Empire returns to Fox on Wednesday to begin airing the remainder of its fifth season amid real-life legal drama centered around star Jussie Smollett. Smollett has appeared on the acclaimed musical drama as Jamal Lyon since 2014, but the future of his character’s involvement in Season 6 is uncertain.
Jamal is an R&B singer. He’s the son of Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) and Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson). He’s also the brother of Andre Lyon (Trai Byers) and Hakeem Lyon (Hakeem Lyon) as well as the half-brother to Jeff Kingsley (A.Z. Kelsey). His ex-wife is Olivia, who’s played by Raven-Symoné.
Jamal struggled to earn his father’s acceptance of his homosexuality and was often abused as a child because of it. His mother would defend him, but that protection halted when she was imprisoned. This storyline was inspired by Empire creator Lee Daniels’s experience with his own father, who abused him as a child for being gay. In 2017, Daniels told The Hollywood Reporter that the scene where Lucious put Jamal in a trash can was based on a real-life occurrence he faced with his father.
In Season 5, Jamal’s engaged to Kai Givens (Toby Onwumere). Kai is a journalist who suffers from HIV.
“Jamal is one of my favorite people in the world,” Smollett told InStyle in 2015. “He’s saving my life in many ways. I was at the international upfronts for Fox and I was about to sing one of the songs from the show, and I said, ‘Two years ago, y’all had this party, and I was one of the catering waiters. So be nice to your waiters.’ And it’s true. My life has completely changed.”
Smollett was pulled from the final two episodes of Empire Season 5 due to his apparent involvement in orchestrating his own assault in January. He previously claimed to have been attacked by two masked men in Chicago who repeatedly lashed at his head and shouted homophobic slurs at him. The two alleged suspects, brothers Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, were arrested and then released due to their cooperation with officials.
Smollett was arrested on February 21 and later released on a $100,000 bond. He made a court appearance on Tuesday and is expected to make a second one on Thursday. Cameras will be allowed at Thursday’s hearing.
Serayah McNeill, who plays Tiana Brown on Empire, told Us Weekly on Wednesday that Smollett’s legal battle “definitely has an effect on everyone” involved in the Fox series.
“Right now, everyone is fine and everyone is finishing up the season and being professional about it,” she explained. “Everyone is acting very professionally, we all love this show and we have a job to do.”
While it’s uncertain if Smollett will return for Empire Season 6, executive producer Brett Mahoney told Entertainment Weekly in a Wednesday interview that pulling the actor from Season 5’s final two episodes was “the logical decision to make.” Mahoney claimed it would allow the cast and crew “get the work done without a great deal of disruption” as well as give Smollett “the time to focus and prepare his case.”
Empire airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.