Empire recap: Nuclear family
After a holiday break to give us some breathing room following the last twist-filled episode, Empire leaves no stone unturned this week by ratcheting every storyline up a notch.
We open with another one of those elusive flash-forwards; this time, Lucious washes his bloody hands in the kitchen sink as a concerned Cookie asks repeatedly, “What did you do?” We then go back to the present with the Lyons in… happier(?) times as Cookie (despite her best efforts) is still estranged from Candace after her attack at the hands of Franklin. Lucious assures her she did the right thing by calling the police on her nephew, but before they can dwell on things too much it’s time to watch Jamal’s performance on Entertainment Tonight (which is apparently a morning show in the Empire universe). After the performance, Jamal’s interviewed by Kevin Frazier to promote the coming LFM artist showcase and Jamal takes the opportunity to publicly announce his engagement to Kai. His fiancé, on the other hand, is not too pleased to see their private news blasted on live TV and is even less pleased when the camera lands right on him for a congratulatory moment.
Back at the mansion, Cookie finds a bow-wrapped jewelry box in her drawer filled with pictures of all the diamonds Lucious plans to get her when things at LFM clear up; we then flashback to Lucious presenting Cookie with the special painting of them that he lost to Damon Cross in that poker game turned double cross. “This portrait is my bet on us,” Lucious says to Cookie. “It’s you and me forever, kid.” Back at Empire, Lucious’ newly revealed maybe-baby Kingsley calls a company-wide meeting to announce that effective immediately Empire is pulling all of Lucious’ music from streaming, radio, stores, everywhere. While he insists it’s just business, Becky and Giselle are immediately suspicious. When Becky asks what’s the endgame in this move, Kingsley does what I’m sure is a smart thing for any “business genius” to do: blame Disney. Citing the infamous Disney Vault, Kingsley says that by making a product scarce, it only increases demand and profit when the product returns to the market. When Lavar, another exec at Empire, interjects that the vault succeeded because it was announced ahead of time, Kingsley cuts him at his knees by firing him right then and there. “You spoke when you should have been listening,” Kingsley sneers as he ends the meeting.
In the studio, Hakeem, Devon, and Carlito are working on a track together when Carlito stops the session and questions the showcase, complaining that the studio time is coming out of their contracts. Cookie stands up from her seat and reads her “misfit toys” the riot act, telling them they’re not going anywhere and that their only concern should be making the song and the showcase ones to watch. And of course, Cookie’s taking her cut “’cause I did this!” With those words, the trio gets back to work on their song. As Thirsty fills Lucious, Cookie, and Andre in on the status of the showcase’s venue over breakfast, Becky walks in the door to tell them that Empire is “vaulting” Lucious’ catalog. Andre points out that it’ll slow his residuals (the only income coming in at the moment) down to almost nothing, which makes Lucious ready to get some revenge. However, Cookie stops her husband by telling him this is only a tactic to throw him off at LFM’s biggest moment. Despite seemingly ending his beef with Blake, Hakeem is still feeling the heat from the feud from Tiana. She storms in and confronts him on the threats she and their children are getting from overinvolved fans. Hakeem waves it off and says nothing will happen to them, but Tiana insists he and Blake find a way to end this once and for all.
Another Lyon breakfast is interrupted (those poor, cold pancakes) as Maya walks in to tell Cookie that she and Evan have broken up for good and she needs a place to stay. Still angry about how their last interaction went, Cookie initially stonewalls Maya’s attempts to make nice but eventually gives in, though she makes it clear this is only a temporary arrangement. “Come next month you won’t be in my kitchen begging for snacks with your little ashy ass,” Cookie says before adding that if Maya’s gonna live under her roof, she’s going to have to get a job ASAP. Reeling from the news that his life’s work is being put on the shelf, Lucious confronts Kingsley at Empire on both the business and personal reasons why the move won’t work. Citing Prince’s initial moves to keep his music off YouTube, Lucious says there’s a way to go about a different arrangement that makes both him and Empire money. Kingsley responds by saying that he doesn’t want Lucious or LFM to succeed and further announces that Empire is going into artist management as well. As you’d expect, Lucious doesn’t take the news well and says Kingsley’s move is that of a man who doesn’t value his livelihood much longer. “What are you afraid of?” Lucious asks. “I wonder what Steve Jobs would think about your bitch ass moves.” Not wanting to leave his rival/potential father with the last word, Kingsley tells Lucious that he vaulted his music because he wants to “wipe you from the consciousness of an entire generation.”
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Lucious informs Thirsty and Andre about the vaulting and they’re both confused as to why Kingsley’s making such a move since Lucious’ music still makes up a large amount of Empire’s revenue. He asks the two to find out what Kingsley’s planning to do to replace that piece of the Empire pie, but not to let Cookie know about what’s going on. This lasts about three seconds as she’s distracted from her continued work on the showcase by everyone walking past her. Cookie asks Lucious to tell her if he really went to see Kingsley like she told him not to. Lucious cops up to it and tells her that he couldn’t let their legacy disappear; Cookie, however, tells him that the catalog is their past and LFM is their future and that she can’t just carry the company alone while he’s off on a vendetta of sorts. Lucious insists that he’s fully committed to LFM and that they’re in it together, as we get a long flashback to another lost court battle between the Lyons and Eddie for control of Empire. It’s almost like history repeating as Lucious is dead-set on getting his company back, while Cookie wonders if they should just walk away and start something new. When Lucious insinuates that Cookie is a quitter, she walks away “before I say something that can’t get unsaid.”
We then see her at a hotel bar nursing a drink when she’s joined by a dapper gentleman we now know as Damon Cross. Cookie isn’t falling for his act at first but they meet again in the hotel elevator, which conveniently breaks down. When a claustrophobic Damon has a panic attack, it’s Cookie that calms his nerves and instructs him to take a deep breath. She then spots a jewelry box that catches her eye; Damon says it’s a gift for his daughter who’s celebrating being 5 years cancer-free. When the elevator starts working again, Cookie tells Damon about the argument she had with Lucious but insists he’s the love of her life. When the two leave, he asks for her name; “Cookie, Cookie Lyon.” And the seeds are planted…
Kai walks in on Jamal playing the piano and confronts him for revealing their engagement on television. Kai says that he’s spent the last 10 years trying to be taken seriously as a journalist and now he’ll just be seen to the public as Jamal Lyon’s fiance. In fact, two sources have already backed out on him and his editor is joking about putting him on the entertainment desk. “I love you,” Kai says to reassure Jamal. “I just didn’t think that I’d go from telling the story to being the story.”
Back at the mansion, Cookie realizes they’re over budget while going over LFM’s numbers. Lucious comes to her with a plan to ease their financial burden: mortgage the mansion and use the money to cover LFM’s overages. “If we don’t bet on ourselves, who else will?” Lucious asks as he signs the mortgage papers. Over at Empire, Becky and Giselle are still at a loss as to how to deal with Kingsley’s decision-making. Both agree that the vaulting is a terrible move and Becky asks if Giselle could talk to Empire’s tech backers to get Kingsley in line. Giselle says Kingsley won’t listen to tech geeks and asks Becky to sit tight as she has something up her semi-homicidal sleeve. “When the time is right, I will handle Kingsley,” Giselle says.
Cookie walks into Candace’s house in the hopes of smoothing things over, but Candace is in no mood to talk. Franklin is now in an institution and she doesn’t know when or if he’ll be released. Cookie says she only called the police because she was in fear for herself and her sister, but Candace insists it was just another one of his episodes. “Have you ever called the police on Andre?” Candace asks. When Cookie says she hasn’t had to because Andre was “different,” Candace only grows more frustrated. “What was I thinking comparing my sweet boy to that murderous crazy convict?” Candace tells Cookie all she can picture in her mind is Franklin strapped to a hospital bed, medicated and not being able to recognize his mother. “Now you know what that phone call did,” she says. “What you did.” Candace, in tears, then shuts the door on Cookie.
After handing Maya some errands to run despite her not having a car (“the bus runs until 2 a.m., and with some luck, you’ll make it back by then”), Cookie is presented with the layout of the showcase by Carol. Carol wonders how they’ll be able to afford everything the event entails, which Cookie answers by telling her about Lucious mortgaging the mansion. Cookie wonders if this is the time to tell Lucious about the secret condo and to sell it, but Carol wonders if she’s holding onto to it for a different reason. Cookie brushes her sister’s worries aside and tells her that she and Lucious are building LFM together and that unlike Empire, this feels like a true partnership. Carol then changes her tune, telling Cookie to put her attention on the showcase and then tell Lucious about the condo when LFM’s in firmer financial footing.
Blake is in his own personal studio when Hakeem and his entourage burst through wanting answers for all the threats that are going Tiana and the kids’ way. Blake says he never said anything to make his fans do what they’re doing and tries to break the ice by offering a drink, but this only leads to more tension. When Hakeem passive aggressively insists on accepting Blake’s non-apology, Blake insists he has nothing to be sorry about since he wasn’t the one who started it by dropping the first diss track. “Who tried to take my girl?” Hakeem responds; Blake snaps back by saying Tiana wasn’t Hakeem’s girl when he was cooking for her and their kids. Suddenly that’s enough for the guns to start popping up. “You better fix this,” Hakeem says as he walks away, gun pointed at Blake.
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Giselle meets up with her PI once again to find out exactly what’s driving Kingsley’s vendetta against Lucious. The PI fills her in on Kingsley’s mother Tracy and her teenage years when she would head from the suburbs to Philadelphia to sew her wild oats and later got involved in drugs. There Tracy met a dealer, a young Lucious Lyon. The PI then presents a picture of a young Jeff Kingsley and tells Giselle to “do the math.” Giselle does the math and asks if Tracy’s still alive, to which the PI answers yes and that Kingsley visits often; a fact that the PI knows because she put a tracking device on Kingsley’s car. At Lucious’ office, he, Andre, and Thirsty wonder how they’ll get ahold of Empire’s finances, which only Kingsley has access to. Lucious suggests getting a hold of Giselle as a way in but Thirsty, ever living up to his name, has a different person in mind: Becky. He meets with her for lunch to present his plan, but Becky is reluctant to join in, not wanting to jeopardize the work she’s put in at Empire given Kingsley’s firing whims. After some back and forth, it becomes clear she still feels some loyalty to the Lyons, and Thirty presents her with a device to insert into Kingsley’s computer that’ll give Andre access to Empire’s financials. “It’s time to choose a side,” Thirsty tells Becky.
With the mission now in front of her, Becky strolls into Kingsley’s office and searches for his computer, only for the man himself to walk in. Becky manages to play it cool and launches into a plea for him to scrap the vaulting, citing the years she went at Empire undervalued and the credits she has on some of the material. Kingsley says he understands what it feels not to get the credit one deserves and thanks her for not going to LFM. Becky then walks back to her bag, which was perfectly placed near Kingsley’s computer. She “spills” some of her belongings on the ground, using it as the cover to implant the device. In the middle of this cover, however, Kingsley tells Becky that he’s doubling her salary. “A couple extra zeros every week should make the Lyons a distant memory, right?” he says. Becky plays along with the niceties, telling him that as long as he has her back, she’ll have his. Then, right under Kingsley’s nose, she implants the device into the computer tower before walking away. At the same time, Andre is at the computer waiting for access when he discovers something big: hidden files revealing that Empire’s newest revenue source is none other than the federal government. Turns out Kingsley’s been selling Empire’s customer data, most of which can be traced to minorities, to law enforcement through their Extreme app; this turns each customer’s phone into a listening device. Andre says that a legitimate news source is the only way the dirt won’t come back to them. Lucious then fills Kai in on what they’ve discovered, saying that he’s doing this because Empire’s customer base trusted him and Kingsley’s betraying that trust. Jamal questions if Kai should be involved in this family messiness but Kai says he’s all in, telling Lucious that he’s going to follow this story wherever it leads.
Kingsley strolls in (with flowers!) for his weekly visit to Tracy’s hospital room, only to be greeted by Giselle and her file full of dirt. She points out that his birth certificate doesn’t list a father, but that Tracy was hanging out with Lucious right around the time Kingsley was born. Holding this information over his head both literally and figuratively, Giselle tells Kingsley its time to talk about their future at Empire. “Oh, she can’t hear us,” she says, referring to Tracy.
As Lucious and Cookie sit on the couch and talk about how the LFM showcase (which is now fully funded thanks to the mortgage going through) will put them back on the map, Candace rings the doorbell. She hands Lucious the file to that secret condo Cookie’s been hiding from him. “$4 million in equity and one foot out the door,” Candace tells Lucious. “There’s your ride or die, Lucious.” As Candace walks away Lucious turns his attention to Cookie, saying he put his financial livelihood at risk when she had this asset hidden the entire time.
Meanwhile, Tiana is confronting Hakeem for his antics during his failed “squashing” with Blake. When Hakeem accuses Tiana of letting Blake “touch up” on her, she denies it, and as she tries to leave with their kids, Hakeem gets in the way. When he tells Tiana that Bella isn’t even biologically her kid, she shoots back by telling him he barely acts like a father himself. “Blake was right about your ass,” she says as she finally leaves the room with Prince. We then move back to the living room where Lucious and Cookie’s confrontation continues. “Whatever happened to not keeping secrets?” Lucious asks. Cookie insists she still loves Lucious but tells him not to rewrite history to his favor, saying that she kept the condo because she couldn’t trust that she could protect herself from Lucious when worst came to worst. Lucious, only growing angrier, walks to the faux portrait and hacks it with a knife, telling her that he sold the real one to keep them afloat. “Everything we did was a lie!” he screams. “All of our relationship is a lie!” Just as things grow fierier between the two, Tiana makes her way to the door with Prince as Hakeem follows insisting she give him his kids back. As their respective arguments turn into one cacophony of chaos, young Bella walks in waving a gun saying “look what I found!” As the four adults urge Bella to put the gun down, she curiously turns the gun toward herself as we…cut to black.
Well, that’s certainly a way to end an episode. If these last five minutes are any indication, I may need an oxygen tank to get through the fall finale. Until then, roar on.