After a four-month hiatus, Empire returns with the greatest shake-up of the Lyon family’s record company to date: the ousting of cofounder and CEO Lucious (Terrence Howard). Back in December, youngest son Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) had allied with his ex Camilla (Naomi Campbell) and her new bride, board member Mimi (Marisa Tomei), to unseat Lucoius from his throne. Fox’s hip-hop soap began as a modern-day King Lear, with Lucious encouraging war between his three sons to suss out who should succeed him. Now, as a new acquaintance (Annie Ilonzeh) informs him, Lucious’s circumstances resemble another Shakespeare play: Richard II, about a deposed king fighting to take back his kingdom from an unworthy usurper.
But does any of this matter? There have been so many twists, turns, about-faces, and indignant cape-swishes in the 15 months since Empire’s debut that only the cape-swishes really register anymore. Lucious and his ex-wife Cookie’s (Taraji P. Henson) struggle to create a lasting legacy is constantly undone by the irony that the entire family is afflicted with severe cases of myopia. Their decisions -- like Hakeem’s to pay back Lucious for his 20-some years of bad parenting -- are shortsighted, bullheaded, and rash-bordering-on-stupid. Cookie alone seems to understand that any punch the Lyons throw at one another knocks down the whole family -- not that she can stop any of them from making that same mistake over and over.
Empire could coast by in this season’s remaining eight episodes -- and probably for a couple more years -- on its Timbaland-produced tunes and its outlandish, GIF-ready charms. After Hakeem inevitably succeeds his dad as head of Empire -- just as Lucious had initially wanted in Season 1, but not while Papa Lyon was still drawing breath -- the show’s costume designer, Paolo Nieddu, does some of his best work yet with the new CEO’s first-day-of-work outfit: a suit patterned with international currency.
Even more assuringly (at least based on the first three episodes of this season’s back half), creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong and showrunner Ilene Chaiken seem to be restoring some feeling to the show after making us numb with nonstop whirligigging. Tonight’s episode feels like more of the same, with Lucious’s angry threats against his family; the aftereffects of the pregnant Rhonda’s (Kaitlin Doubleday) push down the stairs; and sexy shenanigans between Hakeem, his former flame/current kingmaker Camilla, and new girlfriend Laura (Jamila Velazquez). The April 6 installment is packed with performances, with Jamal (Jussie Smollett) -- now dating Skye (Alicia Keys) -- having to defend his fluid sexuality from LGBT activists angry he won’t stick to the more politically convenient born-that-way narrative. “Get your gay back,” Cookie orders her middle son, for the sake of his popularity.
But it’s the April 13 hour that feels like a minor breakthrough for the show. Lucious mines his abusive childhood for the music video for “Boom Boom Boom Boom” (yes, that’s the actual name of that song). Sad backstories are often an easy ploy to get audiences to feel sympathy for a character -- and Lucious, the closest thing to a monster on Empire, certainly needs it. But his inability to properly parent -- the show’s biggest tragedy -- is given an understandable context: Lucius has never enjoyed an example of it. Even with a new love triangle for Hakeem, a surprise for Cookie on her first birthday out of prison, and an out-of-nowhere proposal, it’s bipolar Andre who brings the emotional urgency, as he’s left reeling by the cruelty of Lucious’s concealment of his family’s history of mental illness. Andre could have found solace in -- or at least felt prepared by -- the fatality of genetics, but Lucious withheld what he’d passed on to his oldest son for fear of making him “weak.” In Empire, family is destiny -- a whole lotta fortune, and hopefully not too much doom.