EMPIRE Debriefing: Comebacks and confessions

Courtesy FOX

I know I’m behind on Empire — as I am on every other show, as you might have gleaned if you follow this site at all — but I couldn’t resist talking a little bit about last night’s episode, because this show is so deliciously melodramatic, and I’m loving it.

The battle between Team Cookie and Team Lucious heats up, thanks in part to a little question-popping, and everyone at Empire Industries is feeling the burn.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

When Lucious invites Cookie for dinner, she comes dressed in her best attire for the date — or, I should, undressed in her most seductive finery. When the romantic rendezvous turns out to be a family affair, including Anika, she’s peeved, and isn’t shy about demonstrating it. (Because Cookie isn’t shy about anything.) Lucious actually takes the opportunity to announce his engagement to Anika, which unsurprisingly rattles Cookie, and sets the tone for the rest of the episode. No longer is Cookie only fighting Lucious for control of Empire, but there’s now the added rivalry with Anika, who undoubtedly feels the sting of being the “Other Woman” of sorts in this convoluted triangle.

Cookie throws her efforts into promoting Jamal’s latest single, despite his reservations. He’s proud of his music, but part of him just wants to have a quiet weekend alone with Michael, who is starting to worry about the changes he’s seeing in his partner. Scheming Cookie starts whispering in both their ears about finding partners better suited to their needs — for Michael, that means not getting in Jamal’s way, and for Jamal, that means hooking up with someone with more cachet. Obviously, neither of them are receptive to this at first, but the seeds have definitely been sown for a breakup.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Meanwhile, back at Empire, Anika is looking to trim the fat, by way of letting go of unprofitable artists. One of these is Elle Dallas (guest star Courtney Love), who was the first chart-topping artist on the label, and helped make it what it is today. However, she hasn’t released an album in over five years, and is generally a hot mess these days. Cookie is enraged, because she respects the artist hierarchy at Empire, and claims that Dallas is “royalty,” and should be treated as such — even if that means forgiving her lack of productivity recently. She goes over Anika’s head and begs Lucious to manage Elle, because she feels a kinship with her, though they’ve never met. Lucious begrudgingly agrees, but ultimately he’s not the one she really needs to convince — it’s Elle, who has an ego the size of New York and doesn’t want a “nobody” handling her career. Cookie pulls out her best sympathetic act, pleading with her that they both have comebacks on the line here, and Elle relents.

Cookie is no sycophant, though, despite being a huge fan. When Elle doesn’t show up to work, she traces her back to a seedy motel, where she finds the singer holed up with a guy and drugs. Cookie kicks the half-dressed man out, and flushes Elle’s stash down the toilet, despite her pleas of being clean. In a truly captivating scene, Elle breaks down with Cookie, who tries to comfort her as best she can. Love in particular was shocking — completely bare-faced (well, by TV standards) and ugly-crying it all up over the screen, it leaves you wondering if she wasn’t pulling from her own experiences, given her sordid past. The rawness of the scene took me by surprise — much like this show in general.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

This Florence Nightingale act makes Cookie late for Jamal’s club appearance, but she makes up for it by getting the DJ to play Jamal’s yet-to-be-released single for the patrons, getting some positive buzz going. She also charms a famous football player into tweeting about it, which immediately sends the single into the stratosphere, much to their pleasure. Hakeem is at the club too, high and drunk, and laments to his brother that Jamal is the real talent in the family, and he will never live up to that. Jamal tells him to go home, and that he won’t help him anymore if he keeps disrespecting their mother like that. (Ooh, the deliciously Shakespearean lines being drawn in the sand in this family.) Yet, if you thought this boost would bring Team Cookie back on top at Empire, you’d be wrong, because they show up to Lucious’ only to find him raving about Hakeem’s newest single. You see, just as Jamal’s turned his fractured relationship with his father into his music, Lucious has drawn out Hakeem’s feelings about his mother into his, to equal success. Hakeem is still the golden goose for Empire, that much is clear.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

So Cookie and Jamal focus their efforts on his next radio appearance, which effectively cancels Jamal and Michael’s plans for the weekend, too. She also shifts her attention to Elle in the recording studio, and the disaster continues. She’s clearly out of it, raging on her backup singers for making mistakes that are obviously her own, and blaming everyone but herself for her poor performance. She’s just not feeling it, but lest you think Cookie would indulge her in this attitude, she sets her artist straight, and implores her to “strip” herself for her music. She doesn’t even mean just metaphorically — she makes her take off her fake lashes and hair extensions and bangles and baubles, and kicks everyone else out of the studio other than Elle and the sound engineers. It might be trite, compared to how long this takes in real life, but it works here: Elle finally delivers, after months (or years) in the studio, and hits her own glory note, in tears — and Cookie smiles, because she knows they’re both back. Sure, this story might have been rushed, because in real life this whole process would have likely taken months, but I’m fine with suspending disbelief on my TV, especially when it leads to such wonderful moments from Taraji P. Henson.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Jamal’s radio gig goes swimmingly: he sings beautifully, and it all but confirms his status as the next big heartbreaker. The litmus test comes, though: the post-show interview, the host inevitably brings up his love life, wondering what his special lady friend thinks of his rising popularity. It’s the moment of truth: does he come out and talk about his boyfriend, as he wanted all along, or does he deny who he is, as Cookie has implored him to do? He hesitates, then comes to a compromise of sorts — he tells the host he doesn’t have a girlfriend, which is technically true. But then he takes it a step further and claims he doesn’t have time for a love life, period, and that his music is his life at the moment. Cookie is thrilled at the response, avoiding the PR storm for a little while longer, but Michael, who is watching the livestream at home, is gutted. This is exactly what he was afraid of, and the writing seems to be on the wall for their relationship.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Elsewhere, Lucious is still embroiled in the Bunky murder mystery, though I admit I find this story the least compelling of all the threads so far. After some arm-twisting, Lucious admits to Vernon that he killed Bunky, though he makes it seem like he was under immediate threat after the shakedown, and omits the part where he lured their friend to the riverbank and shot him in cold blood. Vernon spends the rest of the episode trying to clean the mess up for Lucious, though not without his own reservations. He goes after Andre (via headlock) for lying to him about his dad’s involvement, until Andre convinces him that he had no idea his dad pulled the trigger, only that he was covering it up somehow. The two form an alliance of sorts (Team Andre!), though not before Andre threatens Vernon in turn not to lay another finger on him. This I’m interested in, because if any of the Lyon boys will blow, I think it’s unsung and restless Andre, who’s lived in the shadow of his father and brothers his entire life. Plus, I’m fascinated by the cracks forming in Lucious’ entourage, especially as his health deteriorates.

Nevertheless, Vernon does as asked, and hires a scapegoat to take the rap for Lucious (hmm sound familiar?), in exchange to a lucrative payout to his family. Lucious remains the “upstanding” citizen to his friends in law enforcement, while saving the company from doom in light of the IPO. The damage is done, though, and Vernon’s cold shoulder amidst Lucious’ relief is all you need to know that that relationship is effectively toast. Moreover, it makes me wonder just what Vernon’s fate is, because Lucious must realize he’s now made an enemy out of his childhood friend, and we know his enemies don’t last long on this show. (I’m getting a bit of a Sopranos vibe, here.)

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

On the health side, Lucious collapses in his dining room, which prompts him to hire a “concierge” doctor for all his medical needs. He’s not into handholding, though, and wants to know what he can do for his ALS. The doc suggests an experimental treatment which hasn’t been approved yet by the FDA, but is apparently all the rage in Russia, because obviously it would be. There’s no way this will end well, but Lucious is desperate, despite his calm facade, and based on the previews for next week, it’s going to be a wild ride.

As I said, I haven’t had the chance to talk much about Empire, which is a shame, because I am loving it. It’s got the perfect balance of romance, music, drama and intrigue to keep me coming back every week. After last week’s episode, I wanted to write a long post about why Cookie Lyon is one of the best characters to grace our screens in recent years, which I’ve yet to find time for, but the sentiment remains. She, and her alter ego Henson, are a revelation in the role, and while Terence Howard does an admirable job with Lucious, I think Cookie is the glue that holds this entire show together. Besides, their complicated relationship is fascinating, because despite their romantic entanglements, they are evidently a formidable business partnership, and need each other to succeed.

How are you liking Empire? Do you need more Cookie in your life? Or are you Team Lucious in this game?

Nels
Nels knew how to operate a TV remote control before she knew how to talk. As a result, she has spent an inordinate amount of time pretending she actually lives on a soundstage. When she isn’t watching whichever show is currently capturing her heart, she is writing about how said show is currently capturing her heart. She loves pie.

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