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Empire is finally getting back into gear with the second half of Season 5 after a long hiatus, but the biggest source of buzz over the past month and a half has surrounded Jussie Smollett. The actor, who has played Jamal since the very beginning of the series, reported an attack back in the end of January, but rumors quickly emerged that he fabricated the story. Smollett has since been arrested. Now, showrunner Brett Mahoney has opened up about the sticky situation, saying this:
It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. You have someone in your family who’s going through this, while at the same time, we’re shooting the final episodes of the season, which are also just heightened emotionally. So it was a lot to deal with and a lot to go through, but we’re really just focused on finishing strong. We’re in our last week of production and I’m really proud of the work we’ve done this season, and hopefully the fans will really engage with these back nine episodes.
Understandably, the unfolding situation has been an emotional ride for Brett Mahoney and others at Empire. What began as a report of a vicious attack that was being investigated as a hate crime turned into an investigation into whether Jussie Smollett staged the attack as part of an attempt to increase his salary.
Given the seriousness of what Jussie Smollett originally seemed to have gone through, rumors of staging were blasted as ridiculous by many, including Fox. Brett Mahoney himself took a stand for Smollett on Twitter back in mid February, stating that he believed and stood by the actor. Less than a week of developments later, however, and Mahoney joined other executive producers in announcing that Jamal would be removed from the final two episodes of Season 5.
Judging by Brett Mahoney's comments, the Empire team still managed to focus on producing the episodes that weren't yet complete before Jussie Smollett was pulled from the final two and then arrested. It makes sense that filming was already heightened emotionally, as Season 5 has been building to the reveal of what promises to be a major death. Given rumors of recasting, I'm inclined to say that Jamal is not the one to bite the dust, and I have my own theory about who it is.
Brett Mahoney went on in his chat with EW to explain the difficulty of writing out Jussie Smollett from the final episodes of Season 5:
It definitely was an unexpected wrench to have to take the character Jamal out of those final two episodes, just because he is an important part of the show. But, luckily, we have such a strong ensemble and so many stories to tell. So often when you get towards the end of the season, I have so much story to tell that sometimes having to take something out means having room for something else that I’m just as passionate about, so we were able to make that work.
Removing such a major character as Jamal was not something Brett Mahoney and Co. expected to have to deal with in the final episodes of Season 5, but it sounds like there was a silver lining to his absence. Pieces of story that had to be cut from the season for time could be inserted into the show.
Will some fans be bummed that the new bits of story come at the expense of an absent Jamal? Undoubtedly. Still, at least Brett Mahoney and the rest of the team at Empire won't just be throwing irrelevant filler into the final episodes.
It's certainly true that Empire has quite an ensemble. The Lyon family alone is filled with a bunch of complex characters, and the non-Lyons have plenty of stories to tell as well. If we're lucky, the lack of Jamal won't be all that noticeable because of everything else going on.
Brett Mahoney also addressed the big question of whether the show could move on without Jussie Smollett:
It’s a matter of trusting the process and allowing the legal process to play out and see where it goes from there. 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.
Despite those rumors of a recasting as a way to remove Jussie Smollett without getting rid of Jamal, Brett Mahoney states that it's too soon for any decision to be made about Smollett's future on the show. He does raise the point that Empire isn't just about Jamal, and I believe there can be little doubt that Empire could survive the departure of Smollett and/or Jamal. We'll have to wait and see.
Empire returned for the second half of Season 5 with its midseason premiere on March 13, and you can catch new episodes on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.