This article contains spoilers for Season 6, Episode 1 of “Empire.”
The last time “Empire” fans saw Jussie Smollett on the show, he was getting married to the love of his life, looking jubilant in a white tuxedo and dancing with his new husband while family drama swirled around him.
At that point, Mr. Smollett’s character, Jamal Lyon, was the focal point of the show: Fans watched him fret over his vows and patch up a last-minute fight with his fiancé before they walked down the aisle.
But during the Season 6 premiere of the Fox hip-hop drama, which aired on Tuesday, Jamal was a mere footnote. The character simply evaporated from the Lyons’s world — except for one brief conversation that seemed engineered to explain his disappearance.
In that scene, Jamal’s mother, Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), is sitting in her kitchen with Becky Williams (Gabourey Sidibe), a good friend of Jamal’s and a former employee of the Empire Entertainment media company. They’re both in slumber party attire (Cookie is wearing a sleep mask pulled up above her forehead). When Cookie pokes fun at Becky’s cat-covered pink onesie, Becky says it’s the kind of outfit she used to wear to sleepovers with Jamal.
“No wonder that boy ran off to London,” Cookie jokes.
“I thought he was running away from Lyon drama,” Becky says, pausing before she gets serious. “I really miss him.”
“Please don’t get me started; I miss him so much,” Cookie replies, before quickly diverting the conversation. “Anyway, why do we need to have this slumber party?”
It was a fleeting 20-second exchange that attempted to tie up the loose ends of months of real-life controversy. In February, “Empire” was filming the final episodes of its fifth season when Mr. Smollett was arrested and accused of paying two acquaintances to stage a racist and homophobic hate crime against himself in downtown Chicago. The producers of “Empire” later announced that Mr. Smollett would not appear in the final two episodes of the season.
The question of whether Mr. Smollett would appear in the show’s sixth and final season remained. After weeks of uncertainty, Lee Daniels, one of the show’s creators, posted a tweet saying that Mr. Smollett would not be returning. In August, a Fox executive confirmed that there were no plans for him to appear in the sixth season.
There is plenty of precedent for writing television characters out of fictional worlds when the actors force their hand. Kevin Spacey was fired from “House of Cards” after he was accused of sexual misconduct in 2017. (His character, the egomaniacal politician Frank Underwood, was killed off.) After Roseanne Barr posted a racist tweet, the “Roseanne” reboot on ABC was canceled and spun off into a show called “The Conners.” (In the new show, Ms. Barr’s character has died from an opioid overdose.)
Charlie Sheen’s character in the CBS sitcom “Two and a Half Men” also suffered his own demise because of the actor’s behavior. Warner Bros. fired Mr. Sheen from the show in 2011, citing as reasons his “dangerously self-destructive conduct,” drug and alcohol abuse and his assault of his former wife. (Mr. Sheen’s character was written out of the script.)
So far, the “Empire” writers have been less morbid, deciding to give Jamal convenient reasons to be offscreen rather than killing his character off. In the Season 5 finale, which aired in May, Jamal’s brother Andre is hospitalized with a life-threatening medical problem. It would have seemed odd for Jamal not to be at his brother’s hospital bed like everyone else, so Cookie has a brief phone call with her son in the waiting room to explain his absence.
“He’s stuck at the Seychelles,” she says, seemingly referring to Jamal’s honeymoon destination. “There’s a storm. He can’t get a flight out.”
Mr. Smollett’s felony charges for allegedly orchestrating the hate crime were dropped in March, but the actor’s legal troubles are far from over. A special prosecutor was tasked with investigating every detail of what happened on that night in January, when Mr. Smollett says he was attacked, and whether there was any misconduct in how officials handled the investigation and prosecution. Mr. Smollett is also fighting a lawsuit filed by the City of Chicago, which is demanding that he reimburse them for more than 1,800 overtime hours spent investigating his hate crime report. That case is expected to go to trial next year.
Mr. Smollett’s legal team maintains that their client did not orchestrate a hate crime and that the two acquaintances, Abimbola Osundairo and Olabinjo Osundairo, attacked him near his apartment building in downtown Chicago, shouted slurs at him and placed a noose around his neck.
If the “Empire” premiere was predictive of the rest of Season 6, all of the characters, including Jamal, will be overshadowed by the brash, fast-talking “Empire” matriarch, Cookie. She has a new gig at a talk show and seems uninterested in going back to building a life around her husband, Lucious Lyon.
In an interview at the Emmy Awards on Sunday, Ms. Henson emphasized her own character’s centrality to the show’s final episodes.
“It’s not about the empire anymore, it’s not about Lucious anymore, it’s not about our kids,” she said. “It’s about her.”
Still, Ms. Henson had some words of support for Mr. Smollett, who had the backing of some of the show’s central cast members throughout the ordeal.
“We miss Jussie,” she said. “He’s family to us. There’s no way we can throw five years of family away.”
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