Season finale review: ‘Empire’ – ‘Die But Once/Who I Am’

Thoughts on last night's “Empire” season finale coming up just as soon as I clutch your pearls…

Since last we discussed it (when I had only seen the very first episode), “Empire” has exploded from a promising show into the biggest phenomenon network TV has seen in a decade (going back to the season of “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Grey's Anatomy”). Its ratings climbed almost every week it was on the air (overnight ratings aren't in as I write this, but FOX's former scheduling chief suggests they went waaaaay up for the finale) as it became The Show That Launched a Thousand Think Pieces. Was it feeding a ravenous appetite for a primetime soap set in the world of hip-hop? For a drama with a predominantly African American cast? Did people just want to see Taraji P. Henson wear fur jackets and tell people to kick rocks?

As with any phenomenon, I don't think you can point to any single element. I think it was a combination of all those things and more, but I think the underlying element connecting all the factors is that it has for the most part been a really good version of all those things. It's a music soap opera that's fun (as opposed to the miserable wallow of “Nashville”). It doesn't just have a black cast, but a talented one where each actor has been given a lot of meaty stuff to play, like Jussie Smollett tearing into Jamal's coming-out struggle. And in Henson as Cookie, it has a diva character unlike any I've seen before in a show like this – not in terms of her race or fashion sense, but in the way that “Empire” has inverted the familiar archetype so that Cookie's the hero of the piece. She stirs up trouble for Lucious, but Lucious deserves every last bit of grief she gives him, and she is right in virtually every argument she has with him or her sons.

It's also helped in this first season – but started to hurt in the finale, and could hurt a whole lot more down the road – that the creative team (creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, and showrunner Ilene Chaiken) raced through plots with abandon, covering the kind of story ground in 12 episodes that most soaps would carefully parcel out over two or even three seasons.  

That reckless pace started to catch up to the show in the two-hour finale, where characters kept changing allegiances and motivations so quickly, and so seemingly at random, that I started to wonder if Seth MacFarlane had loaned Chaiken his manatees to help devise new “Empire” plot twists. Jamal and Lucious spend the whole season at odds, and one song completely heals their rift and has Jamal pulling a Suge Knight on Beretti. The series is a hit, so Lucious' ALS turns out to be a misdiagnosed case of something non-fatal and easily treated. Andre abruptly gives up the business because he finds God, but then goes back to it because Jennifer Hudson abruptly finds a new deity in Lucious. And on and on. It was all too much, too soon, even compared to the pace of the previous episodes.

And yet… the music was still hot. I don't buy that their one duet would cure everything between Lucious and Jamal, but it sounded great and had the same kind of emotional power that so many of the show's biggest moments have. The rap battle in the finale's second hour didn't seem quite the rout that the show wanted it to be – among other things, I was expecting Jamal to demonstrate that in this setting, he could rap just like his kid brother – but the falsetto “BITCH” at the end was killer. And the inevitable brawl between Cookie and Anika was everything I could have hoped for, short of there randomly being a pond in the middle of that suite so it could turn into a full-on homage to the greatest “Dynasty” fight of all.

Still, I think the show might have been better off if the second episode hadn't happened at all, or had been held until season 2. Not that FOX would ever delay an hour of its biggest hit since “American Idol” was still relevant, but Cookie preparing to smother Lucious with a pillow, intercut with Hudson singing gospel, was such a perfect synthesis of everything that was fun about this show that I can't imagine a better ending to its first season. And hour two featured so many more abrupt reversals and plot twists – including Andre and his wife turning into Tyra and Landry in “Friday Night Lights” season 2 and deciding to hide a killing that had been committed in defense of others – that I ultimately came away from the finale more worried about the show's future than buoyed by the energy of its present.

There's a reason soaps traditionally parcel out stories slowly, and when a show like this, or “The O.C.” back in its first season, throws out that kind of conventional pacing, it can be a thrill for a while, but it's also something that inevitably catches up to the show, often in quick and brutal fashion.

So long as Henson's around and the music remains this good, I'm gonna be watching “Empire” whenever it returns next season, and I don't think FOX has to worry about the ratings for a while, especially if they can get it on the air in the fall and avoid one of those long “Sleepy Hollow”-style hiatuses. (They'll still need to keep the seasons short to appease the actors and avoid even more creative burn-out.) But with all of those guest stars (Hudson, Snoop, Rita Ora, Patti LaBelle, etc.), the finale – produced after the show had become a huge hit – was clearly designed as a victory lap, when there's still so much more track the series has to run.

What did everybody else think, of both the finale and this first season as a whole?