‘Empire’ Showrunner Brett Mahoney On Tonight’s COVID-19 Induced Series Finale, Possibility Of More, A Cookie Spinoff & No Jussie Smollett

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details of tonight’s Empire series finale. You have been warned!

“I think it’s a fulfilling finale in the sense that it has the spirit that we want,” declares Empire showrunner Brett Mahoney of tonight’s end to the hip hop drama created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong. “But no, it’s not completely fulfilling because I do feel there are elements, for instance the who blew up Cookie’s car, who shot Lucious, that we were not able to fulfill in this finale,” the executive producer also notes of a sixth and final season that ended two episodes shorter than originally scheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Shut down last month because of the global health crisis as the Taraji P. Henson and Terrance Howard-led series was in the midst of filming what would have been its penultimate episode, Empire still pulled it together tonight with “Home Is On The Way.”

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A strong conclusion for any show, the Yolonda Lawrence, Michael Martin, Matt Pyken and Indira Wilson penned episode that was weaved together out of the 18th and 19th installments of this season saw the often-warring Lyon clan united and celebrating their legacy at the premiere of the movie within a series that is the life of mogul and patriarch Lucious Lyon.

Excommunicated last year after the ongoing fiasco of his seemingly faked assault on the streets of Chicago, there’s Jussie Smollett to be seen except for a photograph glimpsed in the Geary McLeod and Bille Woodruff directed episode. However, eldest son Andre (Trai Byers) is now staying close and in town and youngest son Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) is as stable as can be and on the brink of film stardom.

As well as the offspring finally finding their footing after twists, turns, outrageous cliffhangers and gut retching hurt over the years, Howard’s Lucious and Henson’s Cookie come full circle with a declaration of love that looks like it might stick this time round. With a few rivals of various ilk now out of the way, in part thanks to a long forgotten prosthetic leg, and most of the broken glass of six seasons cleaned up, the end chant of “to the Empire!” puts paid to the Fox series, at least for now.

In a reflective mood, Mahoney chatted with me about tonight’s finale, what it is and what could still be. The EP also touch on how there could be more Empire in one form or another, including a spinoff from Fox in the future. As well, with a homage to the 1970s thrown in there for fun tonight, Mahoney looked back on the impact the once blockbuster series had on the small screen, the people who brought it to life and the loyal fans.

DEADLINE: So, Brett, is this truly the end of Empire?

MAHONEY: Hopefully it won’t be. I mean, the hope and dream and prayer of all of us is that we actually can shoot the finale that we intended. Now, of course, the complications are when will that be, when is production going to be able to be up and running again, and when that date happens, will everyone be available? What about the stages, what about the cost, but I mean, we all do have a will to come together and shoot the actual finale.

DEADLINE: With all the strings that tied together in this Home Is On The Way episode, the death of Damon Cross, the death of Yana, Andre staying home, the boardroom takeover, the reunion of Lucious and Cookie and the movie premiere, what more could a further finale drop on us?

MAHONEY: I’m not going to give a hint at this point, just in the sense that if we don’t film the finale, we will find some creative way, whether it’s just releasing the script or something, we’ll get it out there as to what it was intended. But I don’t want to give it away now. I will tell you, though, the spirit that you see in this piece is similar to the spirit in which we intended to end the series.

DEADLINE: Would that series finale truly be the end of the Lyons’ saga?

MAHONEY: Definitely the end of the story and definitely the feeling would have been, you would have had a sense of conclusion, and it didn’t mean in the sense of no more Lyons, but you would definitely see that the Lyons are moving onto something new and different.

DEADLINE: Living with the finale we have, there is a sense of conclusion here. How was it pulled together under the circumstances of the coronavirus crisis?

MAHONEY: What happened on March 13 when we shut down, we were in the middle of shooting episode 19 of 20. My initial plan at the beginning of this day was, I can collapse, if we were halfway through 19, I was like, if we could get five more days of shooting, I can bring in the elements that are supposed to be in the season finale. I can put it in 19, and then end the way that we intended, but as that day continued and it became declared a national pandemic or a global pandemic, we realized we couldn’t, for the safety and health of the crew and cast we clearly couldn’t continue filming.

So, then the question became, with the materials we have, could I craft, cobble together what could hopefully be somewhat of a satisfying season/series finale if I had to? So I realized that there was a place in episode 19, which you’ll see at the end when the family comes together for the movie premiere, which had the spirit of which we were hoping to get to at the end of the season finale in terms of the family coming together and putting family over empire. Then also, there’s Cookie and Lucious recognizing their love for one another. What really is supposed to happen is that moment happens and then everything blows up, and then we go through the events of the actual finale that brings them to a different place but with a similar spirit.

DEADLINE: With that spirit, is this finale a satisfying finale for you?

MAHONEY: I think it’s a fulfilling finale in the sense that it has the spirit that we want. But no, it’s not completely fulfilling because I do feel there are elements, for instance the who blew up Cookie’s car, who shot Lucious, that we were not able to fulfill in this finale.

DEADLINE: Well, that blows everything up, doesn’t it?

MAHONEY: (LAUGHS) Like, there was a point where I was like, okay, we can sort of finagle in that answer here, but it didn’t work, didn’t work. So, I said, if we’re going to tell the story, let’s hopefully really tell the story the way we want to and give the fans the real finale that we intended. There are arcs of characters that are what we put in there in terms of the finale. It works for Andre, it works for Hakeem, it works for Cookie and Lucious. But, we had another twist and another way to go and another way to really bring home the messages that we wanted that we were not able to do.

DEADLINE: He has been mentioned a few times over this final season, but in this last episode we see Jamal in a family photograph in a poignant moment, we see the younger version of the character in a flashback to the first season when Lucious put him in a garbage can and his name is mentioned in Hakeem’s song at the end …


DEADLINE: … So was Jussie Smollett going to be part of the intended finale?

MAHONEY: No. I would say there was never a plan to have Jussie in the finale.

Tonight we say good bye to ALL OF YOU #EMPIREFANS who have been riding with us for 6 whole seasons. YOU ARE APPRECIATED!!! We will miss you guys. I can only pray that these characters will live on in your hearts forever and EVER!!! Thank you is not enough!!! TO THE #EMPIRE FOREVER πŸ™πŸΎπŸ’‹πŸ’‹πŸ’‹

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DEADLINE: On another spin, and you and I have talked about this before, but this episode feels like it is setting up a Taraji-led spinoff?

MAHONEY: Let me say I actually don’t feel that’s in this episode, but what I will tell you is that I think that that character and so many characters in the show are so valuable. I think that there’s such an appetite still, and they’re so beloved, I could imagine that both the network and the studio would want to find somewhere, I don’t know what that is and I’m not a part of it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone was trying to work on something.

Honestly, something I’d watch. 😂 #Empire pic.twitter.com/b9GcojbNAa

— Empire (@EmpireFOX) April 22, 2020

DEADLINE: Diplomatic, as always, yet let me be specific, that scene with Taraji and Vivica A. Fox as her sister discussing Cookie’s upcoming talk show. That seems an inevitable set up for a spinoff, no?

MAHONEY: That scene is intended to speak to the Cookie/Lucious relationship, not necessarily to launch Cookie into something else.

DEADLINE: I hate it when my Sherlock Holmes radar fails me.

MAHONEY: (LAUGHS) What I would say is your radar could have been on point, it certainly could be, I see why you would say that, but I would say that that was not the intent.

DEADLINE: So, with that, I have to say, one of the things that was quite lovely is the very beginning of this finale with the Blaxploitation scene where Taraji goes fully Coffy and really gets to play a role that we all kind of knew she was meant to play in many ways. Where did that come from, because it seemed like something everyone’s had in their back pocket wanting to do for a long time.

MAHONEY: I loved that scene and I loved that sequence, but we had never ever discussed that before, and it really came up in the room because we were building out that scene with Taraji and her therapist, Keesha Sharp. We were discussing why black women are expected to be always strong and not vulnerable, so it’s sort of part of Cookie’s arc this season, recognizing that she could be both vulnerable and strong.

As we first wrote it, like, we didn’t have that sequence. I think, I can’t remember whether we had some other dream sequence. Yet, as we discussed it in the room and we were talking about building that scene in terms of Cookie is seen as a superwoman, but really she is Loretha and a woman underneath. It just hit me, we should do something like a Blaxploitation thing right there at the top in a dream sequence. I know the writer, Michael Martin said something that just sparked the idea and I thought we can put that at the top of the episode. And remember, at that point this wasn’t the season finale, so we were thinking that’s a great element that we can put in episode 18.

DEADLINE: There is always almost too much to get to in a series finale, but looking back over the years that you’ve been showrunner, looking over the years when you were a part of the team, and looking over the years when it first started, what do you think the legacy of Empire will be?

MAHONEY: For me, I think the legacy of Empire is really more about how you can have a show with an African American cast and that it can be a blockbuster. That diversity can be profitable in the marketplace, in entertainment, and I think it sort of has paved the way for what we see today, and hopefully what we’ll continue to see. By which I mean in terms of behind the camera, and in front of the camera.

I think of the writers that this show has spawned, and they’ve gone onto successful show running. I think of the directors of color, and the female directors who worked here and then went onto great stuff, and the DPs and the costume designers. I’ve worked on many television shows, I had never worked on something so diverse, and I am so happy to see that these are people who will now have successful careers moving forward. So, I think it’s made the town recognize that you can hire great, talented, diverse people and have great success with it.

DEADLINE: In that, with Empire having raised issues of race, of class, of gender, of domestic violence, of mass incarceration, of political power, of family strife, to put it mildly, and of mental health, to name a few, was there a topic or a theme that you wanted to spotlight on the show but never had the opportunity to?

MAHONEY: That’s a really good question, and I would say I don’t think there really was.

If there was in any way, it would have been because there wasn’t an organic story way to bring it forward. There sort of was one, I think we discussed in the room whether we could have done anything with voting rights. But there was just no organic way to make it sing that I could think of within the base of episodes that we had.

Something that was supported which I actually really appreciated, actually when I took over the show, one of the things that Danny Strong and Lee said, which just informed how I moved forward. Danny told a story of how when he and Lee were putting together the pilot and writing the pilot and shooting the pilot, that they were fearless, that they felt, you know, it didn’t matter to them whether the networks or the studio embraced it. They were both in a position and a place in their careers where they didn’t need it to succeed, so they just went balls to the wall and did whatever they wanted without fear, and I think that’s what made it such a success.

Then that moving forward, in terms of embracing political issues, embracing important cultural issues, that was part of the DNA of the show, and that is supported, and then that was supported by the creators It was then adopted and supported by both the network and the studio. So, whatever important issue that we wanted to do and we could do it organically, there was support for it.

Don’t know how to say goodbye to @empirefox … I leave you guys with this never seen before footage of my pilot and the reason I decided to go on this journey with you. Thanks to our blessed crew, fabulous writers and directors … a Wonderful studio and network .. INCREDIBLE CAST and to you our fans for making #empire the groundbreaking hit it is. See you guys after this virus mess is over with something hopefully just as exciting. #staysafe #totheempire πŸ”₯β€οΈπŸ‘ŠπŸΎ

A post shared by Lee Daniels (@leedaniels) on

DEADLINE: From those blockbuster first seasons to now, support from within and from the viewers has been a huge part of Empire, that connection. Since you took over a couple of years ago as showrunner from Ilene Chaiken, what has been the most poignant part of Empire for you?

MAHONEY: I mean, I have just really been moved by how much people care, and how much the fans care, and then how much the people who work on it care, and I don’t think I’ve ever worked on something where just across the board so many people were invested and so many people wanted it to be great.

And then an addendum to that, in terms of the impact the show has, I remember after we did the Cookie heart attack episode, someone said, you know, a Fox executive, actually, was shopping at Trader Joe’s and they saw an African American woman shopping, and she was buying fruits and vegetables, she was buying a lot of healthy food, and she was like, I have to, you know, eat healthy because Cookie had a heart attack, and I don’t want that to happen to me. So, just that it was able to affect people in that way, in that type of positive way was very moving.

Similarly, one of our writers got a, after we did the storyline regarding Jamal’s husband being HIV positive, one of our writers got a letter from a doctor working in Africa who said many people were coming into their clinic asking for PrEP. She didn’t know why they were asking for it, it’s not something they were pushing in the African markets, it’s not something that they had advertised in this particular country. She asked, you know, what makes you want PrEP to protect you from contracting HIV? And it was because they had seen it on Empire.

DEADLINE: That’s quite a moment. How does that make you feel as one of the people who made this series week after week, year after year?

MAHONEY: It’s really, really, really fulfilling because I mean, you hope to tell entertaining stories, and you hope to tell stories that move, but stories that save lives, that’s a rare privilege to be able to do.

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