLINE | I feel like that could be a college term paper: Intonation and Context of the Word ‘Bitch’ on Empire.
Yes! Somebody should do it!