The potency of Empire‘s elixir is evident in the concentrated dose offered by the opening of the show’s second-season premiere. At a “Free Lucious” concert held by the Lyon family, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) descends from the heavens, lowered onto the stage in a cage while wearing a full-body gorilla costume as King Kong-like music blares over the crowd. (I’m not making this up.) She proceeds to rip off the mask to launch into a tirade condemning the imprisonment of Lucious, as well as the imprisonment of other black males. It’s a madcap moment, but it’s indicative of Danny Strong and Lee Daniels’ ability to make the ridiculous rhythmic.
The season two opener takes place several months after the events of the season one finale, which saw Lucious (Terrence Howard) apprehended for the murder of Bunkie (Antoine McKay). We learned then that the key witness in the case was Vernon (Malik Yoba), but with Vernon now dead, it’s only a matter of time before the head Lyon gets set free. In any case, Lucious is floundering in prison, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is dealing with the stress of running the Empire company, and Cookie, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), Anika (Grace Gealey), and Andre (Trai Byers) are placing their chess pieces into position for the hostile takeover they began plotting last season. The major piece in that game is Mimi Whiteman, played by new addition Marisa Tomei. Whiteman controls the purse strings on a possible major investment in the company. With her becoming a major shareholder, the hostile takeover could be completed with Jamal sent to the backseat and Lucious kicked out of the company altogether. Whiteman is also partial to females, a notion that’s bullhorned into viewers brains with by every scene that she’s in. (No one ever said that Empire was a bastion of subtlety.)
In prison, Cookie’s cousin (DeRay Davis) — who was commissioned by Cookie to kill a supposed threat — grows paranoid that Frank Gathers (Chris Rock) is on his way to the correctional facility. The man who Davis killed was an associate of Gathers (a feared drug kingpin who used to employ Cookie and Lucious), and Cookie’s cousin is afraid Gathers will seek retribution for the hit. At first, Lucious chooses to ignore the threat, claiming he has no beef with Gathers.
Rock is himself a victim of poor stunt casting. There’s no doubt he’s a fantastic comedic performer, and just his appearance will garner more eyeballs. But he employs little to no emotion in his performance as a dangerous drug lord along with a strange vocal affectation that makes it sound as if he’s struggling to keep his food down. And speaking of food, a scene where he was supposed to be eating human flesh has been toned down and consequently doesn’t make much sense. In a room alone with Cookie’s cousin inside the prison, he devours some sort of dish while his companion sweats profusely, and at one point asks him to stop. (Stop what? Stop eating this steak?). Gathers prods Cookie’s cousin for information, and he finally breaks, telling him that Cookie is responsible for testifying against Gathers. In response, Gathers sends his head in a box to Cookie’s residence, warning her that he knows of her betrayal.
On the hostile takeover front, the Lyon family continues to court Whiteman; one of their strategies is appealing to her infatuation with women. Cookie essentially pimps out Anika, using her sexual charm to entice Whiteman. This leads to a brief scene with the two women dancing together, Tomei trying her best to groove to Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot N*gga” as the camera focuses on Anika’s twerking derrière. (Yes, that happened, too). Other things happen in the episode: Andre is having nightmares of burying Vernon, Lucious witnesses Gathers’ daughter rapping during a prison visit and plays as if he’s impressed, and Jamal seems uncomfortable with integrating members of the LGBT community into Empire.
All those issues play second fiddle to one of the two big moments in the premiere. With Whiteman buying into Empire, the hostile takeover seems complete. The Lyon family, minus Jamal, marches into a company meeting that Jamal is holding to let them know a new regime is taking over the company. Empire — engaging in the bait-and-switch it so routinely likes to do — turns the tables on the takeover when Whiteman spins around in a chair to reveal she’s made a deal with Lucious that will keep him and Jamal in power. Cookie, as she usually does, then spits the best line of the episode when she chastises Anika for not sexing Whiteman enough: “You can’t even dyke right.”
The other major moment happens when all of the Lyons retreat to Lucious’ home following the head-in-a-box incident. As they wait out the danger that Gathers presents, Lucious confronts his former employer inside the prison at a sit-down meeting with Gathers’ cronies surrounding them. He asks Lucious if he’s okay with him going after Cookie, and, at first, Lucious agrees to step aside, even offering to place his rapping daughter on the Empire roster.
“You throwing my daughter a bone ain’t gonna fix it,” Gathers says.
The big Lyon then reverses his statement, telling Gathers that he’s actually not okay with him going after Cookie, to which Gathers responds by telling his henchmen to kill him. In another twist, Lucious reveals that Gathers’ cronies are actually in his pocket, and instead he orders them to kill Gathers as he walks away with a smirk on his face. But, he gets in one parting shot before they do the deed, and the result is the second best line in the episode.
“Imma sign your baby girl, and then imma slip her my bone.” Stay classy, Lucious.
There’s a certain charm to Empire that accounts for its record-breaking ratings. It certainly is not afraid to confront any and every taboo subject. (Hakeem banging his dad’s former lover is still disturbing.) But its pipe bomb blasts of narrative raises the question of how much longer the show can keep up the pace. The hostile takeover and Frank Gathers angles could have played out over several episodes, ratcheting up the tension and placing Rock and Tomei’s characters as serious players in the Lyon family drama. Instead, both were resolved within the season premiere, with Rock’s character suffering from being neither scary nor imposing with the little screen time he was given. (Part of that is also because Rock doesn’t make a very convincing villain.)
Another glaring issue with the show is its absolute lack of delicate details. Most of Tomei’s scenes were spent assuring viewers she was interested in women, so much so she came off as a sexual predator. Still, the show remains in the hands of Lucious and Cookie, the two most interesting characters in the series. The show might also benefit from chopping down some of its musical numbers, and giving more of its narrative load to Cookie. And, so many of the dalliances in Empire are shattered within one or two episodes that it’s tough to keep score of who is on whose team. Then again, temporary blocs are part of the show’s infrastructure, so it’s best to take every new development accordingly.
Empire has never been one to take things at a moderate pace. The show moves at such a blinding speed that the narrative can’t always keep up. Perhaps that’s just the way Daniels and Strong want it. The live-in-the-moment aesthetic makes for a fun experience, but it makes me wonder if there will come a time when the gas depletes, and the road runs out.