Rebel, the show—just like the character—comes with plenty of baggage.
If you’re into fame and fortune, you know that building it is just half the battle. Keeping it—well, that’s something else. And Lucious Lyon has a lot to keep.
Lucious grew up on the streets. He was selling drugs by the time he turned 9, growing more violent by the day in the venomous world that surrounded him. Sure, he had some skills as a rapper, and he and his wife, Cookie, banked on his talents to rescue them. But they bankrolled their dreams with drug money, and their freelance pushing eventually got Cookie tossed into the slammer.
Life looks a lot different for Lucious a couple of decades later. He doesn’t spit into the mic much these days. Now he owns the guys who are spitting into the mic. He’s rolled his rhymes into a massive music conglomerate called Empire Records. He and his bank account look down from the mountaintop on everyone but Jay Z and Queen Bey. And he and Cookie—his recently un-incarcerated, force-of-nature wife—are looking to change that.
But uneasy is the head that wears the crown, and this king’s got a lot on his plate—along with, three—no, four sons who all want to eat from it.
Oldest son Andre inherited his pop’s business acumen. The well-dressed man couldn’t rap a fajita, but Jamal’s got a voice anyone this side of Bruno Mars would envy. And he clearly has some composing skills on his side, too. You’d think he would be the natural heir apparent—but a couple of issues work against him.
First, he’s gay, and that was a big issue between him and his pops for the first few seasons. Jamal and Lucious worked things out by Season 5—but Jamal can’t catch a break. See, the actor playing him—Justin Smollett—has been having some pretty scandalous legal problems of his own in the real world, and showrunners say he’ll be written out of the show altogether. Talk about a messy split.
Hakeem’s the baby of the family. He’s got the musical chops to carry on Lucious’ legacy—at least on the days he’s not too hung over—and he’s got the lifestyle down pat. But putting in the hard work needed to run a big company? Well, he’s about as motivated as a sun-loving basset hound with a bowl of drank nearby.
Then, of course, there’s Jeff, Lucious’s long-lost and illegitimate son, back either to make a place for himself at the family table or to knock out its legs. And truth be told, he’d probably prefer to do the latter. Not only did Jeff never know his father, but he barely knew his mother: She got addicted to the crack Lucious and Cookie sold her. Nothing’s stronger than blood, it seems—especially bad blood.
And Cookie? For years, all she wanted was to reign over the empire that she helped build with drug money and blood and family. But now, she’s reconsidering the cost of it all.
“We’ve done bad things, Lucious,” she says. “And it’s coming back to collect.”
Empire is a Dallas-like soap that boasts the superior acting talents of Oscar nominees Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson and Gabourey Sidibe. Created by Lee Daniels (director of The Butler) and Danny Strong (screenwriter for The Butler, as well as the final two Hunger Games movies), it has a plot pulled (in varying degrees) from Shakespeare’s King Lear and James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter. The vibe feels as lush and preening as a Kanye West track.
But Empire also asks viewers to drink down a tall glass of sex, language and violence. Those things aren’t as pronounced or as oppressive as they are on premium cable, of course, but there’s not much TV-PG here, either.
Jamal’s homosexuality has been a key plot point for much of the drama’s run, and the camera has never shied away from showing how—and with whom—he rolls in that area. That said, we’ll have to wait and see how the show handles Smollett’s departure and, consequently, the remaining characters’ future.
As for his heterosexual peers and their slinky conquests, sexy is as sexy does in the world of rap. There’s no doubt about the doing here. And while music has always been a cutthroat business, Lucious seems to take that more literally than most. He’s not above killing anyone who might threaten his empire.
Fox has ridden high on this buzzy, guilty pleasure of a show. And maybe bees are an apt analogy here. Because while Empire offers its share of honey, it has a serious sting, too.
The Lyons family grapples with the fallout from the Season 5 fall finale, in which Jeff Kingsley was revealed to be Lucious’ illegitimate son. Cookie, naturally, takes the news particularly hard. But when she visits Jeff’s mother—the woman’s body ravaged by the crack she and Lucious sold—she begins to wonder whether Empire shouldn’t remold itself into a force for greater good. Family members also learn that Jeff was behind the data-mining scandal plaguing the company, one in which he forged emails and leaked them to undermine Lucious.
Lucious, along with his oldest son, Andre, and Jamal’s gay husband-to-be, Kai, visit the guy who leaked the emails. Lucious and Andre hang the guy out of an upper-story window to get him to talk. Kai’s none too pleased with this interaction, and later begs Jamal (again) to severe ties with his family and run off to London. “I’m a Lyon,” Jamal says, taking off his engagement ring, “and I’m done apologizing for that.” (The two hold hands a couple of times during the episode.)
Jeff’s mother is bedridden now, apparently because of her drug use. “I was a junkie,” she says. “And then I had a stroke. And then another stroke.” We also hear her addiction made raising Jeff impossible—all of which adds up to a surprisingly strong rejection of the drug-dealing lifestyle Lucious and Cookie embraced to build their empire. (The episode also seems to criticize Lucious’ old songs that glamorized drug use.) Cookie sees the hypocrisy for what it is. “We used to tell people we did what we had to do to survive,” she tells Lucious. “That’s bull. We wanted that paper.”
Women wear cleavage-revealing and skin-tight outfits. Cookie makes reference to condoms, promiscuity and Lucious’ private parts. People drink frequently, and at a party we see a strange alcohol dispenser shaped like a golden gun. Andre’s girlfriend begs him to go to church with her, because church is very important to her. “My relationship to God is complicated,” he says as he drives. Seconds later, Andre’s nose starts bleeding profusely, and then he chokes and passes out (nearly crashing the car). Characters say “a–” nearly a dozen times. We also hear “b–ch,” “d–n” and “h—.”
While Lucious struggles with corruption in prison waiting for his parole hearing, Cookie, Andre and Hakeem begin the process of creating a competing record company.
Hakeem shares a hot tub with a potential artist—both apparently naked and kissing (we see both from the shoulders up). Hakeem wants to create a girls’ band for the new label, and the women who audition wear revealing outfits and make suggestive dance moves. Lucious’ lawyer blackmails a judge with pictures of the latter engaged in sadomasochistic activity. Hakeem lifts weights shirtless. Cookie makes crass references to Hakeem’s randy habits, and to oral sex. Jamal’s male lover is shown in the background as Jamal conducts an interview. Characters drink wine and whiskey, with Jamal admitting to drinking more than usual.
A prison guard gives Lucious and his prison posse a hard time, withholding Lucious’ meds and even telling him that it wouldn’t be a big deal if he killed Lucious. But when the guard confiscates a track that Lucious recorded in prison, the rap mogul’s lawyer hires some thugs to beat the guard and force him to turn the track over to the lawyer, who then releases it. (We see the guard hit several times in the face, and later learn that he suffered broken ribs.) Lucious asks Andre if he’s praying and going to church. When Andre says he is, Lucious says, “Then you pray to God to forgive you, because I don’t.”
Profanities (spoken and rapped) include about 20 uses of “b–ch,” about 15 of “a–“, five uses of “d–n” and three of “h—.” God’s name is misused once.
Cookie gets out of prison and visits Lucious, demanding half of the company. When Lucious says that’s not going to happen, she agrees to be nice(r) if Lucious gives her a job … and control of Jamal’s fledgling career.
Lucious finally relents. “I never wanted him,” he says.
“I know,” Cookie answers. And soon, so do we. In a flashback to nearly two decades earlier, we see Jamal—then a child—prance into a living room wearing high heels. Lucious angrily picks the boy up and throws him in a trash can.
Back in the present, Lucious tells Jamal that his lifestyle is a choice: “You could sleep with women if you wanted.” Cookie outwardly accepts Jamal’s choices, but she also calls him a “sissy” and a “f-ggot” under her breath. We see Jamal and his boyfriend kiss.
Andre and his wife make out on a bed. (She strips off her shirt to reveal a sports bra.) It’s suggested that Hakeem spends the night with a sultry woman he’s been leering at. He raps about strippers. (His father accuses him of wasting his talents on “booze and b–ches.”)
When Hakeem treats her disrespectfully, Cookie beats him with a broom. Someone gets shot and killed, blood spotting the face of the killer. We hear references to the dealers Lucious offed back in the day. He and Cookie admit to selling drugs. Cookie examines a bag of pot in Hakeem’s pad. People drink wine and champagne. A guy urinates outside. We hear ribald comments, along with “d–n,” “a–” and “b–ch” (six or eight times each), “h—” and “b–tard” (once or twice). God’s name is abused.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
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