EMPIRE Season Finale Debriefing: Game time, bitches.

Courtesy FOX

(I apologize for the title — blame Lucious! Everyone else is.)

Did you board the Crazy Train Express on Thursday night? Talk about a wild ride this week on Empire!

Just as promised, the show delivered on the deliciously tangled webs it’s woven all season long, and every single one of those conflicts came to an explosive head in the season finale.

It’s nearly impossible to capture them all, but I couldn’t let the occasion pass without discussing some of what’s made this show so compelling to me all season — and what I’m looking forward to next year.

From the moment terminally-ill Lucious Lyon declared to his sons that only one of them would be chosen as his successor, it was obvious that Andre, Jamal and Hakeem would be pitted against each other, one way or another. No matter how many loving embraces, promises of solidarity or musical displays of support, the entire conceit of the show is that only one will win — both the crown, and their father’s affection. I said it in the pilot recap, but it’s even more true now: this show may be a glorified primetime soap, but it’s definitely Shakespearean in spirit in how it blows up the family in the name of power and greed.

Nowhere was that more evident than in this week’s finale. Lucious banishes Cookie, screws over golden boy (and favorite) Hakeem, attempts to reconcile with estranged Jamal, and effectively destroys Andre’s shaky faith, all to prove that he’s still a god (or God, but that’s a whole other ball of wax). The tables are turned from the season premiere, to some devastating and shocking results.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Cookie is turfed from Empire and relieved of her stake in the company, now persona non grata. Hakeem’s big career plans are effectively scuttled, in the wake of Jamal’s recent success, and he’s all but forgotten in the family hierarchy, enraging him. Jamal and Lucious, in turn, share a surprisingly touching moment courtesy of some dueling guitars, but as usual, Lucious’ ulterior motive is for his own gain — he wants Jamal to do his dirty work with Beretti, to get his masters back. Meanwhile, Andre has found Jesus (courtesy of awkwardly intimate music therapist-slash-gospel singer-slash-pop star Michelle), and is turning his back on the company, so Lucious decides to “infect” the one good thing Andre has left by offering Michelle a record contract — proving to his son that everyone has a price, and nobody’s faith is stronger than the almighty buck. If one thing is clear, it’s that Lucious Lyon doesn’t love anyone as much as he loves himself, and he will twist any situation for his own perverse gain, even if it comes at his own family’s well-being.

In what is the most blatantly soapy twist that was utterly predictable (yet a little disappointing to me), Lucious finds out that he was misdiagnosed with ALS. How else would FOX mine more seasons out of the show without its main antagonist? He still has a chronic neuromuscular disease that entails similar symptoms, but the difference is that his isn’t fatal, and can be managed. He’s a man renewed, but lest you think this new lease on life would have him thanking his lucky stars and turning a new leaf, it only proves to himself that he’s unstoppable. Lucious may have already believed he was invincible, but now, he’s got the God complex to end all God complexes.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Cookie isn’t let off the hook. When she tries to confront Lucious at home about the ridiculousness of him banishing her from Empire, she’s instead privy to an Ambien trip of epic proportions. While Lucious’ ramblings are hilariously campy, in a Lady Macbeth kind of way, he also reveals that he killed Bunky, along with another acquaintance, which absolutely shakes Cookie — who was, after all, Bunky’s cousin. She’s so livid she even tries to smother Lucious with a pillow (which would be doing the world a favor, let’s be honest), but he catches her in the act. Uh-oh. Conveniently, the next day the feds are after her to spill what she knows about Bunky’s murder, knowing she must be itching to get back at Lucious for ousting her from Empire, but she denies everything, though not before Vernon catches her leaving their building.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

By the end of the first hour, everything is topsy-turvy, in a delightfully foreboding gift-exchange at home. (I’m guessing they can’t play Yankee swap with those trinkets?) Hakeem takes his anger out on Lucious by sleeping with Anika, and makes sure he gets caught in the most public of places — his father’s club. (Talk about killing two birds with one stone, for both parties.) Andre turns his back on Michelle and calls her a whore — which is rich coming from the guy who essentially pimped out his wife for a contract a few weeks ago. Speaking of that wife, Rhonda has suddenly grown a conscience, and leaves Andre for his emotional affair with his therapist. Meanwhile, Jamal, the long-suffering target of his father’s homophobia, is crowned emperor: his total 180 into thug-ness, nearly throwing Beretti off a balcony to reclaim his father’s property, impresses his father enough to believe he’s crafted in his image after all, and Lucious names him as successor. The boys are all shocked, but you know this won’t end well.

Moreover, Lucious takes the opportunity to show his heir apparent his mother’s “true” face, courtesy of security camera footage of the Asphyxiation Interruptus, turning the table on her, and effectively poisoning Jamal against Cookie. They’ve been such staunch allies throughout the season that it’s incredible to see their relationship alter so dramatically, but — spoiler alert — it won’t be last in this finale.

Hey look, it's Lyon Yankee Swap! / Courtesy FOX

Hey look, it’s Lyon Yankee Swap! / Courtesy FOX

So if “Die But Once” is all about setting up the final act of the season, “Who I Am” succeeds at tearing it all to pieces, and dealing with the aftermath. Jamal is now teacher’s pet (or, you know, just a normally beloved son for most people) and totally at odds with his protector, while Hakeem and Andre decide to team up, because if they had enough trouble taking orders from Daddy Dearest, they’re definitely not on board with bowing down to their brother, despite his assurances that he isn’t going to govern like Lucious. They all know that money talks, even if you’re an adorable hipster with a heart of gold like Jamal.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Enter Anika: she finally puts her scheming to excellent use, and plants the seeds of victory into hopelessly impressionable Hakeem’s mind: hostile takeover. (I laughed so hard when he asked MBA Andre if he’d ever heard of it, like he was so enlightened about the new rage in business. Oh, Hakeem, you are too beautiful for this world.) Andre’s totally on board with the plan, because if there’s one thing he knows, it’s corporate leadership, and the fact that it would totally screw over their father is the cherry on top. Cookie joins the fun, until she finds out that “Boo Boo Kitty” is in on it, too. In one of the most gratuitous scenes on this show (and that’s saying a lot), Cookie and Anika go at it in the penthouse, because boys aren’t the only ones allowed to beat the crap out of each other on this show. However, the boys make a point: they need Anika, because she’s got the drive to bury Lucious, and more importantly, the contacts to make the hostile takeover happen. Cookie reluctantly agrees, because everyone knows that the enemy of your enemy is your friend — or at least, co-conspirator.

(Not going to lie: I love the idea of Cookie and Anika teaming up. I may have despised Anika’s methods early on, and thought she was a rather bland Ice Queen trope, but she came alive in this episode, and letting her go full-on unabashedly evil is an excellent use of her character.)

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Part one of their plan is proving that Jamal is an incompetent choice — or at least, will be the risky one. The Lyons aren’t comfortable with the idea of selling him out — after all, their beef is with Lucious, and they know Jamal is a good person who doesn’t realize what he’s being thrust into — but in dollar figures, Anika points out that there is still enough homophobia out there that he’s unlikely to be accepted as the new king. (The show laid this on a little thick, I admit.) Conveniently, at the press conference announcing his succession, big-shot rapper Black Rambo, key to Empire’s success, announces in front of the crowds, and cameras, that he won’t work for a gay man, and leaves the label. But I’m sure Anika had nothing to do with that, right? (Especially since he’s jumping ship to them?) It’s tough to swallow for his brothers, but it is effective in creating doubt.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Yet, Jamal proves he’s got more chutzpah than people give him credit for, and he might be savvier than his “I only want to make music” image indicated. He heads down to a rap battle at Black Rambo’s club, and challenges him. I cringe along with the audience, because there’s no way this can end any way but awkwardly, but he gets up on stage, and dishes it out — in song. Don’t get me wrong, his words are on-point and make a mark, but I’m just saying you probably shouldn’t be bringing your falsetto to a rap battle. Shockingly, the audience cheers, and Black Rambo is too stunned to reply to Jamal’s apparent skills. I admit I found this plot more than a little unbelievable: I love Jamal, but somehow I don’t think a hipster singing a ditty to one of the most notorious rappers in the Empire universe would be so warmly received, but what do I know? I’m not up to date on my underground rapping gossip.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Vernon, who was previously Team Andre after the Bunky reveal earlier this season, but is now Team Lucious after relapsing into his cocaine addiction and heading to rehab thanks to his boss, stops by Andre’s house to make amends, but Andre isn’t hearing any of it. Vernon might have been the one who “raised” the boys, but Andre feels betrayed, and the two duke it out. For real: they smash each other into the glass furniture all over the living room, and every seasoned TV watcher knows where this is heading. Just at that very moment, Rhonda walks in, and when Vernon won’t let go of Andre, she hits him over the head with a candlestick. (I think? There was a lot of expensive, ambiguously-useful stuff in that room.)

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

As in every TV drama, instead of, you know, attempting to administer aid to the fallen man, who is bleeding profusely from the head, and calling in emergency services to help him (since last I checked, neither of these two are doctors), Rhonda pleads with Andre to drop the phone, and help cover it up immediately. Huh?! Andre is puzzled, as am I, because it’s clearly self-defense and they aren’t in trouble — Vernon came into their home and attacked him, and wouldn’t let go of Andre despite all their protests — but Rhonda drops a bombshell: she’s pregnant, and she doesn’t want to go to jail. Well, that changes everything, and suddenly the expectant parents are a) reconciled and b) pleased as punch over their new addition, instead of, you know, dealing with the dying man on their fancy rug. But, you know, TELEVISION.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

So it all comes to a head at the Lucious Lyon Sound concert — no longer presented by Cookie Lyon. The Lyons all wonder where Vernon is, since Lucious won’t start the concert without him, and Andre snarkily suggests that he “fell off the wagon again.” Oh, he fell off something all right, Andre — your damn coffee table and your fist, that’s what. (Who are you, Arvin Sloane?) He’s awfully glib for someone who just accidentally killed his honorary uncle and concealed it with his short-sighted wife.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Lucious heads backstage for a final heart-to-heart with Jamal before his post-IPO coronation, in which he reveals that it isn’t even his real name, but an identity he created as a child to protect himself when he went into foster care. (Is “Lucious” really that much better than “Dwight Walker” to kids, though?) It’s a fact not even Cookie knows — which makes me wonder if/when he had it legally changed, since you’d think that’s something that would have come up at some point in his public career, though I guess that’s probably a detail I’m not supposed to worry about. Besides, at this point, I’m more concerned that Lucious’ sudden change of heart about Jamal’s career prospects means he’s actually just set up his middle son as a patsy for his evil-doings.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

In any case, the conversation is cut short, when the feds barge in and arrest Lucious for Bunky’s murder. Jamal is gobsmacked, but Lucious is convinced Cookie ratted him out, even though we all know she didn’t. (She might hate what Lucious did, but she’s more worried about their bank accounts these days, too.) At the same time, Lucious finds out through the grapevine that the hostile takeover is in the works, and understands immediately who is behind it — something tells me his other two sons are off the Christmas card list now, to say the least. He does his perp walk through the crowded arena there to see him sing, in the most deliciously melodramatic fashion possible. Yet, the agents hint that their case is in jeopardy, because Vernon was actually their star witness and double-crossing Lucious. Looks like you jumped the gun (or candlestick), Andre.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

In the end, some of our heroes are sated by a temporary happy ending: Andre and Rhonda attend their first ultrasound; Jamal is all smiles as the new Big Cheese at Empire; Hakeem is, well, Hakeem, and Cookie reasserts her throne at Lyon Manor — though still putting an old family picture of herself, Lucious and the boys on full display. In stark contrast, Lucious is all alone in his jail cell, not unlike Cookie in the pilot, but this won’t get him down. He delivers a monologue both absurd and chilling (I told you, Lady Macbeth!), because it reveals how convinced Lucious is of his omnipotence, which makes him that much scarier. With all his connections, you know he won’t be in the pokey for long, and when he gets out, there will be hell to pay for everyone who’s done him wrong. “Game time, bitches” never sounded so ominous.

Talk about an action-packed finale! Which sets up so many conflicts for next year to boot.

Courtesy FOX / (Can I stop to superficially admire the pretty, here? Thanks.)

Courtesy FOX / (Can I stop to superficially admire the pretty, here? Thanks.)

First of all, I feel like I have to gloat a little: from that very scene in the pilot when the game was effectively afoot, I pegged Jamal as Lucious’ successor. Not just because he was the most sensitive and least money-focused of the trio, but because it made for a good story. The son who is the black sheep rises to power by proving he can tough it out better than his competitors is a tried and true tale, and Empire is no exception to that rule. Still, I would have liked a little more buildup to it: I found Lucious’ turnaround unbelievable, given his reticence towards Jamal all season, which is why I’m still convinced there are ulterior motives where he’s concerned.

I’m also eager to see how this plays out: admittedly, part of me is sad at this turn of events, because there’s no doubt Jamal’s corruption will continue and deepen next season, and I’d bet he’s going to end up being more like his father than he ever wished, if his performance with Beretti is any indication. However, the other part of me can’t wait to see Jamal struggle with these two poles, and I think Jussie Smollet will act the hell out of Jamal’s inner battle. It’s like Bruce Wayne becoming Batman, only with musical interludes. The family dynamics, particularly between the boys, have been bar none my favorite story of the season, and I can’t wait to watch them all unravel and tangle again in 2016.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

I have to say I’m a little less compelled by the other brothers’ stories, particularly Andre’s. The writers set up such an interesting arc with his bipolar struggle, and they may still follow through on it, but I get the feeling it’s going to be more about keeping Vernon’s death a secret while maintaining the happy facade with his family. I’d like to see Hakeem grow, too: I was surprised by how much I came to like him this season, given how bratty he began in the pilot, and I hope he comes into his own. Moreover, I’m unsure of where Cookie is headed, which I suppose is a good sign: she looks like the cat that ate the canary right now, but when Lucious gets out of prison — and we all know he will — she’s probably going to be his number one target.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

As I said the other night, one thing that’s struck me over the last few episodes, if not season as a whole, is Lucious’ increasing delusion of his own importance. His speech at the end cemented that, and I’m wondering if he’s heading towards a full-on psychotic break. Which, again, would be fun to watch, but likely have a terrible impact on everyone around him. He’s not just selfish, he’s legitimately psychopathic, and there’s no coming back from that.

Empire was such a fun ride this season, and its monstrous success proves there’s a huge untapped market out there for shows like this. I was caught by surprise myself at how much I loved it, and I can’t wait for it to come back next year, and talk with all of you about it!

What did you think of the finale? Did it live up to expectations, or are you signing off?

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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