Empire season premiere recap: After two years in the trenches, the Lyons roar again
If you got a case of whiplash trying to remember all that happened in last season’s finale of Empire, you’re far from alone. What other feeling could you get from an hour of television that featured *deep breath* Boo Boo Kitty’s last purr (courtesy of Andre); Lucious and Cookie remarrying; Jamal leaving for London after Tory’s fatal overdose; Hakeem, Blake, and a newly pregnant Tiana getting shot at by Blake’s white nationalist father; and biggest of all, the Lyons losing the empire they created.
Tonight’s episode opens with Lucious silently paying vigil next to a closed white casket. We then flashback six months earlier and see a sweatier Lucious watching a video of the entire Lyon clan in the studio working on a track for Hakeem and Tiana. As he’s about to play the video again, Cookie appears. She’s ticked at Lucious for missing a meeting about a possible judge role on a Voice-like singing competition. Lucious tells Cookie he can’t even think about any prospects like that until they can take back Empire, and he thinks he has the thing that could keep them afloat: unseen footage and music from Hakeem. “Look at our boy,” Lucious says wistfully. “You’re telling me Keem wasn’t meant to do this?” Before we can figure out the reason for the sadness, Jamal calls from his new home in London to ask how his parents celebrated their two-year wedding anniversary. Yep, we’re in a time jump ladies and gentlemen. After quick touches on Jamal’s love life (his new man is named Kai, but Cookie thinks he’s named Kale) and his new label, we find out Cookie and Lucious have been in and out of court with Eddie in the hopes of getting their company back. This has led to financial ruin for the Lyons and they’ve resorted to selling their art collection and Cookie’s wardrobe to stay above water. But the family has a plan outside the legal system: they’ll ambush Eddie at the MVP Movie Awards and use information from Andre to take back control of Empire. “Andre’s gonna deliver, don’t you worry about that,” Cookie declares.
But where’s Andre? Turns out he’s in maximum security prison serving time for Anika’s murder. In another flashback, Thirsty reveals to Cookie and Lucious that there are cell phone photos of Andre spiking Anika’s drink, therefore the best possible option is to take the plea deal offered: two years in prison on reckless endangerment charges. While his parents refuse to consider it, Andre tells them that if Cookie can survive 17 years in lockup, he can certainly survive two. And survive he has, cornering Eddie’s former money manager Steve over a game of chess. Having used his connections to get Steve (the alleged mastermind behind the Ponzi scheme that took Eddie down the first time) transferred from Club Fed, Andre tells him that he hopes he really did commit the scheme. If he did, Steve would have the financial information Andre needs to reclaim his family’s legacy. And if he wasn’t behind it? “You’re no use to me, and that is no good for you,” Andre chillingly intones.
At the still alive and kicking Empire (which has turned into even more of a glorified game room than when we last left it), we join Giselle mid-coitus with her lover Kingsley. He’s concerned about what will happen if her ex-turned-current husband Eddie finds out about their affair. “He’s too busy test-driving hotel mattresses with his new assistant,” Giselle says. She makes it clear that once Eddie gets tired of running Empire, the company will be hers. As Becky runs through the office staff with dismissive nicknames like “glasses” and “man-bun”, Giselle comes in to announce that Empire’s profits are “all the way up” for all four quarters, which the two chalk up to black girl magic. Giselle then asks Becky if they’ve secured the MVP Movie Award for Best Original Song in a Film for Hakeen and Tiana’s single “Ibiza,” which Becky confirms in very Becky-like fashion by saying she “stroked everybody involved.” When the subject turns to how Cookie and Lucious (who produced the track) will also be in attendance at the awards show, Giselle says they’ve doubled up on security for Eddie in case anything happens.
Becky then mentions how “Ibiza” was Hakeem and Tiana’s last single together, which moves right into a flashback of the shooting that ended season 4. Blake’s father shoots Hakeem in the chest before his son struggles to grab the shotgun off of him, which leads to Blake getting shot in the leg. Blake then turns the gun on his father and kills him before joining Tiana at Hakeem’s aid. When we next see Hakeem, he’s undergoing physical therapy after losing part of a lung in the shooting. When he loses his cool with his physical therapist, Tiana (joined by a kindergarten-age Bella and baby Prince) reassures him that he can regain his strength and return to the stage. Hakeem, however, says that he can’t rap live in his current state, and using a backing track is out of the question as his fans “would drag me for life”. Tiana argues that performing again would show fans he’s still alive, and would also put her back in the good graces of Eddie (who blackballed her when she revealed she was pregnant). “To hell with him and his Steve Harvey looking suits!” Hakeem snaps. Tiana tells Hakeem she needs to be back on the public stage and wants him to be by her side. Despite his physical uncertainty, Hakeem ultimately agrees to join Tiana for the performance.
After visiting Andre in prison, Cookie notices a professionally dressed woman in a parked car singing and rapping (beautifully, of course) into her phone. Before Cookie can approach the woman, Porsha tells her they’re running late to the MVP Movie Awards. We quickly move to the red carpet where Empire’s past (Cookie and Lucious) and present (Eddie, Giselle, Becky, and Kingston) are the centers of attention. Asked by an interviewer where he and Eddie stand given their legal battles, Lucious says blood is thicker than water and that they’ll always be brothers. However, the tension grows as Eddie and Lucious get closer to one another on the carpet. When Eddie’s security starts to assemble, Cookie coos, “Look at how scared of us he is,” adding, “Punk bitch!” When Giselle and Cookie cross paths at the bar, the shade flows like the wine in Cookie’s glass. When Giselle tells Cookie she would have handled the Empire takeover differently than Eddie, Cookie bitingly retorts, “Do you think I care what Eddie’s ho would’ve done differently?”
With Blake watching in the wings, Hakeem and Tiana’s matador-chic performance of “Ibiza” at the MVP Movie Awards goes swimmingly — until Hakeem kneels in a coughing fit mid-performance, exposing his backing track. With the audience wondering what’s going on, Hakeem runs off stage and beckons for Blake to take over for him. Blake steps in for his friend and immediately wins the audience over, while Hakeem, blood on his lip, looks on from the wings. After checking up on Hakeem backstage, Cookie returns to her seat at the same time Eddie and Giselle, security in tow, are being moved by a production assistant to seats right next to Cookie and Lucious. Eddie is resistant at first, but Giselle insists the Lyons won’t act up with them as they’ll be on camera the entire time. Of course, she’s proven wrong immediately as Cookie spills her glass of red wine on Giselle’s dress.
As Giselle storms off, Eddie (his eyes darting to security) asks Lucious what’s with all the antics. Lucious insists everything’s okay as the two tensely sit next to each other, but just as quickly as Eddie sits down, Lucious and Cookie hit him with the blackmail information (courtesy of Andre’s prison chess games with Steve). When Eddie says they can’t prove that he was skimming money, Cookie promises they have all the receipts. “We were brothers and you just flushed that all down the toilet, didn’t you?” Lucious drawls as Eddie’s about to walk off. “Sit your ass down,” both Lyons say at the same time. Lucious then makes it very clear to Eddie: if he wants to avoid going to jail for his financial schemes, he’s going to step down from Empire onstage and put the Lyons back in control. As all this is going on in the audience, Best Original Song is being announced and “Ibiza” wins. Despite being part of the winning song, Eddie is a defeated man as he walks up to the stage.
Back at Empire HQ after the awards, a drunk Eddie is busy shredding documents when Giselle storms in asking why he resigned without telling her. “We lost!” Eddie says repeatedly as he tells her the Lyons discovered his “indiscretion.” Giselle implores him, saying she didn’t work this hard just to lose everything. “I’m the one who’s been running Empire while you just walk around here like you’ve been running it,” she declares. Increasingly drunk, Eddie tries to kiss and make up with Giselle but she pushes him away, ultimately shoving him to the edge of a table. Giselle initially runs to find a towel for the bleeding Eddie, but as he loses consciousness, she simply stands and watches as he dies. “I’m sorry,” she says quietly. “I can’t help you anymore, Eddie.”
With Eddie’s death destroying their scheme to take back Empire, Lucious lashes out at Cookie for not making the effort to keep the business two years earlier. “I did that to save your ass from prison,” Cookie responds, as Lucious continues to rip into her for not being present while he was building Empire into a multi-billion dollar legacy. This is an incredibly fiery moment from both Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson as they throw verbal grenades at each other with an intensity that comes from playing these characters for five seasons. Before things can get even more heated, Jamal enters the mansion with his war correspondent bae Kai for a very awkward and sweaty meet the parents moment. Now having hit rock bottom, Lucious and Cookie can no longer hide two years of misfortunes from their son and ultimately tell him the truth about themselves. Jamal takes the news with a spiritual stride, telling his parents they should let go of the pain that Empire brought and use their creative magic to build something new.
The morning after his awards show setback, Hakeem returns home angry at Tiana about not coming to his aid, saying that she cared more about being back in the spotlight and winning an award than about his health. (Meanwhile, he’s just swigging cognac like it’s no big deal.) Hakeem and Tiana’s argument grows louder until Bella walks into the scene, leaving her father to tell her they’re having a “big person talk.” With things now calm, Hakeem tells Tiana he needs space to get himself together. Now sweatier than ever, Cookie and Lucious discuss Jamal’s idea about creating something new. Lucious seems resistant and cynical about the possibility, saying that they can’t just start a label without any money. “Broke ain’t never stopped us before,” Cookie responds. “What we need is a new sound,” she adds as she invokes NWA, Whitney Houston, and Prince. “Old school with a new sound.” As Lucious says they need to find someone who stops them dead in their tracks, Cookie laughs and tells him she thinks she’s found that act.
On another visit to Andre in prison, Cookie asks for his help finding the rapping girl in the car, believing that she’s the sister or girlfriend of one his fellow inmates. “You trying to get me killed?” Andre wonders at this request. Cookie implores him not to get into any trouble that would keep him from getting released on time, but just as she’s telling him this, the woman in the car walks through the visiting area alongside an inmate in a wheelchair. She turns out to be a social worker named Treasure. “I’m gonna change your life,” Cookie tells her. Meanwhile, Giselle is asked to become Empire’s interim CEO at Eddie’s funeral. She immediately says yes, saying she can’t think of a better way to continue his legacy. And continue the legacy she does, dumping Eddie’s ashes in the sewer like a woman on a mission.
Back at the Lyon mansion, Cookie invites Treasure and her smarmy manager over to play for Lucious. Things get tense when the manager is rude and forceful with Treasure, calling her “a ghetto kid with no training.” This is enough for Lucious to take the manager outside (with a baseball bat, as one is apt to do), leaving Cookie and Treasure in the impromptu recording booth together.
Over at Jamal’s apartment, Kai is stopped at gunpoint by an angry Hakeem, who wants to know about the guy Jamal is with. When Jamal says he’s dating Kai, Hakeem (who’s made the apartment a total mess in the meantime) insists the gun wasn’t loaded. Kai asks for the gun and unloads it himself, showing that it had one bullet left in the chamber. Seeing the state that his apartment and brother are in, Jamal wonders what’s going on. A hurt Hakeem lays into Jamal for only showing up for two days after his shooting, despite the fact that Hakeem always stuck by Jamal during his crises. Ultimately, Jamal acknowledges that Hakeem has always been there for him and the two share a brotherly embrace.
Having taken care of the creepy manager (“he ran into something,” Lucious says as he walks back into the room), Lucious and Cookie work on calming Treasure’s nerves. When Treasure says that everyone has always doubted her, Cookie tells her to never let anyone stop her from doing what she’s born to do. Those words give Treasure the confidence she needs to sing for the Lyons, and her voice (and rhymes) give Lucious the creative boost he needs to join Cookie in starting a new label. Announcing their label plans to Jamal and Hakeem in the muggiest mansion in New York state, the Lyons are met with some resistance by Jamal, who insists he has his own label and life to get back to in London. Lucious and Cookie, however, implore him to stay and help with their label until it gets off the ground. The reluctance is clear in his eyes as the four Lyons toast to a new beginning. “May we rise,” Lucious toasts; “Like always,” Cookie adds as the glasses clink. We then cut back to the scene that opened this episode: Lucious paying vigil on the casket. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, and we fade to white after a truly hectic season premiere.