EMPIRE Debriefing: Money for nothing and your long-lost kids for free

Courtesy FOX

First things first, I need to apologize for my recap last week. Because apparently I failed to mention the biggest plot twist of the night, which was that Jamal has a daughter! Or so ex Raven-Symoné claims. (Blame the fast-paced nature of this show — there are too many stories for my sleep-deprived brain to handle.) We make up for it this week, because last night’s episode of Empire was all about the daddy drama, for every member of the Lyon family.

Not only do we learn that Jamal has a baby mama, but that Olivia (Raven-Symoné) is actually his ex-wife. (Am I the only one who immediately thought she was reprising her role as Olivia from The Cosby Show, all grown up, for a split second?) It turns out that Lucious orchestrated the marriage when Jamal was 18 and his music career was first gaining traction, in order to protect his image. Of course, when Cookie finds out, she’s angry that Lucious would force someone into doing something like that, especially when they were as young as her son was at the time. In any case, Jamal pulls a Ross Geller and thinks it’s impossible that little Lola is his, because he and Olivia only slept together once. Which leads to an unintentionally hilarious scene in which boyfriend Michael informs him that’s all it takes, because apparently Jamal skipped that day in Biology class. (I have to admit to yelling “They should put that on the box!” in my head.)

courtesy FOX

courtesy FOX

They’ve got bigger fish to fry, though, because Michael takes the new progeny as a sign that they’re over for good, and leaves Jamal, using his own words against him by saying that he’s married to his music and has no time for a partner right now. I know it was a scene that was supposed to be poignant, but I confess to finding Rafael de la Fuente’s delivery, and Jussie Smollett’s reaction, slightly over-the-top so that I couldn’t help chuckling a little, though I do appreciate their earnestness. Jamal’s no saint in this situation, and perhaps Michael is smart to recognize the writing on the wall, but there’s no doubt that Cookie’s manipulation last week is weighing heavily on their minds here.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

That’s not the only problem in Jamal’s life right now, though. Not only does Olivia drop the baby bombshell on him, but she also disappears and effectively abandons Lola at Empire, in an elevator no less. Jamal is forced to step up to the plate, but he can’t handle the pressure and takes off, leaving the girl in Becky’s care. (Casting Raven-Symoné in the role of her mother leads me to believe this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Olivia at all, though.) It’s a dick move, but he makes up for it a little by coming back to the office shortly thereafter, once he’s cooled off, to figure out how to handle this. Lucious offers to take Lola home with Anika and himself for the night, since his housekeeper supposedly is over-the-moon about taking care of small children, as Jamal processes how to be a father. I’m screaming at all of them to take a damn DNA test to at least prove that Lola is Jamal’s, but I’m also thinking that’s of little importance to Lucious: after all, what better way to “prove” your heterosexuality than by claiming your child, right? In that respect, Lola is a convenient gift, so it’s no wonder Lucious instantly becomes a doting grandfather to her and welcomes her into their home, despite her being a complete stranger. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that Lola isn’t related to them at all, but I’d be equally unsurprised if Lucious hides that information for the sake of protecting Jamal’s image, especially now.

It’s of particular importance these days because the IPO is drawing nearer, and this week’s episode is all about Empire’s promotional showcase, in which the company hopes to secure investment by their friendly neighborhood billionaires. Yet it’s also significant because Lucious’ ALS symptoms are increasing in severity, and his impending mortality and subsequent legacy are weighing heavily on him. He ends up in the hospital early on — not because of his disease, but due to the side-effects of the treatment his “concierge doctor” administered last week. What it’s actually doing is frying his liver and killing him quicker, but he refuses to believe it and instead lashes out at his legitimate doctor when she deems Dr. Doom a quack. He still hasn’t told anyone else about the disease, but his hand is nearly forced when he loses his voice the night of the showcase, but more on that later.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

He’s putting all his efforts into the event, understanding inherently the importance of its success. Despite Anika’s objections, he chooses to place Elle Dallas as the headliner, as a nod to the company’s history, and knowing she’s likely to hit it big with the wealthy older investors. Besides, he trusts Cookie’s judgment, and if she says Elle is ready, then so does he. Anika, of course, bristles at this, though tries not to let it show. (It’s also at this point that I was convinced Anika would be sabotaging Elle’s sobriety in the near future, and spoiler alert, I was right!) Meanwhile, Jamal and Hakeem are busy rehearsing together for a joint performance — sampling the Dire Straights’ “Money for Nothing” — and as expected, they can’t stop fighting. Whether it’s for the spotlight or their parents’ affection, they’re competitive and tense.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Everything comes to a head at the showcase. Anika is jealous, Lucious is nervous, and Cookie is firing on all cylinders to keep things afloat. Sober Elle expresses a desire to attend a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, which is the most obvious foreshadowing ever, but she’s in good spirits overall, eager to prove herself on stage and set her comeback in stone. When Cookie leaves her alone to go check on Lucious at the boys, Anika sidles up to check on Elle in turn, though her Cheshire cat grin betrays her intentions. Not only does she subtly dial up Elle’s nerves, but when Elle isn’t looking, she spikes her green tea with her own little vial of smack. Cookie later finds her star swaying and slurring in the bathroom, and obviously doesn’t believe Elle when she claims she didn’t take anything and just started feeling dizzy all of a sudden.  (Here’s hoping at some point she reveals the last thing she remembered was talking to Anika, and Cookie puts two and two together.)

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Cookie doesn’t have time for junkies, and has more pressing matters at hand, namely salvaging the showcase. She rounds up her boys and bumps them up to headliners, not afraid to take her lumps about vouching for Elle. She lays into Hakeem and Jamal for being so childish, and a smackdown from Mama is apparently all it takes for the brothers to reconcile, to my delight, because I love seeing the two of them play off each other, and enjoy their vibe as artistic collaborators. Their performance is a smash, and just as Lucious had hoped, they demonstrate that the next generation of Empire is in good hands, with talents like these.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

When it comes time for Lucious to give the keynote speech, he freezes. It’s not because of nerves, but because his vocal chords become temporarily paralyzed, a side-effect of his disease. (A reminder that ALS affects all muscles of the body, and what Lucious has to look forward to.) Anika and Andre battle for who should go out in his place: Anika wrote that speech and knows it like the back of her hand (and is also undoubtedly scheming to helm Empire after Lucious is gone), while Andre, as CFO and Lucious’ eldest son, feels like he should step into his father’s shoes. Lucious makes the choice for them, though: he picks Cookie, because he always will, when it comes down to it. This time, though, it’s for practical reasons: Cookie is the “people person” of the family and owns any room she walks into, and what better way to underscore that they are a family-run business grooming their next generation than by sending out the matriarch? Again, Anika is peeved, but just as we’d all expect, Cookie wows the crowd, with her sass and her humor, as well as her acknowledgement of their humble (and unsavory) beginnings. She aces the speech, sans teleprompters, and Lucious couldn’t be prouder.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

When they return home after the home-run showcase, Lucious finally comes clean to the family about what is going on with him, and everyone’s reactions are wildly different. Hakeem and Jamal are shocked, Cookie is in denial, but Andre is the one who really suffers. He’s already secretly been off his medication for bipolar disorder and skipping out on therapy appointments, but the news of his dad’s prognosis sends him over the edge. He immediately freaks out over the company’s future, while his brothers blast him for being so selfish at a time like this. Wife Rhonda, though, knows what’s actually going on and tries to calm him down, but it’s too late, and he storms out, leaving her to clean up his mess and run after him. When she finally finds him at home, he’s in some sort of fugue state, sitting fully-clothed in the shower and completely unaware of their surroundings. In a touching moment, Rhonda urges him to come back to her and brings him back down to earth, evidently not the first time she’s done this. I really appreciated this, because until now, I’d gotten a Lady Macbeth vibe from her, assuming she’s yet another opportunistic pawn in this game, but this is the first time I felt a real connection between Andre and Rhonda, and believe that there’s a strong bond between them. I’m definitely more intrigued about their relationship, now.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

After all the boys have left, Lucious takes it upon himself to ease Cookie’s mind. She’s pleading with him to beat the disease, refusing to believe his imminent demise. The two of them, in these quiet conversations, are my favorite part of the show. Cookie’s a force of nature, and Lucious can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but together, I always see what must have brought them together in the first place. The chemistry between Taraji P. Henson and Terence Howard is off the charts, and a relationship that shouldn’t work on paper given their sordid pasts just burns up the screen. Which this week’s ending displays: they fall right into their old habits, sharing a sweet dance for old time’s sake, which inevitably turns into a moment of passion as they’re finally left alone. They’re more alive than we’ve seen all season, and while I normally don’t like love triangles at all, I find myself cheering for them, both because of their obvious bond, and because Anika’s true colors make me want her to get her comeuppance.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Which she does, in a way; her business trip to Chicago is canceled at the last minute, and she predictably comes home to find Cookie and Lucious in bed together. While I actually felt sympathy for Anika in the first few episodes, because she was instantly forced to play second-fiddle to a woman who obviously still holds her fiancé’s heart, her pulling Elle into their games firmly placed her in the “villain” category to me, so I can’t wait to see her pay. On the one (evil) hand, good for her for securing her position in the company (as a man would — Lucious killed one of his best friends, after all), but on the other, she’s as much a snake as anyone else on this show, so she’s bound to get some hubris, too. She’s also relatively undefined as a character so far, so it’s difficult for me to connect with her too, beyond seeing her as a schemer like everyone else. (Maybe that’s the point: everyone’s ultimately out for themselves.)

I feel like I keep saying this every week, but I really can’t believe how quickly the show is delving into all these plots. I almost want the writers to slow it down, so that we can savor them, but at the same time, the speed is one of the things that makes the show so compelling. If the preview for next week is any indication, we’re about to go sonic speed as the end of the season approaches.

What did you think of last night’s episode?

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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