“The Lyon’s Roar” is Empire at its best. It moves with breakneck speed between each scene, from recording sessions to parties, from backroom intrigue to backroom hookups. At one point, the camera cuts from a shot of Andre holding a gun to his own head, contemplating suicide, to Anika, magisterial and furious, rolling out of her taxi, ready to get her revenge. This might sound like a case of emotional whiplash, or at least some pretty serious attention deficit, but Empire’s become a lot more sure of itself (maybe it’s the ratings), and while the “The Lyon’s Roar” is chaotic, it always seems to know where it’s heading.
Partially, that’s because this week we got a complete picture of the Lyon family. I mean that literally—Cookie looks at photo of herself, Lucious, and the boys near the end of the episode, and we also see that photo stuck to the wall of her jail cell in the next scene—and figuratively. “The Lyon’s Roar” clarifies what family means to Lucious (it’s a clubhouse with no gay men or white women allowed, apparently) and then interrogates that definition. Why can’t Jamal just come out? Why does Andre always have to take abuse silently? For too much of the season, Empire made Lucious a little too saintly, always having his needs override his sons’ agendas, preventing them from coming into their own. This week, it let the Lyon siblings begin to forget dad and roar for themselves.
We begin with Cookie, which is a very good place to start. In flashback, Cookie says goodbye to the rest of her family, as she gives herself up and starts her jail term. As Taraji does her best tearful goodbye (it’s very good), the dulcet tones of Terrence Howard singing “You’re So Beautiful” carry the show back to the present, where Cookie and Lucious lounge in postcoital bliss. Cookie reiterates her desire for Lucious to “get rid of fake-ass Halle Berry,” and Lucious says he’ll do his best. Cookie also starts to devise a new business venture: a legacy album of the best of Lucious Lyon, along with a documentary about the man, and a new single, featuring the whole family. For once, it seems that the Lyons have found their bliss (where bliss is a profitable business venture and also good sex).
The news of Lucious’ disease has hit Hakeem hard, however, and he’s busy praying at a Catholic church (“God is everywhere!” Hakeem justifies his choice of location) where Jamal tracks him down. The two brothers decide to make bygones be bygones by partnering up for Lucious’ legacy album, and they head to the studio. The Lyon family gathers to record the track, and Cookie even joins Hakeem, Jamal, and Lucious for the chorus. The family seems ridiculously happy together, like they’re ready to travel America in a minivan and make silly home videos, until you realize that Andre’s cut out of the action. He stands in the corner and glowers, as Andre is wont to do.
And this is the beginning of the episode’s Andre plot, which leads to Andre consulting with Vernon about the best way to take over the company. They settle on a plan to elect Andre as interim CEO, ready to take over from Lucious if anything should go wrong. “It shouldn’t be hard to go from temporary to permanent,” Andre says, inches away from looking directly at the camera and cackling. Andre recruits Rhonda for his passion project and first asks if she can seduce an old, ugly board member’s wife for him, and then changes his mind (for no apparent reason) and asks her to seduce the old, ugly board member. Rhonda is understandably not happy about this. She drinks too much at dinner and then interrupts a perfectly normal conversation about the The Theory of Everything to vomit on the table (I guess we know what Rhonda thinks about Eddie’s Oscar win).
It’s all still okay though, because Andre’s managed to recruit another board member to his cause, and he heads into his big meeting ready to be elected. Vernon votes for him. Cookie votes for him. A few nameless extras vote for him. Dad’s vote’s in the pocket, right…? Nope. Lucious votes “nay.” Lesson learned, Andre, never trust your father.
While Andre’s plotting away, Jamal starts to get friendly with the hot director his dad has hired to make a documentary about his legacy. The guy’s name is Ryan Morgan, and he’s self-assured, very attractive, and most importantly, into Jamal. After Jamal records a brief interview about how he’s trying to make good with his dad, the two set a date for dinner. At dinner, the guys talk about the pressures of growing up gay with a black father. It’s a brilliant scene, not only for the chance to watch two gay black men in a positive relationship on TV, but also because it pushes Jamal to see what the world might be like without Lucious. Ryan suggests that it’s time for Jamal to move out of his father’s shadow and points out that Jamal’s dad’s not the only member of his family. “Do it for your daughter,” he says.
Later, Jamal spends time with said daughter, comforting her in the face of her mother’s disappearance, and providing some singing lessons. Empire’s choice to have Jamal sing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” comes from make-it-so-obvious-it’s-painful school of symbolism, but Jussie Smollet saves the scene by singing beautifully, per the usual.
It’s a good week for Jamal, however, because that’s not even Jussie Smollet’s best scene. No, that happens a bit later, at the Lyon family’s Great Gatsby-like white party. There, Jamal bickers with Cookie about the proper order of artists on the new cover of “You’re So Beautiful,” and gets fed up with his mom after he realizes she’s been getting back with Lucious. Jamal goes to talk with Lucious, and Lucious begins one of his speeches about the greatness of Whiplash—or rather, music—which Jamal pretends to listen to, before announcing that he’d like to perform his own cover of the song, thank you very much. Jamal takes the stage, starts off with his pretty awesome version of the song, and then makes it more awesome by changing up the lyrics, from singing about loving a woman to loving a man. The crowd loves it. Hot director guy Ryan loves it. Lucious is scandalized.
Jamal’s coming out announcement is pretty much an act of rebellion in the Lyon family, and he manages to free up the rest of the family. Hakeem, who’s been struggling with the two powerful women in his life, his mom Cookie and his momma Camilla, begins to take a stand for his own. Before the party, he tries to connect with Cookie—there’s no shouting this time, which is a big improvement—but he’s still stuck with Camilla, who stirs up trouble by insisting he get last billing on the track and also buying him fancy blazers. After the party, Hakeem meets up with Jamal to make amends and congratulate his brother on his bravery. The brothers trigger happy tears everywhere as they hug it out. Hakeem even suggests doing a chorus on the song together.
NEXT: Cookie crumbles, Andre snaps…
Hakeem and Jamal have become a lot freer from their father, but Cookie’s still having trouble kicking her Lucious habit. After hearing about Lucious’ infidelity, Anika puts her fiance on a strict Cookie-free diet, while also making him promise to marry her in a week. Lucious breaks the first part of his promise as quickly as possible, with a recording studio hook-up with Cookie. This gives Cookie leverage, as she confronts Anika (a.k.a. “fake-ass Lena Horne”) at the white party and informs her that her husband can’t get enough of Cookie’s nookies. “Must have been after he promised he’d never do it again,” Cookie jokes. Still, Anika’s not about to give up the fight. She heads off to a big, mysterious hotel and announces that she wants to meet Billy Beretti, the owner of Empire’s rival label. Oh, and before walking into the hotel, she takes off her engagement ring.
Back at the white party, Andre sulks in the corner and tells Vernon that they need to come up with another plan. Vernon promises to take care of it, and then does nothing, as he has done all season. Afterward, Lucious calls up Andre and Vernon for a talking to, which leads to Lucious telling his oldest son that he can’t trust him because he married a white girl. Andre says his dad can’t be serious, but Lucious builds momentum. He says that Rhonda is a symptom of Andre’s desire to turn away from his family, to get good grades, and to try to assimilate into white society and succeed on their terms. Andre, however, argues that Lucious has always ignored him because, unlike Hakeem and Jamal, he has no music talent.
Andre’s not a part of Lucious’ tribe, not in the sense of race, but in the deeper sense that Andre isn’t an artist. Empire doesn’t always take Andre seriously—mostly, it uses him and Rhonda as a weird, psychosexual sideshow act—but “The Lyon’s Roar” tries its best to correct that. In fact, it overcorrects. A few scenes later, Andre sits in a recording studio, music on full blast, with a gun to his head, flirting with suicide. It’s a powerful image, how could it not be, but can we only ever see Andre at extremes? Unlike Hakeem and Jamal, who’ve started to realize their potential, Andre always seems like he’s moving according to someone else’s plan—whether that plan come from Lucious’ shady business practices, the strictures of white society, or Empire’s need for a late-episode cliffhanger.
The “The Lyon’s Roar” wouldn’t be a great episode, however, if it didn’t let Cookie have the last say. After Jamal’s big coming out announcement, she meets with Lucious, who declares that the whole legacy project is over. Cookie urges Lucious to reach out to his son, but he resists, insisting that Jamal’s turned away from his family. Cookie, however, knows little more about family than Lucious. After he leaves, she turns to look at the family photo, and we flash back to Cookie in prison, singing Lucious’ song, putting in her sacrifice for the greater good. Not to get lost in an Empire-ready metaphor, but there’s something to be said for the fact that, among actual lions, it’s the lionesses who do the hunting, who catch the food, who hold everything together. They are the ones who make the real sacrifices for the lion’s pride.
Wait, how was the music?
Of the many variations of “You’re So Beautiful” we heard this week, Jamal’s party-ready gay-friendly rendition takes first place, barely eking past Cookie’s tearful version, which she sings to herself in prison. Note to Empire writers: Make Taraji sing more often!
“The Lyon’s Roar” is unsurprisingly not an actual Shakespeare quote, though there are often references to lions in his work, especially in his history plays, as the lion was the symbol of the king of England. Also, there’s a scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where a character playing a lion in a play within the play actually roars. Do with that what you will.
Notes, quotes, and observations:
—“The Lyon’s Roar” was written and directed by series co-creator Danny Strong, who gets credit for a fun script, and some more inventive camerawork than usual. Empire typically sticks to classical direction, and calls little attention to itself, but Jamal’s performance, with its accompanying flashback to his abuse as a child, brought in a little more pizzazz, all the more fitting for a big announcement.
—This week’s best Cookie outfit: Cookie’s white party dress, which she topped with an amazing full-length fur coat, and which, more importantly, revealed more cleavage than Anika’s dress.