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'Empire' finale review: There's a method to this madness

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Chuck Hodes/Fox

Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) doesn’t do half-measures. Last night, he kicked off Empire’s season finale with a promise that also felt like a threat: “It’s gotta be like a supernova, that’s how I wanna go out,” he said. “Epic!”

He was talking about a concert—but really, he was talking about the show. And by the end of its two-hour finale, Empire felt like the best episode of Trapped in the Closet in years. There was murder and incest and a surprise pregnancy and, best of all, a hair-pulling beat-down between Lucious’ ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and her archenemy Anika (Grace Gealey), a callback to Dynasty’s wrestling matches between Alexis and Krystle. There were Caligula-like moments when Lucious declared himself a god, and at least one indication that he might actually be one: through some miracle of misdiagnosis, his ALS has been cured. There was dialogue that begged to be tattooed on someone’s neck: “Even God can’t kill me.” “Game time, bitches.”

Looking back, it’s ridiculous that this season began with critics pontificating about whether a show with a predominantly black cast and a major gay character could attract a broad audience. Now it’s abundantly clear that if anything can make all Americans stand united, it’s a spectacle soap that’s chock-full of what those hopelessly square Fox promos called the “OMG moment.”

The finale was proof that Empire will never be accused of “normalizing” television. That’s the term that Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandalrecently used to talk about casting people of different races and sexual orientations on her shows. “I really hate the word ‘diversity,’” she said. “It is just something other. Something special, like it’s rare. ‘It’s diversity!’ As if there is something unusual about telling stories about women or people of color or LGBT characters on TV. I have a different word. I call it ‘normalizing.’ I make TV look like the world looks.” 

Now, I’m glad that Rhimes is doing that. It’s important work. Getting to see yourself in the story is one of the great pleasures of watching television. But I’d argue that it’s just as necessary for TV to urge us to understand people we can’t relate to at all. That’s where empathy comes in. That’s where creativity comes in. And Empire has done well in that regard, especially in a wild finale that found Hakeem (Bryshere Y Gray) hooking up with his step-mom, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) pulling a Suge Knight and dangling Baretti (Judd Nelson) off a balcony, and Cookie trying to smother Lucious, though, apparently, she didn’t try very hard.

This show will never make TV look like the world looks. For most of us, the world doesn’t look like King Lear bedazzled in ‘80s-soap-opera glitz and draped in chinchilla fur.

Though, hey, it sure would be cool if it did. Some of the best things about Empire—the over-the-top theatricality, the outrageous costumes, the outta-nowhere celebrity cameos—aren’t exactly the stuff of real life, unless you’re Beyoncé. No one has ever accused its co-creator, Lee Daniels (PreciousThe Paperboy) of being a naturalist. Empire is proud to be a melodrama, and let’s hope it’s always just as boo-boo-kitty crazy as it wants to be. It’s a strange hybrid of silly and serious moods that don’t often work together. When you take good people and present them with only bad choices, comedy becomes tragedy. When you take people with highly ambiguous morals and present them with only good fortune, tragedy becomes comedy. Empire splits the difference: it’s comedy and tragedy at the same time.

At a time when most soaps want to be viewed as thoughtful procedurals (Chicago PD) or political dramas (Scandal), it’s pure goofiness that makes Empire special, just like Cookie and Lucious and all the leopard-printed VIPs they know. And if all of that is Just Too Much for you, there’s also a winking self-awareness that suggests it’s smarter than it seems. Whenever Cookie makes a grand entrance, someone comments on how she’s always barging into rooms. When Lucious calls his music showcase “Cookie Lyon Presents the Lucious Lyon Sound,” it’s a joke not only about his megalomania but also about Daniels’. This is a man, after all, who gave his last movie the self-important title Lee Daniels’ The Butler. (Under duress, but still.) See also: Jamal and Lucious laughing at a reference to “Whoop That Trick,” a callback to Howard’s role in Hustle and Flow.

The biggest reason people love Empire is because it’s fun, and that’s a rare thing for a hip-hop drama. Look at 8 Mile, or Hustle and Flow, or Get Rich and Die Trying, and you’ll find that the story of hip-hop is often the story of struggle. Even Lucious knows that. “Our music is more of a narration of oppressed people,” he tells a reporter early in the season. “You see, the Empire artists are telling the next generation that even though they live in a world where Trayvon Martin can get shot down like a dog… there’s hope in the fact that these kids are expressing their anger with music and poetry and not with a 12-gauge shotgun.”

Fittingly, we get brief glimpses of Lucious’ own evolution from common thug to label boss. But where so many Hollywood hip-hop dramas focus on those early years, following the rise from the streets to the studio with a somber, reverent vibe, Empire mostly focuses on the stuff that comes after success: the wealth, the glamour, the power-grabbing, the battles of ego, the Stuff Rich People Like. A huge percentage of the plot relies on dudes in suits explaining how an IPO works. The show isn’t overly concerned with establishing its cred. “You need to stop rapping like you from the streets,” Cookie tells Hakeem, “’cause you not about that life.”

Somehow, though, for all the Gucci jumpsuits and wild plot twists, the Lyon family does manage to be semi-relatable in a way you don’t often see in soaps. My favorite moments often center on the relationships between the brothers, which capture the strange intimacy and inside jokes that siblings share. I love the way Hakeem and Jamal work together. They feed off a sibling rivalry that makes them both better artists, and I love how they can criticize their own parents in ways they’d never accept from outsiders.

Poor Andre (Trai Byers) is the one exception. Even before he downward-spiraled into taking fully clothed showers and playing Russian roulette, he was an outsider in his own family—and last night’s come-to-Jesus plotline just proves that the show doesn’t quite know what to do with him. Only on Empire would the guy with an MBA become the last man you’d ever let run the family business.

Generally, though, there’s something sweet about the Lyons’ loyalty to each other. The New York Times compared them to the Partridge Family, even though their biggest hit together is the totally inappropriate “She’s So Beautiful.” It’s hard to imagine the Partridge Family kids begging their mom to “Give the world a show / Go up-down, up-down, up-down.”  

Empire will have to develop that family dynamic more in its second season if it wants to last. If I’ve learned anything from watching Nashville and Scandal, it’s that melodramas can’t survive on “OMG moments” alone. Soaps often get a first-season boost from speed-plotting—that is, using cliffhangers and shocking twists to prompt people to watch (and tweet) in real time instead of DVRing, lest they have plotlines spoiled. But there’s only so many shocking deaths and hook-ups that viewers can take. Next season, the trick will be finding that balance, learning how to “normalize” the Lyons just a little more, without giving up the right to stay weird.

Until then, though, let’s just take a minute to savor the first dozen hours of glorious madness. “The day will come when Lucious Lyon will return,” Lucious told us last night, through the bars of his prison cell. And I can’t wait. Hip-hop loves a good comeback.

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