Is Empire a show about the music business or family?
The easy answer to this question is both, but that would be diluting the magic and appeal of Empire. Over the course of 12 episodes, the Fox midseason replacement drama has become a cultural phenomenon, with an audience that grew each week. It broke ratings records, and turned actors like Taraji P. Henson and Jussie Smollett into household names. Even the Empire soundtrack, which beat out Madonna and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, has given the show’s executive music producer Timbaland a rejuvenated career.
A big reason Empire became so popular is because of hip-hop’s popularity. Add to that a nearly all-black cast and sharp writing with multiple references to Internet memes popular on #BlackTwitter, and it was clear from the pilot, this was a soap opera for sure, but it wasn’t the stories we grew up watching with our parents.
Wednesday night’s two-episode season finale was a ham-fisted tour-de-force, and we all knew it would be. Here is a quick rundown of where we are with all the characters going into season 2:
Lucious is misdiagnosed with ALS, so he will now live a lot longer than the three years he was prescribed. But he was also arrested under the suspicion of the murder of Bunky, which we all knew he did back in the first episode.
Vernon, Rhonda & Andre
The only man who can possibly save Lucious (and incriminate him) is Vernon, who was killed off last night after Rhonda clubbed him in the back of the head as a means of breaking up the fight he was having with Rhonda’s husband, Andre. As Vernon is lying on the floor, Rhonda tells Andre she’s pregnant with their first child. Oh, and Andre is a born-again Christian.
Hakeem & Anika
Pissed about what Lucious did to the love of Hakeem’s life, Camilla, in the last episode, Hakeem now has beef with his dad. He airs it out in an impromptu freestyle that is given at a press conference to announce the signing of Snoop Dogg (played as himself). In that freestyle, Hakeem says he’s going to take Lucious’ girl, and he wasn’t playing. In the second half of the finale, Lucious finds Hakeem in the midst of a tryst with Anika at a party thrown by his arch-nemesis, Billy Baretti.
Lucious’ least favorite son became the unlikely heir to the Empire throne. In a scene mirroring the pilot episode, Lucious seats all his sons at a table to gift them with symbolic tokens of appreciation. Andre gets a cross and a huge loan from his father to do as he wishes. Hakeem is given wings, a metaphor for the private jet Lucious has given him that allows Hakeem to see Camilla anytime he wants. Jamal gets a staff, which denotes his inheritance of Lucious’ empire. But no sooner does he get the keys does he get drunk with power, bullying people out of contracts, battle-rapping homophobic hip-hop artists and using a falsetto to call them “bitch,” telling his brothers to know their roles and shut their mouths. In season 2, we can expect to see a side of Jamal we never knew he had in him.
Things with Malcolm got messy, but Cookie is far too concerned about other things. Before Lucious got locked up, he confessed through medicated hallucinations that he was the one who killed Bunky, her cousin. This drove Cookie to a dark place, in which she attempted to kill Lucious in his sleep. That didn’t work (Lucious woke up and grabbed her arm), and Lucious showed Jamal (now his favorite son) what his mother tried to do to his father. Now Cookie is seemingly banned from the building, but that’s OK, because she has a couple of cards up her sleeve. For one, she is the one leading the coup against Lucious and Jamal. The other thing she has is the power to lock Lucious up for years because she knows where the bodies are, including Bunky’s. Whether or not she chooses to drop a dime on Lucious, we will soon find out.
But the scene that best crystallizes what Empire has been about and will always be about is the second-to-the-last scene of the season’s final episode. Cookie is walking through her and Lucious’ house (remember, Cookie has always felt she owns that house too because of all the years she spent helping Lucious break through) and places an old framed photo of her, Lucious, Andre, Jamal and Hakeem sitting together, smiling, as one big happy family. Some sheet music is kept in the frame, on the periphery, but the focus of that shot is centered on the family photo.
One of the subplots that ran throughout the entire season was turning Empire into a publicly traded company. Every episode had some story element to serve that purpose, but the pursuit of the IPO was also used as a device to keep us, the viewer, coming back week after week. It is hard to believe that any record label could ever be viable enough to become a sought-after stock on Wall Street, but a family owned and operated company? That makes a little bit more sense, which is why Lucious knew the only thing more important to his brand than the music was the family behind it.
Whether as a wealthy family like we see the Lyons in the present tense or as a poor family like we see the Lyons in flashback scenes, the family dynamic never changes. As much as the Lyon family hurts each other — and will probably continue to do so in the next season — it is very clear that outsiders will always get hurt worse. Bunky may have been Cookie’s cousin, but he wasn’t blood to Lucious, which is why Lucious killed him. Vernon also died because he wasn’t a Lyon. If we had to guess who might depart in the next season, a serious case can be made for Rhonda and Anika, two women who are only affiliated with the Lyon family.
In the final episode, the family dream to become an official stock comes true, and we knew it wouldn’t long before Lucious rings the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Empire Entertainment and Empire the show are both about the same thing: family — and that is why we’ve all made an investment in them.