Oh, splat! There was more than one ugly fall on Empire‘s fall finale — but while some had dire physical consequences, other victims suffered injuries to their egos, their psyches and/or perhaps their bank accounts.
We grilled showrunner Ilene Chaiken about all of the wildest twists in “Et Tu, Brute?” — but first, let’s roll the highlight reel:
* Lucious decides to announce Empire’s acquisition of SwiftStream on the same exact day of the American Sound Award nominations, but as he passes the mic to his “business partner in crime” Mimi, she flips the script, calling her wife to the stage. I’m not sure about you, but I let out a 30-second whoop of shock and delight as the woman in question turns out to be Naomi Campbell’s Camilla (AKA the ex-girlfriend of Lucious’ son Hakeem, who fled the country late in Season 1 thanks to Papa Lyon’s ugly bribes and threats).
* Uh-oh, Mimi’s been secretly recording her conversations with Lucious, and reveals to the Empire board of directors his utter disdain for following the rules of a publicly traded company. She calls for an emergency vote later that night to oust him from his perch as chairman and CEO.
* Cookie and the ASA-snubbed Hakeem are off the grid, performing at Family Day at Wallace Correctional Facility’s Family Day, until Andre tracks them down with news of Mimi and Camilla’s takeover bid. Cookie decides she needs to stay behind to reconnect with a prison buddy who’s just received a life sentence for killing her cellmate — girl, she’s not going anywhere! — and passes her proxy power to Hakeem.
* In the boardroom, Hakeem goes against his family’s wishes and votes with Camilla — who is immediately installed as Empire’s head honcho. But instead of a congratulatory Champagne toast, she gets a brutal load of Cookie’s spit directly in her face as the takeover plan is finalized.
* Lucious winds up shooting up his study as Jamal and Andre sit downstairs — and it’s Cookie who intervenes, offers perspective and tells him that he needs to pull it together to protect the family legacy.
* Meanwhile, Rhonda’s pregnancy hormones are clearly dulling her usually vicious instincts, and she allows a wild-eyed Anika to hang out at her house and practically hiss with rage about her one-time-almost-future-daughter-in-law-then-sister-in-law’s fab life. Later, an intruder breaks into Rhonda and Andre’s house — and pushes Rhonda down her epic staircase in epically horrifying fashion. If she or her fetus survive the fall — and hours laying without medical attention — it’ll be a miracle on par with Tiana’s awful new song being viewed as a viable single.
* Oh, in other news, Skye figures out that her one night of passion with Jamal isn’t going to bloom into a full-fledged romance, since at the end of the day, he identifies as gay. This doesn’t stop Lucious from declaring him “fixed” (ugh, GROSS) by a woman’s love — or spreading the word to Jamal’s wealthy gay David Geffen-y patron.
On that note, let’s cut right to Chaiken’s insights Empire’s wild, gasp-inducting, final hour of 2015.
TVLINE | I did not see that twist of Camilla being Mimi’s wife — and returning to take control of Empire… which I guess puts me in good company with Lucious, Cookie and everyone else. How early on did you plot that? Did you know the minute you introduced Mimi that she was in cahoots with Camilla or did that come later?
We didn’t know it initially. We knew that Mimi was going to play that role of the usurper, that Lucious was getting in bed with the enemy, and that she would take his company away from him. And we also knew that we were going to bring Camilla back — and that she was back for retribution. And we realized pretty early on that those two stories needed to be married — quite literally — to one another.
TVLINE | Given how homophobic Lucious has been throughout the series, it’s kind of delicious that the lesbian character brings him down. Did you appreciate the poetry of that?
I certainly enjoyed it in a personal way. [Laughs]
TVLINE | You’d told me several episodes ago that Marisa Tomei’s Mimi arc would end in Episode 8 — and would end with a comeuppance. I had just assumed the comeuppance would be hers. Now that she’s gone off to continue her cancer treatments, can we assume Camilla will take over the role of the thorn in the Lyon family’s side?
What we’re saying essentially is that the baton has been passed to Camilla; Mimi has been a shill for her. And as Mimi goes off to get treatment, Camilla steps into that role in a much more vengeance-minded way, as you can imagine.
TVLINE | The moment where Hakeem looks out from the boardroom and sees Camilla and Cookie — these two crucial women in his life who are lobbying him to go in completely different directions. Did you ever think about having Hakeem side with Cookie?
We knew Lucious was going to lose his company in the mid-season finale. Really, the question for the writers was who would be the one to play that fateful vote that loses the company for Lucious Lyon, something previously unthinkable. We discussed whether it would be Hakeem — and at a certain point, as we moved through the season, it became clear that this was Hakeem’s story, that it should be him.
TVLINE | Cookie’s not dumb. When she signed over the proxy, saying to Hakeem he knew what the right move was, there had to be a small piece of her that knew Hakeem might wind up voting to strip Lucious of his CEO position, no?
No. I don’t think that Cookie ever would have done it if she even had a moment of doubt. In the Lyon family, there’s a code — and it’s a complex, twisted code. They go at one another pretty viciously. They’ve all done some pretty unsavory things. But they protect the company at all costs. They come together when the company is threatened. But there are lines they don’t cross with regard to family members. And Cookie doesn’t ever think Hakeem would cross that line. It’s an unredeemable transgression. And Hakeem doesn’t go there thinking he’s going to do this. When Cookie signs over her proxy, it’s not about “Are you going to go and betray your father?” It’s about “Can I trust you to go and do what needs to be done?” And the decision to betray his father is so impulsive and impetuous and momentary, I don’t think he knew necessarily that he was going to do it. It’s a decision he made in the moment. I hope we conveyed that in the scene where Hakeem places his vote and we run through his mind and see the thought process. We see that it’s something he just decides to do in a momentary, rash, impulsive gesture.
TVLINE | You can’t blame him. Although maybe better the devil you knpw. Not like they’ve been communicating. How much will he regret this. Will this decision bear fruit of regret?
It’s going to bear some fruit. And like I said, it’s a rash decision. It’s not thought through. And if Hakeem had had the time to think about it, he might not have made the decision, or at least done his due diligence.
TVLINE | He’s got his own label. Camilla is asking him if he’s ready to go to the next level as she reaches below the belt — so to speak — but what does this mean in terms of Lyon Dynasty?
That’s all what Hakeem is now going to have to contend with. What happens to Lyon Dynasty? How much of a complication is it? Where does this leave Cookie in everything they built together? All of that is now what he’s going to have to sort through based on this one rash moment.
TVLINE | Speaking of rash moments, we also have Lucious falling into Cookie’s arms and saying “I want to kill Hakeem.” That was a pretty dark threat from a guy who rarely makes idle ones. And also, Cookie didn’t slap him in the face after he said it — which surprised me, too. Can Hakeem even be in the same room as his parents going forward? This seems dire.
It’s certainly dire for Hakeem and the whole family. Lyon Dynasty is one thing, but as Cookie said to Hakeem, “Empire is our legacy.” Empire is their lifeblood — and Hakeem has just given it to the enemy, so at the very least it’s at least understandable that Lucious would have a moment of wanting to kill his own son. And we live in a Shakespearean world where fathers do contemplate killing their sons.
TVLINE | Is there ever a fear of painting yourself into a corner — where you have a rift so deep among core characters that the audiences likes to see interacting?
It scares us — and it’s where Empire goes and it’s what drama is about. This is not timid drama. We can be scared, but we can’t be daunted to go to those places.
TVLINE | Cookie spitting in Camilla’s face: Was that scripted or was it a Taraji P. Henson improvisation?
That was scripted, and it was conceived by Lee Daniels. Lee isn’t always in the room – he’s got a lot going on — but he comes in and I sit him down and tell him what we’re doing. He knew Camilla had married Mimi, and they were about to take back the company — so I said, “This is the mid-season finale and it’s all going down now, and he started riffing, “And Cookie turns to Camilla and spits in her face!” He spat the scene at us, beat by beat. Not everything he envisioned ultimately got in there, because we couldn’t do it all — being pure Lee Daniels it was harsh and pretty intense.
I have a thing about spitting. I don’t like spitting. I don’t like seeing spit. So when I heard him describe that scene I said, “Oh God, no. I can’t do it.” I asked the writers I work with that I really know and trust: “Is this what Cookie would do?” And they all said, “Yeah.” And I always know that when it comes down to it, if Taraji says she’s not going to do it, it’s because it’s not right. And if Taraji does it, it’s because she knows it’s what Cookie would do. I was waiting. I was waiting to see if Taraji would take issue with it. But no, she went right for it.
TVLINE | The other huge incident of the fall finale was Rhonda falling to what might be her death. From the moment early in the episode where you had Rhonda walking down the staircase with Andre, I knew she was destined to take the plunge — but I didn’t want to believe it.
[Laughs] We had to foreshadow! You can’t see a staircase like that in a show like Empire and not know that someone’s gonna fall down it.
TVLINE | That fall was one of the nastiest I’ve ever seen on network TV.
You should’ve seen the first cut!
TVLINE | Was it worse?
Oh, God! [Laughs] It was a spectacular piece of filmmaking by Sanaa Hamri — a beautifully choreographed stunt — and it was really hard to pull it back so that there was a possibility that Rhonda survives the fall.
TVLINE | Your next episode is called “Death Will Have Its Day” — and I know you were casting for a grief counselor for the second half of Season 2. Can we infer from that that Rhonda is definitely dead?
I want you to come back hoping Rhonda is alive — and thinking that she could be.
TVLINE | Why Rhonda?!! Rhonda and Andre are maybe the healthiest relationship on the show? She’s ride or die? She helped him bury — and then dig up — Uncle Vernon’s body! Why did she have to go down those stairs?!
It’s so desperately sad that she did have to go down those stairs. And how she wound up at the top of that staircase — and then at the bottom of that staircase — is another thing I want you to come back wondering about.
TVLINE | We know Anika is a full plate of crazy at the moment — but you did not show us the face of the person who pushed Rhonda. I’m guessing that was a deliberate decision, but did you want to leave us questioning or were you giving yourself an out in case you decided to change your mind and make the guilty party someone other than Anika?
We didn’t show you a face. We know, but the world — Andre, Rhonda, the Lyons family — don’t know how Rhonda wound up at the bottom of that staircase. And we want to experience this from their point of view. I’m well aware that Anika would be the prime suspect in the minds of the audience. We know we’ve given her some motive, but it’s not an inevitable conclusion that she did it.
TVLINE | I love-love-loved when Anika put on her chauffeur outfit and a blonde wig and picked up Laura, but there were TVLine readers who objected to the idea of her going crazy. And they have a point: Anika is educated, she comes from wealth, she’s a woman of means. Why make her lose her mind after getting pregnant with Hakeem’s baby and then being rejected by him?
A couple of thoughts… First, it’s something we’ll explore a lot more in the second half of the season. Anika is more grounded than she might have appeared in that moment, but she was pushed and pulled in so many directions by the Lyon family, she was hurt, she was mistreated. And after behaving generously toward them and believing in various relationships, it’s enough to make anyone a little crazy. And our hope for Anika is that she’ll be able to come back from this. We’ll explore that with her and see her struggling to come back from that. Hopefully, the audience will be there with us and believe in the journey she’s been on, and the one on which she’s about to go forward. I’m certainly aware some fans of the show have been upset by this turn, while others have relished it. My observation — without making any kind of gender-bias assumptions — but anecdotally, men have loved the crazy and women have been offended by it. And as a woman, I still related to Anika. She’s not a lost cause.
TVLINE | The other thing that divided our readers was Jamal kissing Skye. When Lucious says to him this week, “She fixed you,” you can see Jamal wince. Talk to me about what prompted you to explore that territory — and the way you used the Jamal-Skye collaboration to explore themes of raceand sexual orientation, among other things. Did you debate whether to go there at all? Will there be a fallout?
Yes and yes Thematically, the conversations we love having on Empire are about identity, labels, fluidity. Those are core issues for us — and really interesting, provocative stories to tell. Plus, the story of gay identity has been told on television. We felt ready to push beyond, to talk about all of the nuances of experience and not be bound by the conventional script. And with the number of gay people involved in the creating and writing of this show, we talked about all of our experiences. There’s a spectrum of gay identity, behavior and attraction. And we wanted to talk about it in a provocative way based on experiences we all had. And Lee Daniels and Jussie Smollet come at it from certain points of view — and I’m very interested in hearing what actors have to say about the characters they play. There are gay men and gay women who, at least on occasion, have found themselves at least fleetingly attracted to someone of the opposite sex. And Lee and I have discussed how as artists, especially, when you’re creating. how exciting and sexual that can be. It felt like a great story to tell for Jamal — if he really connects with an artist who happens to be a woman, and they have this momentary spark — what could stop that from happening. And why shouldn’t we tell that story?