Empire series premiere recap: 'Pilot'
Music mogul Lucious Lyon looks for a successor among his sons, while his ex-con ex-wife gets all up in his business.
“What is this, we King Lear now?” —Jamal Lyon
So there’s this guy who’s built a giant kingdom, but he knows he’s going to die and he has to figure out a way for that kingdom to survive. The obvious choice is to pass on the spoils to his children, but he doesn’t know which kid to trust. He assembles them together and then asks the question that no father should have to ask: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” That turns out to be his tragic flaw, as he disinherits the wrong daughter and then spends another two hours wandering around in a storm complaining. Later, everyone dies.
Okay, sorry, that’s a recap for William Shakespeare’s King Lear, but I bring the Elizabethan comparison because, beneath its splashy fur coat-laden surface, Empire asks nearly the same questions about nearly the same family. In the pilot, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) learns he has ALS and has to decide which of his sons would do the best job with his music label as it heads toward its IPO. Unlike Lear, Lucious is wise enough to know that it’s not a good idea to divide your empire into three parts (and unlike Lear, he has sons), but he’s still asking the same question: Which of you is going to pretend that you love me the most? He doesn’t say it in those terms—it’s more, “which of you best fits my celebrity-driven brand and also isn’t gay?”—but the anxiety is the same. Lucious wants his sons to prove some authentic connection to him and simultaneously to be something they’re not. It’s not the best way of being a parent.
But Lucious, as we learn early on, isn’t any ordinary father. He built his music label from the ground up, making his way out of the ghetto through his own musical talent and sheer force of will. Of course, according to the Empire‘s own queen Lear, Lucious’ ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson *praise hands*), that’s not entirely true. Cookie was Lucious’ partner in crime when they were first starting his music career. She put up the $400,000 that got the label off the ground and and she took the fall for drug possession when Lucious was first starting off his career. Now, 17 years later, she’s out of jail early on good behavior, and she she wants to get what’s hers. Barring that, she wants a way of getting revenge. In King Lear terms, this means turning one of Lucious’ sons against him. Again, not the best way of being a parent.
Let’s turn to the younger generation. In descending order of Lucious’ preference, there’s Hakeem (Bryshere Gray, a.k.a. Yazz The Greatest), who’s super talented but undisciplined; Andre (Trai Bryers), who’s got business savvy but no musical talent; and Jamal (Jussie Smollett), who’s also talented, but (and this is where Lucious gets hung up on things) gay. Empire introduces the brothers as Hakeem and Jamal freestyle on a family and Andre watches with his evil white wife (IMDb informs me her name is “Rhonda,” but I’m going to call her EWW) in the background. The implication is obvious: Jamal and Hakeem get along well, Andre’s kind of a spoilsport (and EWW is definitely plotting something).
After Lucious makes his announcement to Empire’s board about his upcoming IPO plans, he calls the three sons to his office and announces that he’s going to choose one of them to “groom” to be the face of the company soon. Jamal makes his King Lear quip and the brothers all grumble about how they don’t really want to be groomed. Still, Lucious persists with his terrible idea that will divide the family and announces that he’ll make his pick soon.
First, Lucious visits Andre in a boxing ring. Andre points out all the ways in which he would be a great pick—he used to wear suits as a kid to try to get into meetings, also, more importantly, he actually knows something about business—but Lucious insists that his “celebrity-driven brand” should be run by a celebrity. Andre is out.
NEXT: Cookie arrives on the scene…
Jamal’s hanging out with his boyfriend, making chicken stew and talking about how he doesn’t want to sell out like his dad did, when Cookie arrives. Unlike Lucious, Cookie has no problem with her son’s sexuality, as Empire confirms with the first of its over-serious sepia-toned flashbacks. In it, Lucious sends Jamal to talk to his mother in jail. She knew he was gay from a very young age (“it’s only something mama knows”) and she has always defended him. Back in the present, Cookie is a little more straightforward, as she chucks a few slurs (about her son’s Latino boyfriend and her son’s sexuality) around the room and demands some stew. Still, even as she’s brusque, Cookie cares. This is the son who visited her in jail. This is son she knows she can trust.
When Cookie arrives at the Empire offices, her conversation with Lucious is a lot more strained. He never visited Cookie in jail. In fact, he managed to secure a divorce from her and then married a “little Halle Berry” (Grace Gealey, in matter of fact), who’s now the head of Empire’s A&R division, the same division that Cookie wants to manage. After all, she tells Lucious, her money “started this bitch” in the first place. He says he can’t give her half the company (or control of A&R), but he’ll come up with something.
Like Lucious, Cookie knows she has to figure out how loyal her children are to her, so she visits Hakeem next. He never visited her in jail, and she’s not too happy about it. He talks back to her. She gets mad and beats him with a broom. Of course, Cookie and Lucious love their children in opposite amounts, so when Hakeem visits Lucious licking his wounds and such, Lucious immediately sympathizes with Hakeem and tells him that he’s written some stuff for him to record. For whatever reason (i.e. because he’s not gay and has talent), Hakeem is Lucious’ favorite child. The point is underlined when Jamal visits Lucious and Lucious gives a tone-deaf speech about how Jamal’s sexuality is a choice and, if he’s going to sell to the black community (or to the white audience who buys music from the black community), he’s going to have to un-choose that choice.
To a certain extent, Lucious is right: Gay performers of any kind tend to have trouble appealing to wide audiences and an artist like Jamal’s sexuality can be a business decision (see Frank Ocean, among other real life musicians who have made news by being out). Still, Empire handles Lucious and Jamal’s relationship in a particularly wooden fashion. As Jamal sings, later in the episode, the show cuts back to his early childhood, when he once walked into the dining room wearing high heels and a scarf and Lucious attacked him (even as Cookie tried to stop him). The scene feels particular and real on Jamal’s end, but it’s hard to understand Lucious’ side of the story. Sure, the black community has a complicated relationship with homophobia, but why does Lucious express it so strongly? Why has his opinion stayed static for 17 years? Right now, the plot feels statistically true, but not emotionally so.
Finally, we get back to Andre, whom Cookie and Lucious both like in equally meh-ish amounts. But that’s fine with Andre and his EWW Rhonda, because they have a scheme to play Hakeem and Jamal against each other, which would scorch the earth and leave Andre as the only viable replacement. Andre visits Cookie and offers up a fake apology for not visiting her in jail before suggesting that she team up with Jamal. Cookie knows it’s Rhonda’s idea, but she goes for it anyway.
Cookie then returns Lucious’ offices to sign away the right to reveal that she was the original investor in Empire Entertainment in exchange for control over Jamal’s career. She does so by walking into a board meeting in a giant fur coat and a dress featuring two different animal prints. She also does a shoutout to the one woman at the table. It’s pretty awesome.
She then tries to pump some ambition into Jamal, as Lucious does the same with Hakeem. Both are equally unsuccessful. Jamal wants his sound to be pure (“yeah, you’re so pure only a couple of white kids in Brooklyn and San Francisco even know your stuff,” Cookie retorts). Hakeem can’t do much with his father’s old verses (also, he arrives at the studio hungover from a night partying). Jamal manages to solve Hakeem’s problem, however, by giving him a few suggestions about playing to his own strengths. It works, but Lucious insists the results are all due to Hakeem’s own talents, which makes Jamal angry and drives him straight to his mother. Jamal agrees to come out publicly and to work with Cookie on a new album.
NEXT: Parties! Jam sessions! Murder!
Now, let’s skip back to the crime, gambling, and other sins subplot. At the beginning of the episode, Lucious has Bunkie—a friend of the family and substitute parent of the brothers—follow Cookie as soon as she gets out of jail. That falls apart quickly, as Cookie notices Bunkie and turns the conversation to all the things that Lucious owes him for taking care of the family. Soon, Bunkie is demanding money from Lucious (he has gambling debts) and blackmailing Lucious by threatening to reveal the four dealers he killed before he went legit. Compounding the problem, uncle Vernon (Lucious’ brother, who is in cahoots with Andre and has a big share of the business) shows Lucious a few photos of Bunkie and Cheyenne Johnson, a guy who has his fingers in a lot of criminal enterprises. Near the end of the episode, Lucious confronts Bunkie and shoots him to keep him quiet. So much for Lucious being legit.
After the messy murder supblot, Empire finally gets to its best scene: a little moment between Lucious and Cookie. They joke about how Cookie insists she’s related to James Brown (“Uncle James,” she calls him. “You’re a pathological liar,” Lucious tells her.), and for once, the two of them seem to actually like each other. That quickly falls apart when Lucious asks if Cookie really isn’t ashamed of Jamal. She looks him in the eyes, like she’s searching for his humanity: “He’s your son, Lucious!” Later, when Cookie leaves the room, she turns to deliver perhaps her most memorable line: “I want to show you a faggot really can run this company.” Henson’s performance in the scene is a spectacular blend of vulnerability and defiance, outlining a character steeped in the same homophobia as Lucious, but hell-bent on rising above it. Cookie’s not just the world’s least PC social justice warrior, she’s in it for her family too.
There’s not much to say about the last scene, a giant party, except that it’s where Lucious tells the world that two of his sons will release albums in the upcoming year. But if Cookie and Lucious’ pow-wow is the best private moment in the pilot, the party is Empire‘s best, King Lear-iest public one. After Lucious makes his announcement, the show cuts between shots of everyone in the audience, each person, we know by now, with their own hidden agenda. Empire lives on tension between pretending and feeling, public and private, authenticity and performance. Its characters come into clearest focus when they’re given the chance to exist on both sides of that divide, to be honest and dishonest—to say that is what I want and this is who I’m willing to be to get it.
Wait, how was the music?
– By my count, we had four songs this episode: the “what is love, if its not guaranteed?” ballad that opened the episode; Jamal and Hakeem’s first jam on the yacht (which uses “empire state of mind” in its lyrics but is not “Empire State of Mind”), Jamal’s keyboard-and-guitar-laden song in the bar, which lists his offenses against his father, “I gave you all of me”; and Hakeem’s rap over Jamal’s beat, which includes the great line “I’m young and I got money, light it up like a blunt.” I’m partial to the opening ballad, which had the bonus of underlining the show’s themes, but Jamal’s song hit emotional home. Don’t listen to Lucious! You’ve got tons of talent, Jamal.
Notes, quotes, and observations:
– Gabourey Sidibe barely gets any screen-time as Lucious’ assistant Becky, but she makes the most of it, asking if Lucious can make time for a meeting with the president, for instance. She also has great repartee with Jamal, relating the story of the time she pretending to be pre-op in order to sneak into a bathhouse. Note to Empire: More Becky.
– Andre on Andre’s EWW Rhonda: “She’s brilliant.” Cookie on Rhonda: “Pretty white girls always are, even when they ain’t.”
– All of Cookie’s outfits are fantastic, but the award for best ensemble goes to Lucious, who throws a white silk scarf over some blue silk loungewear for casual time with his ex-wife.
– If we’re power ranking sons (and we definitely are), Andre is in the lead. While his brothers fretted about authenticity and daddy issues, he managed to play his parents against each other and helped push his dad toward murder.
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