After last week’s touching and informative episode, Empire delivers another strong hour that sees this season’s continued focus on the Lyons pay off. With a good measure of emotion, intrigue, and comedy, we see every member of the Lyon family face their complicated ties with friends, rivals, and each other.
Still smarting over Blake taking credit for his lyrics (and possibly taking Tiana too), Hakeem gives his all in the studio as Lucious tells a flirty Cookie that the creative fire in their son is back. Cookie, however, is more concerned about the lack of sleep and hygiene that comes with said creative fire and tells Lucious to make sure Hakeem doesn’t fall back on old habits. Another concern of Cookie’s is the lack of artists at Lyon Family Management, so she challenges Lucas to improve business with both professional and … personal benefits. “Whoever brings in the first artist gets on top tonight,” she says over breakfast the next morning. Soon, Thirsty gives Lucious some dirt on Carlito’s manager, who’s gambled away everything he has except for Carlito. Thirsty’s managed to get Lucious a seat in the manager’s poker game, but the catch is there’s a $500,000 buy-in. Though Lucious has nowhere near that amount of money, he looks over at a painting of him and Cookie and knows what he has to do next. “What good is a little poker without a little bluffing?” he asks himself.
Newly-engaged lovebirds Jamal and Kai are loved up on the couch when Jamal gets some texts from bestie Becky confirming plans for a friends’ night. Kai, wanting some alone time with his fiancé, believes it’s time to set some new rules, saying that if she stays over too long he may have to get naked and take Jamal to bed himself. Jamal waves off the concerns with a kiss, but it’s clear this won’t be the last we hear of this. Meanwhile, Cookie and Porsha throw an impromptu open audition in Harlem’s Riverside Park (the kickoff of “Five Boroughs in Five Days”, as Cookie calls it) complete with Queen Lyon taking a cue from Lady Gaga‘s A Star is Born press tour. “You don’t need everybody to believe in you,” Cookie tells the crowd lining up. “All you need is one somebody, and she’s standing right here in front of you.” And in the time it took for them to throw these auditions, Lucious has come up with the money to get in the poker game by selling that special painting from earlier (a wedding gift we find out). As Thirsty spells out the basics of the game and the Chechen mobsters and Hollywood heartthrobs that play it, one important question is on Lucious’ mind. “You think I need a new suit?” Sounds like he’s ready to put it all on the line to sign Carlito.
Back at the Harlem auditions, Porsha steps from behind the makeshift desk to help warm up her cousin Big City’s audition and seems to steal the spotlight. Immediately after, a woman named Elizabeth cuts in front of the line wanting to talk to Cookie. As Elizabeth offers her hand to Cookie, she introduces herself as Maya’s mother (the woman who raised her after she was taken from Poundcake after birth). Over at Empire, Giselle and Becky are in the studio with the Three Black Divas as they’re recording a new single. However, when twerpy buzzkill Kingsley walks in, he tells Giselle and Becky to stop trying to chase yesterday’s sound with the “Three Bland Decrepits”. The two stand up for the Three Black Divas, but Kingsley tells Giselle that the data (again with the data) shows they’re an unprofitable act and he’s dropping them from Empire. Meanwhile, Hakeem, cheered on by his entourage in the studio, is ready to drop his latest track: a diss track directed right at his new rival, Blake. “Upload it,” he tells one of his crew after listening to the song.
It’s time for Jamal and Becky’s get-together and a onesie-clad Becky walks in just as Jamal’s taking off his engagement ring. He tells her that he may have to cut their night short as he’d promised Kai some couple time. Becky takes her snacks and is ready to bolt but Jamal stops her at the door and backtracks, asking her to stay.
Dressed in a crisp white suit, Lucious walks into the poker game to find that he’s not the only new player joining the game. Enter Damon Cross (the always welcome Wood Harris), who immediately makes his presence known by declaring himself a “gamechanger.” Cookie visits Maya’s apartment to tell her about her mother’s concerns over the video of her smoking pot. Maya says Elizabeth’s only angry because she can’t control her life anymore, but adds that she didn’t post the video. As Cookie wonders how to fix the situation, Maya’s boyfriend Evan walks in and Cookie takes time to quiz the young man about his intentions and background. As Cookie leaves the apartment she promises to keep in touch with Maya and tells Evan to stop posting videos on Snapchat “because it’s stupid, obviously.”
As the poker game rolls on, Damon tells the other cautious gamblers that money doesn’t buy them happiness before going all in. After this tangent, Lucious watches on as Carlito’s manager asks the host for $250,000 only to be told this is his final borrow for the night. As Damon proves to have a hot hand, Lucious manages to find out that he’s in money management. “People who need my services, they know I’m the best at what I do,” Damon says as Lucious glances at the manager, who looks to be out of luck right now.
As Becky laments about her frustration with Empire and Kingsley, Jamal (and his deer onesie) is in his own corner giggling by himself. As Becky grabs the bag of gummies from his hand, she reveals that these are actually edibles she takes for her anxiety. Being in recovery and all, Jamal is obviously freaked out and is even more panicked when Kai texts that he’ll be on his way. Jamal implores Becky to hide as he crouches behind the sofa in a goofy fit of physicality, proving that there’s nothing Jussie Smollett isn’t great at (including directing this episode). Soon, Kai walks in to find the two hiding poorly behind said sofa and Jamal panics, saying that Becky’s edibles messed him up and now “all my sobriety chips are gone.” Becky is mad that he threw her under the bus to Kai, but things quickly turn comical as Jamal goes into a stoned rant about how no one knows what it’s like to be him, “a good-looking, sexy as hell R&B god.” Jamal then hands the bag of gummies to Kai, who takes a handful of them himself. “We’re all in this together,” Kai tells Jamal.
Cookie and Porsha return to the Lyon mansion from their Harlem audition only to get a call from Maya, who was arrested for trying to sell drugs for Evan to an undercover cop. Outside the jail after bailing her out, Cookie reads her the riot act for being a “dumb in love” middle-class girl who knows nothing about how the streets work. Ultimately, Maya decides she can’t be with Evan anymore and asks Cookie to help her pack her stuff.
Back at Empire, Giselle walks into Kingsley’s office with some data of her own on Three Black Divas, showing that they sold out their east coast tour, and with the increased interest in the group, they’d be leaving money on the table if they got rid of them. When Kingsley again refuses to hear her out, Giselle realizes it’s not about TBD; instead, it’s all about his mission to destroy the Lyons. Kingsley dismisses her theory as crazy, but as she walks off, we see him distracted by Lucious’ throne on display in his office. As he stares at the throne, Kingsley clutches what looks to be a spiked paperweight so hard his hand drips with blood.
Jamal, Becky, and Kai have an edible-fueled truth-or-dare session, which turns out to be just full of awkward truths, like how Becky’s favorite ex of Jamal’s is Michael, or that Kai put himself through law school as an exotic dancer, or that Kai and Jamal are engaged. Yep, there’s no more awkward way to find out that your bestie is about to get married than through an abrupt, drug-induced reveal while you’re doing the splits on the kitchen counter. Speaking of awkward, Giselle and the Three Black Divas are chopping it over drinks when a tipsy Giselle laments about how Empire will have to drop TBD because of Kingsley’s lack of vision. This leaves the divas blindsided and Brooke (Tisha Campbell) says that all this label discord makes her miss the Lyons because they realized what Three Black Divas could bring to the table. Andre tries to get Hakeem to shower and eat, but he’s too consumed in his rhymes to focus on much else. After hearing his diss track, Andre tries to talk Hakeem into going to see a therapist to deal with his issues but Hakeem’s not having it. “You own the crazy spot in the family,” he tells Andre, who continues to implore him to get help so that he can be a great father to Prince and Bella. Hakeem responds by telling Andre that he didn’t want Bella to grow up motherless like he did, but because of Anika’s death, she will. “Does November 25th mean anything to you?” Andre asks his brother. He tells Hakeem that it was Rhonda’s due date with their son before Anika killed her. Andre then apologizes to Hakeem for the pain he caused by murdering Anika and promises to spend the rest of his life making it up to him and Bella. “Hakeem, I need us to both understand what we’ve been through,” Andre says. “Can you do that?”
Blindsided by the news of Jamal and Kai’s engagement, Becky gets off the counter in a huff and is ready to bolt the apartment. “You really don’t want me here, do you?” she asks when Jamal tells Kai to let her go. Kai insists they both want her to stay but that Jamal’s being stubborn at the moment. After a shove from Kai, Jamal apologizes to Becky, which she accepts but not before admitting one last awkward pot-laced truth: that when Kai went missing, she didn’t feel any emotions, but that if died right this second, she would be sad. Becky then asks Kai for a hug since “we family now,” which quickly turns into a group hug.
Cookie comes to Maya’s apartment ready to grab her things but finds that she’s changed her mind and is staying with Evan. When Maya goes into excuses as to why he couldn’t bail her out, Cookie snaps back by telling her Evan doesn’t truly care about her since he was willing to let her get arrested for his drug deals. Maya then turns things around on Cookie, blaming her for turning her life upside down by introducing her to her real mother, Poundcake. “For one second, Cookie, did you think that maybe me finding out that I’m a product of a jailhouse rape might mess me up?” she asks. Maya tells Cookie that she has her own family problems to fix and shuts the door on her.
Dejected from her encounter with Maya, Cookie returns with Porsha to Harlem to see the lines of people ready to audition for her. With Porsha streaming her live, Cookie takes a seat on the bench and says she doesn’t have all the answers in her own life. “I mean, what do I know?” Cookie asks herself (and the growing number of viewers watching her). “What do I know except music?” She then turns the pity into a pitch, telling the people watching to bring it as her “Five Boroughs in Five Days” auditions will continue. Back at the poker game, it’s finally Lucious’ time to pounce. With Carlito’s manager on the till and close to folding, Lucious makes him an offer: put Carlito’s rights on the pile and however the cards fall, that’s where the artist will land. Ultimately Lucious’ hand wins out, but that’s all irrelevant when a bunch of masked robbers shoot up the room and demand everyone give up their money. Lucious and Damon manage to escape as everyone else is held up, with Damon saying he’s looking forward to seeing what Lyon Family Management has up their sleeves.
But since this is Empire we’re all watching, we’re definitely due a good swerve: turns out the robbery was Thirsty and Lucious’ plan to begin with, so now they have $4,000,000 on top of the rights to Carlito. But that painting Lucious pawned to buy into the game? Turns out the art dealer he dealt it to sold that special painting to a corporate buyer. Thirsty promises to have a printing of the painting made before Cookie notices, but Lucious demands that he find the original immediately. But who could that corporate buyer be? None other than Damon Cross, who enjoys a drink all by himself with the painting of two people he barely knows hanging on his wall. Yeah, this guy is clearly up to no good.
As Cookie looks out at the night skies, she tells Lucious she wonders if they’re moving too fast with LFM. Lucious reassures her that they make their best moves when they rely on their gut. “That’s how and why we get what we want and need from this life,” he says. The next morning Cookie tells Hakeem she’s concerned about the lyrics he’s writing; with Andre looking on, he tells her that he needed to get his emotions out on the page but that he’s good. The doorbell then rings and Lucious opens the door to find Giselle and Brooke waiting with a proposition for the Lyons. “If you want to make some money, you’ll invite us in,” Giselle tells Lucious as the two ladies walk into the mansion. Before we can find out what the proposition is, we get another flash forward to that ever so mysterious funeral. As Thirsty implores the FBI agents not to interrupt Lucious’ time of mourning, one agent presents Lucious with photos of Cookie and Damon Cross smiling and looking very close. While we’re not getting any closer to figuring out who’s in that casket, we are getting yet another piece of how everyone got to that dark day.