At this point, if you didn’t keep up with Empire, or you’re still writing it off as the hip-hop version of Glee, you just didn’t get it. As an editor, it’s been a great experience watching one of our toughest, smartest critics Robert Ham, take on this show every week (and I’ll try to do him justice as I pinch-hit for him today). The weaker episodes at the beginning of the season were taken to task, and then the show did something he and I (and many others) really didn’t expect it to do—it got good. Ham was willing and prepared to tune in and be entertained every week, even if he was impressed primarily (almost exclusively) with Taraji P. Henson’s performance as Cookie. Instead, Empire (with the help of some powerfully good directing from co-creator Danny Strong, along with Mario Van Peebles and Debbie Allen who took on last night’s two-part finale, respectively) has kept the entertainment factor, but upped the ante, and transitioned from a black soap opera to a smart, fun, musical drama.
“Die But Once” opens with an artistically frustrated Lucious. Cookie is gone and he can’t block out the noise in his office. Interesting, because we flash back to him composing music in a house full of kids, with Cookie yelling at the babies, then yelling instructions at him. It’s not the noise that’s getting to present-day Lucious (he’s dealt with worse); it’s his conscience, and probably the suspicion that Cookie is somewhere, moving on.
Because she is. I don’t think Cookie would mind me saying that she was on a romantic vacation, fit for white folks. Malcolm Deveaux whisks her away to the Berkshires, but amidst the snow, and the fireplace she can’t keep her mind off work. However, one peek at those pecks, and she manages to move on. Too bad Lucious can’t quite do the same. He loses it when he finds out (dammit, Porsha!). After Hakeem spits a vicious freestyle alongside Uncle Snoop (in which he threatens to run off with his own Dad’s “bitch,”—excellent use of foreshadowing for this show), Lucious halls off and punches him in the face. It’s extreme, but that is how seriously some people take disrespect in freestyle raps. So, I saw it coming. When Cookie returns, she’s locked out of her office and kicked off team Empire. This was especially easy to do, since she was never on the board anyway. Andre played her, because this is Empire and sometimes you gotta play your Mom to get on your Dad;s good side, even though he never really liked your talent-less butt anyway.
Did I mention that all this happens within the first 15 minutes? Because all this happens within the first 15 minutes.
In a recent review, Ham likened Empire to Mad Men and something about the pacing of last night reminded me of this. Sure, Empire is guilty of predictability (as soon as we learn that Lucious’ blurry vision is not an ALS symptom, it’s easy to guess that he doesn’t have the disease). But for most of the finale, my breath was held. This was especially true for the scenes between Jamal and Lucious. Lucious opens up—actually seems to open up!—about his writer’s block, and he may as well have been on his knees, begging his son to write him a hit. And instead of thanking Jamal for not turning his back on him, as Lucious had done so many times before, Lucious remains the disgusting villain of the show.
“You want me to throw yo ass in the trash can again, huh?”
“At least you walk like a man.”
Ugh. In the words of Cookie, “I wish he would just drop dead already. Then we could make it a memorial concert. Jack up the ticket prices.”
Of everything we learned last night, I’m most excited to see where this frightening, new relationship between father and son goes. They have a jam session in the old house. It’s all very performative and, yes, a bit much. But we’ve seen similar ridiculous drama on great shows (i.e. Mad Men, where someone lost a whole foot thanks to an in-office John Deere incident), and we accept it. And in the heat of that jam session, we mistakenly hope that Jamal will rub off on Lucious—we want him to get Empire. And he does. But not because he proved himself to be better than his father musically. But because he boldly answers Lucious’s question, “What you know about the streets? What you know about them killers?” Well, he knows that one way to get his father’s masters back from Billy Baretti is to hang the man over his balcony. Jussie Smollet really performs in this scene. And it doesn’t seem out of place for his character either, because he’s never come off as gentle. We’ve felt empathy for him, but he’s consistently held his own.
Oh, and Hakeem sleeps with Anika. And when his Dad walks in on them? Well, let’s just say, that was clearly a part of the plan.
So one son proves himself to be the real Lyon, while another assumes his father’s position, betwixt the thighs of Boo-Boo Kitty, and the eldest son swaps out one Father God for another. After announcing that he was misdiagnosed (he has Myasthenia Gravis), Lucious hands Jamal the kingdom, Hakeem a private jet (so that he can fly around the world and get his girl back), and Andre a million gabillion dollars for God/the Church he’s joined (this actually happens in the second hour, “Who I Am,”). Everyone should be happy. But that terrifying laugh Lucious let out when he discovered he wasn’t going to die made it clear that his new lease on life wasn’t going to benefit anyone. At some point in time, every person in his family has made it clear that they were lit’rally waiting for him to die. They’re all going to pay for that, but he’s gotta butter them up first.
The weakest moment of “Die But Once” has to be Lucious’ confession. There had to have been a better way for Cookie to find out that he killed her cousin Bunky. She’s about to take him out, Amour style (sorry if you haven’t seen the Haneke film yet, but I really needed to make that reference), and it looks like she changes her mind. I like that we’re led to believe this for a little while, before we see that Lucious is the one who actually stops her. It’s a great story (and video) to share with Jamal, now his successor, who has actually spent much of the episode defending his father.
But we know Lucious’ plan for all the kiddies to love and forgive him won’t work. Andre, Hakeem, Cookie, and Boo-Boo Kitty have to join forces and start their own label (and by “join forces” I mean “first have an epic cat fight, which Cookie definitely won, because duh”). But they need Anika because they need her connection to The Money. And The Money is (unsurprisingly) an old white guy whose grandson really, really wants to be a rapper. Let the hostile takeover begin!
One other weak point in the finale, for me, is the storyline with Feds. Cookie refuses to snitch on Lucious, but she doesn’t have to do it. Andre and Hakeem heed The Money’s words about the need for a scandal, and they get Lucious (née Dwight Walker) arrested. Unfortunately, one of the witnesses the Feds needs is missing… because Andre’s wife killed Vernon? Okay, no offense to Malik Yoba (who I adore), but I just feel like someone who was more important to the series should have died. And surprise pregnancy reveals are just the worst. Way too easy, and there was plenty of drama without it.
But I’m nitpicking, because the finale was really the perfect mix of those shocking moments we know and love this show for, with legitimately compelling content. Although Lucious’ confession was badly written, the visual experience of watching him groggily confront his demons, as the camera cut to Michelle (Jennifer Hudson) and the gospel choir takin’ us to church, then to Jamal and his hot aussie lover in Daddy’s office was incredible. This show… just rocks. And it has so much more to offer.
Stray Observations/Quotes I’m getting tattooed on to my body:
The battle rap scene with Black Rambo made me so happy. Black Rambo (and his homophobia) actually sucks, so I’d love to see them do another scene like this, with some legitimately talented battle rappers. Murda Mook, Loaded Lux, where you at?
Speaking of Rambo, #Battyman was trending.
“And then I get to perform it when you’re dead? Nah, son.”—Jamal
We desperately needed that silly Whoop That Trick reference.
More Juicy J next season, please.
Loved all the critiques on religion—Gospel singers want that record deal too!
“My Mom’s white.”—Becky
Hakeem’s been secretly reading? Okay…
“You use your inside voice when you talk to Becky.”
“There’s no higher purpose than being the maker of music. That’s the voice of God.”—Lucious
“Let’s see who’s more powerful—God or your Daddy.”—Lucious
Absolute Best Quote of the Episode/All of Network TV Ever:
“Run them pearls, ho.” (Cookie, marry me please).
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes all follows (and un-follows) on Twitter.