“We? You mean me. This is mine. I built this.” — Lucious Lyon.
Lucious Lyon isn’t a good person, but he’s the head of the Lyon family and the founder of the family business. This one contradiction is the source of most of Empire’s dramatic tension. Lucious can afford to mistreat his sons, and to ignore his ex-wife’s advice, because he’s the source of it all. He’s the king, and this is his empire.
But as “Sins of the Father” makes clear, Lucious didn’t do that much more than anyone else to make the business happen. Cookie put up the money (and went to jail for it); Vernon keeps the books; the IPO was Andre’s idea; and Jamal and Hakeem have more than enough talent between the two of them. Lucious imagines that he has the right to make everyone’s business his own because he’s the Lyon family’s father figure, but as tonight’s episode makes clear, he has no right to that privilege. “Sins of the Father” is as much an adrenaline-filled thrill ride—like any Empire episode—as it is a takedown of the patriarchy, a big middle finger to the powerful men like Lucious who see everyone else’s work as secondary to their own.
To that point, Empire simply turns to reveal all the ways that people who aren’t Lucious work just as hard, or harder, than he does, without as many of the privileges. The show’s developed a Glee-like sympathy for the marginalized, though it’s less interested in asking for sympathy. Instead, Empire likes to prove that the people who tend to be (wrongly) written off are often the most resilient and even powerful. Through a lot of hard work, Lucious has secured some recognition in the eyes of the business world (another entity with an ever less sympathetic way of dealing with people from outside its borders), but he has little ability to recognize how his rules can be just as damaging as anyone else’s. If you want a better model, look to Cookie and Jamal, two characters whom Empire celebrates for their ability to break through glass ceilings and to be open-minded about the ways those ceilings might be at different heights for other people.
To that point, tonight’s episode opens with the Lyon family gathered at a medical clinic to help Andre. A team of therapists—including Michelle White (Jennifer Hudson)—talks the family through the possible ways to treat Andre’s bipolar disorder, which flared up last week. Lucious’ seat is empty. In a flashback, we learn that he was a lot more interested his career—a.k.a. in singing with Mary J. Blige—than he was in supporting his son when Andre first had a breakdown in college. Then, as now, Lucious refused to let anyone tell him his son had a mental illness. He thinks Andre has the ability to will it away.
Still, Empire takes Andre’s mental illness seriously. These are not, as Cookie initially claims, “white people problems.” As a result, Andre’s becoming better defined as a character. After witnessing the kind of verbal abuse Lucious leveled at him and Rhonda, even in the early days of their relationship, it’s easier to understand how the two could develop such a grudge against him and become so obsessed with running the company. There’s a discrepancy between the humorous way the pair was introduced earlier in the season (see Rhonda’s blow job bib), and the seriousness with which the show takes them now, but even if Andre and Rhonda are less of a punch line, they’re a lot more interesting to watch. Also, in treatment, Andre gets a chance to listen to some predictably stunning belting from Michelle. It doesn’t cure Andre, so Michelle gets up close and personal and asks him to pray.
Back at his office, Lucious meets with Vernon to divvy up the Empire’s shares among the rest of the family. He has a plan to make things right with Cookie by giving her more control of the company, after which he expects her to want to get back with him. His plan to marry Cookie and then raise Lola (remember her? She’s Jamal’s daughter) together.
Little does Lucious know that Cookie’s not about to serve him any of her nookies right now because she’s starting a romance with Malcolm, the security guard. “I’ve been disloyal to my commander by falling for his wife,” Malcolm tells Cookie, as if he’s quoting the bodice ripping romance novels you just know she was reading in prison.
Hakeem, meanwhile, is planning to redo his look with the help of Camilla. He does his best Blue Steel for her camera, before bringing the collection of snapshots as well as Camilla to the big IPO meeting with mom and dad at Lucious’ mansion. Hakeem also takes the chance to perform one of his new songs for Lucious and Cookie, “Nothing But a Number,” an ode to dating older women. Cookie and Lucious are definitely not feeling the vibe.
After the performance, Lucious corners Camilla in his office and attempts to buy her away from Hakeem. Camilla refuses Lucious’ money, but he still has Malcolm escort her away from the premises and tells Hakeem that she did take his bribe. Lucious has found yet another way to mess up his sons’ relationships under the pretense that father knows best.
In other news, Jamal’s decided to give the bulk of his attention to his daughter, Lola, by writing a song just for her. He tells his director boyfriend, Ryan, that he wants to be a good father to his daughter, even if that means creating a wedge in their relationship (Ryan’s not into fatherhood, that would conflict with his whole vibe, which appears to center on filmmaking and having a cute accent).
Remember Olivia, Lola’s mother? She’s also back this week, and she brings her abusive boyfriend, Reg, in tow. Reg wants to use Olivia to get to Lola, so he maneuvers her into a meeting with Vernon, who’s feeling down in the dumps after Lucious left him hanging (emotional support- and fist bump-wise). Vernon’s also relapsed into cocaine usage. This means he’s all the more susceptible to Olivia and Reg’s entreaties, and so agrees to take them to Lucious’ mansion.
NEXT: Show down at the 18,000-square-foot mansion…
When Jamal tells Lola he wants to be her father full-time, earlier in the episode, she tells him that she’s afraid of a “scary bird.” When Reg arrives at Lucious’ mansion, Cookie notices a pretty scary drawing of a crow on Reg’s arm. Jamal realizes that Reg’s not the good boyfriend he might pretend to be, and asks Olivia if he’s threatening her. She nods. He jumps to action, and then Reg pulls a gun.
The resulting standoff quickly turns into a high-octane episode of Maury, when Lucious breaks under pressure and announces that Lola is in fact his daughter. He paid Olivia to marry Jamal while Lucious was himself sleeping with her. After a revelation like that, there’s not a person in the room (and maybe even the audience) who doesn’t at least half want Reg to shoot Lucious, but then Malcolm, hero that he is, saves the day and puts a bullet through Reg’s head.
The next day, Jamal and the rest of the family (including Andre) say goodbye to Lola, who’s going to stay with Olivia now that she’s safe from Reg. Lola proves to be a spot of sunshine and pure goodness, and she even gets Andre to break into a smile, but Empire also celebrates Olivia’s strength, and how she had to find a way to deal with an abusive boyfriend. Olivia reveals that she left Lola with Jamal because she couldn’t think of anywhere else that she would be safe. Cookie responds with the kind of wisdom that got her through jail: “You left your baby to save her. There’s nothing harder than that.” Power, in Empire’s world, often shows itself in a character’s ability to make the choice that goes against what she or he actually wants.
Lucious tries to convince Cookie to get back together with him, but she’s less interested in his advances than she ever has been. Lucious plays up the father card (“we conceived all of this,” he tells her), but she sees right through his act. “You just don’t want to die alone,” she tells him, before leaving him alone in an empty room (and an empty shot, in a rare directorial flourish).
Of course, Cookie knows that she can do better. After leaving Lucious’ office, she heads straight for Malcolm and tells him she wants some alone time. As Lucious says earlier in the episode, “Whatever Cookie wants, Cookie gets.”
Wait, how was the music?
Even in the midst of all the action, Empire brought out a pretty full set-list tonight. Jamal had his ode to the girl he thinks is his daughter, “Lola” (which was best as an a cappella cover, performed by him and Hakeem). Hakeem had his love letter to older women, “Nothing But a Number,” which came with the cringe-inducing line, “the older the berry, the sweeter the juice.” Lucious even got in on the action, dueting on “Shake Down” with the real Mary J. Blige. The real winner, of course, was Jennifer Hudson, a.k.a. music therapist Michelle White, who brought the house down with “Remember the Music.”
The notion of the “Sins of the father” passing down the next generation is a pretty common Biblical idea. It also appears in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice act 3 scene 5, as Launcelot tells Jessica (the daughter of the persecuted Jewish Shylock) that “the sins of the father / are to be laid upon the children” and encourages her to run away with him. The notion of escaping the cycle of generational angst created by a misguided father works well for the episode, and you could imagine each of the Lyon children wishes, as Launcelot tells Jessica to wish, that his father “got [him] not.”
Also, props to Jamal for correcting Hakeem when Hakeem insists that his love for Camilla is like Antony’s love for Cleopatra: “Y’all know that’s a tragedy where they end up dying at the end, right?”
Notes, quotes, and observations: