After a shaky second season, this episode really feels like Empire is getting back on track: It had laugh-out-loud moments (mainly from Cookie, obviously); truly heartrending scenes; and some seriously gasp-inducing drama pulled both from the show’s soapy universe and 2016’s terrifying real-life race issues.
We’ll get to the meaty stuff eventually, but the episode starts off light, as Cookie gets bombarded with increasingly lavish deliveries to her apartment: Jimmy Choos, a gold espresso machine, even a lion sculpture. “Hell no!” she says. “Out! Take it out, all of it!” Of course, it’s all Lucious’ doing. He’s trying to win her back after she shut the door on their relationship in last week’s season 3 premiere, but he’s going to have to try harder. She does keep one thing, though: A gold pistol. And later, when Lucious says, “I see you kept the gun,” Cookie delivers my favorite line of the night: “Bye, Fe-Lucious. I ain’t got time for your mess.”
Anika, on the other hand, is trying to care for Bella on her own and is having a rough go of it. But when she tries to interview nannies without Lucious’ permission, he storms in, furious, and sends them away, worried about having strangers in his house amidst a federal investigation. He overreacted, obviously, but I think it’s a fair point. It’s just not Anika’s fault — it’s Hakeem’s. Maybe if Bella had two parents looking after her, Anika wouldn’t be so overwhelmed.
Meanwhile, Jamal is on Power 105 trying to repair his reputation after his unfortunate breakdown at Empire X Stream’s launch. He’s on air with a local city councilman named Angelo (the always-suave Taye Diggs), who convinces Jamal to spend time with WOKE, an organization for inner-city kids. Cookie, like Lucious, is trying to avoid involving strangers — especially government strangers — in their lives, but Jamal won’t let the kids down. The scene also yielded another amazing Cookie-ism: “I don’t trust polite people, stupid!”
You know who’s NOT polite? Shyne, who knows he has the power now that his sister, Nessa, blew everyone away at Empire X Stream. Lucious offers her the world, and Hakeem zips in and says he and Nessa want to make a “living album” like Kanye did with The Life of Pablo. Lucious shuts him down and reminds him he has responsibilities at home (read: Baby Bella). Nessa and Hakeem head to the studio anyway and have a great time, bonding and vibing off each other to create a song that will make people remember their names (and really missing an opportunity to sample Irene Cara’s masterpiece from Fame). But then Hakeem wordlessly gets a bit freaked out when Shyne punches someone in the face just for looking at Nessa.
Cookie and Lucious meet to chat business (though Lucious wants to talk more than that), and they argue about Jamal’s Black and White album, which he no longer wants to release. Lucious pushes back — Empire X Stream needs content, and Jamal needs fans to forget about “his little fainting Justin Bieber moment.” Yikes. Lucious finds his content soon enough, as he offers to host the WOKE Summit at Empire and pay for it.
He still can’t find a way to get to Cookie, but he’s getting closer. He plays her a track he ostensibly bought for Jamal, which samples Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” — which, you’ll remember from last week, is the song Lucious was singing when Teen Lucious and Teen Cookie first saw each other. We flash back to last week’s flashback, and this time watch as Teen Cookie saunters up to Teen Lucious and dances into the middle of their circle. When we return to the present day, she says, “When I first saw you rap, it changed my life. I knew right then and there—”
“That we were meant to be together,” Lucious tries to finish.
“—that I was meant to do music,” Cookie says. “I need you to understand that I am done.” He doesn’t understand.
NEXT: Can Jamal still perform?
Back at Jamal’s, Andre continues to completely break my heart. “Where are you? I need your help!” he cries to Rhonda, whose voice shows up, this time without her body. He clutches his pill bottles, and when Jamal comes to see what’s wrong, he breaks down. “I’m not gonna make it, Jamal. She used to manage all of this. She took care of it for me.” But Jamal is perfectly calm and collected, and tells Andre he knows how to organize pills since he’s been dealing with his own pain meds. He’s happy to take care of Andre’s, too. This was such a moving and wonderful scene, and it sets the tone for another one between the Lyons brothers later in the episode. I love seeing them all get along. Even if they’re all suffering in private, they have each other.
Lucious figured it out: He sends Biz Markie himself to perform right outside her bedroom as she wakes up. It’s adorable, she’s delighted, and Cookie and Biz do a little duet. He leaves and Lucious is smug, but Cookie corrects him: The memories didn’t get to her, the music got to her. So Lucious makes a confession. That “Just A Friend” flashback may have been the first time Cookie saw Lucious, but it wasn’t the first time he saw her. In another flashback, we see Cookie getting out of the car with her sweet, slightly nerdy boyfriend, Barry. “That jawn got a nice ass, doesn’t she?” Lucious’ friend says to him.
“Do you know her?” Lucious asks.
“Good, ’cause I’m about to make her mine. So watch your mouth.”
It’s adorable in a very Lucious way, and back in the present, he tells Cookie he knew it was a long shot to get with her, but he tried anyway. “You knew that my destiny was music and my destiny was you,” he says. Man, he is not letting up!
Time for the WOKE Summit: A young MIT-bound baby rapper performs with the rest of the WOKE kids behind him, throwing bones to his idol Lucious about roaring with the Lyons, and then it’s time for Angelo to introduce Jamal. But first — another flashback. Cookie leaves a restaurant with Barry, who gives his leftovers to the first homeless man he sees. Cookie keeps hers. Barry starts planning their lives after Cookie gets out of Howard and Barry gets out of med school, but then Cookie realizes this is the time to break up with him. She wants the house and kids eventually, but needs to do something with music first. “I understand,” he says. “It’s your life.”
Back to the WOKE event, where Angelo tells the room he got “chin-checked” by a remarkable woman (Cookie, who told him he knows nothing about struggle) and he’ll be thanking her over and over for that insight. Cookie beams until Lucious turns around to look at her, and she immediately gives him a stink face. It’s pure, silently perfect Cookie.
When it’s time for Jamal to take the mic, he freezes again — just like at the Empire X Stream launch. He races into the hallway. He really does have PTSD from Freda. “It keeps happening,” he pants as Lucious says, “You’re starting to bore me.” He is suuuuch a great father! “I’m scared, all right?!” Jamal says. “I can’t get on the stage. I can’t do it anymore.” Has Empire lost its crown jewel? What will become of the label if it can’t count on a Jamal Lyon performance to save the day?
NEXT: Andre has a painful run-in with the police
Empire’s losing something else, too: That night, Becky is talking to her boyfriend, Empire artist J Poppa, who excitedly announces he’s leaving for another label. And not only that, he’s negotiated for her to come, too, and have the A&R job the Lyons promised her ages ago but haven’t delivered on. She’s furious: “Who asked you to do that? Lucious gave me a job when no one else would even talk to me.” He tries to convince her Empire is going down in flames, and both of their careers will do the same if they don’t leave. Is he right?
Over at Lucious’, Bella is asleep in his arms, and Anika comes in to check on them. But when she’s putting the baby monitor away, she hears a strange buzzing in a certain place. Lucious hears it and wakes up, and they discover Tariq’s camera in Bella’s teddy bear. It looks like he knows they’ve found it, but nobody quite knows what to do. In one last flashback to the “Just A Friend” scene, we see it from another perspective: Tariq’s. He’s hanging around Lucious with everyone else, as a tiny kid, but then his mother rips him away. “How many times do I have to tell you to stay away from that boy?” she hisses. “But you said he’s my brother!” young Tariq says.
“He and his crazy-ass mama are the worst thing that ever happened to us,” Mom says. Wow. Well, that definitely gives us a peek into the complicated, lifelong relationship between Tariq and Lucious. I wonder where we go from here. It’s easy to dislike Tariq for being the enemy, but on the other hand, he’s obviously not wrong. Lucious is the bad guy, pretty much always, and Tariq just wanted to be his friend.
As for the Lyon boys, they’re bonding in the kitchen, and now it’s Andre’s turn to pick everyone up. “We’ve got each other. So here is how we win,” he says, before telling Jamal he can beat his PTSD and reassuring Hakeem he is strong enough to step up and be a father. And Andre himself? He’s going to get the last of his stuff from his old apartment so he can try to get Rhonda out of his head.
But that doesn’t go too well: In a painful, totally ripped-from-the-headlines scene, Andre is loading the rest of his belongings into a car outside his fancy apartment building when two cops come by and start harassing him. Andre calmly tells them he lives there, but they press on. “Lot of break-ins in this neighborhood,” one says. “Got any ID on you, yo?” Andre can’t help tossing the cop’s tone back to him (who wouldn’t? These two guys are repulsive and cruel) but that really sets them off, and before Andre knows it, he’s on the ground, cuffed, with a gun in his face. He shuts up, but he’s already traumatized. Hasn’t this guy been through enough?!?!
My only hope is they’ll be prosecuted when word gets around about who Andre is — not that it should take a famous/wealthy person for people to react, but as we know from actually experiencing these situations all the time, the results are usually disturbingly dismal. We’ve covered Black Lives Matter territory on Empire before — the season 2 premiere, last week’s song naming all the wrongful deaths — but now Empire joins a list of recent shows (including Scandal, Orange is the New Black, and UnREAL) that are outright including scenes from our troubling era. This one felt awfully realistic and nauseating to me. What did you think?