Lucious sets his sights on an unruly talent. Cookie coaches Tianna.

By Jackson McHenry
March 19, 2015 at 03:55 PM EDT
Chuck Hodes/Fox
S1 E4
  • TV Show

“False Imposition” opens with a shot that looks upward at Lucious, as he grumbles in exasperation, “I’m gonna ask you one more time: What do you want?”

As the next shot reveals, Lucious is ranting to Hakeem, who jokes about getting some girls and making a music video. Unlike Jamal, he’s got a few new songs written and he figures, hey, fame? Why not? But the thing that’s bugging Lucious is that the desire for fame—or just for hot music video girls—isn’t an emotion that produces good music. Good comes from wanting. Isn’t there something, Lucious really demands, that you really want to say?

Empire‘s spent its first three episodes ragging on about authenticity, about being real. A good artist, in this show’s mind, has a way of connecting their desires to larger things. They feel in exceptional ways, and they can communicate that feeling. That’s the thing that makes Jamal’s music so good, that pulled Lucious out of poverty, that Hakeem has but can’t quite figure out how to tap. But this week, as Empire settled in for the season—and started to lay out a few longer arcs—the show also turned to ponder the difficulty of being truly authentic.

Though it was small, Jamal’s plot this week, in which he’s moved to Bushwick and is suffering from what Cookie deems a “mental artsy brain fart,” did the best job of capturing that problem. Jamal wants to make music on his own terms, but he’s lost his inspiration. In a fascinating scene, he wanders around the neighborhood, listening to people fight, have sex, gamble, and basically live their lives. On one hand, this is a perfect example of poverty tourism. Jamal’s a spoiled brat, and if he’s going to make music inspired by other people’s “misfortune,” he’s basically exploiting them. Jamal’s moment of inspiration feels real, but it’s also supposed to ring false. Is he moving closer to some “real” version of himself? Or is he just making up another persona?

The show feels richer for not resolving those questions, and Jamal’s plot then informs the rest of the drama spinning around the Lyon family. From Cookie to Lucious, they all spend their time demanding that each other be real, or true to themselves, or honest. But “False Imposition” makes clear is that those demands are nearly impossible to fulfill. Lucious’ anger is as much directed at Hakeem as it is at himself: Why can’t I know what I want? When did I lose the ability to know that?

Lucious, in typical bad-parenting style, tries to kickoff Hakeem’s artistic inspiration by denying his son tickets to see a show by Titan, a rap genius. Instead, Lucious gives his tickets to Becky, who happily goes to the show, where she witnesses Titan shoot another man in a gunfight. Titan’s quickly sent to jail.

Lucious and Anika then have a powwow over what to do about Titan. Titan’s a true genius—”the most authentic artist since Tupac,” Empire deals only in superlatives—but he’s also under contract with Billy Beretti at Creedmoor, the rival label that snatched up Kid Fo-Fo last week. Lucious really wants to sign Titan. At first, Anika doesn’t understand why, but then he reveals his ALS diagnosis. In one of Empire‘s trademark creepy-and-cute moments, Anika then tries to comfort Lucious by shaving him.

Meanwhile Cookie, the grand purveyor of truth, shade, and all that is right in the Empire universe, starts to build her own corner of the Empire label. This week, she pulls Tianna into her orbit. Tianna’s feeling like Anika’s too much of a suit, and she’s wants some real advice on her music. Cookie listens to Tianna’s sample, a moment which gives Taraji P. Henson the occasion to give Tianna a delicious, devilish look across her desk as she ponders, “Is this girl worth saving?” Luckily for Tianna, Cookie decides to sign her.

In Empire’s next board meeting, Cookie arrives in a purple boa and announces that she’ll be managing Tianna now, thank you. Anika’s flustered, but it doesn’t matter, there are bigger things to attend to. Lucious announces that he wants to sign Titan. Anika says she’ll go to jail to try to convince Titan to sign with Empire, which just makes Cookie laugh at the idea of Anika trying to win over someone as real as Titan.

NEXT: It’s tea time for Cookie, and Takeem for Hakeem…

Lucious and Anika then spend their time trying to coach Tianna and Hakeem (or, to use their fake relationship’s fake name, “Takeem”) into being a better couple. As Lucious explains in his apartment, Empire’s booked a set for the two of them at the Teen Choice Awards—fitting, because Tianna appears to be wearing a pair of overalls at the moment—and the two need to come up with a duet. Tianna’s onboard, but first she has to text her manager, Cookie. Anika is none too pleased about that.

But the thing with Cookie, is that she knows music, and in Empire‘s terms, that’s because she knows real pain. After visiting Jamal in his new, downmarket apartment in Bushwick, she dons a headscarf and decides to stop in for tea with Titan’s mother. Titan, it turns out, comes from a devout Nation of Islam family, but Cookie’s visit is more about appealing to a mother’s sympathies than her dress code. In a touching moment, Cookie play acts a sob story about how hard it was to spend all that time in jail away from her kids and then realize how true that story really is. Titan’s mother then reaches out and offers the kind of hard advice Cookie needs to hear: “It’s not fair, but it’s called being a mother, ain’t it?” She also passes on a few tidbits of useful information: 1) The man who Titan shot attacked the community center where the rapper first learned to perform, 2) Billy Beretti lured Titan away from the Nation. If two things are sacred in Empire, they’re music and family. Titan’s lost both of those.

Anika and Lucious’ attempt to woo Titan is a lot less successful than Cookie’s. They plan a visit with his managers, who are also his blood cousins, but Anika proves to be terrible at talking to people who aren’t debutantes. Things take a turn for the worse when one of Titan’s managers says that the man he shot was a gangster. Before there’s time to process that, a car drives by, and bullets rain into the diner. Anika got a lot more than she bargained for.

Cookie returns to talk to Lucious about her meeting with Titan’s mother. She thinks she might have a way in, but wants Lucious to know about Titan’s involvement in the Nation. The Nation killed Lucious’ father, and Cookie wants him to remember the risk of bringing them back into his life. Lucious’ twisted ideas of fatherhood do seem like they might have developed from someone who never had a chance to have a real model, but the revelation, so far, falls flat (do we need another plot about Lucious’ dark past?). Luckily, Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Hensons’ chemistry more than saves the scene, which ends up becoming a tacit apology from Lucious to Cookie about how he abandoned her in jail. Lucious says that he did things in order to make sure Cookie had all this stuff. Cookie sighs, “This material stuff?” No, she tells him, “You just left me twisting in the wind.”

Cookie’s words get to Lucious, because he finally steps up to Hakeem and tells him that he has to get his act together. To do so, he has to listen to his mother. He sends Hakeem over to talk to Cookie. When we see Lucious next, he’s at the “depression” stage of “realizing your ex-wife is right about you being a scumbag.” He’s hanging in Leviticus with Vernon, trying to drink his sorrows away. Suddenly, Billy Beretti (yes! That’s Judd Nelson of The Breakfast Club) appears from the crowd. It turns out that Beretti used to manage Lucious. And Lucious complains that Beretti, who has no talent, gave himself credit on Lucious’ songs. Anyway, Beretti takes nothing from Lucious and instead delivers a whole “mess with the bull” speech. If Lucious goes for an IPO, Beretti will reveal all his dark secrets.

NEXT: And the Teen Choice Award for most mother issues goes to…! 

Beretti’s threats only reinforce Lucious’ convictions, however, and he decides to go speak to Titan in prison. Lucious’ charm is enough to get through maximum security, and he manages to land a tête-à-tête with Titan himself. The conversation turns to authenticity. Titan talks about how Beretti’s the devil, and how Lucious seems just as bad—Titan also asks if Lucious has killed a man, and he just smiles. Anyway, Lucious says that, even though he doesn’t support the Nation, he’ll put up the money to rebuild the community center, if Titan signs with Empire. Lucious also gives Titan a cell phone with which he can use to start recording music, because famous people can do whatever they want in a prison.

While Lucious has his little moment of modesty, Hakeem is humbled in his own way. He blows off dinner with Tianna and his mom for some sexy time with Camilla, a.k.a. “his momma,” as he said last episode. Hakeem complains that everyone wants him to be what they want him to be. Camilla recommends that he read The 48 Laws of Power, which helped her through the criticism of her 2009 spring collection for some reason. But before that’s explained, Tianna walks back into Hakeem’s apartment to catch her beau mid-bubble bath. Camilla says what we all were thinking: “I can’t believe you gave that little girl the keys to your apartment, Hakeem. Amateur!”

Anyway, Tianna’s a professional, so when Hakeem finally does show up to the Teen Choice Awards, she’s mostly mad at him for bailing on their meeting with his mom. She doesn’t really care about his thing with Camilla, which hopefully means that Tianna has her own boy on the side—she definitely deserves it. Anyway, the whole guilt thing’s gotten to Hakeem, and he and Tianna proceed to rock Leviticus. Afterward, Cookie catches up to Hakeem and tries to communicate with him. “I think you do know I love you, don’t you?” she asks him. “Let me think, I don’t know.” But for once, Cookie swallows her pride—and his shade—and doesn’t blow up at her son. Progress!

“False Imposition” ends with another fantastic Lucious and Cookie scene, in which Lucious smiles and laughs at Hakeem and Tianna’s performance at Leviticus and Cookie points out that she gets the credit for it, and for getting Titan to sign with Empire. She points at a newspaper article praising Lucious and laughs, “that headline should read, ‘Cookie strikes back.'” It’s clear they’ve found a grove. Lucious looks longingly at Cookie as she sashays out of the room. He might not know it, but that emotion’s not anything false.

Wait, how was the music?

“False Imposition” was light on solos, but it made up for it with an extended sequence built around Hakeem and Tianna’s performance of “Keep It Movin.'”  Empire has a bad habit of cutting away from its songs too quickly and not letting the characters speak through the moment, but here, it let Tianna and Hakeem (and Serayah McNeill and Yazz) relax in their performance, and let the music speak for itself. Tianna’s Black Swan-level glitter-glam eye makeup and gold, Zenon Girl of the 21st Century boots were just window dressing.

Notes, quotes, and other observations:

— This week’s ranking of Cookie’s outfits: 4) The relatively simple blue and back dress she wears to the Teen Choice Awards. 3) The also simple, red and black dappled dress she wears while talking to Lucious about the price of fame, etc. 2) The fashionable and yet modest headscarf-accented outfit she wears to meet with Titan’s mother. 1) That purple feather boa she wears in the boardroom.

— In boring murder stuff news: Detective Walker checks back in with Lucious and asks for an alibi the night of Bunkie’s death. Lucious freaks out and lies about being home, but Andre, remembering all the times he covered for his dad as a kid, confirms his alibi, and adds that he was at home with Lucious then, too. So now Lucious knows that Andre knows that something was up. Also, Andre seems to have gone back on Vernon, who helped him egg Lucious toward Bunkie’s murder back in the pilot.

— A Becky update: Becky came up with the idea to bring a phone to Titan in jail, and now, Lucious promises her that she can shadow him in the future. Yay for Becky!

— Empire‘s gotten into a bad habit of trying to use ominous background music to build suspense artificially, often before a character has said or done anything shocking.

— Lucious, on the Nation of Islam: “Nothin’ but racist views.” Cookie: “And? So is America.”

Share your invitations to tea and other thoughts with me on Twitter at @McHenryJD or sound off in the comments.

Lee Daniels and Danny Strong created this Fox drama about a kingpin of hip-hop (played by Terrence Howard) and his family, who fight him for control of the empire.
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