'Empire' Recap: Lord Have Mercy

Baptisms, burglaries, blackmail, and BJs kick off a new set of storylines

Terrence Howard, Trai Byers and Bryshere Gray on 'Empire.' Credit: Matt Dinerstein/FOX

What's an empire without a few martyrs? Rome wasn't built in a day, and Andre Lyon's born-again Christianity hasn't cost him anything more than a few tense moments with his family — yet. But when tonight's episode — "Be True" (as in the Shakesperean "To thine own self…") — dunked the eldest of Emperor Lucious the First's three sons in the baptismal font, it also put him in the hot seat.

After all, there's a vacancy in that spot. Turns out it's tough to bring a murder case against Lucious if the only witness shows up as a decomposing corpse in the prosecutor's car. With the Feds declaring Uncle Vernon's death a suicide to cover for their embarrassment, the entire Lyon clan — and the show itself — is free to move on. Which is a bit of a problem, narratively speaking: The entire season so far has hinged on the murderous mogul's incarceration and upcoming trial. For the writers, a clean slate also means heading back to the drawing board, beginning a suite of new stories more or less from scratch.

Chief among these is Andre's baptism. It's the one Lucious is most deeply involved in, since he sees Jesus as a business rival. "The only commandments I want followed here are mine," he says. "Check your faith at the door, son." And just in case the Lord isn't putting enough temptations in his path, Daddy Dearest sets up a few of his own. He forces Dre to deal with the delightfully dirty lawyer Thirsty Rawlings (the great André Royo; let us pray that this character tries to stage a palace coup just to get him more airtime) in a plot to steal Lyon Dynasty's masters. He sets him up as the head of the aptly named Gutter Life Records. He pays a boardroom full of strippers to give him the world's most awkward lapdances. Forgive him, Father; he knows exactly what he does.

Andre's storyline also has the deepest ties to the show's past, since his pastor Rev. Price demands he confess his sins against his family as a prerequisite. So he makes an apology tour of his entire family, admitting to his role in the studio stick-up Jamal blamed on Hakeem, telling Lucious he was the brains behind Cookie blackmailing her way back into the company after she got out of jail, and even revealing his failed suicide attempt.

Only Jamal's mom has the faith to tell him he doesn't need to tell her anything. "I've done horrible things," he says to her. "So have I, Dre," Cookie replies. "But we are good people. You wouldn't be here trying to make it right if you weren't." Of course, she then adds "So keep your mouth shut." During this scene, and throughout the church sequence, Taraji P. Henson proves once again why she's the show's real reigning monarch: Whether she's sincerely consoling her son, shrewdly advising him not to self-incriminate, or exchanging vicious insults with her estranged ex-husband, she feels human and not like a caricature. It's incredible work, week after week.

But if it's caricatures you want, look no further than Chase One, the sleazy photographer (for Rolling Stone — should we be offended?) who keeps floating around in Jamal's orbit. This guy's as close to a pure comic villain as anyone on the show has come, but fortunately the comedy outweighs the villainy. One moment you're cringing as the show allows this singularly unsympathetic scumbag to reducing the same-sex marriage debate to an attempt to get into a dude's pants. The next you're cracking up as the guy drops to his knees in a hot second, insisting that blowjobs are a form of artistic expression. "A mouth is a mouth!" he yells as the outraged singer storms off. Apparently, that's a convincing argument to his boyfriend Michael: Jamal catches the pair red, uh, handed at a party later on. Not even romantic advice from special guest Ne-Yo, as himself, could save their relationship. Empire understands that if you're going to be ridiculous, you have to be good at it.

The third in the show's new trinity of storylines involves the besieged Lyon Dynasty label. Hakeem comes on to Laura, the new lead singer of his Latina girl group, and she nearly walks away from the project. Thieves break into the studio to steal the company's music, and only quick moves by Cookie and her hunky new promoter/fixer Delgado save the day. That was Lucious' doing for sure, but the razorblade-wielding muggers who rob Tiana in the lobby, the Anonymous-like masked man who threatens the family, and the kidnappers who toss Hakeem in the back of a van at the end of the episode feel like free agents. A genuine external threat, instead of another round of Lyon family civil war, may be exactly what's needed to kick this transitional segment of the season into high gear. They say the devil you know is better than the devil you don't — but clearly they don't know Lucious Lyon.

Previously: The Art of War