The second season of Empire opens with a #FreeLucious concert staged as a show of support for incarcerated Empire Records CEO Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard). Bill Clinton is said to be in the crowd (“if he wants his wife to get elected”), Swizz Beatz is onstage, and Al Sharpton is backstage, along with André Leon Talley. Don Lemon is there, too, chatting with ascendant label head Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), who assures him that his Ferguson coverage was just fine, just before she takes the stage herself dressed as a caged gorilla and makes a speech about the state of incarceration and police brutality in America. That’s just the first five minutes.
And yet, the season opener of the FOX blockbuster that chronicles the trials and tribulations of an embattled family-run entertainment dynasty—with a soundtrack largely courtesy of Timbaland and Ne-Yo—only gets better from there. Hell, yeah. Empire is back, and this time they’ve got Chris Rock playing an imprisoned cannibal.
Last night, we got betrayal, auto-balancing skateboards, righteous Cookie-delivered burns like “your father is a tampon,” more betrayal, ridiculous cameos, even more ridiculous costumes, and yet more betrayal. The gist: Cannibal kingpin Frank Gathers (yes, Chris Rock) is torturing the Lyon family from within the same prison Lucious has been stuck in for the last three months; Frank learns that Cookie snitched on him so she could get out of prison early in last season, and now he wants payback. And since this is Empire, he sends her the beautifully gift-wrapped severed head of one of her associates, delivered to her doorstep as a signal that he plans to kill her and her family. Big mistake. The only person who can mess with Cookie is Lucious—her half-flame, half-ally, and full-time enemy, not to mention her ex-husband and the father of her three sons. Lucious takes Frank out, flamboyantly eliminating the threat without so that the Lyon family, divided as ever, can deal with the threat within: each other.
Nice bib, though, Chris.
Empire picks up where it left off, Lyon-infighting-wise: Everyone has their allies, with Cookie and Lucious, both power-hungry and unable to rule together, battling for supremacy. But no matter how vicious the battle becomes, somehow they still love each other: Any utterance of anything on the order of “I fucking hate you” will inevitably turn into hate-fucking a few episodes later.
In one corner, we have Cookie, who has on her team her oldest son, Andre (Trai Byers), who is dealing with the guilt of accidentally killing a guy and is also about to become a father. She also has youngest son, Hakeem (Yazz Gray), the playboy-turned-serious artist-but-still-playboy, who is now dating his father’s ex, Anika (Grace Gealey). Anika has somehow foregone certain past transgressions committed against her to align with Cookie against their mutual enemy, Lucious. Their goal: to boot him out entirely, as he is evil, and will screw anyone over, even (and perhaps especially) his own family. So they better screw him over first.
Lucious, meanwhile, has only middle son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) on his side. But that doesn’t seem to matter, because by the end of last night, in spite of Cookie’s effort to team up with billionaire mogul Mimi Whiteman (yes, Mimi Whiteman, played by Marisa Tomei), it turns out Lucious and Mimi were able to broker a better deal. This in spite of the fact that Anika enticed Ms. Whiteman (who is a lesbian, btw) by twerking in a sweater set to the stylings of Bobby Shmurda, to the evident delight of the predatory investor. Even then, you still end up looking at this.
Yes, Lucious gloats, from jail, via video conference. More stuff happened during last night’s episode than happens in entire seasons of some other shows we could mention, except we won’t mention them at all, because Empire is so, so much better.