Before we dive into all the death, birth, and drama that’s been missing from our lives since Empire’s season 2 finale, let’s talk about what I missed the most: COOKIE’S FURS. God, I don’t know how we’ve lived without them for four months. In this premiere alone, she wears natural-hued furs and colored furs, dressy furs and casual furs (over sweatpants!). Yes, I may watch this episode again on mute just to admire them once more…and/or attempt to make a supercut of every Cookie fur-wearing scene and imagine all those coats appearing in my own closet this fall.
Back to business: The Lyon family is in disarray, per usual, after Lucious’s quick marriage to Anika…who is having a baby with Hakeem…whose fiancée, Laura, broke up with him at the altar. And things get even worse when we find out the result of Anika and Rhonda’s fight over the balcony, as Rhonda’s lifeless body slams onto the roof of a car in front of Jamal and Lucious. But just as Andre realizes what happened and starts screaming at Anika for killing his wife, Anika’s water breaks. Well, it’s not like anyone expects Empire to start a season quietly!
Meanwhile, Cookie’s at home cutting Lucious’s face out of family photos, and Hakeem shows up at Tiana’s house drunkenly saying he’s always loved her while she urges him to pull his pants back on. Jamal calls them both to come to the hospital — Cookie rushes there; Hakeem passes out and misses the birth of his child.
Everyone else is at the hospital, including Andre, paralyzed by shock. Cookie offers to call Andre’s priest, but he’s over it. “I’m done with God and his plans,” he says, and grandma (yes, she’s still here) chimes in with, “We’re being punished. You’re all being punished.”
In the delivery room, with cops outside the door, Anika pushes. Neither her mother nor Hakeem are there, just her pseudo-but-actually-real-husband Lucious, who’s whispering harshly in her ear that nobody pushed Rhonda, she just fell and Anika was trying to get away from her. When the baby is born and the doctor announces she’s a girl, Lucious gets even angrier and hisses, “You lied to me.” Hey, Lucious is still terrifying!
The next shot sees Lucious at a Gatsby-esque mansion, playing cards with Birdman and French Montana. Lucious talks a big game about his streaming service — which he’s renamed Empire X Stream — and tries to get them to sign on, but Birdman laughs him off. “Empire’s falling to the bottom of the ocean, man,” he says. Lucious tries to remind them he’s the king, but he’s met with: “We sat there and watched you marry your ex. What’s a king without a queen, man?” Nice to know how much these guys respect Cookie! Lucious leaves the table without signing a deal with any of them, but threatens they’ll regret it when Empire X Stream takes over all of Times Square. Do rappers care about Times Square?
At an Empire X Stream meeting at HQ, the Lyons discuss next steps. Cookie’s wearing a weird robe-type thing, but looks great anyway. Jamal says he’s talked Andre into staying with him for a while, and while Cookie is worried about Andre, Lucious couldn’t care less. He just wants to plan his big launch. He asks Jamal to perform, and then Hakeem starts whining about being a “grown-ass man” and not getting any respect from Lucious (I’m getting really tired of this particular attitude from Hakeem — can we bring Laura back?). “Well grown-ass men don’t miss the birth of their children,” Lucious retorts. He’s got a point. But he still probably didn’t need to put his own name on baby Bella’s birth certificate. (Yes, they named the baby after your trusty recapper here. I know, it’s exciting.)
After everyone leaves, Lucious tries to bond with Cookie, who was defending her sons at the meeting. “I know we’re still good as long as I see that fire in your eyes,” Lucious says.
“I need you to hear me loud and clear,” Cookie replies. “What me and you had is dead. You ruined it. Forever. Enjoy married life.”
NEXT: Cookie’s loyalty is still with Lucious
Lil Hakeem is in the studio working on a new track when Shyne, Lucious’s rival, bursts in and tells Hakeem he needs a stronger sound. Lucious tries to get Shyne and his posse to leave, but Shyne tells him he needs to sign Nessa (Sierra McClain) to a record deal ASAP. Shyne basically says he (and Nessa) deserve this because of the way Lucious treated him when they were younger, but Lucious isn’t having it. “Talent excels while mediocrity stalls,” Lucious says. Shyne proceeds to beat up Hakeem’s producer with studio equipment, then says, “He’s mediocre. Now he can stall,” before exiting with, “Hakeem, you dope. Don’t let anybody tell you any different” (as the producer groans on the floor).
Later, Shyne finds Lucious again. Lucious apologizes and offers to give Nessa a feature on a single by an artist of his choosing. But Shyne has a different offer: He wants her singing backup and a bridge at the Empire X Stream launch with Jamal. Lucious relents. Then Shyne returns to Hakeem and gives him a new track he’s mixed. Is there going to be a new father figure in Hakeem’s life?
One thing’s clear, though: There might be a new woman. Hakeem tries to flirt with Nessa, but she won’t take it. She knows all about Hakeem’s dating life. “Not me, boo,” she says — which we obviously know will make Hakeem fall head over heels in love with her. Say what you want about Hakeem’s maturity level, but I’m definitely into his obsession with strong women.
Meanwhile, Cookie and her sisters are hanging out, and the sisters won’t stop bringing up Tariq. Cookie’s suspicious, but she finds her answer a few seconds later when Tariq knocks on the door. Everyone tries to convince her to just rat out Lucious to Tariq (including T himself), but her loyalty still lies in the Lyons’ den. Tariq says he knows Lucious just married Anika to keep her from testifying, but he can’t subpoena her until he can prove the marriage is fake. So Cookie and Lucious scramble to get Anika out of the hospital and move her into Lucious’s mansion — and make it look like it was a deliberate, happy decision.
Anika marches into the house trailed by bodyguards carrying diapers and baby stuff. She’s clearly not thrilled to be there, but you know who’s even less thrilled? Lucious’s mama, who accosts her immediately: “You about as trustworthy as a snake in a hamster cage,” she hisses. “I got my eye on you…and don’t touch any of this food. I know you’re trying to poison me.” It’s what everyone wants when moving a new baby into a new home with a family that sort of hates you: the unstable matriarch wielding a kitchen knife in your face.
At the rehearsal for Empire X Stream’s launch, Jamal debuts a jazzy new song in which he name-checks actual recent deaths — Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and the victims of the Orlando massacre — alongside the (fictional) arrest of Freda Gatz. Cookie says Lucious can’t possibly have approved the song, but Jamal says he’s going to ask for forgiveness, not permission. Freda’s trial has stalled and this is the only way he can help.
Back at the house, Anika and Hakeem are having a bonding moment with their newborn, but Lucious comes in and starts scolding Hakeem for not knowing how to hold a baby, grabbing Bella from his arms. Hakeem and Anika exchange a look, and Anika does not look happy. I wonder how long she’ll be able to keep up the charade.
Downstairs shortly after, the Lyons family — plus Tariq, who we found out last season is Lucious’s half-brother — gathers for dinner. Lucious invited Tariq when he saw him sitting outside in the driveway, but it’s not clear whether he regrets it when Tariq starts picking fights with every person at the table during dinner. First, he reminds Anika and Lucious that marriages in the olden days weren’t official until they were consummated. After some back-and-forth, Anika tells both men to stop being gauche. “Trust us, this marriage is very real,” she says, and then plants a long kiss on Lucious while he grabs onto her arm with scary intensity. 1) Gross; and 2) How worried should we be about Anika’s — or Bella’s — safety? Actually, given that Anika almost murdered Rhonda once and actually murdered her the second time, maybe we should be worried about everyone else’s.
NEXT: Lucious once again demonstrates his parenting skills
Tariq tries to tear down the family by pointing out the terrible things Lucious has done to each of the Lyon boys. Lucious tells Tariq he’s very generous to his family — Tariq could be living like this, too. “Are you bribing a federal agent?” Tariq asks.
“You should go home,” Cookie says. “You’re losing.” This, of course, makes him lay into Cookie, calling her “the biggest loser here…sitting at a table that seems to be yours but never will be,” before tossing a slur at Anika. Andre and Jamal spring up, ready to fight, but Cookie stays eerily calm. “Yes, I did make a sacrifice for my family,” she says. “That’s what you do for family…and we’re strong. And we don’t have time to entertain you and your little shenanigans anymore.”
With that, we head to the Empire X Stream launch. Lucious did indeed buy out all the screens in Times Square — but when it comes time for Jamal to perform, he starts having flashbacks of being shot by Freda, and a panic attack sets in. In a sweet moment, Hakeem takes him offstage and tries to get him to breathe in the dressing room (with Cookie by their side, too). Meanwhile, Nessa — who really does have a phenomenal voice and could probably have gotten a deal without Shyne’s help — steps up from the darkness of her backup mic and takes the lead on the song Jamal intended to perform. The crowd loves it. The only person who doesn’t, obviously, is Lucious — because now Shyne’s lady is the face of Empire X Stream. So of course, to best demonstrate his unhappiness to his family, he goes to Jamal (who’s still in the middle of a panic attack) and pretends to shoot a gun into the back of his head with his fingers. Nice to see you, too, Dad.
Though, I did find myself taking Lucious’s side just a teeny bit when Jamal says he wanted to do the song because Lucious said he’d help Freda and he didn’t. “An innocent girl is sitting in prison,” Jamal says — and Lucious fires back, “SHE SHOT YOU!” True, she was aiming for Lucious, but that still doesn’t exactly make her innocent. Was she in the right? Of course. Lucious is Lucifer. But still.
Back at home, Lucious and Cookie are in the room with Baby Bella, and Lucious says she looks like Cookie when they first met. Then we’re treated to the first little tease of the teenage Lucious-and-Cookie flashbacks we’ll get this season: the moment they first saw each other. It’s a quick scene, but definitely whets the appetite for more! In the present, Cookie tells Lucious the only way their dynamic can still work is if she gets the music side of Empire and he worries about the business side — and they stay out of each other’s way. Lucious relents.
Far scarier things, though, are happening at Jamal’s: Andre is having a major breakdown on the couch, seemingly speaking to Rhonda about himself in third person. “Andre messed up. Andre messed up. Andre should have believed you, Andre should have defended you,” he says, rocking back and forth. Then, in a campy moment I’m not sure was the right move on Empire’s part, Rhonda appears as a hallucination. “Andre did mess up,” she says. “Who’s going to take care of you? You don’t know how to take your meds! You don’t know when to stand up to your father and when to bow down.” Is this just a way for the showrunners not to fire Kaitlin Doubleday? It’s clearly Andre’s subconscious speaking through her and not some sort of ghost, because real Rhonda wouldn’t be so hard on him. But still — I’m curious if they’ll keep this thing going in future episodes.
We end our episode with Lucious rocking Bella by the fire, and explaining to her that everything he did was to protect his legacy. “We’re gonna show all these haters just what time it is,” he coos. But the joke’s on him: Tariq is watching the whole thing through a camera in one of Bella’s stuffed animals. Wonder what else will go down in that nursery before the Lyons realize it’s been compromised?