Empire recap: The past is always present
Tonight’s episode opens as elusively as the premiere did, with Lucious holding vigil in front of that closed casket. We’ll have to wait a good while before we know just who’s in it, but Lucious isn’t alone for long. Becky sits next to him in the pew and whispers, “You couldn’t have known.”
We move onto happier times as Lucious and Cookie are in the studio with their newest find, Treasure. The Lyons are confident they’ve got a radio hit on their hands with her first single, but with their family label only in its early days, they’ll have to take on promo duties themselves. “What you need is two hitmen that’s willing to die for you and kill for you,” Lucious assures Treasure as he and Cookie move toward their promise of making her a star.
Meanwhile, in Empire-land, Giselle is so confident she’ll go from interim CEO to permanent CEO she got a new couch for her office. “You gotta claim what’s yours,” she tells Becky as the announcement approaches. Too bad her Silicon Valley boy-toy Jeff Kingsley claimed her job as CEO right under her nose. She keeps up a team player facade in front of everyone, but the damage she does to her office after learning the news says it all. After stabbing her couch with a knife (and drinking her birthday vodka right out the bottle), Giselle promises she’ll “nail Jeff Kingsley to the wall.” Knowing what she made of Eddie’s ashes, I wouldn’t be sure this was a figure of speech.
With Hakeem and his entourage turning Jamal’s apartment into a den of pot, booze, and guns, he and Kai (quietly seething in the kitchen) have had enough. Soon, Jamal throws the group out and drags his little brother off the couch to sober up as they have business to discuss. Lucious is a guest on Sway’s radio show, and while he’s there to talk about the new label and play Treasure’s single, all Sway wants to know about is how he lost Empire. Lucious initially keeps the company line that after 20 years it was time to try something new, but when Sway brings up the streets talking about how he let Eddie “guerrilla your whole company,” Lucious storms off the interview. He chides the show’s producer afterward saying they had a deal to go on the show and play Treasure’s track, not rehash his past. “You had an opportunity to break the next Whitney Houston,” Lucious tells the producer as he walks off. “You lost it.”
Back in their mansion, Cookie is ready to fight Lucious’ battle with the radio show via Twitter, but he tells her to go back in the studio with Treasure. In the meantime, he’s going to meet with a past connection in college radio to get the single some air time. Cookie’s impressed enough with Lucious’ resolve to give him a kiss, but when he wants more she reminds him they live in an oven and that it’s “too hot for all that.” When she’s in the studio, however, Treasure’s nowhere to be found, and there’s another act waiting in the wings to use it. Unable to reach her lone artist, Cookie pulls the plug on the session in frustration. Meanwhile, in prison, Andre tries to stand up for Quincy (a younger prisoner he knows is innocent) when he’s getting slapped and assaulted by other prison toughs. Andre stands up ready for a fight, but a friend tells him he can’t risk his freedom now that he’s about to be released. Knowing how close he is to getting out, Andre angrily steps away.
Not taking Treasure’s no-show lying down, Cookie drives up to her housing project to confront her. About to head off to her social worker day job, Treasure says she can’t give up a job that pays her bills and provides her healthcare and a pension for the often-unpredictable dream of being a singer. Cookie then shares the story of how her father wept when she said she’d be leaving to pursue a career in music, but didn’t live to see how she took all of his lessons to heart and used them to become a success. “I see greatness in you, sis,” Cookie tells Treasure. “You call me when you see it in yourself.” With those words, she walks away from her only artist … for now, at least.
Hakeem and Jamal visit Andre in prison only to be interrupted by a group of prisoners known as the Yard Boys, who decide to do an impromptu visiting room performance for the brothers. After politely dismissing the trio, the three go back to pressing family matters like Hakeem’s resentment of Andre for killing Anika. With tensions high between the youngest and oldest Lyons, it’s left to Jamal to play mediator. Telling his brothers that he’ll soon be moving back in London, Jamal tells Andre and Hakeem that they’ll have to patch things up soon because Lucious and Cookie need them to be a united front once Andre gets out. Hakeem has no interest in this, however, laying into Andre for leaving his daughter motherless without remorse before storming out of the visiting room. Tiana has a meeting at Empire with Kingsley and Becky as they assure her Eddie’s blackballing of her died with him. The two are eager to embrace her new life as a mother, offering on-site daycare for Prince and Bella as she records new music. “Show me who you really are,” Kingsley tells Tiana. “I believe the music will flow from there.”
Lucious meets with the local university radio station to get Treasure’s single some airtime, but the two students running the station decline citing their “curated” playlist. Not taking no for an answer, Lucious offers them an exclusive interview on the meaning of one of his classic (and elusive) songs, “A Child is Born.” The students agree, and Lucious does the interview, explaining that the song is about the daughter he and Cookie lost and how he wishes he could have brought Cookie to the hospital in time to possibly save the baby. It’s a brief monologue as Lucious brings the topic back to Treasure and the radio debut (at last) of her single. As it plays, the student hosts prove enthusiastic to the new sound as Lucious offers a slight smile. This scene, though somewhat rushed, proves to be almost a fitting metaphor for the Lyons’ current state. As they build their future, the past always seems to linger behind them.
With Treasure’s single now the most requested track on the college station, Lucious and Cookie head over to a dinner reservation only to find Giselle’s taken it for herself and is joined by Treasure. Giselle reveals that Treasure is now with Empire, which understandably angers the Lyons. Cookie tells Treasure that she’s worth more than anything Giselle could offer and that her talents would be underserved at Empire. Treasure shades Cookie by saying that while recording in their living room was “cute,” Empire has the resources she needs to be a star. Lucious shoots back that they’ll sue her for breaching her contract with the Lyons, only for Giselle to throw their current fortunes back at them by saying they don’t have the time or money to enter any legal war. After declining Giselle’s offer to buyout Treasure’s contract, the two walk away back to square one.
After playing a love song at the piano, Jamal tells Kai that he’ll have to stay in New York for three months to help his family out with the new label. While he says that their lives and home will always be in London, Jamal asks Kai to stay with him in the meantime. While Kai, a war correspondent, is worried about finding work in the city, he ultimately agrees to stay with a kiss. Back in prison, Andre and his inmates are having a movie night (because you can never see My Cousin Vinny enough) when Quincy gets cornered once again. Andre tries to play peacemaker, offering the prison tough guy everything in his locker, including his burner phone, if he leaves Quincy alone. The tough guy backs away but steps up to Andre, saying that he’ll take everything while he’s still here, including Quincy (whom he calls “princess”). Before the two can fight, the guards finally do their job and break up the proceedings.
Dejected after losing Treasure, Lucious and Cookie go back to the muggy mansion and are greeted by a call from Kingsley asking for a meeting. Over wings at a diner, Kingsley tells Lucious and Cookie he wants to bring Empire back to its roots and offers the Lyons chairman and chairwoman emeritus titles. It’s a sizable check for making a couple of appearances for shareholders, and most importantly, it would get Lucious’ visage back on the Empire logo. “Please come home,” Kingsley urges them.
Elsewhere, Jamal and Kai join Becky and a couple of Kai’s journalist friends for brunch in the hopes to find new work opportunities. Things get a little awkward as one of them shades Kai for leaving the tough work behind for a relationship, but when an NYC-based project about child trafficking in Mogadishu pops ups in conversation, Kai is eager to take it on. When Jamal expresses uneasiness about him being so quick to take the gig when he was so down on staying in NYC earlier, Kai tells him that he knows Jamal’s history of being hurt in past relationships and he won’t be another man that ends up betraying his trust.
Over at Empire HQ, an armed and drunk Hakeem is prevented from entering the building, even after reminding security that his family built the company. Tiana walks in just as the guards discover he’s carrying a weapon and they try to restrain him before she tells them to let him go. Tiana calls Hakeem out for being drunk while he’s screaming to see his kids, ultimately telling him to leave the building.
Back at the prison, Andre wraps his torso in some type of duct tape contraption and finally gets into a bloody brawl with the prison toughs before guards come and take him and the fellow brawlers away. Finishing his second bottle of cognac this episode, Hakeem is confronted by his parents who tell him that he needs to get help. Lucious says he senses Hakeem is afraid that he won’t live up to his talents pre-shooting and tells him that he and Cookie have been through loss and heartache before but never let it define them. Cookie asks Hakeem to come home for a couple of days to sort himself out, and he agrees. But not before grabbing his gun, because one loving speech isn’t gonna solve EVERYTHING. It’s after this moment with Hakeem that Cookie tells Lucious they’re taking Kingsley’s deal and the financial security it provides. “Our family needs us,” she says as he holds her husband’s hand.
Things are (almost) back to normal in the Lyon mansion as fans are finally plugged in, Juanita is back making breakfast, and Jamal’s joined Hakeem as a houseguest to make sure his brother stays on the straight and narrow. Lucious and Cookie sit next to their sons and announce they’ll be returning to Empire, only to find a less than enthusiastic audience to the news. Cookie silences the criticism quickly before Lucious announces there’ll be a “welcome back” party for them at Empire tonight and they want Jamal and Hakeem to come with them “as a family.” And like any family function, they have no choice but to attend. As the Lyons enter the party in their honor, they’re startled by all the newness in the headquarters they started. Nothing symbolizes this more than Lucious’ long throne becoming essentially a museum display as Kingsley introduces it to onlookers as a tribute to “the old days.” Kingsley continues to rub Lucious the wrong way by later going on a spiel about how Empire’s artists are only there to contribute to the company’s bottom line. Lucious responds by telling him that he created Empire because he loved his artists and the music they created. “I love those babies,” he passionately tells Kingsley. “They are the bottom line of this place; they’re the purpose behind it. Now if you don’t understand that, how in the world can you and me be working together?” Kingsley turns the tables at this moment, telling Lucious that if he and Cookie don’t accept his terms for the deal and rejoin Empire, he’ll announce they’re “broke, they’re old, and they’re done” in front of all the press and guests at the party.
Just as Kingsley’s ultimatum hits him, Lucious hears the announcement of a performance from “Empire’s latest musical discovery”: Treasure. Surrounded by shirtless backup dancers and dressed in only the finest chainmail couture, she performs the first song she recorded with Cookie and Lucious to an enthusiastic audience. Meanwhile, Giselle confronts Kingsley (who she calls “a Backstreet Boy with a laptop”) on stealing the CEO job she feels she deserves, but this tongue-lashing takes a turn when he tells her there’s still a role for her in Empire as his “right hand.” She doesn’t immediately answer, but it’s clear she’s not leaving the company until it’s back in her control. As Treasure’s performance wraps, Kingsley introduces the Lyons in front of the packed crowd, only for no one to come on stage as Kingsley holds a bedazzled microphone fit for a king. The party quiets down as Lucious makes his fashionably late entrance on stage, soon to be joined by the rest of his family. He asks Cookie and the crowd if they trust him as he (and the crowd) take seats on the platform and floor, telling the crowd that he’s “broke as hell.” Lucious says they spent every penny fighting to get their company back, but those days are over, and it’s time to look toward the future. However, that future doesn’t include them being a part of Empire.
“Record labels like this one are nothing but dinosaurs, and Jeff Kingsley is nothing but a number-cruncher who has no respect for the musicians or the music they produce,” Lucious tells the stunned crowd as he brings up Kingsley’s earlier comments about artists as spoiled babies. Lucious then makes a bold offer to the artists assembled: leave the bottom-line-obsessed Empire and join the Lyons where the artists and the music will be put first. As the Lyons walk off to a standing ovation, Kingsley tells Lucious he’s made a big mistake. “But it feels so right,” Lucious replies, as we flash forward to him back at the chapel, watching pallbearers usher that mysterious casket out of the church. Thirsty walks in and tells him the limo is out front, but before they can leave the church, FBI agents come in and tell the two men they need to talk to Lucious now. What does Lucious know about the circumstances behind the mysterious death? How much closer are we to finding out the casualty’s identity? Have the Lyons said goodbye to Empire forever? We’re still a ways away from some of these answers, but these first two episodes of season 5 have set a unique and fascinating path to follow.