[The following is a review of Empire Season 2, Episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
After bursting out of the gate and becoming the top-rated new program of last season, Fox's Empire returned for its 18-episode sophomore effort with all of the same energy, family fighting, violence and fantastic music that caused fans to fall in love with the show in the first place. Even better, it set the stage for an epic civil war within Lucious Lyon's (Terrence Howard) titular Empire.
The foundation was laid in the closing episodes of season one, with Emmy-nominee Taraji P. Henson's Cookie partnering with sons Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) and Andre (Trai Byers), along with Lucious' ex Anika (Grace Gealey), to orchestrate a hostile takeover of the now public company. Lines were drawn, dividing the family even as Lucious was arrested for the murder of Cookie's cousin Bunkie last season. And with the season two premiere, first blood was drawn.
When I noticed there was still more than ten minutes left in the episode as Cookie and her posse strolled in the board room after their hostile takeover bid -- with the delightful Marisa Tomei as their surprise investor -- I knew something was up. Turns out Tomei took a better offer, emphasizing that Empire is Lucious Lyon's - so there is no company without him, as she sees it. Lucious' glee as he addressed his treacherous family from prison was palpable thanks to the consistently brilliant Howard. He showed the various facets of his character throughout the episode, all while separated from his designer suits and lavish lifestyle. This was the Lucious from the streets that we heard about (and saw in flashbacks last season), who created this Empire through passion and a willingness to do whatever it takes.
He proved both his ruthlessness and his commitment to family, despite their treachery, while taking on guest star Chris Rock. In an unusual casting decision, the comedian portrayed Frank Gathers, the drug dealer Cookie ratted out midway through the previous season. While Rock is many brilliant things, he doesn't come across as particularly believable in this role because he's just not menacing enough. He certainly gave it his all, growling and glaring at everyone in that prison, but it wasn't convincing. Howard ate him up in their scenes together, and yet it was Rock's character who was supposed to be the legendary monster of the streets.
Or perhaps it was intentional that Howard dominated those moments, considering he did ultimately come out ahead. Lucious used his vast financial resources to buy out Gathers' men, turning the tables on the man Cookie called "Hannibal." When Gathers gave the order to kill Lucious, he quickly learned that he was no longer the one giving the orders. Lucious then gave the same order, twisting the knife in Gathers' final moments by telling him that he intended to sign the killer's talented daughter to Empire, and then sleep with her. Gathers' fate was sealed when Cookie came to visit Lucious in prison -- something he could never do for her -- and filled him in on the threats she'd begun receiving from Gathers, unleashing the beast within her ex-husband. Lucious summed up the familial relationships in this series perfectly by telling Cookie that he both loved her and hated her at the same time.
It seems like only yesterday that Hakeem and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) were singing together in that series premiere simply for the love of music and one another. What a stark contrast to their bitter exchange while under protective quarantine at Lucious' house this season. Jamal told Hakeem that he was going to bury his album now because of the hostile takeover attempt, while Hakeem insisted it was because Jamal wanted to be "the only one." ("I was always the only one," Jamal shot back.) After being handed the keys to the empire by his father last season, Jamal seems to have slowly transformed into the darker aspects of his father, behaving in a completely self-centered manner and even showing some unexpected intolerance (to more flamboyant displays).
It's both a heartbreaking evolution for what was the show's sweetest character and a remarkable achievement by Smollett. While Henson is getting all the well-deserved accolades for her show-stealing performance in Empire, both Howard and Smollett are turning in equally powerful and multi-layered performances. And that's within one of the most consistently brilliant and talented ensembles on television. Jamal's transformation into the new Lucious at the head of Empire firmly cements the divide between the family, with Cookie and her other two sons on one side while Lucious and Jamal stand on the other. It was a heartbreaking scene at the close of the episode when he threw all of them out of Lucious' house where they'd gathered to weather the Gathers-ing storm. For a moment, after he coldly slammed the door in Cookie's face, the facade started to crumble and the old Jamal emerged in absolute torment over what he was doing. But the new Jamal quickly buried his sensitivity to get back to the business of running an empire.
If there was any concern that creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong couldn't follow up their fantastic first season, this single hour of television laid them to rest. Like Dallas before it -- which is a clear inspiration -- there is still plenty of story to be told within this fractured and dysfunctional family. We love them, we love to hate them and we love to watch them love and hate one another. It looks like we're in for another wild ride, and with six more episodes to play with this season it might even get crazier this season. We can only hope!
Empire continues next Wednesday with "Without a Country" at 9pm on Fox. Check out a preview below:
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