Warning: This post contains storyline and character spoilers from the Empire season finale.
Over the course of a dozen episodes, Empire has become one of the most entertaining shows on television: risky and outlandish, realistic and outrageous, witty and daringly cornball. The two-hour season finale on Wednesday night — really two separate episodes shown back-to-back — combined all of these elements.
The Empire evening began with Terrence Howard proclaiming, “Lucious Lyon becomes a god.” The Empire night ended with the biggest Lyon in a cage.
In between, we witnessed Empire’s most uneven hours, filled with moments that were sometimes wonderful (I jumped when Lucious decked son Hakeem with a solid right to the jaw) and sometimes ridiculous (I didn’t need to be told Debbie Allen directed the second hour, not when Jamal sang while a dancer that looked like a young Debbie Allen did some cringy interpretive dance in the background).
There were stretches on Wednesday when it seemed as though Empire had turned into an R&B version of PBS’s Wall Street Week: Thank goodness that IPO finally happened, because I was heartily tired of having it explained to me, and the finale also started running the phrase “hostile takeover” into the ground as well.
Empire made good, however, on the other season-long theme — the competition among the three brothers as to who would take over the Lyon empire. Heir apparent Jamal didn’t need to engage in a rap showdown with Black Rambo shot in the manner of an 8 Mile outtake: He more than proved his fighting spirit by dangling Judd Nelson over a balcony. (Nelson’s Billy Baretti was certainly the show’s best outside-the-family creator of friction.)
One characteristic of Empire that’s made it such a sustained hoot is the way it raises subjects and characters that, on a lesser show, would initiate long, multi-episode arcs — but on Empire, those narratives, those people, are quickly summed up and discarded. No one less than Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson was almost gleefully traduced this night: Introduced recently as Michelle White, a spiritual savior/therapist for Andre, this week she was brought low as a gospel singer who’d sell out her church for an Empire contract and a featured spot in the “Cookie Lyon Presents: The Lucious Lyon Sound” concert. (By the way, wasn’t that much-hyped event the very definition of anticlimactic?)
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I very much regret that Lucious no longer has a death-sentence disease — I had been wondering if this easy excuse to write him out of the show was the producers’ way of making sure Terrence Howard toed the line each week. I’m not sure whether a Lucious who now thinks himself invincible — “up from the dead like Jesus; the new Messiah,” in his own words — isn’t going to shave away some of the moral subtlety creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong had carefully applied to him.
But I certainly did admire the fancy footwork the show executed in getting Lucious behind bars. The brawl between Andre and Vernon, culminating in a Clue-like gesture — Kaitlin in the drawing room with the candlestick — was superb. Alas, Malik Yoba, you’ve left the show too soon.
As for Cookie — well, it’s a measure of how indelible this character already seems that not even as magnificent a scene-stealer as Patti LaBelle could keep Taraji P. Henson from taking over the two hours.
Cookie is everything the male Lyons are not: She’s more bold than Lucious, she spits insults better than Bryshere Gray’s Hakeem (“Hell wants the devil back and Lucious is on his way”), she has a better head for business than Andre, and she’s made of more sensitive steel than Jamal. Oh, and to call her epic bout with Grace Gealey’s Anika a cat-fight would be a grave insult: This was a tussle to rank with the Alexis-Krystle knock-down drag-outs on Dynasty. I almost wish the show had let Cookie smother Lucious, since that act might have given the show the Shakespearean weight it sorta aspires to.
On the other hand, the follow-up sight gag of Lucious gifting her a tiny pillow was pretty terrific.
Empire has its work cut out for it next season. Now that Fox knows what it’s got, you can bet there’ll be more than 12 episodes, and giving viewers more of what they want may sap some of Empire’s enormous energy. But turning the tables — putting Cookie in Lucious’s boardroom and now-empty bedroom, and Lucious in the position of having to prove he can do time as hard as Cookie did it — was a shrewd, possibly brilliant way to go out.