'Empire' season finale recap: 'Die But Once' and 'Who I Am'
The best description of Empire’s two-part finale goes to Lucious, who, in describing his own concert, announces that it has to be “epic… like a supernova.” The two-hour spectacular was sublime in the old-fashioned sense of the term, a superhuman phenomenon that’s best appreciated at a distance, like hurricanes, supernovas, and Cookie Lyon.
That isn’t to say that the one-two punch of “Die But Once” and “Who I Am” didn’t have its flaws (hello, sudden misdiagnosis), but that over the course of two hours, Empire proved it was more interested in spectacle than in coherence, and that, in some sense, it’s all the better for it. There’s a certain truth to the fact that everyone in the Lyon family, and especially Lucious, thinks they deserve their own supernova, that they should run the company, that everyone else is just pretending. And there’s a certain kind of action that comes hand in hand with this way of thinking: The only way to shine brighter than the rest is to sacrifice everything and risk blowing yourself up in the process.
In its finale Empire, never quite self-destructed, even as it made the weird choice of rewriting its premise (for that life-changing development regarding Lucious keep reading), but it did prove its interest in old-fashioned stratospheric ambition. The point of music, Lucious argues, at one point, is that it can make you immortal. Empire is fascinated by the temptation to purse that impulse. And perhaps to balance it, the show also talks about the importance of family, of being grounded, of caring for the people who care for you. Tonight’s best scenes came between Cookie and Jamal, and Cookie and Lucious, as the Lyon family’s biggest ego-ed members attempted to reconcile their ambitions with their love for each other. Because in its best moments, Empire’s finale let the two impulses at its core ram against each other. It was big and profound and about the danger of trying to be both big and profound.
“Die But Once” opens with Lucious mid-supposed-ALS attack. He’s trying to work some new music for his concert, but he’s having trouble coming up with anything good. This might be because his sons are all ignoring him—Jamal has an album out, Hakeem’s still mad about the fact that Lucious paid off his girlfriend (he didn’t, but Hakeem doesn’t know that), and Andre’s busy finding God by way of Jennifer Hudson. It also might be because his muse, Cookie, has booked herself a romantic getaway in the Berkshires without Lucious. Cookie, it turns out, is shacking up with Malcolm, the hot head of security, and experiencing some very intense bliss in her first sexual relationship that doesn’t involve Lucious.
Through Porscha, Lucious gets word about his ex-wife’s sex-getaway and decides to take action. He pushes Cookie out of the company—it turns out she was never going to be on the board of directors in the first place, given that convicted felons aren’t allowed to serve on them—and swipes her name from the title of his concert. Cookie’s furious and so is Malcolm. He tells her that he’s going to take a job in security in Washington, D.C. She tells him that, no, she doesn’t want a bit part on Scandal. Instead, she’s going to stay in New York (or rather Chicago, where Empire actually shoots) and fight for her company.
As he’s sabotaging his relationship with Cookie, Lucious also tries to fix his relationship with Hakeem. He even gets Snoop Dogg to call Hakeem up to the stage mid-performance in celebration of Hakeem’s upcoming album. Of course, Hakeem uses the exposure to spin a rap about how Lucious doesn’t care about his family. Later, Lucious thanks Hakeem for the insult by punching him in the face. After burning, and being burned, by his father, Hakeem tells Jamal that he’s going to sign with Billy Beretti at his Anika-infested label, Creedmoor. Jamal tries to tell Hakeem to slow his roll, but it looks like Hakeem might just jump ship.
Like Goldilocks, after going through several unsuitable options, Lucious decides to settle on the son who might be just right. He comes to Jamal’s album release party, apologizes somewhat, and asks for help on crafting new music. Jamal takes Lucious back to their childhood home and makes him confront the bad memories (including the trashcan Lucious dumped him in as a child), but eventually, the two get to making music.
The result is a strange little faux-country song that includes Terrence Howard on the acoustic guitar, but the scene overcomes the eccentricity by emphasizing the connection between Jamal and Lucious. Earlier, in an attempt to win Andre back from the church, Lucious mentions that music fills a void, the kind of void that Andre sees filled by God. Jamal seems like the only Lyon son who sees music the same way that Lucious does. To him, it’s a way of bridging impossibilities. He says, when he was a kid, he used to watch Lucious perform and think, “If I could make music like him, there’s no way in hell this man wouldn’t love me.”
Lucious is really happy to hear the song, but he says that Jamal has to prove that he has a “monster” inside him to get the rights to Empire. To do so, he has to find a way to get the rights to some of the performers for Lucious’ concert back from Beretti (his label’s put out an injunction against Lucious). Jamal does so by closing in on Beretti at a party and holding him over ledge. It’s a little out of character for Jamal, but it’s just the kind of thinking you might expect from someone who’s drunk on Lucious’ promise of power. Beretti agrees to drop the injunction, and with a little encouragement from Lucious himself, Jamal decides not to drop him. Also, at the same party, Lucious notices Hakeem literally in bed with the enemy, hooking up with Anika in a side room. The boy does have some mommy issues.
Anyway, as Cookie’s sister Carol reminds her, all this Lucious business doesn’t matter that much because the monster’s going to die in about three years anyway, right? Nope! Hold the ice buckets! Lucious’ doctor tells him that he has myasthenia gravis (MG) and not ALS. MG is chronic, but he’ll be able to manage. He’s not going to die.
The news of his continued life gives Lucious a super villian-level laugh attack ,and he gets to work being as evil as possible. He visits Andre’s church and snatches up virginal gospel singer slash music therapist Michelle White with a recording contract just to show up his son and prove God isn’t real. Then he takes his insomnia-inducing pills right before bed, just in time for a heady guilt dream courtesy of Bunkie’s ghost as well as a visit from Cookie in real life. As he sleeps, Lucious confesses to Bunkie’s murder, which ticks Cookie off mightily (remember, Bunkie was Cookie’s cousin). So, in the name of family and all that is good, Cookie gets a pillow and places it over Lucious.
Okay. That was hour one. Let’s take a brief water break and meet back in five.
NEXT: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…
Did you get water? Take a few paces around the room? Get a snack? Good. Let’s move onto “Who I Am.”
First order of business: It turns out that Cookie didn’t successfully murder Lucious. She tried, but her heart wasn’t in it—also he reached out his hand, mid-pill dream, and stopped her. Lucious watches the security tapes of his bedroom every morning or something, so he knows what Cookie tried to do.
The clear solution to this level of familial strife is to call a family meeting. In an echo of the pilot, Lucious gathers the three Lyon sons at his house and announces the new future of Empire. Lucious also tells everyone that he’s got MG, so he’s going to be around for the foreseeable future (also the inciting incident of the show is not a thing anymore).
Then, like the Wizard of Oz, Lucious bestows a symbolic gift upon all present. Hakeem receives a necklace that features a pair of golden wings, to symbolize his independence (and also that he’s getting a private jet). Andre gets a golden cross, to symbolize his newfound faith (and also that he’s going to run his own charity). And Jamal doesn’t get gift, for the power to become the next head of Empire Entertainment was inside him all along (actually, that’s not true, Jamal gets a golden scepter thing). Cookie also stops by the party, which means that she gets her own gift: a pillow, to symbolize the fact that he knows what she did.
Jamal is objectively the right choice to lead Empire, but his rise to the top doesn’t make Hakeem or Andre happy. Lucious reveals Cookie’s treachery to Jamal, which puts her at odds with her favorite son. Cookie tries to explain that Lucious killed her cousin, but Jamal’s a lot more sympathetic to the parent who gave him his dream job right now. Lucious pulls Cookie’s name from his concert. “Checkmate, bitch,” he says. Later, continuing the chess metaphor like the super villain he’s become: “Sometimes you gotta be willing to sacrifice your queen to win the game.”
After getting the boot from Lucious and Jamal, Cookie’s dragged into the office by FBI Agent Carter (still not the Marvel one) who asks her if she’s got any information about Lucious killing Bunkie. The FBI has an informant, and they want to start building a case. Cookie considers the offer and has her little flashback to all the jail time she swallowed in Lucious’ name, but she decides that family is more important. “Find yourself another snitch,” she tells Carter.
Hakeem, meanwhile, talks Machiavelli with Anika while working out—it’s like, do you even Prince, bro? Hakeem doesn’t want to give up his right to Empire, so the two decide that the best way to seize control is through a hostile takeover. Anika knows a hostile takeover guy (it’s the essential addition to any double-crossing gold digger’s Rolodex), but she needs Hakeem to rally support among Empire’s shareholders.
Even without Hakeem’s meddling, Jamal is already facing some managerial issues of his own. During a press conference for Lucious’ concert, a rapper on the label, Black Rambo, announces that he refuses to work for a label led by a gay man. Idealist that he is, Jamal decides the best solution to this issue is to track Black Rambo down and challenge him to a rap battle. Rambo delivers a few verses that are pretty okay and then Jamal responds with some falsetto serve that is vocally impressive but probably not admissible in your average non-Empire rap battle. Anyway, he still wins.
Jamal’s attempt to deal with homophobia is also cause for a rift with Andre. When Lucious suggests responding to Black Rambo with a strongly worded letter, Andre points out that it’s not a good idea to stir up drama on the eve of an IPO (if that’s true, somebody should have brought it up 11 episodes ago). A bigger trigger, however, is Andre’s later encounter with Rhonda, who’s had enough of this God-and-Michelle-White business and has decided to move out. The disappointing thing about Andre, she tells him, isn’t that he fell for another woman, it’s that he gave up on his ambition. And maybe it’s the thought of now having to live without that blowjob bib, but suddenly Andre’s ambition comes flowing back.
Cookie, broom in hand (just in case), meets with Hakeem and the two talk about how Lucious did them wrong. Cookie promises to make Hakeem big and suggests building a new home. Hakeem disagrees. He wants to take back Empire together.
Andre, Hakeem, Cookie, and Anika meet up at Hakeem’s apartment and try to forge some sort of partnership against Lucious. This proves difficult, and Cookie and Anika quickly fall back into old ways, which means bickering, then throwing drinks, then punches, then a full-on catfight. To that, Empire really commits. At one point, Anika even announces, “Who’s booboo kitty now, bitch?” (Let’s be honest, it’s still Anika.) Still, the two women prove that they’re semi-emotionally mature adults and once they’re physically torn away from each other, they decide to work together. They agree to sign Anika’s hostile takeover guy’s grandson, who is a terrible rapper, to the label if he agrees to fork over a significant sum to buy shares. All they have to do is catch Lucious in a scandal and they’re good.
In the midst of this plotting, Cookie catches up with Jamal, telling him that, no matter what, she’s there for him. The meeting takes place on the stage of Lucious’ concert, and there’s a great contrast between the brilliant, addictive lighting of the stage and the more subdued tones seen in the flashbacks to Jamal’s visit to Cookie in prison.
Cookie also meets up with Vernon, who is out of rehab and who admits that he also knows about Lucious killing Bunkie. Vernon has been observing Cookie for Lucious, but it seems his loyalties are pretty divided. Next, he heads to Andre’s place and tries to apologize for betraying him. The two start to fight—we’re at that part of the night where Empire decides everyone needs a little physical violence—and the brawl only ends when Rhonda intervenes and hits Vernon over the head with a candlestick. As anyone who has played Clue knows, candlesticks make great murder weapons, so Rhonda manages to kill Vernon. Andre wants to call the police, but Rhonda insists that they won’t understand and that she and Andre should just hide the murder. Also, Rhonda’s pregnant! Murder investigations put too much stress on pregnancies!
NEXT: The IPO, the concert, and the end…
The Lyon family gathers for the big IPO. Everyone’s there except Vernon, and Lucious gets to have his big, green button-pushing moment at the opening of the New York Stock Exchange. Then we cut to the night of Lucious’ concert, where Jamal and Hakeem perform the opening number and Lucious spends some quality time in front of the mirror with his guilt.
The concert brings on a whole cadre of guest stars. Charles Hamilton joins Rita Ora in rehearsals, but Rita drops out when Cookie falls off the concert name (Rita’s #teamCookie, which is the most distinctive thing I know about Rita Ora even as its expected and generic). Juicy J performs with Michelle White, a.k.a. Jennifer Hudson, and Empire gives up the pretense that Michelle is supposed to sing gospel. Finally Patti LaBelle performs with Jamal, and also announces that 10 percent of the proceeds from the concert will go to Black Lives Matter. As expected, the concert is super-big and super over the top.
Backstage, Lucious faces an identity crisis. He confesses to Jamal that his birth name was “Dwight Walker,” and that he changed it as kid because he knew that he’d never make it with a name like that. His whole goal, in making himself into Lucious Lyon, was to become immortal, to create something that would extend beyond himself.
Before Lucious can make it to the stage, however, Agent Carter breaks through the door and arrests him for Bunkie’s murder. The FBI drags Lucious from the building. Cookie tries to tell Lucious that she’s not the snitch, but he and Jamal seem to believe that she is. Hakeem and Andre look on, smiling as Empire’s stock plummets within range of a hostile takeover, and Lucious is carted away. Agent Carter’s still in a fix, however, because, as she tells another agent, Vernon was the key witness and nobody can locate him.
With Lucious gone, Jamal ascends to the stage to take his place. Empire cuts back to Jamal’s memory of walking into a room in high heels as he takes the stage—we get it, Empire, that happened—and claims the throne.
The fruits of a Lucious-free world are plentiful, and in a montage, we see Jamal running the company, Anika supervising Hakeem, Rhonda and Andre looking over a sonogram, and Cookie lounging in some very fancy digs. Still, Lucious might be down, but he’s not forgotten. Back in jail, he announces that he’s still around. He turns to the camera, “Game time, bitches.”
Wait, how was the music?
Tonight’s set of episodes was chock-full of music, including several callbacks to earlier Empire favorites like “What Is Love” between scenes. Hakeem ended the episode with the slow-burning “Power of the Empire,” a list of all the results of greed. Rita Ora and Charles Hamilton brought on the radio play-friendly but otherwise generic “NY Raining.” Jennifer Hudson and Juicy duetted on “Whatever Makes You Happy,” which loses points for not being an actual gospel song. Still, the gold ring goes to “Nothing To Lose”—not the weird, countrified version Jamal writes with Lucious, but the adrenaline-soaked take he performs live on stage with Patti LaBelle.
Part one of tonight’s finale, “Die But Once,” takes its name from act 3 scene 2 of Henry IV: Part 2 and is said by Francis Feeble, a supporting character who happens to be a woman’s tailor. He begins his full speech with the line “By my troth, I care not; a man can die but once: we / owe God a death,” as he prepares to go to battle in King Henry’s name. The line, which comes after Falstaff’s famous quip about hearing the “chimes at midnight” and growing old, is both a rallying cry and a bit of overzealousness from Feeble, who doesn’t end up being any good in battle. In Empire terms, the obvious parallel is Lucious, who seems to be nearing death, but manages to rally for one more fight, even though no one really wants him to.
The title of part two of tonight’s finale, “Who I Am,” could come from many places in the Bard’s canon, but the best bet is probably act 1 scene 4 of King Lear (an Empire favorite) in which the aging king asks his court, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” Lucious has a lot of Lear-like attributes, from the L name to the habit of pitting his children against one another, but the most common similarity is both king’s need to be seen by others not as themselves but as something grander. In King Lear, the Fool responds to Lear’s quip by saying that he is only “Lear’s shadow” and the same seems true for Lucious.
Notes, quotes, and observations:
- “Die But Once” is directed by Mario Van Peebles and written by Empire showrunner Ilene Chaiken. “Who I Am” is directed by Debbie Allen (of Fame fame) and written by Empire co-creator Danny Strong.
- Best Cookie outfit: Cookie wore a lot of impressive looks tonight, from her fur-covered snow outfit for her sex trip to Berkshires to a look, in one scene, that was nearly entirely made up of faux purple fur. But the best look has to be Cookie’s sleek black loungewear in her last scene, the look of a queen who’s stopped fighting because she’s won (for now).
- Porscha and Becky catch up: Porscha claims to not have known anything since Y2K. After Jamal ascends to power, Becky’s given a position in A&R. Also, Becky has a white mom. That’s why she has a name like Becky.