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'Empire' Thinking Big, Including a Death or Two -- Maybe
March 30, 2016  | By David Hinckley

Fox’s lavish music biz soap Empire isn’t thinking small when it returns at 9 p.m. ET Wednesday for the second half of its second season.

Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) has lost Empire Records, the company he built. His eldest son Andre (Trai Byers) may have lost his wife and/or child, since the first half of the season ended with the pregnant Rhonda Lyon (Kaitlin Doubleday) being pushed down a flight of stairs.

With extra-legal activity percolating, and the fragrant aroma of payback always wafting somewhere, it’s no surprise the first returning episode is subtly titled “Death Will Have His Day.”

Still, showrunner Ilene Chaiken says she’s not confirming who, if anyone, dies.

“We don’t set out thinking, ‘Okay, we have to kill a character this week’,” Chaiken told TV writers last Monday. “It’s driven by the story.”

Chaiken did say that those two potentially apocalyptic developments will be major factors over the season’s seven concluding episodes.

“We’ll find out a lot more about Lucious’s backstory,” said Chaiken. “Where he came from, how he started Empire, all that will be raised with huge repercussions for everyone in the family. That’s a big part of what the second half of the season will be about.”

Lucious will naturally be trying to get Empire back, which means threading several needles. The new boss as we return is his son Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray, right), whose previous move was leaving Empire to join his mother Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) in a new startup label, Lyon Dynasty.

Chaiken said Cookie and Hakeem have a plan to make everything fit together, except that with all the moving pieces here, there can be no simple solution.

Andre will have a different focus, Chaiken says, and it will have no less impact.

She said viewers will learn what happened with Rhonda, including who pushed her, “which we hope will surprise people.”

But meanwhile, that crisis will send Andre (below, left) back to the religious faith he had been embracing for some time – at times, Lucious warned him, to the detriment of his focus on Empire.

“Andre’s faith will be tested because of what happened to his wife,” said Chaiken. “He has to grapple with those issues.”

Chaiken added that Byers, “who is a man of faith himself,” was included in discussions of how Andre’s response would be portrayed.

“It was important to him that this part of the story be told in an honest and respectful way,” she said. “We wanted to be sure Trey was comfortable with the story and believes in it.”

That’s an example, Chaiken said, “of the greatest challenge we face on the show – taking the big swings and at the same time painting characters with nuance and insight.

“We don’t want someone to be just ‘the gay character.’ We want to bring out the qualities that are unique to each individual.”

The creators also don’t want to be in a position, she said, “where we constantly have to top ourselves and be more outlandish.”

Toward that end, perhaps, she said the second half of this season will have fewer guest stars.

“We want to focus on the cast and their stories,” she said. “When we have a guest star, it won’t be because someone famous wanted to be on the show, so we wrote them in. It will because it’s part of the story.”

At the same time, she admitted Empire still “likes to have the moment that makes you gasp” at the end of an episode.

She’d just like viewers to realize the big gasp is the payoff from all the little details that came before.

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