Scene stealer Taraji P. Henson’s layered portrayal of Cookie Lyon forms the heart and soul of Empire. In just the second episode, Fox’s new hip hop drama gives us the perfect mix of melodrama, music, and conflict.
It was the Taraji P. Henson show on Empire’s “The Outspoken King” as Cookie Lyon tries to find her place in the company, in her son’s lives, and in her ex-husband’s heart. The vulnerability she shows throughout tonight’s episode was a highlight of Fox’s new Wednesday night soapy delight reminiscent of the old school Dynasty where the bitches weren’t afraid to engage in a little hair pulling to get a point across. Unlike the pilot, “The Outspoken King” was more laser focused in on characters and plot already giving the freshman series an identity. Terrence Howard and the supporting cast held their own in this highly anticipated offering that just may live up to the hype. Let’s take a look at our Top 5 Empire Moments of tonight:
1. Those bibs come in handy
Buttoned- up businessman son Andre (Trai Byers) is scheming all night to be the chosen one, the son who Lucious (Terrence Howard) deems worthy of taking over record company Empire. He is obsessing over the competition to get daddy’s approval, even dictating ideas to himself. At one point, his wife Rhonda puts on a bib leaving us to wonder if she’s going to be sucking on a bottle in the next scene. Oh, she’s sucking on something alright, giving new meaning to Andre stress relief while maintaining a modicum of cleanliness.
2. Oh, you did not just say that about Barack
Brain cell deprived but talented rapper Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) runs around looking like the long lost third member of Kid ‘n Play complete with ripped acid washed jeans and July 4th Old Navy Tee. Hakeem adds to his unlikable Empire cred by being filmed full monty in a restaurant to win the heart of a hottie he just met. He completes this “ew factor” by announcing that Barack Obama “ain’t nothing but a sell-out.” Of course the video goes viral, and we can’t help but smile hoping he doesn’t win the battle for the record label. In the next scene we see Lucious on the phone with Mr. President saying how sorry he is. “C’mon Barack you don’t have to use that kind of language.” Lucious is on a first-name basis with the Pres? Wait, the president uses bad language in this world? Hilarious! Lucious’ girlfriend Anika (Grace Gealey) announces that ticket sales at his new club Leviticus are through the roof. There’s no such thing as bad press, right?
3. Song montages are so cheesy – except this one
Cookie plans a coming out party for homosexual son Jamal (Jussie Smollet), hoping this will steal the thunder from Hakeem’s big Leviticus performance. She’s firmly planted on Team Jamal and will do anything to see he gets his share of daddy’s Empire. Mama Lyon hires a new publicist, telling her flatly, “I have a son who’s a musical genius like his father and he’s also homo. He wants to come out.” After homophobadaddy tells Jamal he will be cut off financially if he makes his big, gay announcement, mom is left at the press conference holding her purse alone.
In one of our favorite musical scenes of the show, Jamal’s skipping the press conference and moping at home. He watches dad being interviewed on TV about Hakeem’s Obama incident. Jamal breaks into a song called “Tell the Truth” and sounds like angels riding on unicorns over glitter sprinkled unicorns. No joke. This kid’s voice is pure honey sweet and the power of watching dad drone on about rap being an expression of his violent world to Jamal’s song about truth telling is beautiful, ironic, and powerful.
4. Not quite love in an elevator
The best scene of “The Outspoken King” features tough, scrappy, and vulnerable Cookie fighting for her reputation and, in a sense, for her man. Cookie, Lucious, Anika aka Kitty Boo Boo (thanks Ms. Lyon for that one), Andre, Lyon assistant Becky (Gabourey Sidibe), and in trouble rapper Kid 44 are all crammed into an elevator. Kid runs his mouth calling Cookie a bitch with Lucious just standing there silent. “You’re going to let him talk to me like that?” questions Cookie, a sense of betrayal in her eyes.
“When he says something I disagree with, I’ll let you know,” Lucious coldly answers. The devastation in Cookie’s face quickly turns to anger when Kitty lets out a cackle rivaling the Wicked Witch of the West. Cookie goes Solange Knowles on the younger version of herself, held back by her ex. “What have I ever done for you to treat me like this?” she tearfully asks Lucious. Her tough cookie exterior shows signs of cracking and that is when Empire is at its best, showing layered characters beyond one dimensional stereotypes. Lucious gets a little redemption when he unceremoniously fires Kid 44 claiming his lyrics “suck.” I want to think of this as step one in getting estranged wife back.
Lucious later admits to Cookie that they were good together. Could this be step two? Cookie just can’t let the moment stay sweet; she’s bitter about his young plaything and advises, “What you need to do is drop this yellow bitch.” Kitty answers for Lucious, saying, “He probably will. When I’m your age.” Ouch. You know Cookie wants a rematch in that elevator.
5. Brotherly Love
Hakeem is bummed about Kid 44 not playing with him at his big Leviticus performance and begs brother Jamal to go up there with him. Surprise, surprise (to no one), they perform together, bringing the house down with the single “No Apologies.” The brothers have a bond that seems to forego the struggle for control of Empire and the craziness of mom and dad. It will be interesting to see if that brotherly love will continue as the season progresses or if the lust for power will break these two apart. Tonight it was a musical, brother bear moment.
Final Verdict: “The Outspoken King” was a riveting hour of television driven by characters and the excellent actors who portray them. The soap opera with a hip hop beat hit some high notes in the second episode of the season leaving us wanting more of this Lyon’s Den known as Empire.
The storylines are compelling enough with the backdrop of a rap record company offering some originality in a sea of same old, same old on network and cable TV. Make no mistakes about it though; this is the Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard show. The two have an alchemy that’s both volatile and loving, passionate and hurtful, humorous and heartbreaking. It is the dichotomy in the relationship that will keep us coming back for more next week. Bravo, creator Lee Daniels for doing more than craft an original, in your words, “Black Dynasty” but to have the foresight to throw these actors together in your playground and let them play.