Warning: Spoilers ahead from Wednesday’s season three premiere of Empire.
Empire returned with a deadly bang!
Fox’s hit drama didn’t waste any time, revealing in the opening minutes of Wednesday’s season three premiere the unlucky victim who was thrown off the ledge: Andre’s wife, Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday). The aftermath of Rhonda’s violent death -- she lands atop Lucious’ limo -- has a devastating effect on her husband, Andre (Trai Byers), leading him down a deep, dark spiral.
Spellman, who co-wrote the explosive premiere with Joshua Allen, jumped on the phone with ET to dish on all of the biggest revelations from Empire’s big return.
ET: First of all, we have to talk about that violent death. Was Rhonda always the one to die?
Malcolm Spellman: It definitely hung in the balance and there was a lot of back and forth between lots of people over my head. I know there was a lot of back and forth about whom it was going to be and it was, in a weird way, it was a delightful, terrible situation to be in because you know someone has to die and they’re both amazing. A ton of storylines opened up and a ton of storylines closed either way and eventually the call came down that it was Ronda, but yeah, it could have easily been Anika.
Rhonda’s death devastates Andre the most. He’s lost his wife. He’s lost his faith in God. He’s going down this dangerous spiral. He’s blaming himself. What is his grieving process going to be like?
We want to try and take Andre into a new level for the character because he’s always been tethered to some form of -- I don’t want to use the word morality -- but he’s been hampered by obligation to his family and the sense of right and wrong. We decided that we want to make Andre go down a dark spiral, but instead of having him just be the conniver and the schemer, as the weight of Rhonda’s death starts to really erode at the shackles of him feeling like he had every reason to behave, he’s going to emerge as a way more forceful person. He’s going to go dark and he’s going to start standing up to Lucious directly. He’s got nothing left holding him back.
In a weird way, there’s a freedom to losing Rhonda…
Andre begins to see visions of Rhonda. Is that a product of his grief or a side effect of his mental illness?
You know what it is? Trai [Byers] knows how to play the mental illness in subtle ways, even when we’re not writing it in the script. That’s always a dynamic with the Andre character. And he suffered such a major trauma and what takes him in a clear, dark direction, we wanted to remind the audience that this dude has some issues and keep that alive in a way that honored how severe this break is. We didn’t want to do it with pills or just having him act weird, he does have a complete mental break at the end of the episode. But moving forward, what you saw in the premiere will continue to happen and it’s going to start to become normal for him.
So we’ll continue to see Rhonda, or at least hear her, throughout the season?
Jamal’s panic attack at the launch party for Empire Records’ streaming service was the worst possible thing that could’ve happened to him in his first public performance since being shot. How does he recover from that?
He’s in denial about it at first, and in the second episode, he gets forced into a situation where he’s got to confront it. He can’t get out there and that’s rooted, ultimately, in a far more existential issue for him. For him to get over that, it’s sending him on a collision course with Lucious emotionally. It definitely goes the whole season; it’s going to escalate. At a certain point in the season, Jamal will have to confront whether or not he’ll get on the stage, but remember, not being able to go onstage is a manifestation of something way deeper, way more profound, way more existential, which is the dysfunction embedded in the Lyon family because of Lucious.
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We really see Lucious trying to keep everything at bay with his sham marriage to Anika, the feds, Cookie, and Lucious is caught between a rock and a hard place that he can’t easily get out of. What’s in store for him this season?
We wanted to start off the first half of the season really backing Lucious into a corner. This season, between the feds, between 'Shine [and] between his family, we’re going to throw everything at him in an adversarial way, so he’s going to be challenged. I think it’s pretty clear, he wants his woman [Cookie] back, so he’s going to have to fight for everything. The first half of the season we’re pushing him back emotionally in the world of business, creatively and with his family.
Speaking more specifically to Lucious and Anika’s situation, they’re very close to getting found out -- especially with Tariq digging around. How far do they go to protect themselves from the feds? Are they going to go farther than ever this season?
He’s already violated Cookie in a profound way by marrying Anika because of what she represents. We put Lucious in a really uncomfortable situation -- “I want Cookie back, but she would never be back with me while I’m married to Anika, and I have to stay married to Anika to protect me from the feds.” On an emotional level, that starts to seed a ton of resentment -- even more than he already has -- towards Anika; it starts to get more and more inflamed, and it has a very odd and sexy result. It’s not going to go where you think it’s going to go. The more he starts to hate her and resent her, the more they’re pulled together because she f**king despises him, too.
Simultaneously, there are real-life stakes with Tariq and jail. Tariq, being Lucious’ half-brother, is driven; this is very, very personal for him and he’s not going to stop coming at Lucious. Roxanne Ford last year played dirty by breaking rules; Tariq is going to play dirty by going after family members.
Cookie asks Lucious to let her go and he doesn’t exactly put up a fight. They’ve had this conversation several times before. Is she for real this time?
In season two, we did flashbacks about how Dwight Walker became Lucious Lyon, and in season three, we’re going to be doing flashbacks about how Loretha became Cookie. What we investigate this season is the trauma and struggle that Lucious and Cookie went through, even as teenagers, which will be depicted in the flashbacks, is that [he’s] so ingrained in her DNA that is she incapable of escaping that man’s orbit no matter how foul he is? Cookie will spend time with new love interest Taye Diggs, the Angelo character, this year, but you also see what happened to Cookie as a teenager that sends her into Lucious’ arms as a kid. Is it even possible for this woman to leave his gravitational pull?