After what felt like years without our weekly doses of Cookie, "Empire" finally returned to our television screens tonight, and it wasted no time dishing out the drama we know and love. In many ways, the "Empire" season 2 premiere ("The Devils Are Here") felt wildly familiar, like a Sunday afternoon brunch with your best friends -- a slapdash conversation about ex lovers, work, politics and play.
Lee Daniels hasn't changed his record-breaking formula one bit, and perhaps that's for the best. "Empire" is still about the same central conflict from season 1: everyone wants control of Empire Entertainment. With Lucious (Terrence Howard) in jail for Bunky's murder, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) -- the chosen son at the end of the two-part season 1 finale -- is now in control of Empire, with Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), Andre (Trai Byers), Anika (Grace Gealey) and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) plotting a hostile takeover.
But in classic "Empire" fashion, the season 2 premiere burns through that coup before Hakeem ever has a chance to roll over Jamal's heart with his shiny new self balancing scooter. It doesn't quite work out the way we thought, but does anything ever on "Empire?" Even from a prison cell, Lucious is always one step ahead. (Even when he has a crazy, cannibalistic drug lord to deal with.)
With so many power plays happening inside and outside of the pen in this episode, let's take a moment to dissect "The Devils Are Here." Here's our rundown of the biggest, most bats--t crazy moments from the season 2 premiere:
Despite plotting a hostile takeover and literally cursing the ground Lucious Lyon walks on, Cookie plots a #FreeLucious concert to save face in the public eye. So, in order to maintain Empire's integrity, she has to pretend Lucious didn't shoot her cousin point-blank in the head. But Cookie is a master marketer, and she uses her platform, and Empire's millions of fans, to take a stand against the staggering mass incarceration of black men in America. To drive the important message home even further, she dresses herself in a gorilla suit.
"How much longer are they gonna treat us like animals? The American correctional system is built on the backs of our brothers, our fathers, our sons. It is a system that must be dismantled piece by piece," Cookie pleads on stage in front of thousands at the #FreeLucious concert. It's a powerful moment.
"Empire" has never shied away from addressing the real-world headlines. In fact, it's at its best when its fearless. After mentioning Black Lives Matter in a season 1 episode, it's nice to see Daniels and co. address the problem on a bigger platform. The song "Born to Lose," written by Sean Cross and performed by Cross, Jamal and Hakeem during the concert, is a brilliant example of "Empire"'s social impact. Lyrics like "Hands up, don't shoot" and "No justice, no peace" bring an even deeper meaning to the #FreeLucious track. Sure, Lucious may be guilty -- but think of all the young black men like him who are wrongfully accused.
(Aside: Kudos to you, Lee Daniels, for that amazing Don Lemon joke.)
Game over, CookieFox
The fight for control of the Empire is still raging, with Cookie, Hakeem, Boo Boo Kitty and Andre scheming to wrestle control away from Lucious and his appointed successor Jamal. They think they have their hostile takeover all figured out when wealthy investor Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei) shows interest in their pitch. (She shows even more interest in "Anita," aka Cookie's new name for Anika.) But even Anita's epic booty-poppin' and fancy tricks in the bedroom couldn't stop Mimi from teaming up with Lucious instead, and completely double-crossing Cookie and co.
Now, Cookie, Hakeem, Andre and Anika find themselves out of options -- and out of a job when Jamal, on Lucious' orders, fires the lot of them for their scheming. Lucious 1; Cookie 0.
But we wouldn't count out Cookie just yet. That woman is the definition of resilience. She'll find a way back to the top even if she has to claw her way there.
Chris Rock shakes things up for the Lyons in what is perhaps the most insane story line "Empire" has ever produced. The comedian guest stars as none other than Frank Gathers, the vicious drug kingpin whom both Cookie and Lucious worked for, before Lucious' career took off. In season 1, Cookie testified against Gathers, essentially ratting him out and sealing his fate in prison, to get herself out of prison. So, we weren't entirely shocked when Frank reared his head in prison, where he runs into his old pal Lucious.
This is bad news for Cookie. In season 1, Cookie received a rose at the front door of her apartment, the symbol Frank used for his drugs. This made Cookie fear that Frank had found out she was snitching to the feds, so she made a call to her cousin, who killed one of Frank's associates.
When Cookie's sister finds a rose at her doorstep, she knows it means trouble, so she and her kids immediately head to Cookie's apartment. But what Cookie finds waiting for her at her doorstep is truly horrifying: her cousin's severed head. As gross as that discovery was, the thought of what Frank did to the body afterwards (the man is a CANNIBAL) is truly disgusting.
After telling all of her children to go to Lucious' place immediately, Cookie does the only thing she can do: she goes to Lucious. She asks Lucious to solve her little problem from the inside. This seems pretty impossible. After all, this is a man that severed a guy's head merely hours before.
But just when it looks like Frank has the upper hand, as it turns out, a psychotic drug lord is no match for Lucious Lyon. When you have money and power on your side, you can bribe pretty much anyone to do anything, including betray their boss. Just like that, Lucious has Frank killed. (Do the guards actually do anything in this prison? Or are they just here for show?) Either way, Rock's guest spot may have been brief -- but it was incredibly entertaining.
Frank's legacy will ultimately live on thanks to Lucious' peaked interest in his daughter, a talented rapper named Gatz, also known as The Queen O' 16s. Gatz reminds Lucious a lot of himself -- a young hustler with an incredible gift. Honestly, Bre-Z might be the best thing that ever happened to "Empire." She has so much raw talent. I'm looking forward to see what Timbaland and co. can do with her in future episodes.
Jamal vs. Everyone elseFox
Ugh. Jamal! Why did you have to shut your family out like that? Yeah, I know. They were plotting a hostile takeover behind your back, but that still gives you no right to slam the door in your mother's face!
This season, Jamal is learning a hard lesson: with great power, comes great responsibility. Now in charge of Empire's roster of talents, Jamal is too busy keeping the company out of the red to focus on his true passion, music, and his songwriting is suffering for it. He's no longer the boy banished to the garbage can; he is his father's only ally. And that puts Jamal in a very unfortunate position. The way Jamal sees it, when Cookie, Hakeem and Andre teamed up to take Lucious down, they also went after him. So, Jamal does what he thinks is right and shuts them out -- even though the decision is clearly killing him, emotionally.
Cookie and Jamal's relationship was one of the best things about season 1. Despite his father's ignorance and hateful comments, Cookie was always there to build Jamal back up -- and turn him into the man she knew he could be. Now, Jamal is having an identity crisis. Is he his father's son? Or his mother's baby?