'Empire' Recap: Number One With a Bullet

Steamy threesomes, power plays, Russian roulette — welcome to one 'Boom Boom Boom Boom' episode

Adam Rodriguez and Taraji P. Henson in 'Empire.' Credit: Chuck Hodes/Fox

When it comes to Lucious Lyon, there's no separating the man and his music. The character plays like a parody of pretentious, tempestuous artistes — people who use every triumph and tragedy as fuel for their work and their bad behavior. No wonder stepping into his mind is like watching a Behind the Music episode. In a series of dramatic flashbacks, we discover the shocking origin of the gunshot sound effects that drive the mogul's tailor-made collaboration with young upstart Freeda Gatz: That's the noise his bipolar mother would make while playing Russian roulette. This raises two major questions. First, given Lucious's erratic behavior, is he beginning to suffer from the manic mood swings that plagued both his mom and his son Andre? Second, if that's the secret behind "Boom Boom Boom Boom," is there a similarly shocking truth behind Hakeem's "Drip Drop"?

Like most of the questions on tonight's episode — "True Love Never" — they go unanswered. What's up with our (anti)hero? What happened to his mom? Who was Mimi Whiteman crying to on the phone? What's the endgame for Andre's devious preacher? Will Delgado be able to keep his kidnapper comrades in check, or will he be forced to choose between them and Cookie? This week's Empire installment was the first in the series' history that felt more like a holding pattern than a full-speed-ahead assault. It introduced some new storylines, strung others along, and didn't resolve any issue more major than who gets to sing lead in Mirage à Trois. So to properly enjoy the episode, you have to look for subtler pleasures — well, alright, "subtler" isn't the right word for anything on this show, but you get the point.

For instance, you can focus on the cameo of The Mod Squad's Clarence Williams III as Huey Jarvis, a Quincy Jones-esque music legend who dispenses wisdom and bestows blessings like a Grammy Award–winning version of Yoda. Lucious is desperate for this dude's approval, so when he taps Jamal for a coveted "living-room session" for an in-house audience of industry power players instead, it prompts the elder Lyon into a tailspin. Cue the episode's final shot, with the mogul firing a gun into the camera

But judging from his behavior elsewhere in the episode, the Lyon King was gonna roar regardless. In one of the hour's funniest moments, he almost singlehandedly (literally!) scuttled a streaming-service merger by knocking its arrogant techbro CEO out cold for calling his lyrics "shallow": "Shallow that, punkass." Nice comeback, Lucious! You've got to hand it to Empire in the wish-fulfillment department: Most internet-startup types are so obnoxious that playing them a little chin music should be considered a public service. But messing with the guy's morphine drip in order to dupe him into going through with the merger anyway?  That's cold even by Lyon standards, though it's not tough to imagine the real-life streaming wars getting just as rough.

His partner in crime for that particular dirty deed was Mimi, the enthusiastically thirsty lesbian billionaire played by Marisa Tomei. She took on a more prominent role in this episode than in any other so far, thanks largely to one of the strangest, hottest kinda-sorta sex scenes of the year. Rendezvousing with Lyon at a club, Mimi procures a parade of beautiful women and a metric ton of high-end alcohol; by the time the pair finishes consuming the latter, they're ready to turn their attention to the former. Both of them settle on the same lovely lady, so they reach a gentle(wo)men's agreement to share and share alike.

This leads to a drunken quasi-hookup in Lucious' suite, in which the pair alternately kiss each other, leer at their prospective conquest, and give each other seemingly sincere pep-talks about self-worth. Yes, a teary phone call to a mystery person and a gun-tattoo-induced flashback put the kibosh on the threesome. But until then, the hook-up gleefully perverse — in both the dictionary definition of running contrary to the norm, and the everyday connotation of kinky. Here are two people who, as best as we can tell, aren't all that attracted to each other; the decision to have sex with and/or near each other is just for the sheer hell of it. All the weird emotional energy is more grist for the erotic mill — and a showcase for Tomei's ability to transform herself from ultraconfident swag machine to teary drunken mess with just a few streaks of mascara.

It's the bizarro version of the scene that opened the episode, in which Cookie and Delgado roll around in bed for a fuck so zipless it lasts for three full days. In that scenario, the relationship is pure romance, the sex energetic and wrapped in satin sheets — a far cry from the stumbling staging of the Lucious/Mimi/April hook-up. But there's still menace beneath the surface, given the guy's secret alliance to the clique that kidnapped Hakeem; in fact, it seemed all but certain he kept the Lyonness tied up that long specifically so he could wreak more havoc behind the scenes. The fact that he didn't may speak to his true loyalty, or it may simply indicate that Empire wanted to choreograph a 72-hour make-out session. The options are wide open.

Previously: Sleeping With the Enemy