Empire kicked off its sixth and final season without former star Jussie Smollett, but how did Fox’s hip-hop drama explain his absence?
On Tuesday’s season premiere, titled “What Is Love,” Smollett’s Jamal Lyon was barely mentioned in the episode — save for a brief scene between his mother, Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), and Becky Williams (Gabourey Sidibe), where they discuss his whereabouts during a late-night gab session over ice cream.
With a ton of changes in the Lyon family — Cookie vying for a spot on a The View-esque talk show, Lucious’ (Terrence Howard) mortality in question, Andre (Trai Byers) running the show at Empire and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) hijacking the Lucious Lyon movie — there’s bound to be some misty-eyed reminiscing on their missing son.
“Jamal and I used to wear these to our sleepovers all the time,” Becky says as she reflects on her friendship with Jamal, proudly walking into Cookie’s kitchen in a comfy pink onesie.
“No wonder that boy ran off to London,” Cookie quips, as she sits down at the kitchen table.
“I thought he was running away from Lyon drama,” Becky states, before pausing a beat to express how much she wishes her friend was there to keep her head on straight. “I really miss him.”
“Don’t get me started. I miss him so much,” Cookie says, voice trailing off as she thinks about her middle child.
In August, Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier hinted at how producers planned on addressing Smollett’s abrupt absence in the show’s final run, saying Jamal would be spending it in post-wedded bliss. It didn’t exactly play out that way, but the sentiment was there.
“He’s on his honeymoon! [Co-creator] Lee [Daniels] has spoken a lot about this situation and this story will reflect it,” Collier told reporters at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. “You’ll see pictures of him in the background. He’s on his honeymoon in the storyline. Lee and the team have talked a lot about what they’re going to do, and there are some surprises at the beginning of this season that you’re going to love. And I really think Empire is going to go out just on a high.”
Daniels revealed in June that Smollett would not be reprising his role after the door was left open for him to potentially return at some point during the final 18-episode run. “Jussie will NOT be returning to Empire,” he tweeted.
Smollett was written out of the final two episodes of season five after he was arrested in February for allegedly filing a false police report in which he claimed he was a victim of a hate crime. All charges against Smollett have since been dropped, though the city of Chicago is seeking reimbursement from the actor to cover over $130,000 in investigatory fees, which Smollett has refused to cover.
Smollett’s time as Jamal was seemingly wrapped up in a bow when he said “I do” to his longtime love, journalist Kai (Toby Onwumere), in front of close family and friends in an ornate church wedding, in the third to last episode of season five. His parents, Lucious and Cookie, walked him down the aisle. Jamal’s absence was briefly addressed in the finale via a text message he sent to Cookie.
On the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards purple carpet, Howard raised eyebrows when he confirmed rumors that he was planning on stepping away from the spotlight following the end of Empire early next year.
“I’ve been playing pretend for forever. There’s no need to play pretend anymore,” Howard, 50, told ET’s Kevin Frazier and guest co-host Sharon Osbourne on Sunday. “I’m running away [from acting] as quickly as possible to get to where I’m supposed to be. It’s a good thing. Thirty-seven years, I’ve done my time.”