‘Empire’ Boss on Writing Jussie Smollett Out and Why Season 6 Will Be a ‘Reset’

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “The Roughest Day,” the fifth season finale of “Empire.”

It’s been quite a year for “Empire.”

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The fifth season kicked off by teasing that before the end of the season someone important to Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) would die. Over the course of the 18 episodes, it was revealed that the music number-cruncher originally hell-bent on destroying the Lyons had a personal vendetta: He was actually Lucious’ first-born son.

Additionally, Lucious and Cookie’s (Taraji P. Henson) relationship continued to be strained, resulting in her getting too close to Damon Cross (Wood Harris), who had a relationship with the law enforcement agents investigating the Lyons, and Andre (Trai Byers) fell in love with someone new, was diagnosed with cancer and was later told his heart was giving out due to the cancer treatment he underwent.

By the end of the season finale, the body in the coffin Lucious was grieving over was revealed to be his son Kingsley (A.Z. Kelsey), who killed himself in front of his father after his mother told him she should have had an abortion rather than raised him; Andre got married in his hospital bed and received a heart transplant (from Kingsley); and Lucious was ready to flee the feds, but Cookie decided to put herself first and not go with him.

Meanwhile, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) was off-screen throughout all the turmoil, having been written out of the last few episodes after Smollett claimed he was the victim of a racist, homophobic and racially motivated attack earlier this year, but was then accused of hiring the men who attacked him and indicted for filing false police statements. The criminal charges against Smollett have since been dropped (he has maintained his innocence throughout), and the city of Chicago filed a lawsuit against him.

“We have such a terrific ensemble that when first you’re told you have to take one chess piece out, it’s ‘What the hell am I going to do?’ But then it opens up space and room to tell the other important stories that you want to tell. So there are pluses and minuses,” showrunner Brett Mahoney tells Variety. “There was definitely stuff I wanted to do with Jamal in [Episodes] 17 and 18 that I just had to express a different way, but it did open up the focus a little bit more on the Andre storyline.”

Here, Mahoney talks with Variety about his decision to keep Jamal off-screen for such pivotal Lyon family moments and what Smollett’s status is for Season 6, as well as the evolution of Andre’s medical drama and why this was the time to separate Lucious and Cookie.

How did it feel to write such an emotional finale for the Lyon family and not have Jamal be a part of it?

Had the wedding episode hit in a different place, it would have been much, much, much more difficult. Right before we were headed into production of [Episode] 17 was when the decision was made to take the character out of the last two episodes, but luckily, it was almost a completion of the Jamal arc in [Episode] 16. There were elements I wanted to express in [Episodes] 17, 18, and I had to take those out, but it was lucky in the sense that it happened [then], so the wedding was a natural way to move on — to send him on his honeymoon.

The stories in the news were unfolding before episodes such as the 16th were on-air, though, so did you go back and minimize his storyline in those or ease him out, so to speak?

We had to tweak some stuff because of his availability, but not in a sense to limit him or cut him out.

What were some of the pieces with Jamal you repurposed in the finale?

Season 5 was a test of Cookie and Lucious’ relationship, their marriage, but at the same time it was an expression of the boys becoming men and growing up and establishing families of their own and loved ones outside of the Lyon family. So I had more of a physical expression of that for Jamal to be stepping up and stepping into his manhood for the finale, but instead it had to be just a line expressed between Thirsty and Lucious at the end. When Lucious says, “I built this empire for my boys, make sure you help protect them,” and Thirsty says, “They’re not boys anymore; they’re men.” I would have liked to see more of that with Jamal, but instead it had to be reduced in that way.

How do you plan to handle his absence next season?

I haven’t convened with the writers yet — we haven’t started breaking what Season 6 will be — but it will require an adjustment in terms of him not being there in the first episodes.

There used to be more Lyons to carry the burden of the family drama, but now Jamal is off-screen and Lucious and Cookie are split apart. How much does that play into the adjustment?

Season 6 will have to be somewhat of a reset, and we’re going to find some exciting, bombastic way in. And we may discover that it takes more than just blood to be a Lyon, and we might see some other characters step up and step into the fold.

And for a minute it seemed like there would be even fewer Lyons, given that Andre’s heart was failing and he wanted to die with dignity.

We literally wanted to walk the audience down the road where they could see it would have been Andre in the casket. And the way the story broke in different iterations and different times, it was Andre. We were telling that story, and we wanted to give that character as much respect as possible.

At what point, then, did you decide it would be Kingsley in the coffin?

I think we made that decision as we began breaking the back nine episodes. At the beginning when we came up with the casket and we had that introduced, we certainly had candidates for it. The whole idea was that the Lyons live such high-risk, high-stakes lives that mortality needs to touch the Lyons in a very real way. So we had scenarios for various characters, and as we moved forward, some characters grew and we got excited about telling more stories for them so we removed them from the possibility.

It was set up early on that whoever was in the coffin meant a lot to Lucious because of the sincerity of the “he’s grieving” line delivery, so what did you feel like needed to be done with Kingsley to earn that reaction?

I felt I was going to be protected in that right from the beginning. The way the Lucious character was established and who Lucious is — especially because Lucious didn’t know that Kingsley was his son [for so many years] — I was confident that Lucious as a father and a character was going to care that Kingsley was his son in the coffin. I was more concerned I was going to have to tell stories to make the audience care about Kingsley. [But] when Kingsley actually disappears for awhile, which I think is in Episode 10, the way Terrence played it, where he was hurt when Kingsley was shutting him down — he wanted to reach out to him. I felt like, “Okay, the audience is going to get it and get that this is a fractured relationship but a relationship that has potential and that Lucious is really invested in bringing him into the fold.”

Similarly, what did you feel you needed to do for the audience to understand why Andre would change his mind about wanting to die on his own terms to taking Kingsley’s heart?

I think what started the turn of the tide for Andre was that he was going to have a baby. I think where Andre was at that point was that he didn’t think he deserved anything good in life and he had basically given up: He was going to be of service to the corporation but he didn’t really believe he deserved love or a future. He was doing penance for what happened with Anika and for trying to take his father’s life. So it’s this turn that, “Oh my God, this woman loves me and she’s going to have my son, maybe I can have something good in my life again.”

That seems positive, as does the fact that the company is successful and back to the Lyons, but Lucious is fleeing and Cookie is not. What does that speak to for the future?

In Season 6, I don’t think they’re going to be so concerned about image; they’re going to be concerned about what’s real because I think at the place they all are at the end of the season, it’s just about doing away with artifice and being real. Cookie doesn’t just walk away from Lucious at the end; she’s also walking away from Empire. This season was also sort of like “be careful what you wish for,” in the sense that the family came together to fight for Empire, but now what does it mean that they have it and many of them are walking away from it?

Lucious and Cookie’s relationship has been so tumultuous for so long; why was now the time to separate them?

It was the straw that broke the camel’s back that Lucious didn’t tell her what happened with Andre; that was the one thing she couldn’t stomach. The whole season was her questioning herself in terms of, “Does ride or die really work?” and “Who am I in this relationship?” [She] was so committed to it once she got out of prison, and she’s been on this ride, but it was sort of like, “What does it really mean for these two people who, yes, love each other [to] truly be in a marriage, and what sort of sacrifices are they making?” For Cookie at the end of the season, Lucious keeping the secret about Andre wanting to die was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“Empire” will return for a sixth season on Fox during the 2019-20 television season.

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