Contains spoilers for the finale of Empire that aired on March 18, 2015.
Empire, the most-watched new series in a decade with 15 million viewers, aired its final two episodes of the first season Wednesday night on Fox. TIME spoke with showrunner Ilene Chaiken about the final episodes’ three big twists, the show’s Billboard-topping soundtrack, and Lucious’ final line (which Terrence Howard improvised).
TIME: Let’s start with the fact that Lucious was misdiagnosed with ALS. In a way, you’re changing the whole premise of the show.
I would say we’re not changing the premise, but we are changing the whole dynamic. We’re changing every character’s drive.
When we started, the big thing everyone was talking about was that Terrence Howard was the star, but Terrence’s character had ALS. What’s going to happen? Is he going to die? Are you going to be able to keep him alive for five years? In my first meeting with [creators] Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, Danny was Skyping in from New York. He was on this huge screen in front of the room, so he was very God-like. And he said, “Well I think he was misdiagnosed.” And I said, “Really? You’re going to do that?” And he said, “I’m open to other ideas, but that’s what I think.” And that’s what we did.
Danny was right. And I think we did it in a cool way. We researched it thoroughly and made sure that it was credible. And it’s great because now everything changes. Everybody was operating on this premise that he’s not going to be around much longer, and then here he is and he’s not going away.
Well, except to jail.
Right. He’s arrested. He doesn’t know who set him up. Any number of his family members and associates might have betrayed him. That obviously is another—I’d guess I’d have to call it a cliffhanger.
The other major twist was Lucious choosing Jamal to inherit Empire. Are you happy with his choice?
Well, the writers and Lee and Danny always knew it was going to be Jamal. We wanted to honor the mythology of the King Lear story, and I hope we did.
But what we discovered was that in order to become his father’s heir, Jamal has to actually become a gangster. We talked about Michael Corleone. He starts out as the most moral of the three sons, and in order to be his father’s successor, he has to gangster up a bit. Lee Daniels was especially excited to see a gay character behave in that way and fulfill all of those tropes and show that kind of strength—almost criminal strength.
But it’s not definitive. Even though Jamal stepped up, we’re not sure that he’s ready. He might still be a little tender. That wasn’t our intention necessarily in the beginning, but I’m excited that it happened because it leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions.
A lot of people have drawn comparisons between some of the characters on the show and real-life artists, like Tiana and Rihanna or Jamal and Frank Ocean. Is that intentional?
Not explicitly intentional. People suggest Lucious might be Jay Z. There’s no once celebrity he’s based on. But there are definitely reference points for us, and there were references for Lee and Danny when they started the show. We look at people in the real world, and while we don’t replicate them in any way, they give us affirmation about the story we are telling.
It can feel very real—the music especially. Empire’s soundtrack debuted at #1 on Billboard Wednesday, and songs like “Drip Drop” are real hits. How do the writers work together with the music producers to create hits to incorporate into the story?
It’s a whole other layer of storytelling, every bit as meticulously conceived and executed as script, production and post. Sometimes they just bring us a song, and we drop it in. But most of the music starts in the writers’ room with a concept. We give them as much information as we can about the story we’re telling, and then they go to work. They write a song, demo it and bring it back to us. A great number people listen to it and respond based on all the considerations—story, sound, so on.
So for “Drip Drop” we knew we needed a song for Hakeem’s video. It was going to be a big, featured song, so we just said, “Give us a hit.” Timbaland and his team, led by producer and songwriter Jim Beanz, gave us “Drip Drop,” and we loved it.
Sometimes they’re more plot-specific, like “You’re So Beautiful,” Jamal’s coming out song. Jesse Smollett, who plays Jamal, had done a lot of ballads. And he said, “I want to do something more upbeat.” So we co-wrote that song with Jim Beanz, I think. And we loved it, but we hadn’t placed it yet. We knew we were going to tell a story where Jamal comes out by singing a song publicly and changing the gender pronoun, and we decided it would be one of his father’s old hit songs. So then we went back to the songwriters and said, “We need another version that Lucious cut 20 years ago and that he sings to Cookie.”
Daniels and Strong have said the show is, in part, inspired by the high drama of Dallas. Do you ever put something on paper in the writers’ room that then becomes even more outsized when you see it onscreen?
Absolutely. It happens a lot, and I attribute it to the incredible cast. We do a lot of improvisation on our show, and sometimes the best lines are written by the actors.
Any that would surprise the audience?
The very last words of the finale, spoken by Lucious, that was Terrence Howard improvising.
You created The L Word, and when you saw Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s pilot for Empire, you obviously knew Lucious’ homophobia was going to be a major plot line on the show. Were you ever worried that it would be difficult to make a homophobic character sympathetic?
No. This is Lee and Danny’s story, and one of the first things that they told me when I met with them was: “This is the most important storyline. It’s central. We want to continue to play it, and play it with authenticity and roughness. We don’t want to soften it in any way.”
We all believe we’re in a world and a time where we can put forward characters that are deeply flawed, not always likable, and sometimes even despicable and still relatable and human. And Lucious is such a perfect example of that.
The show is a ratings juggernaut, in part because it’s tapping into this underserved, diverse audience. It seems like with Empire, Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat or How to Get Away With Murder, network TV is finally starting to catch up with what America actually looks like. Why do you think that’s happening now and what took so long?
Obviously, it should have happened a long time ago, and I don’t think you can identify any single event. But I think a cultural moment occurred, and it’s spontaneously generated into a couple of terrific shows that prove that the conventional wisdom was wrong and proved that this was the right thing—and the smart thing—to do.
Are you hoping Empire will change network and even studio executives’ minds about what people want to see onscreen?
I think that network and studio executives’ minds have already changed. But we have to get comfortable with the idea that success isn’t something that gets repeated or replicated based on analysis. It comes from inspiration. It comes from artists and creators and storytellers who have something that they passionately want to say.
Cookie has become a fan favorite, but I think it’s in part because she’s one strong woman playing in what seems to still be a boy’s world. Can we expect to see more strong female characters like her next season?
That gives us somewhere to go. I think we all know that we still have quite a long way to go for any type of parity, and there are a lot of ceilings we haven’t shattered yet. So that is something that I would venture that the show will crash up against and take on.
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