'Empire' Recap: Spit Happens

A surprise coup and complex issues make the last episode of the year one of the best

Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard in the midseason finale of 'Empire.' Credit: Chuck Hodes/FOX

Last week's episode of Empire ended with a kiss. This week's episode ended with a different form of spit-swapping entirely. Perhaps you never thought you'd see Taraji P. Henson hock a loogie in the face of Naomi Campbell. But this is a show that dares to dream big. And for its "fall finale" — titled "Et Tu, Brute?" with typical Shakesperean grandiosity — the sky was the limit.

This is not to be confused with Skye Summers, the singer played by Alicia Keys, who's very much off limits to Jamal Lyon given his LGBT poster-boy image. The show's willingness to take on subjects with a degree of difficulty high enough that even so-called "prestige" dramas tend to steer clear remains impressive. Case in point: Following their rousing duet "Powerful" — a Black Lives Matter protest anthem mixed with "Roar"-style empowerment pop — inveterate morning-DJ troublemaker Charlamagne tha God, appearing as himself, bluntly interrogates the pair about their identities. "You black now?" he asks Skye, accusing her of "singing about a race she never really claimed." Without realizing that he's struck a nerve, he asks Jamal how people would react if, despite being gay, he suddenly started dating a woman. You can see every possible shade of these sentiments expressed across social media anytime a celebrity's statements on race or sexuality make the national news. A quickie photoshop of Skye with "a Rachel Dolezal wig" adds even more authentic viral-politics flavor to the mix.

All of this was in service of last week's shocking smooch — maybe the single soapiest moment in the show's history, at least until that staircase tumble tonight. The series could have coasted off the sensationalism of that moment for as long as it wanted; instead, it choose to dig into the sociopolitical subtext. (Showrunner mindreading attempts are always ill-advised, but it's not tough to imagine it's because this shit matters to them.) Not that any of it felt like getting lectured, of course. It wouldn't be Empire if even sensitive topics weren't turned into "oh shit!" moments, whether that's the shock of Charlamagne's Q&A or the heartbreaking bigotry of Lucious when, with tears of joy in his eyes, he tells Jamal, "She fixed you!"

This made Cookie's return to prison for a Family Day performance with Hakeem and Tiana even more unique and interesting, since it was so straightforwardly a matter of social justice. There was something legitimately moving, even radical, about her speech to the inmates of her old womens' correctional facility. She tells them that the people at home viewing the show over the internet "aren't judging you for the choices that landed you in here. They're not looking at you as failures. They're looking at you as the mothers and sisters and lovers and dreamers that we all are." The decision to look at the incarcerated as people rather than as cautionary tales carries with it a restructuring of how we see the entire penal system. "What about all us women on lockdown, Cookie?" asks her old friend Jezzie (played by Da Brat, the latest in the show's endless stream of hip-hop cameos); this is the show's attempt to answer that question. Not bad for a prime-time soap starring a woman who shows up to a Johnny Cash–style jail concert dressed like the world's sexiest cenobite.

As strong as this stuff was, the series didn't close out the first half of Season Two without some weak spots. Namely, the conclusion of the egregious "Jamal makes a Pepsi commercial" storyline, which ends with the show cutting away to the actual, honest-to-god, Jussie Smollett–starring advertisement, then right back to the action. This is a product-placement-as-plot-point portrait in chutzpah, the kind of late-capitalist shenanigans that would make even Don Draper say "Too far."

But at least the soft-drink shenanigans ended when Jamal finished his bottle. For Annika's bizarre Hand That Rocks the Cradle mental meltdown, there's no end in sight. At the end of the episode, she — or someone we're supposed to think is Annika — breaks into Andre and Rhonda's house and pushes the pregnant blonde down the staircase, attempting to ensure that hers is the only surviving heir to the Empire. The slo-mo, the close-ups, the cornball classical-music cue…the cup runneth over, which for this show is saying a great deal. It also has no roots in anything we'd seen out of the character prior to this season. Whether or not she winds up being the perpetrator, she's getting done dirty by even being made into a suspect.

Fortunately, Rhonda's not the only family member to take a fall. The coup against Lucious by Mimi Whiteman and her secret wife/silent partner Camilla, played by the triumphantly returning Naomi Campbell, worked like a charm. The reveal was shocking; to assume she was on her way back as Marisa Tomei's wife, you'd have to be one of George Costanza's sexual fantasies. The scheme itself was equal parts pure opportunism, well-earned payback, and Oedipal vengeance by Hakeem, who flashed back to all the times his dad mistreated him before casting the final, fateful "Aye" in favor of removing his father from the CEO throne.

The drama of it all generated good comedy as well, from Thirsty Rawlings performing a little love-in-an-elevator on a board member to the screamworthy sight of females as formidable as Naomi Campbell and Taraji P. Henson standing side by side, competing for Hakeem's loyalty. Did we mention that when Cookie loses, she spits in Camilla's face? If you weren't hooting and hollering the moment the saliva went flying, what the hell are you watching TV for? That's entertainment, folks.

Previously: Kiss Off