In April, Fox renewed Empire for a sixth season, with the network specifically noting that there were no plans for Jussie Smollett to appear in the season—though it did extend his contract just in case those plans changed. It was hardly a surprising move, since the network had cut Smollett from the final few episodes of the show’s fifth season after police in Chicago accused him of staging a racist and homophobic attack against himself, but the move to keep the door open for a possible return was an obvious indication that Fox wanted to sit back and see how the allegations against him played out. Now, a couple months later, that situation is no clearer than it was in April, with the Chicago police having dropped all charged against Smollett and a judge recently ordering that several documents related to his arrest be unsealed and released, though “what really happened” is still open to interpretation.
Fox seems to have quietly made a decision on how it feels about Smollett, though, with Variety reporting that “multiple production sources” says that Empire’s writers have begun developing ideas for how to bring Smollett’s character back in the second half of the sixth (and final) season. Variety says that the “primarily black cast members” believe Smollett is innocent of faking the attack, while the “mostly white below-the-line crew” think he’s guilty, resulting in some “tensions” on set. The Variety report makes it sound like those tensions were Fox’s main concern in the first place, and the sources suggest that it’s hoping everything will have calmed down between now and whenever the final episodes of the season are filmed.
After Variety published its report, though, Empire co-creator Lee Daniels got on Twitter to deny the story, saying, “Jussie will NOT be returning to Empire.” That seems pretty definitive, but the contract was done that way for a reason—and that reason being “plans change.”