Everything important about this week’s installment of Empire can be summed up by a GIF of Cookie Lyon’s perfectly stacked backside — packaged in a blue print minidress that underscores the effectiveness of a once-daily prison-yard-workout.
Of course, the image would have to include her ex-husband Lucious in the foreground, eyes blazing with a mix of lust and love and a liberal dash of amusement, because at present, this is Cookie’s game. And whether she chooses to use her physical, intellectual and emotional powers to humiliate a rival, inspire a multi-platinum hook, snatch back her man or pave the way for a major-label poaching incident smack in the middle of county lockup, she is not to be underestimated.
Even the people who dislike her — Lucious’ current squeeze, her ingrate of a youngest son — are still caught up in her orbit. Why else would Anika take her “bougie debutante” self to a tough neighborhood — one with a Sex and the City-approved Tasti D-Lite, but still… — to meet with the manager/crew of a rapper whose life is under threat from a vicious gang? And why else would Hakeem take a bubble bath with “mama” (AKA: older-lady lover who likes it hot and Oedipal) the minute Cookie comes up with an awesome idea to take him to the next level?
Does the hour lose a little heat due to a kinder, gentler Cookie-Lucious connection? Yeah, OK, I won’t deny it. But it can’t be all thrown shoes and dramatic conference-room drop-ins all the time — not if this show is getting six seasons and a movie. So let’s cut to a pithy rundown of the week’s proceedings, shall we?
CLASH OVER TITAN | Empire’s biggest rival — rival label exec Billy Baretti (Judd Nelson), the guy who signed Kid FoFo after Lucious dropped him —runs into his own snag this week when his buzziest act, Titan, is arrested for shooting a gang leader in a nightclub melee. When Baretti doesn’t get him bailed ASAP, Lucious and Anika and Cookie all start scheming on how/whether to bring him into the Empire fold. Cookie goes to visit Titan’s mom – a steely Nation of Islam follower named Fatima — where she learns that the shooting victim had burned down a community center where Titan volunteered. (Wasn’t that scene all kinds of ridiculous, and yet simultaneously compelling?) Cookie’s intel comes in handy after Anika and Lucious’ meeting with Titan’s team is cut short via drive-by shooting. Lucious almost decides to call the whole thing off — that is until Beretti (who stole some of his songwriting royalties back in the day) demands that Lucious stay away from Titan. “I will dig up the dirt of your past and bury your empire — and everyone in it,” he seethes, but the move backfires. Lucious uses his celebrity clout to visit Titan in the clink — and gets the dude to switch labels by writing a check for $1.7 million to rebuild the aforementioned community center. It’s far fetched to think a Jay-Z-level artist would need somebody else’s seven-figure donation to get the job done, but Titan is really just a backdrop to Cookie in her red leopard maxi dress, making Lucious regret the way he cut her loose while she sat in a cell for 17 years. “I did some things that I had to do,” he pleads, but what is her endgame? Does she truly want him back as her spouse? Is there a darker side to our protagonist that wants to punish Lucious for his misdeeds? And can she possibly achieve both goals?
THERE’S NO A&R IN COOKIE | It hardly matters, though, because as the Lady Lyons will tell you, she’s the one whose ear propelled Lucious to stardom. In the best scene from the hour, she sums up entitled son Hakeem’s biggest artistic shortcoming: “You need to stop rappin’ like you from the streets, ’cause you not about that life!” Please tell me I’m not the only one who presses pause to hoot and clap every time Cookie serves up a hot platter of truth. At the same time, she dismisses Anika as “a debutante with a bougie ear who doesn’t want to disturb her pearls.” Tianna, clearly moved by so much realness in her presence, drops by Cookie’s office for help in pumping up her so-so single “Keep It Movin'” — and by the end of the hour, she’s got Hakeem’s on the track, a well-received Teen Choice nominations concert performance on her résumé and Cookie — not Anika — as the head of her team.
TAKIN’ IT TO THE STREETS| Meanwhile, Cookie is getting exasperated with the other artist on her roster, her gay son Jamal. “We don’t have time for you to be having some mental artsy-fartsy block brain-fart whatever you havin’,” she grumbles, as Jamal and his squeeze Michael adjust to living in a Bushwick dump instead of the swank pad Lucious used to pay for. Jamal eventually swings by Empire to return his dad’s check for backing up Hakeem at his Leviticus nightclub gig, and while Lucious tells him he’s breaking a cardinal music-biz rule of always taking the money, his smile betrays a fatherly rush of pride to see one of his kids trying to forge a path independent of the family money. Back at home, Jamal gets inspired by the sound of rattling pips, blaring sirens and rattling chains and begins to write what could be his breakout hit. Let’s hope it’s actually great-great, not just “pretty good and we have to pretend it’s great because we’re rooting for Jamal to overcome homophobia and become the next big thing.”
IN OTHER NEWS…| Tianna walks in on Hakeem with Camilla in the bathtub, but she’s not trying to let it affect her public relationships/performances with her label chief’s son. Girlfriend has focus, dammit! Porsha doesn’t have benefits yet because, as Becky notes, “homegirl gave the H.R. a dead person’s social security number.” Andre provides Lucious an alibi for the night of Bunky’s death — yep, he’s the smart one. And in the episode’s most moving scene, Lucious comes clean about his ALS to Anika — who takes over shaving duty with an actual tear in her eye. Hey, Boo-Boo Kitties have feelings, too.
On that note, I turn it over to you. What did you think of this week’s Empire? Share your thoughts in the comments!