Let’s face it: You’re not reading this recap because you want a lofty deconstruction of the symbolism and philosophy behind Empire. You’re reading because you just watched the latest over-the-top episode and you thought, “What the hell was that?!?” as a billion GIFs exploded in your brain. So every week, instead of a traditional recap, we’ll give you the latest edition of Empire: How Crazy/Awesome Was It?, in which we rate this week’s episode in terms of relative genius/insanity. Add your own ratings in the comments below.
How crazy/awesome was he? Crazy enough to make a corpse ride shotgun
What the heck happened with him this week? He had a Shakespearean moment.
Empire episodes often have lofty, literary titles that make the show seem more highbrow than it is, even if we believe writer Danny Strong’s claim that the story was inspired by King Lear. But this week, the title, “Poor Yorick,” actually served the themes well. As you’ll probably remember from freshman English class, Yorick was the court jester from Hamlet whose skull was unearthed by gravediggers, prompting Hamlet to ask his old, dead friend, “Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?” Hamlet’s famous monologue is a meditation on decay — not just the decay of Yorick’s body, but also the decay of Hamlet’s family’s empire — as well as a reminder that death is the great equalizer. No matter how charming you are, you’re gonna end up 6 feet under, your legacy erased by time.
Lucious has a few Yoricks in his life. Bunkie might be the closest match. He was a lovable clown and longtime confidant until Lucious killed him, though Lucious insists that he “never laid a finger on that man.” (Nope, not a finger — just a bullet.) Still, it’s Vernon’s body that Lucious ends up helping Andre exhume from the grave in a very Hamlet-inspired scene. Lucious’s own Empire has started to crumble, so mortality is definitely on his mind, and with a grandchild on the way, his legacy is, too.
The episode begins with the FBI raiding the company while Jamal performs a song that’s not too subtle in its symbolism (“Ready for war / Right here and now!”) and Becky tries to film the whole thing on her phone, twice. Between Becky’s citizen journalism and Anika showing Cookie the news footage of the raid on her phone, the opening sequence looks like a smartphone commercial disguised as a critique of the NYPD’s hip-hop squad — a strange marriage of activism and capitalism that this show often exploits. (More on that later.) But it’s worth it just to hear Becky pull attitude with the cops: “Scuze me, you’re violating my rights!”
After the Feds storm both Lyon Dynasty and Lucious’s home, giving Roxanne an unwanted peek at her naked arch-enemy, Lucious insists that the raid is good for Empire’s street cred. “Hip-hop wasn’t born on Wall Street, Miss Whiteman,” he tells Mimi. “Where we come from, if the cops raid your house, that makes you a G. If the Feds raid your house, that makes you an OG.” All of which raises the question: Wouldn’t the fact that he was just arrested for murder give him more street cred than being targeted by the cops?
It’s also hard to understand why Roxanne would pin all her career ambitions on Lucious’s downfall. This is guy who’s so beloved by the public, Bill Clinton himself danced at the #FreeLucious rally. Isn’t there a slightly less popular murderer to drag down? Then again, Empire is so filled with charismatic villains, it probably needs Roxanne to be the one person we can hate with no qualms. So forgive us for rooting for Lucious, even when he’s sick enough to shove a dead, rotting Vernon — the one man Roxanne needed to testify! — into her passenger seat. He’s a Lyon, after all. And like poor Yorick, he’s wont to set the table on a roar.
Most tweetable quote: “This isn’t when we hide. This is when we roar!”
Most GIF-worthy moment: Forcing Roxanne to carpool with a dead guy
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How crazy/awesome was she? Just as crazy/awesome as her red leather Thriller-inspired jumpsuit
What the heck happened with her this week? She proved that she’s pretty quick-witted for a grandma.
Watching Cookie hustle is one of the best parts of Empire. Like the animals whose prints cover her shoes, she’s at her fiercest when she’s backed into a corner, ready to claw her way out. Not long after she learns that Lucious has effectively blocked Lyon Dynasty releases from urban radio, she offers Lucious a truce: If he agrees to let Lyon Dynasty back onto Apex stations, stay away from Dynasty’s masters, and not steal their artists, she’ll allow Hakeem to shoot a video with Jamal, sending a message to the Feds that the Lyons are backing their father. Lucious insists that he never tried to steal the masters and refuses to let Dynasty have any airplay, but he lets Hakeem and Jamal shoot their video. It’s fitting that the video’s refrain is that it “ain’t about the money / it’s about the power.” Right now, Lucious has the money, but the power belongs to Cookie.
Her fledgling record label might not be turning a profit yet, but she has control of the things Lucious wants most: Hakeem’s music and Lucious’ freedom. (Also: Anika’s loyalty, which she ultimately decides she doesn’t want.) Cookie knows what Lucious did to Bunkie, and she’s willing to twist that story to her advantage. So when Portia gets arrested for jumping a subway turnstile and gives Cookie’s name, Cookie’s willing to do almost anything to keep herself out of jail. (Quick question for all you Empire-loving lawyers out there: How could this charge possibly hold up in court? No one checked Portia’s identification?) Cookie tells Roxanne that Bunkie was trying to stop Lucious from purchasing the radio station. Roxanne says the deal is as good as dead, freeing Cookie to get Lyon Dynasty tracks into heavy rotation again. Win-win!
The prison scenes mix seriousness with silliness in a way that feels just a bit wrong. When the cops drag Cookie into the squad car, she yells, “If I get into police custody, I did not commit suicide!” Is she exploiting Sandra Bland’s death for her own means? Is the show doing the same thing? Empire has a history of using serious political subjects for scenes that have arguably comic, salacious undertones. (See also: Cookie’s gorilla-suited rally against the mass incarceration of black men, held in honor of a man who’s guilty.) It’s hard to tell whether the show is undermining important issues or simply implying that the characters will manipulate anything they can to get what they want. Either way, it’s hard to switch gears between Cookie’s tossed-off line and the genuinely chilling flashbacks of her earlier prison sentence, when she was struggling with real suicidal impulses.
If anyone can pull that off, though, it’s Taraji P. Henson, who deserves another Emmy nod for handling this kind of tonal switch gracefully. No surprise here, but Grandma Moses can act.
Most tweetable quotes: “Whitebitch, you got to go!” “Do I look like I catch the subway?” “You need to kill yourself with that wack weave you got on top of your head.”
Most GIF-able moment: Slapping her own butt and declaring, “Tell me a grandma that got an ass like this!”
NEXT: The Lyon kids…