In a word: it’s crazy.
In a two words: it’s crazy awesome.
In a few more words: It’s a fun, crazy, sometimes trashy, sometimes real, surprisingly complex, awesome show that is the ultimate in guilty pleasure.
I’ll do my best to recap but you really have to see and hear the show to get the full Taraji and Terrence effect. Taraji’s side-eyes and daring fashion and hair weave choices alone are worth the 60 minutes.
In the beginning…there was Lucious Lyon. Well, actually, there was an amazing singer doing some impressive vocal acrobatics in the recording studio, but not impressive enough to the intensely gazing Lucious Lyon. He wants to see and hear her soul when she sings but she continues to be an epic fail to the point that Lucious flashes to another time and place where he’s in the hospital undergoing mysterious tests…
Think back to how you felt when your brother died, Lucious softly suggests, hands on the crooner’s shoulders. This draws shocked and resentful gazes from around the room until the said crooner nails the next take, Lucious showing that he indeed knows how to motivate to get the best possible result. Even if he has to use your dead brother to get you there.
Fast Forward to a party on a yacht. Shrimp, champagne, and bikini clad women abound. We now meet the three Lyon brothers: Hakeem, youngest, a rapper, and obviously a young man that embraces the ‘live it up’ lifestyle; Jamal, the serious, sensitive, middle child who rather compose music while a party goes on around him but shares a closeness and flair for music with his younger brother that our final Lyon brother, the composed, suited, college and grad school educated Andre completely lacks. Unobserved from a lofty balcony, Andre watches his brothers with an already calculating eye (even if there seems to be a bit of longing and envy in those dead eyes), his wife, Rhonda, who evokes a Lady MacBeth in waiting, standing at his side.
Meanwhile Lucious is pushing past adoring fans and snapping paparazzi into the offices of Empire, his assistant Becky (played by a blond highlighted Gabourey Sidibe) giving him the bullet to let us know that Lucious is apparently so big that he dismisses a request from Saturday Night Live with a wave of his hand and actually groans in impatience at a request from The President – The President!- and tells Becky to tell ‘Barack’ that he’ll do this one thing but that’s the last request for the time being. Oh, so it’s like that, Lucious?
In the boardroom, Lucious recounts how far he’s come from a drug dealer (shown in flashback to a time before Lucious developed an affinity for turtlenecks and silk scarves) with a dream to make music in his youth to the kind of an empire that they see around him. He announces that he’s taking the company public to the applause of the room. Privately, he collects his sons to announce to them that the time has come for him to begin grooming his successor and that one (Why only one? No reason other than to pit his kids against each other as far as I can see) of them was going to have to man up and take charge. Andre looks up from his hummus in disbelief that he has to fight for it when he’s already worked at the company for years and is ready to take charge. Jamal smells the King Lear baiting but Lucious aint’ interested in his smart mouth. They need to think about the empire and making sure that NO one can tear it down.
At which point we cut to the person who seems to be the most primed to do such a thing (or at least do so in trying to get her piece of the pie): Cookie Lyons, the former Mrs. Lucious, signing her paperwork, gathering her things, shrugging on her fur coat and stalking out of the prison gates a free woman and declaring with a shake of her ponytail that Cookie is coming home.
Her first stop? To see middle son Jamal. Who as many a child whose parent unexpectly shows up on their doorstep trips over himself trying to tidy up his apartment in the 60 seconds before Cookie is stepping off the elevator. As rough as Cookie is, you have no doubts she loves her boy when she pulls him into a vice grip hug, her eyes closing with relief, happiness, and pure emotion before she pulls away, races a critical eye over Jamal’s loft and quips: For a queen you sure do keep a messy place.
As un-PC Cookie is (and throughout this episode she continues to push this particular button and dare you to say something about it) she has nothing but smiles and acceptance for Jamal’s boyfriend Michael. And then just as quickly, the lioness comes roaring back out when Jamal asks her why she’s back and she informs him ‘To get what’s mine.’
While Cookie gets a makeover by Jamal, Lucious is recovering from the news innocently delivered by son Andre that Cookie is out. Shook is an understatement on Lucious’s reaction to finding out that Cookie has been released and what’s more, his boy Bunkie, old hanger on from back in the day that Lucious keeps around, didn’t know about it. Bunkie’s got more pressing matters on his mind: he needs another cash loan for some outstanding debts. Lucious informs him that his line of credit of tapped out. Which, yeah, comes back in a major way by the end of the episode.
Finally, the two opposing forces meet. Cookie, now sporting luscious (heh) long locks, a white fedora, and a suit that means business, storms past Becky into Lucious’s office, faltering in her bravado as she takes it all in: the opulence, the awards, the pictures with celebrities, just how damn far Lucious had come. Without her.
Cookie’s game face returns when Lucious enters all ease and smiles, welcoming Cookie with flattering comments. Cookie comes right to the point – she wants her company back. Ever mellow, Lucious explains that it’s not his company to give (control is split; he’s got a board to answer to!) and that he will give her anything she wants – which he immediately backpedals on as soon as Cookie begins laying out her terms. Grabbing a handful of peanut M&Ms for the road, Cookie tells Lucious to figure out how to get her what she wants before greeting Lucious’ current squeeze, Anika, with an ice cold once over and leaving the two seething in her wake.
Having fired his shots across the bow, Cookie next checks in with her youngest, Hakeem, who was not even a year old when she went to prison. So it’s no surprise that he’s not really feeling her, but he takes his ‘whatever’ attitude a galaxy too far by dropping big ole ‘B’ on Cookie. Which sets her off like a mother who just got called a bitch by her son would: she picks up a broom and proceeds to beat him to the ground. Hakeem? Dude, anyone with a lick of sense knows you don’t call your momma a bitch. Especially if she’s fresh out of the klink after serving 17 years!
Not so tough anymore, Hakeem runs to Lucious aiming for sympathy but only gets laughs and a less physically damaging but still emotionally bruising scolding form Lucious about Hakeem wasting his potential on bitches and booze (and now we see where Hakeem gets it, eh?). Ever the daddy’s boy, Hakeem caves and promises to be better- starting with working with Lucious on his next album.
Lucious’s saves his most complicated father-son talk for last when he invites Jamal to his office to give him one final talk about his sexuality confusion and how he needs to –hoo boy- choose to not be gay so he can get on with his life and be a successful part of the Lyon empire. We get a flashback to earlier times when Jamal was a wee thing who liked to dress in his momma’s heels and wear scarves which stops the family gathering cold as all eyes go to a bug eyed Lucious who pushes up from the table to grab his son and hoist him out of the house. Cookie follows, arriving too late to stop Lucious from throwing Jamal into a trash can but deftly throws Lucious aside to grab her boy and rush him back inside while Lucious stalks off into the night.
A bit OTT to show the cruel extent of Lucious’ homophobia? Not really. Creator Lee Daniels is drawing from his life for this bit of drama: his father did the same to him. Of course we’re set to hate Lucious only for the next scene to have us back in present day with Lucious at the hospital, in a CAT scan, looking uncertain and vulnerable as he undergoes more tests for his mysterious condition and we may have a smidge of empathy for what could be a dying man.
Andre, spurred on by Rhonda getting her Lady MacBeth on, gets off the bench and begins playing the game to win Empire. He pays a visit to his mother (suspiciously holed up in her apartment with a firearm as if she’s expecting trouble) and does a masterful job of playing on her guilt, greed, and need for payback to get her to make an appearance at the next day’s Empire board meeting and demanding a bigger piece of the pie. Armed with the ammunition that if it came to the SEC’s attention that the money Lucious used to start Empire was drug money, it could tear everything down. Lucious backs down from pissed off tiger to ‘Baby, why you wanna do me like that?’ Cookie doesn’t fold and on the advice of his counsel Vernon (keep an eye on Vernon), Lucious caves to Cookie’s demands and gives her Jamal to do with as she wishes.
Cookie is eager to mold Jamal into a star. Jamal not so much. He doesn’t want to sell out like his father. Lucious isn’t having much luck with Hakeem either: he shows up for a recording session so hung over he can’t keep his rhythm. But as we saw at the top of the episode when Hakeem and Jamal work together, they shine. After Jamal reworks Lucious’s music for Hakeem, the younger brother puts on a show that makes Lucious beam in pride at Hakeem while dismissing Jamal’s contributions. Having enough of his father’s rejection, Jamal runs to Cookie (leisurely lunching on a baloney sandwich and cheetoes in her apartment) and agrees to let her manage his career.
Which effectively pits Jamal/Cookie vs. Hakeem/Lucious-exactly as Andre wanted.
You gotta hand it to Andre. So far, so good with his scheming. He’s got his brothers where he wants them, his parents at each other’s throats. Even has Vernon in his pocket (supposedly; I think Vernon may be a spy for Lucious to keep Andre in check). But Andre seems to have his own secrets, such as popping pills for a condition only his wife seems to know about. When you add that and Andre’s listlessness, sedate composure, rote, practiced, and seemingly emotionless interactions with everyone, the obvious answer seems to be medicating for depression or some other more chronic mental affliction which…yeah would definitely take him out of the running in Lucious’s eyes and make Andre all the more determined to keep it hidden from his father. If he threw one brother in the garbage can for dressing in heels, what would he do to him?
But Andre’s secrets are a mystery to be uncovered by Lucious down the line. At the moment he’s gotta deal with Cookie, the confirmation that he has ALS and approximately 3 years to get his affairs in order, and oh, yeah, Bunkie has lost his mind and decided to blackmail Lucious about murders he committed in the past in order to get a nice windfall to pay off his gambling debts.
Here’s some advice Bunkie: don’t get in with mafia loan sharks, don’t try to blackmail a man who has used murder as a problem solver for disputes in the past, and never ever meet said murderer in a secluded location, drunk, and your back exposed while you pee into the ravine. Wanna know why?
Because any man who has murdered to protect what was his in the past, can be moved to do it again. Which is exactly what Lucious did, shooting Bunkie in cold blood and leaving his body where he lay (I’m sure he has other people to deal with the body, right) and walking off into the night.
So, yeah, Lucious…he’s playing for keeps. And given that Bunkie dropping ‘I want what’s mine’ on Lucious –the same demand Cookie’s been making of him- and got a bullet for his trouble, you wonder if Bunkie’s fate foreshadows just how far he’s willing to go to stop Cookie. Which is a hard thing to envision given that despite their wary, deep seated bitterness towards each other, they also still display a profound connection and respect for each other. He can still rib her about her horse hair weave and make her laugh and she can sip champagne with him, listen to his work with Hakeem, and give it a sincere nod of approval. There’s so much history there: bad AND good.
Who will win out? Who do we want to win out?
And that’s the beauty of the set-up for Empire. It dropped a lot of exposition to catch the audience up on all the players in the game, but due to a stellar cast and crackling dialogue it never, ever committed the cardinal sin of many new shows and many shows calling themselves a soap: being boring.
By the time we were at episode’s end with Lucious throwing a party to celebrate Cookie’s return to Empire with the unease playing just underneath every family member’s smiling façade, I was all in to learn more about this family, how they aligned, how relationships would be blown up, and all the other twists and turns and battles to be waged in this family war for Empire.
A few random thoughts, predictions for the season-
-FOX promos messed up and spoiled/confirmed a theory about Cookie that many viewers suspected from the subtle clues planted in the pilot. Not willing to spoil it here; all I will say is that I think it’ll give TPH more to work with as Cookie struggles to keep it together to keep the life she has now when she has so many things pulling her in several directions.
-I wonder if Lucious’s conversation with Jamal about homosexuality being a choice has as much to do with him as his son? On one hand it could be that he’s simply voicing a viewpoint seen in the community…on the other hand the depth of his loathing makes me think it’s self-loathing and that Lucious had to make that ‘choice’ himself in the past.
-This show has been called by critics ‘Black Dynasty’ which I agree has some merit: Cookie= Alexis, Lucious = Blake, Andre = Adam, Jamal = Steven, and Anika = Krystle (Previews already have Cookie v Anika ala the Alexis v Krystle cat fights). My question is who will be Jamal’s Sami Jo? The schemer that played Steven’s beard and birthed a next generation heir? Or Cookie’s Dexter? I need Cookie to have a suave, loyal man to have some fun sexy times with.
-Set Design was on point in subtle things like Lucious’s chairs all appearing like high backed thrones and sitting slightly higher than other people. He is after all, the King. And I can’t wait until Cookie is sitting in those chairs as the Queen.