Sex! Bloodshed! Intrigue! Drama for your mama! Those were the words Lee Daniels uttered when asked to describe tonight’s highly anticipated, dare we say explosive Empire two-hour season finale.
Fox’s nighttime soap opera has been a television juggernaut since it hit small screens back in January, with a steady climb in viewership week by week, reaching over 14 million viewers during last week’s episode. While creator Lee Daniels is predictably happy with Empire’s success, he wasn’t always so sure how he felt about the show itself.
After directing the first and second episodes, he relinquished directing duties to other deserving African-American directors (Debbie Allen, Mario Van Peebles, Anthony Hemingway), and the process was, according to Lee, shocking. “It’s weird… So the third and forth episodes, I was like ‘yikes,’ you know? It was really good, but it wasn’t. It was weird, seeing somebody else direct your world and I guess I liked it.”
The Oscar-nominated director has been very public about the fact that a lot of the stories he’s telling through the lens of Jamal Lyons (played by Jussie Smollett) is his own, so why would he allow such personal stories to be directed by someone else? “There was a group of just badass people who really never get credit for anything,” Lee explains. “And it’s been so exciting to watch them take over our show. Each of them has very distinct ways of directing, and they bring their voices to my world, and it’s really so beautiful. It’s powerful is what it is.”
But Daniels could barely contain his excitement when talking about tonight’s season finale. “That’s what I was trying to explain to you,” he said. “What I was trying to explain to you is that’s why I can be so happy with the finale. I didn’t think it could be as good as it was. And I’m so pleased with it. I didn’t think the finale could be as good as the beginning, but I think that it was better! I saw it with a bunch of people in the movie theater and it was like watching a movie. People were like screaming and hollering. It was crazy! It’s funny, there are I think four or five oh my God moments!”
Empire has been hailed for its cast’s authenticity, for the real life, in your face delivery of their lines and the culturally relatable and relevant nuances with which it oozes; for all that, Lee credits the show’s mostly Black writers. That was absolutely by design.
The Butler director says it’s all so real because “They’re people of color that are doing the writing and people of color that are doing the directing. That’s the biggest achievement. People talk about staggering numbers or the critical acclaim it has gotten. For me, my biggest achievement is something that I think my kids are most proud of, is the abundance of African-Americans working on the television show. It’s sort of unprecedented, and that makes my kids proud, and that makes me proud that they’re proud.”
While Daniels may have relinquished his director’s chair, he wasn’t about to give up his pen. Writers write. And Daniels says he’s right there at the writer’s table coming up with all the show’s most laugh-out-loud quotables. “I write a lot of it. How would Courtney Love know about CP time? She didn’t even understand how to deliver that line. I said ‘Courtney it’s ‘C-P Time.’ She said, ‘What is that?’ I said ‘Never mind, just say line.’ I said, ‘Those that will understand, will understand.’ ”
So far, the premiere season of Empire has been jam-packed with a star-studded guest list that’s included Mary J. Blige, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jennifer Hudson, Estelle, Naomi Campbell and Courtney Love. The season finale will not disappoint, with a highly teased appearance by Snoop Dogg, as well as Patti LaBelle and Rita Ora (to name a few).
Daniels revealed next season is going to be even bigger. He confirmed that Oscar winner Common accepted the role he’s written for him and will appear on season two. Spike Lee will direct, and Daniels also confirms Oprah Winfrey will also appear on Empire season two. Not only will she appear, Daniels says she gave him a great idea for a plotline he’ll use for the show. And as for all those Denzel Washington rumors swirling, Lee is keeping his fingers crossed. “I hope so, I keep stalking him.” He revealed quite seriously. “We’re very good friends. I keep at his doorstep. I don’t give up. They know I don’t give up. Light a candle on that one.”
Lee was tight-lipped about any Empire season two plot lines, but did reveal that Fox has been more than open to letting him tell the story, however racy he wants to tell it. “They’ve pushed me. Are you crazy? Sometimes I think it’s too much! Like the bib? They ain’t gon’ let me do this bib thing. But they did!
“And here’s the thing: they let me on TV. What do you expect when you let Lee Daniels, Taraji Henson and Terrence Howard on TV? They let us out of our cages and so [laughter] you don’t let us out of our cages. We are in cages for a reason. And this has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. This is just the beginning. We’re just taking our hair down, baby. We ’bout to shake it in a minute.”
Catch the Empire season finale on Fox tonight at 8:00 p.m.!
Crystal Shaw King is a seasoned TV, radio and online entertainment writer. She's also a contributing editor for a social justice foundation in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @crystalamberbam.