Empire Is a Wonderful, Extravagant Mess and I Never Want It to End
Empire wrapped its spectacular, record-breaking first season last night with a two-hour finale. If you’ve been glued to FOX every Wednesday at 9 p.m. for the last 11 weeks, one thing is very clear: Empire is undeniable.
Let’s recap. Lucious Lyon, a former gangster turned rapper turned record mogul, is attempting to take his company public before the ALS he’s been diagnosed with kills him. But there’s a sharp tongue in a fur coat in his way: Cookie, his ex-wife who’s been locked in jail for 17 years, is free and determined to get a piece of Empire Entertainment (Cookie’s drug money kickstarted the company). Lucious and Cookie (who finally slept together in episode 7; sorry Anika!) also have three sons: Andre, Jamal, and Hakeem—all of whom want the throne and glory that comes with it. Add into the equation: Andre’s unstable mental state, Camilla’s control over Hakeem, and the fact that Jamal, who is gay, might have fathered a child. But wait, it gets better. Lucious also murdered his longtime friend and is trying to keep it a secret, Anika aligned herself with Billy Beretti (Lucious’ nemesis), and, for reasons just revealed, Jamal is not Lola’s father—Lucious is!
The show’s final weeks were marked by constant twists and turns: Andre was admitted into a mental clinic only to eventually find God and join the church (thanks J. Hud!); Camilla (Hakeem’s 40-year-old boo-thang) was banished by Lucious, and Hakeem gets revenge by threatening to join a rival label and sleeping with Anika; Jamal, eager to sit atop Empire’s throne, threatened Beretti’s life and convinced him to give up the publishing rights to Lucious’ early albums, which he produced. But by the final episode, all bets are off, and old adversaries quickly become strange bedfellows: Lucious names Jamal, the gay son he’d been ashamed of for so long, his successor; Hakeem, the former heir to the family company, plots a hostile takeover with Andre, Cookie, and Anika (but not before Cookie and Anika duke it out in a fight worthy of inclusion on WorldStarHipHop); Vernon is murdered by Andre’s wife; and, on the night of Lucious’ comeback concert (his ALS was misdiagnosed—wait, what?—yes!) he is arrested for Bunky’s murder. Lucious and Jamal blame Cookie, who they think is the rat, but all signs point to Hakeem and Andre. It’s all so wonderfully and ridiculously and extravagantly over the top that it was hard to stop watching.
The show, which drew pieces of its narrative structure from Shakespeare’s King Lear, is helmed by Lee Daniels (The Butler, Precious, Monster’s Ball), and has played out like one big game of deception. Week after week, it was anybody’s guess what would happen next. Yet as much as Empire was about deception, family, and the price of success, it was also about possessing, and keeping, power, however poisonous it might be. Call it the dark side of ambition.
Empire’s true genius, however, was its ability to appeal to all viewers. Complex’s Justin Charity insisted that Empire wasn’t a soap opera (although he admits it is the best show on television). To a degree, he is wrong. Empire is a soap opera because the show is, ultimately, what you make it. It’s a family drama, but equally a show about black womanhood and empowerment, a coming out tale, a show about the bonds of brotherhood (black male vulnerability is on full display), a drama about the music industry and the hazards of the business; it is a wholly realized black world—flaws and all. Where one viewer believes the show’s main crux to be Jamal’s sexual emancipation, another viewer might find the show’s heart to be in Cookie’s performative daring, a sort of de rigueur narrative about black female liberation. Empire is all these big and bold and sometimes-messy things. At its peak, Empire has something for everybody.
A lot, too, has been made of Taraji P. Henson’s portrayal of Cookie, the mouthy matriarch—that this show would be nothing without her, that she has redefined the image of blackness on TV, that she has tossed every stereotype about black womanhood out of the window and reshaped our understanding of it into something more new, original, and nuanced. It’s all true. That, of course, is to say nothing of the other actors on the show—Terrence Howard as the sly, villainous Lucious, Jussie Smollett as the brave-hearted Jamal, and so on—because they all function just as they are supposed to: damaged but ever determined.
The characters are flat and the show moves too quickly, you say. But therein lies the beauty of Daniel’s hip-opera—Empire upsets you with a poorly constructed, deeply flawed Lucious because it is supposed to (oftentimes, illogical characters fuel our desires to keep watching a show; we convince ourselves that so-and-so is finally going to change next week); Empire upsets you because it moves over serious subject matter in mere seconds, but, really, the show would falter if it were any slower; Empire upsets you because its understanding of the music industry, or lack thereof, and the songs it manufactures is basic at best, but, again, that is the point, that you are constantly questioning their authenticity and real-world potential. These are the exact reactions Daniels and his team want from us. Empire, unlike most shows, is not afraid of its imperfections, cracks that would typically discredit any other drama. Instead, Empire turns up the dial, and runs face first into the absurd.
The show’s showiness, character complexity, and plot zigzags are a testament to its solid writing. Before you write it off, consider this: what primetime show in recent memory has been able to be simultaneously dumb and smart? With all respect to Shonda Rhimes, what show has straddled the middle road so well? Rhimes’ shows want to be taken seriously (and they should); they want to be understood as intelligent and gut-wrenching dramas, but very seldom do they embrace their own foolishness (which, let’s be real, makes for good TV). Where critics might read Empire’s writing as shallow and fragmented, I’d argue that it is actually carefully crafted (though not above the occasional cheesiness). Increased viewership, every week for a record-setting 11 weeks, is proof that the show, aware of its faults but steadfast in its intent, works.
In the era of modern TV-making, Empire is without peer. The show has become a soaring network hit that will likely flood our television screens and social newsfeeds for years to come.
I hope the ride never ends.
[Image via Getty]