How Empire Left the Door Open for Jussie Smollett’s Return

Photo: Chuck Hodes/FOX

Empire’s fifth season is over, but the unexpected real-life drama surrounding Jussie Smollett, who plays Jamal Lyon on the show, is not. The charges against him have been dropped (and Smollett maintains his innocence), but the city of Chicago has filed a lawsuit against him, he was written out of the last two episodes of season five, and he may or may not be back next season. Fox recently announced that Empire would be returning for a sixth season, but Smollett’s future on the show is hazy.

A recent statement released by Fox Entertainment and 20th Century Fox Television said that while there are no current plans for Smollett’s character to return to the series in the fall, his contract would be extended to keep Jamal’s future on the show open. A Smollett spokesperson confirmed this status, thanking Fox and Empire leadership for their “unwavering support.” So there’s still a possibility that Jamal Lyon will return to the screen next season following his awkward early departure from season five.

Back in March, we speculated that Empire would write Jamal out of the final two episodes of season five by having him follow his then ex-fiancé back to London, because it was the easiest way out. Now we know that Jamal and Kai (Toby Onwumere) have gotten back together — the writers simply removed Jamal from the last two episodes of the season by giving him a big wedding and having him go on a honeymoon. That explanation came two episodes ago, during a meeting at Empire between Becky (Gabourey Sidibe), Giselle (Nicole Ari Parker), and exec Kelly Patel (Pej Vahdat). Patel asks, “Wasn’t Jamal supposed to be in this meeting? He’s the only one who’s actually on the tour, yes?” and Becky reminds him that Jamal is in Seychelles with his new hubby. It’s not quite Jamal running off to London, but it still involves Kai, so close enough.

But no honeymoon lasts forever, especially when there’s family drama. Yet in last night’s season finale, as Andre (Trai Byers) struggled with his heart issues, Jamal was nowhere to be found. Writers tackled that odd discrepancy by having Jamal call and later text his mom, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), with an update, claiming that he was stranded in Seychelles due to a storm. It was an easy way to keep Jamal away without straining credibility — but how long can the writers keep that up?

By now we know the identity of the person inside the casket that Lucious (Terrence Howard) stood over in a flash-forward in Empire’s season-five premiere. Yup, it’s the plot twist we figured would come: Lucious’s long-lost son Kingsley (A.Z. Kelsey) killed himself, and his heart ended up going to Andre. By this point in the show, Lucious was really trying to mend his relationship with the newest Lyon, so his apparent grief in all those episode teasers of Lucious mourning over a casket wasn’t for naught. Given that the scene takes place days after Jamal’s text to his mom about being stranded, we can perhaps assume that Jamal made it back for this big Lyon family moment, but we wouldn’t know it from the scene, which centers Lucious and Thirsty (Andre Royo) on camera while keeping other relatives mostly out of the frame.

Given the open-ended nature of his season-five departure, it seems fair to assume that there will be more mentions of Jamal moving forward, so what happens to Empire if Jamal doesn’t physically return? How many excuses can the writers come up with for keeping him out of sight? Jamal is a beloved character, arguably the most likable on the show. As an openly gay musician, he brings a unique viewpoint, in addition to being the most musically talented Lyon. He had aspirations of running his own label, which he started off-screen at the end of season four, but that fell by the wayside once he returned to the United States this season to help with the tanking family business. Jamal tends to be the glue that keeps everything at Empire from unraveling, yet despite this, his story lines thus far have never really strayed from the realm of boyfriends, heartbreak, and breaking out into either a melancholy or motivational song.

Going forward, Empire could potentially have Jamal move back to London with Kai and attempt to pursue his own goals, rather than his family’s, with mentions of him checking in here and there. It would be another way to work around Smollett’s physical absence without completely writing off the character, and we were headed there anyway. Jamal Lyon was moving further away from his family before Smollett’s real-life drama began to unfold. Kai’s work is in London, and we know he hates how devoted Jamal is to his family’s dysfunction, so based on how last season ended, fans were prepped for the possibility of not seeing Jamal on camera much even pre–Smollett saga. Either Jamal would flee after being heartbroken by Kai or he’d marry Kai and get out of dodge to begin a new life — not much of a shocker either way.

With the way some other character story arcs on Empire are shaping up, Jamal’s personal drama probably won’t be missed much — his friendship and banter with Becky is everything, though — but he’s still the Lyon family fixer, so it’s hard to see him being gone forever. But while fans might be okay with occasional references to Jamal instead of actually seeing him, his music is some of the best on the show, so that’s also something to consider. Ratings for Empire are still good, as evidenced by its renewal, so his absence may not completely alienate fans, but his return in some capacity still feels necessary not only to the show’s music, but also to the story, especially given the direction the series seems poised to take next season.

Season five left off with Lucious fleeing the Feds and Cookie declining to leave with him because she’s finally tired of his bullshit. She also tells him that she slept with Damon Cross (which isn’t true, she just wanted to hurt his feelings), so their relationship status is the cliffhanger going into next season. So season six may play out what would happen if Cookie and Lucious were enemies, or at least how a heartbroken Lucious, who is also on the run from the law, would cope without the love of his life.

We don’t know for sure if that’s where things will go, but we do know that family is everything to the Lyons, and it may take all of the Lyon sons to bring their parents back from the brink of catastrophe. Without Cookie, all Lucious has is his sons, and Andre and Jamal are usually the most helpful, so there’s certainly room for next season to include some more meaningful onscreen dialogue between Jamal and his dad, something like what we saw at the wedding, when Lucious apologized for his homophobic behavior, a turning point in his mission to be a better person. For now, though, it’s fair to assume that Jamal will probably continue to be reduced to phone mentions until his parents really need him — or until the series really needs a good Jamal ballad.

How Empire Left the Door Open for Jussie Smollett’s Return