‘Empire’ season 2 debut recap: don’t rock the boat

EMPIRE: Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon in the ÒWithout A CountryÓ episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Sept. 30 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Chuck Hodes/FOX.

EMPIRE: Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon. ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Chuck Hodes/FOX.

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Wednesday, September 21, 2015

“Empire” was the TV phenomenon of the spring of 2015, growing audience every episode in its initial 12-episode run, an unprecedented growth spurt in recent TV history.

Entering season two tonight, the creators weren’t going to mess with the formula of soapy plot twists, sassy line readings and a Trump-ian like presentation of the hip-hop world.

Expectations are as big as Lucious Lyon’s ego. Overall, this was a pretty typical episode amped by impressive celebrity appearances – some as themselves, some as characters.

The season opens with a big protest three months after Lucious was arrested for Bunkie’s murder. Cookie set the protest up although she knows he’s guilt and comes down from a cage in a gorilla suit to illustrate in a ridiculously over-the-top way how blacks often feel they are treated in the prison system.

Protesters hold up signs and chant the “Free Lucious” (hashtag #FreeLucious, of course) and “Empire” plants cameos galore, indicative of the power the show now wields in pop culture. A sampling:

  • Al Sharpton isn’t willing to protest Lyon’s arrest because he isn’t sure how innocent he is. Cookie quickly brushes him off as soon as he says this.
  • Fashionista Andre Leon Talley gives Cookie a compliment (“Gucci!”) followed by some shade: “Last season!”
  • Don Lemon of CNN, after failing to nail an interview with a polite Cookie, receives some back-handed shade from her outside of his earshot regarding his use of the N-word on CNN earlier this year.

What’s fascinating in this fictional world of “Empire” is how much freedom Lucious has in prison given that he is accused of first-degree murder. Guards are scarce and he seems to be able to just walk around at will. When outsiders visit him, they aren’t placed behind a glass barrier and forced to talk via phone. They get to meet face to face.

He meets up with Chris Rock’s character, a bad drug dealing magnate named Frank Gathers. Frank happens to be the man Cookie snitched on to get out of prison early. Inside prison, Frank quickly susses out who got him in there and he is not pleased. So he starts sending her roses and a gift box of someone’s head to an alarmed Cookie. It was Cookie’s cousin, the one Frank ordered killed after he informed Frank of Cookie’s involvement in his imprisonment. At least it wasn’t Gwyneth Paltrow. (So Brad Pitt, rest easy…)

Cookie is so freaked out, she tells her family to stay in the Lucious Lyon mansion while she tries to “fix” the situation. She goes over to see Lucious (who is conveniently in a nearby prison, not placed upstate) and Lucious admits he loves her and hates her at the same time. She asks him to “deal’ with Frank. And he does so.

He comes to Frankie in a room devoid of guards. Frankie says he has no beef with Lucious unless Lucious wants to create a beef. Lucious is loyal to Cookie – even after she tried to take over the company behind his back. More on that later.

“If you got war with her,” Lucious says to Frank, “you’ve got a war with me.”

“You crazy! Crazier than I thought,” Frank says, bemused. He then tells his minions: “Kill him. Make it fast and quiet. Bye!”

But Frank is gravely mistaken. Lucious has bought out their loyalties because it’s that easy!

“Kill him,” he tells Frank’s former minions. “Make it loud and make it loooong.”

And so Chris Rock is a goner by the end of episode one. Sure, he was not at all convincing as a dangerous drug dealer but that’s the price you pay for stunt casting.

Earlier, Cookie tries to engineer a hostile takeover of Empire in an attempt to dump Lucious from power. She brings in Marisa Tomei‘s lesbian venture capitalist Mimi Whitman and tries to ply her with lady delights – including frenemy Anika, who sleeps with her – for work reasons, of course.

But alas, Lucious sees Cookie cozying up to Mimi on TV during the protest and has Jamal, his chosen successor, to figure out who she is.

When Cookie, Akina, Hakeem (on skates? What is he? 10?) and Andre enter the board of directors meeting ready to take over, Jamal is ready. After they make their bold declarations, Jamal has Mimi turn around in a chair (like “The Voice”!) and declare that she has thrown her loyalties to Lucious. He met with her that morning and she realizes he is too important to Empire to dump willy nilly.

Jamal is deeply embittered by the family betrayal – at least for now. Wait a couple of episodes. Alliances will shift again.

After Cookie finds out that Frank is dead and the coast is clear, Jamal boots everyone out of Lucious’ home, where he is staying.

Cookie tries to talk some sense in him and in classic soap opera fashion, she slaps him. “Who do you think you’re talking to?”

But he doesn’t fall back. “Are you done now lady?” he says with rebellious intensity that is borderline scary.

“You’re turning into your daddy,” Cookie says before leaving with sadness and regret. “I’m watching it happen.”

After she closes the door, Jamal begins to cry, then emboldens himself and walks away, more determined than ever to be like his daddy. Ahh… daddy issues.

Best Lucious line of the night

“Game over, b*****,” Lucious said to his betraying two sons and wife from prison via video.

Best Cookie line of the night

“You can’t even dyke right.” – Cookie to Anika after she finds out the takeover had failed despite Anika’s amorous efforts with Mimi.

 


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