Fox music drama Empire returned on Wednesday night (March 13) from a mid-season hiatus with the usual compliment of plot twists, heated arguments, snitches dangled from windows and palace intrigue swirling around the Lyon family. Unexpectedly at the center of the drama, despite modest screen time, was middle son Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett), who was dealing with some eerily familiar problems in the episode entitled “My Fault is Past.”
Though the show was filmed weeks before Smollett became embroiled in some serious off-screen issues due to what Chicago police say was a faked hate crime attack in downtown Chicago on Jan. 29, eagle-eyed viewers likely could parse unintended, hidden meanings if they looked hard enough. In fact, Jamal’s first scene included a lecture from mother Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), who snapped, “The Lyons are Empire, you are Empire, so no matter what you think or how you feel about it, if it’s tainted, we’re all tainted,” after Jamal demurred when asked to help his parents win back their imperiled musical kingdom.
Even more bizarre, when youngest brother Hakeem proposed roughing up the sibling’s newly discovered stepbrother from another mother, Smollett’s Jamal says, “We ain’t gonna beat nobody’s ass,” another odd parallel considering Smollett is accused of paying two men — one of whom he’s worked with on Empire — to beat him up in the alleged Chicago attack.
The series’ return comes amid the cloud of negative headlines about Smollett’s case — the actor was due in court on Thursday (March 14) for a hearing — with executive producer Brett Mahoney telling E! News that the decision to drop him from the final two episodes of the fifth season was not an easy one. “It was a very difficult decision, but I think in terms of allowing the cast and the crew to really get the work done without a great deal of disruption in terms of the day-to-day and the stress of the day-to-day, and, in addition, allowing Jussie the time to really deal with what he’s been confronted with and allow him the time to focus and prepare his case, this seems like the logical decision to make,” Mahoney said.
After initially voicing their full support for Smollett, who claimed the two then-identified men hurled racial and homophobic slurs at him before an attack in which they allegedly poured bleach on him, put a piece of rope on his neck and roughed him up, the producers changed their minds after the actor was arrested and charged with filing a false police report.
“The events of the past few weeks have been incredibly emotional for all of us. Jussie has been an important member of our Empire family for the past five years and we care about him deeply,” the show’s producers said in a statement following Smollett’s arrest. “While these allegations are very disturbing, we are placing our trust in the legal system as the process plays out. We are also aware of the effects of this process on the cast and crew members who work on our show and to avoid further disruption on set, we have decided to remove the role of ‘Jamal’ from the final two episodes of the season.”
Mahoney told E! that producers are now waiting to see how Smollett’s legal issues work out before deciding the fate of his character. “It’s a matter of trusting the process and allowing the legal process to play out and see where it goes from there,” he said. “And it’s too early to think about what we would have to do if we didn’t have Jussie. We have such a strong ensemble and we have so many stories to tell for all of these fascinating characters that it’s bigger than one character, but it’s too early to think about the show without him.”
Though Empire has has not yet officially been renewed for a sixth season, Mahoney said he’s confident that Fox stands behind the series. “I know that the network and studio is really happy with what we’ve done creatively this season,” he said. “I’m not surprised that we don’t necessarily have a pick up at this point as I think last season we waited until May. All the indications I have are that we will be. And we do have so many of these stories to tell, so I can’t imagine we won’t be able to tell them.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but on Wednesday night’s episode Jamal returns to the stage to perform a high-energy track for some high school students and addresses his family’s very public drama in his first show since the family’s dirty laundry was aired; Smollett performed an emotional show just days after the alleged attack. “I don’t know if ya’ll been reading the blogs and all that foolishness,” Jamal Lyon says. “But it’s kind of been a tough week, so I had to come home to my own high school…stick together!”