It’s only been four months since Fox’s hit show aired its “fall finale” before breaking for the winter — never mind that it feels more like four years, especially if you’ve been following the presidential primary season. The campaign trail’s thorny issues of race, class, sex, and gender have fueled a soap opera beyond series creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s wildest imaginings, which makes the return of this primetime juggernaut feel oddly anticlimactic and understated. Annika pushed a pregnant Rhonda down the stairs? Donald Trump’s threatening riots if he doesn’t win the Republican nomination. Even for this ridiculous country, the outrageous-behavior bar has been raised considerably.
So does tonight’s episode — “Death Will Have His Due” (love, love, love these Empire titles) — stand its ground amid the shifting landscape? More or less, and largely by simply sidestepping hot-button issues entirely. While the show has traditionally drawn tremendous strength and displayed serious chops by sandwiching nuanced, morally and ethically complex social topics between big slices of high-camp cheese, the mid-season premiere keeps the action focused almost entirely on the business and its personal, rather than political, fallout. As such, it’s a fun hour for reuniting with your old friends (and frienemies), but pretty much a placeholder in all other aspects.
Let’s start with the Lyon king himself. Mere minutes after the cliffhanger that ended the previous episode, in which his prodigal son Hakeem sided with his stunning, scheming love interest Camilla to force his old man out of the Empire, Lucious holes up in his now-former office, his son Andre and consigliere Thirsty Rawlins in tow. The embattled executive is ready to go down firing, literally, and at first it seems Rawlins is on board, whipping out a gun of his own to show his boss he’s on the level. (Wire fans will no doubt get a kick of watching actor Andre Royo, aka the lovable loser Bubbles, come strapped.)
But a combination of cooler heads and unforseen tragedy (more on this below) intervene, leading to Lyon’s temporary surrender. He instead instigates a two-pronged assault on his old company: Hire actual goons to rough up the members of the board in a Godfather–style musical montage, and task Cookie with corrupting his son’s new regime from within. As outlandish as it sounds, this is actually the most convincing the show has been at portraying the patriarch as both a gangster and a businessman — he’s just mixing the criminal peanut butter right into the legit chocolate, so to speak.
For his part, Hakeem is hilariously out of place on his father’s throne. He has less business acumen than Andre, he’s isn’t half the hitmaker that Jamal is, and while he’s got no shortage of cojones, that doesn’t equate to the cutthroat instincts of either of his parents. The show makes this point bluntly when Cookie beats him with her purse as punishment, and even more so when Lucious trots him out to the location where he murdered his old friend Bunky and dares the kid to pull the trigger. But the young Lyon’s inexperience is conveyed far more effectively with a laugh-out-loud sight gag: When his family come to negotiate a deal with him and Camilla (Naomi Campbell, purrfectly playing the part like she might have portrayed Catwoman on the Adam West Batman show 40 years ago), he reveals a suit festooned head to toe with pictures of money from around the world. Aiming for supervillain, he winds up looking like a kid in onesie pajamas; all it’d probably take to get the company back is offering him a Nintendo 64.
No wonder his focus is primarily on whether his new partner in both business and pleasure will allow him to continue seeing Flora, the angelic lead singer of his hand-crafted Latina girl group — it beats working for a living! This subplot gives up some gold, too, like when the two other members of the pet project straight-up get sick of the storyline and leave, dismissing it as a second-rate telenovela. Hey, it’s a first-rate telenovela! Then there’s the scene where, at long last, Hakeem [groan] deflowers Flora; the camera pans up from their conjugal bed to the crucifix on the wall, with the “subtlety” that has always been Empire‘s trademark. Jamal lays it on similarly thick when powerful industry figure and velvet-mafia member Jameson Henthrop strong-arms him for dating a woman and thus letting down the LGBTQ movement: He performs a song called “Freedom” while decidedly female backup dancers grind all over him. George Michael wept.
But as always, the show is not above self-critique — far from it, in fact. When Annika goes to visit her (alleged!) victim Rhonda in the hospital, she muses about what her fall and miscarriage really mean. “When I heard the news,” she says, “I just kept thinking it’s so bizarre, and extremely cliché, but maybe everything happens for a reason.” Well, she’s half-right, anyway! This is the series’ corniest narrative by a substantial margin, and with the possible exception of the attacker’s telltale red bottoms, they’ve done nothing clever or unique to the setting to distinguish it from the gajillion “jealous bitch/lost baby” plots that daytime soaps have been doing forever. The bereaved mother’s newfound atheism — “God doesn’t exist,” she tells Andre; “If he did, the baby would still be here” — could, if handled seriously, be such an angle, but theodicy may be too big a bite for even a show with Empire‘s ambitions to chew.
Previously: Spit Happens