Spoiler alert: This story contains major details from Tuesday's series finale of "Empire."
The sun has set on Fox's "Empire" – at least for now.
The turbulent family saga, which took TV by storm when it premiered in 2015, came to its end earlier than expected Tuesday after the coronavirus-related production shutdown forced producers to refashion the two episodes scheduled before the finale – one half-filmed – into one series closer.
Producers hope to some day make their planned finale, but under difficult circumstances the six-season series did a solid job concluding the story of the Lyon family and its hip-hop empire.
Here's what went down:
Much of the final hour ties together both the Lyon family and its business interests, with the main focus on repairing the tortured, frequently fractured relationship between Lyon patriarch Lucious (Terrence Howard) and matriarch Cookie (Taraji P. Henson). It's about as close as you can get to a happy ending for the Lyon family.
Early in the episode, Lucious and Cookie team up professionally, ambushing and firing Pamplemousse rivals Kelly Patel (Pej Vahdat) and Giselle Barker (Nicole Ari Parker) in their corporate boardroom to wrest control of the Lyon music business.
Now, on to family matters.
Eldest son Andre (Trai Byers), whose personal crisis led to the slip that allowed Kelly and Giselle take over, is out of the hospital but still bereft over his separation from his wife and son. He plans to leave for a church mission in South America and Cookie can't persuade him to stay.
Enter youngest Lyon brother Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), who persuades his brother to stay and try to establish a relationship with his young son, emphasizing the finale's theme: "Family is everything. You've got to fight." Viewers don't see a father-son reunion, likely due to the shooting schedule cut short, but the suggestion of one is there.
Hakeem, too, appears to find peace with new wife Maya, recognizing her intelligence and value and ending his struggle to get out of their marriage.
Even Becky (Gabourey Sidibe), the Lyon assistant who has risen in the music business, has her own happy ending: A big birthday bash that leads to a reconciliation with Porsha (Ta'Rhonda Jones).
However, this finale is ultimately about Lucious and Cookie. Throughout the episode, Cookie examines her evolution over the years, and her history with Lucious is underlined with flashbacks, both passionate and violent, from earlier episodes and scenes depicting younger versions of their characters.
As Lucious and Cookie realize their eternal connection, they nevertheless appear to be on separate paths, with Lucious planning to escort Yana (Kiandra Richardson), a rising young singer who loves Lucious, on her tour of Europe. Evan Yana's father and Lucious's rival, Damon Cross (Wood Harris), who is persuaded that there's no romantic entanglement with Lucious, approves of the professional relationship.
Only Yana senses Lucious's true feelings, realizing he still loves Cookie and won't be accompanying her abroad: "She has your heart." In one of the episode's best scenes, Yana takes the stage at Cookie's BossyFest musical extravaganza, performing "Home is on the Way," a love song (and the finale title) that Lucious wrote with Cookie in mind as the Lyons look lovingly at each other from opposite sides of the stage.
Afterward, Lucious tries to soothe Yana, pointing out that she's on the verge of superstardom, and they share a hug. In one of the more ridiculous misreads ever, even for a soap, Damon spots the two as he turns the corner, shouts, "You liar!," pulls his gun and shoots.
Producers say that was initially planned as the Episode 18 cliffhanger, but the violent action quickly moves to its resolution, as viewers learn Damon had bad aim as well as bad judgment: His daughter is dead.
Lucious, fearing that Damon will come for his family, orders extra security and tells Cookie and his sons that he wants to cancel the premiere of the movie celebrating his life, "The Birth of an Empire." But his family, sticking together, won't let him.
To avoid a surprise attack by Damon, Lucious pounces first, furtively moving about his rival's home as security guards lie on the floor. (Viewers don't see how that happened, suggesting a scene that hadn't been filmed.)
Lucious and Damon fight viciously in the kitchen, with Damon about to strangle his rival before quick-thinking Lucious detaches his prosthetic leg and delivers a deadly blow to Damon's head. (That move was Howard's idea, executive producer Brett Mahoney says.)
Cookie arrives on the scene, fearing Lucious is dead, before he utters, "It's over."
The episode then cuts to the film's premiere screening, with the Lyons all together and Cookie proclaiming, "It's our family's night."
Here's where Jussie Smollett was excluded
Before the film starts, Hakeem performs a rap celebrating the family's position at the top, mentioning various family members as flashbacks play.
Middle son Jamal is mentioned during Hakeem's rap, but the accompanying flashback sequence doesn't show actor Jussie Smollett, who was written out of the show last season after allegations he staged a hate-crime attack in Chicago, where "Empire" filmed. Instead of Smollett as the adult Jamal (now living in London to explain his absence this season), the flashback sequence instead simply shows a younger actor playing Jamal as a child.
Mahoney directed questions about the exclusion of Smollett, even in flashback, to Fox. (He said he has an opinion on the matter, but declined to share it.)
Still, it's a triumphal closing moment for the Lyons as Hakeem takes to a throne on stage and the screen goes dark, with Lucious proclaiming: "To the Empire!"
Will the Lyons ever return to the screen?
Producers of "Empire," created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, say they still hope to make the actual series finale, which would have been the sixth season's 20th episode, Mahoney tells USA TODAY.
"We want to be able to film the intended finale we came up with and think we owe it to the fans to do that. We know that there are tremendous obstacles. We don't know when production will start again. We don't know who will be available when that happens," he says. "But it is something we'd like to do. And if we can't do it, hopefully we can find some creative way to at least get the script out."
Mahoney says they had to leave out a few revelations regarding earlier mysteries: Who shot Lucious? Who blew up Cookie's car? But a closing featuring "the Lyon family coming together, Lucious and Cookie acknowledging their love for one another, was definitely the spirit we were going to be reaching in the series finale."