Tonight’s episode was all about Cookie. Other characters appeared in the background—heck, most of them even had scenes and plots to themselves—but Cookie took center stage. She’s the heart of Empire, the sashaying supernova of shade who pities the fools around her even as she holds their lives together. She can produce a song better than anyone else. She knows the right PR strategy to manage her second (!) queer client, and she also knows exactly where to go to order a hit on someone. Olivia Pope, watch out, because someone else has it handled (and this one has a better hat game).
But if you think Cookie’s invincible, you’d be mistaken—or maybe your DVR cut out the last minute of tonight’s episode—because now we know she’s made a possibly fatal misstep. After receiving a rose on her doorstep, and thinking that it’s a signal from the very drug kingpin who Agent Carter had her testify against, Cookie lashed out to protect herself, ordering a hit on one of his subordinates. But the rose was actually an anniversary gift from Lucious, who has no understanding of symbolism or something. Cookie’s killed a player in the drug game, and now it looks like she’s got a war of the roses on her hands.
Empire doesn’t need another crime subplot. The whole Bunkie murder plot’s been dead in the water (no pun intended) for a few episodes, and, at times, “Dangerous Bonds” looks like it’s leveling the moral playing field for man and wife: Now both Lyon parents are implicated in homicides! But Cookie’s a lot more interesting than Lucious, so this twist opens up a lot more possibilities for the show. Lucious has an empire to lose—yes, those are some big, obvious stakes—but Cookie’s constantly fighting to have something in the first place. In calling in a hit, she risked everything from her parole to her very dignity. This is the woman who’s always carrying a gun in her purse. This is the woman who drives all the way to Philadelphia because she doesn’t feel safe in her New York apartment. This is the woman who gave up 17 years of her life, who’s finally starting to reconnect with her sons, who might just have thrown all that away.
Cookie’s also a woman, which isn’t as much a source of weakness in the Empire universe as other shows—it’s just another thing around which to strategize. Between Anika, Rhonda, and Cookie, it’s pretty easy to make the argument that the wives (or exes, or wives-to-be) run the show’s world. This week, Anika got a proposal from Lucious, Rhonda dragged Andre into another scheme, and Cookie got her place on Empire’s executive board. Still, so much of their power depends on the connections they’ve made. Rhonda seems like a pretty successful fashion designer, but she’d be nowhere near where she is now without Andre. Anika, as her mom informs us, gave up her own performing career (which got her to Juilliard) in favor of dating Lucious, who gave her a pretty high position in Empire’s administration, even as she had to ignore his serial infidelities. So for most of Empire’s women, relationships aren’t about romance, but are more often contracts built around an exchange of power: I solve your problems, you solve mine. No wonder the show treats roses like weaponry.
“Dangerous Bonds” opens with everyone’s favorite contractual faux-lationship: Tiana and Hakeem, who’re still feeling the afterglow of a successful Teen Choice Awards. Hakeem’s working on the music video for his new single, “Drip Drop,” which is about “people’s fantasies about what it’s like to be Hakeem,” a.k.a. riding a jet ski with a pretty girl in front of a green screen. Andre realizes that the only way for the video to make budget is for Hakeem to feature another artist, so the obvious choice is Tiana. Everyone’s happy with the setup, until Rhonda reveals that Tiana’s hooking with a leggy blonde supermodel named India. (Okay, Andre and Rhonda are happy, because this means that they have a way to mess with Hakeem.)
When he hears about Tiana and India, Hakeem loses his cool. Tiana, god bless her, points out that Hakeem also has somebody on the side, but Hakeem doesn’t listen. Tiana calls Cookie for advice, and Cookie calls her “a freak,” but also says “we can sell that.” She gets on the phone with Lucious and convinces him to talk to Hakeem. Lucious has Tiana invite India to the shoot, and then gives Hakeem a speech about how great it is that his girlfriend has a girlfriend: “It’s a mathematician’s dream. It’s trigonometry.” For those of you wondering why Lucious is cool with Tiana’s lesbian hookup, but not with his son’s sexuality, a) he’s losing money for every minute the music video isn’t finished, and he might well say anything to get Hakeem to shoot the thing, b) In his mind, lesbianism seems to be something women do to gratify men’s desires. Hopefully Empire spends more time with Tiana and India in later episodes, because their relationship seems to have some real sense of connection to it, and that’s something worth exploring, especially in contrast to Empire‘s more cutthroat romantic pairings. Also, we need more Tiana, because every time Serayah McNeill purses her lips, a small, sassy angel gets its wings.
While Hakeem’s working on his video, Jamal’s recording his own single in a rundown studio in the Bronx. Jamal’s taking the whole financial independence thing to heart, so this, he tells Cookie, is what he can afford. The place fits the vibe for Jamal’s single, a ditty about how “money makes the world go round” inspired by his wanderings in Bushwick last week, and he gets to work laying down the track.
Unfortunately for Jamal, Andre and Rhonda are equal opportunity saboteurs, so when Andre hears that his bougie brother’s in dangerous territory uptown, he leaks the news to a few of the layabout hangers-on to Hakeem’s crew, who make their way to the studio and try to rob Jamal. Jamal realizes that the thugs are friends of Hakeem’s and defends himself in the face of a gun: “Tell Hakeem his sissy-ass brother ain’t stupid and he ain’t scared.” It’s a level up in intensity from Jamal, but he loses his day at the studio. One of Hakeem’s crew members shot a guy in the studio in the leg, and as the producer says, “When musicians are shot, so is the day.” Life in the real world isn’t as romantic as Jamal might think.
NEXT: Lucious meets mommy and daddy Calhoun…
Jamal’s about to lose his chance to record his single, but luckily, Cookie’s there to fix the crisis. She calls one of the engineers and shouts about how her son deserves a chance. It works (she’s Cookie after all), and Jamal has the rest of the day to round up a new crew of musicians and polish his single. He does, just in time for Cookie to return from her cab tour of the Eastern seaboard and hear the final version of his song. Well, it’s the near-final version, after hearing a sample, Cookie announces that her son’s voice should be above the mix (the same thing she said about Lucious’ in a previous episode) and then listens to the now-final product and beams with pride.
Jamal finishes off his day with a visit to Hakeem’s apartment, where he accuses his brother of causing the robbery back in the studio. Hakeem ignores his brother’s complaints and then starts bragging about how he’s about to be “iconic.” The two start pushing each other, and Jamal ends up punching Hakeem. “Don’t ever underestimate me, little brother,” he says as he walks away, beast mode fully engaged. In retaliation, Hakeem calls Andre to ask for money to get his video out before Jamal’s single drops.
To explain the rest of Cookie’s adventures, she’s spent the episode driving from New York to Philadelphia and back, after having to testify for a grand jury about Frank Gathers, the drug dealer she witnessed shooting a man. Agent Carter insists that Cookie’s testimony about Gathers is secret, but she worries that Gathers might call a hit on her from jail. In Philly, Cookie asks her sister Carol for advice. Carol takes Cookie to her husband, who takes out a hit on Teddy McNally, Gathers’ man on the outside, whom Cookie suspected of leaving the rose.
In other news in Lucious-land, Lucious sits down with Anika’s parents after proposing to her. Anika’s dad, who is white, is a very successful doctor, and Lucious takes the opportunity to ask him to sign a keyman policy to guarantee that he is in good health for his IPO. Dr. Calhoun doesn’t want to risk losing his license, but Lucious points out that, if the IPO goes through and he dies, Anika stands to become a billionaire. Dr. Calhoun finally agrees, but makes Lucious promise to tell no one about the deal.
“Dangerous Bonds” ends with one last conversation between Lucious and Cookie, which reveals Cookie’s big mistake. Lucious arrives at Cookie’s apartment in the middle of the night to ask if she’s gotten his anniversary present. Cookie had forgotten their anniversary—funny, how the couple with the most chemistry pays the least attention to the rules of their relationship—and also doesn’t remember a present from Lucious. Lucious tells a story about stealing her a rose, and Cookie suddenly realizes she had no reason to call a hit on McNally. She calls her sister, but it’s too late. The damage is done.
Wait, how was the music?
“Dangerous Bonds” did a great job letting the music speak for itself and giving us a look into the making of both “Drip Drop” and “Keep Your Money.” Hakeem’s single has the kind of digestible upbeat chorus built for radio play, while Jamal’s is a little more complex, laying Jussie Smollett’s crooning over a variety of syncopated beats. The real prize, however, goes to Anthony Hamilton, who stopped by for a special performance of “The Point of It All” in honor of Lucious and Anika’s engagement.
Per this tweet from Empire writer Wendy Calhoun, every episode of the show is based around a Shakespeare quote and theme. I’m not about to let that opportunity go to waste.
This week’s episode, “Dangerous Bonds,” comes from act 3, scene 2 of Cymbeline, a truly off-the-wall play that features mistaken identity, love affairs, and death (like this week’s Empire!). The quote’s spoken by Imogen, who’s reading a letter from her estranged lover: “Lovers/And men in dangerous bonds pray not alike: Though forfeiters you cast in prison, yet/You clasp young Cupid’s tales.” Basically, we treasure the myths around love, but tend to send people to jail for investing in things that are just as speculative. In short, as the women of Empire know: Relationships are gambles, and they don’t always pay out in the ways you expect.
You can also bet that the Empire writers are thinking about Shakespeare’s history plays (especially Henry VI parts 1 through 3 and Richard III), which deal with the struggle between related families, the Yorks and the Lancasters, for the English crown. The families’ symbols were white and red roses respectively, so the period in history is called the “Wars of the Roses.”
Notes, quotes, and observations:
- The Cookie outfit rankings: 3) Her blonde wig, and fur-coat-with-a-zipper getup from her drug dealing-days; 2) The black cape ensemble she wears for her grand jury purpose; 1) Her black leather coat, black lip, and gray hat combo she wears to solve her crisis, for the even more anti-heroic Olivia Pope.
- Porscha had a banner episode, as she tried to manage Tiana in Cookie’s absence, but spent most of her time trying to take video of Tiana’s butt, reading gossip stories about Tiana and India, and sarcastically sipping her drink.
- Speaking of gossip stories, does Rhonda have a way to upload material directly to PerezHilton.com? Does she secretly run PerezHilton.com? This explains so much.
- A pair of good lines made perfect through Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard’s chemistry: Cookie: “It’s almost morning, and even vampires got manners.” Lucious: “Did I wake you up from your coffin?”
- Cookie’s sister Carol can deal it out with the best of them: “Your kids ain’t real, they rich!”
- A one point, Lucious actually calls Cookie “the Cookie Monster.”