Empire’s season finale turned out to be everything I was expecting it to in my review last week. Another dramatic record label coup went down, except this time Lucious (Terrence Howard) was finally repaid by one of his sons for all of his shitty parental behavior. I assume that we are meant to interpret Hakeem’s (Bryshere Y. Gray) vote at the board meeting to remove Lucious as CEO as some kind of betrayal, but it’s difficult to do so considering how many times Lucious humiliated Hakeem both publicly and privately. In case the audience somehow missed the multiple instances of emotional abuse littered across two seasons, we were treated to a justificatory montage of cuckoldry, betrayal, and emasculation.
Speaking of: when is someone going to do a Freudian reading of Empire? The show was definitely courting such analysis in season one, when Hakeem worked through his Oedipal issues with his older lover Camilla (Naomi Campbell), whom he called “mama” at uncomfortably intimate moments. Now his ersatz mother has returned to overthrow the patriarchal Father, taking over the Law in the form of Empire and (maybe?) getting it together with the son again. This didn’t work out well for Oedipus, and given Empire’s studious appropriation of Greek tragedy, I doubt it will for Hakeem either.
Lots of anxieties are also bubbling beneath the surface regarding the generative powers of women. Whereas season one was all sex with almost no repercussions, this season, people seem to be catching pregnancies left and right. Rhonda’s (Kaitlin Doubleday) capacity to ensure the future of the Lyon name has made her particularly important in the family hierarchy, and yet she has less actual agency than ever before in the show’s history. She’s seemed to retire her career, spending her days decorating the nursery in her new mansion, and entertaining a secretly pregnant Anika (Grace Gealey), the sad, human waste leftover from the various Lyon family rivalries.
The show’s working hard to get us to understand that Anika is jealous of Rhonda’s material and spiritual wealth, and clearly we’re meant to assume that the gloved hands responsible for Rhonda’s fall down the stairs belong to her. However, it’s all just difficult to buy, given that Anika willfully turned down a similarly charmed life at Lucious’s side over something like infidelity, which, for this show, is a relatively benign transgression. Maybe we can read it as a belated case of regret, but as I’ve said before, the superficiality of emotion attributed to what was once an intelligent, competent music executive’s just difficult for me to get behind.
Also difficult for me to get behind was the show’s distasteful dramatization of Rhonda’s fall down the stairs. Her descent was given to us from multiple angles so that we’d be sure to catch every impact and crunch, and then we were treated to a bizarrely surreal slow-motion shot of Rhonda’s terrified face turning end over end as a dramatic libretto plays. She eventually comes to a stop at the bottom of the stairs, landing with a sickening thud on the pregnant belly the show has gone to great lengths to impress upon us. The whole thing just feels voyeuristic in a way that isn’t entertaining, and given the show’s exploitation of Anika this season, her implication in the sordid affair makes it even less so.
A significant amount of this episode was also devoted to figuring out the specifics of Jamal’s sexual orientation. It’s made clear that after their magical kiss at the piano, he and Skye Summer (Alicia Keys) hooked up. As a hugely successful recording artist and someone who is well aware that Jamal is gay, Skye’s clinging and pet names feel weird and inauthentic. Of course, Lucious is given his moment to shine as a through-and-through homophobe, as he remarks tearfully to Jamal about his relationship with Skye, “She fixed you”. Apparently, though, she didn’t, and that’s kind of the point that Empire’s trying to make. Sexuality is fluid, while maybe sexual identity isn’t; it’s made clear that yes, Jamal had sex with a woman, and yes, he’s still a gay man.
It is refreshing to see sexuality portrayed like this on network television given the preponderance of “born this way” narratives of gay identity, and a general cultural aversion to acknowledging the ambiguities of desire. But the show yokes this meditation on sex and identity to a discussion about race when radio personality Charlamagne Tha God (as himself) demands that Skye account for her mixed racial identity. The whole interaction’s so awkward and confusing that I won’t even begin to summarize it, but suffice it to say that equivalences are drawn between Skye’s “inauthentic” racial identity and Jamal’s “authentic” sexual one. I’m not sure whether the point was to use Skye’s mixed race heritage as a means of pointing to the complexity of sexual desire, or was to use Jamal’s fluid sexuality to critique hard and fast racial identifications. Whatever the intent, it didn’t work.
The real highlight of this episode was (no surprise) Cookie’s (Taraji P. Henson) attempts to confront her past by bringing Hakeem to perform at the prison where she served a 17-year sentence. In a touching dedication, Hakeem says that having Cookie back and working with her to create Lyon Dynasty has been one of the greatest moments in his life. It’s also been the best thing for the show, and we’re reminded of that when Jezzy (Da Brat), one of Cookie’s old prison friends, takes us back to Cookie’s epic entrance in a gorilla suit at the Free Lucious benefit concert. Appropriate that Cookie should be returned to earlier moments in her life, as the finale ends with the show as a whole walking over the same ground it’s been treading for the last year: Lucious’s misunderstanding how legacy works by competing with his sons for personal relevance.
I would hazard some predictions about what Empire has in store for us next year, but I have a sinking feeling, given its recycling of season one stock, that we’ve seen most of the show’s tricks. Maybe the particular pieces on the chess board will change but, over and over, it’s the same old plays.