Say what you will about Lucious Lyon, but the man does not lack for chutzpah or cajones. Pushed to the margins of his company by his (seemingly) united family, lined firmly behind youngest son Hakeem, he takes a page from Karl Rove’s political playbook and attacks his kid’s perceived strengths. The fashion line that’s slated to open up a big new market for Empire? Send in a few goons with guns and trucks and make every item of clothing disappear. The Teyana/Laura tour that’s minted not one but two superstars for the Lyon Dynasty sub-imprint? Plant drugs on the tour buses, call the cops, and watch them haul away everything from the lighting rigs to the instruments. The music-streaming service that’s making the record label a major player as well? Sabotage it (with a little help from double-agent eldest son Andre, aiming for the throne himself) so it fails to launch on time. And the kicker? Show up at the big shareholders meeting and personally bring up all these problems. Voila: His son is deposed, leaving him the Emperor once more.
That’s the kind of razor-sharp intrigue that made last night’s episode — “Time Shall Unfold” — the best since the show’s spring comeback. But the good stuff didn’t stop with the father-son smackdown. Surprisingly, Freeda Gatz, previously an element of the show that never quite gelled, worked as well tonight as she ever has, perhaps because for once she seemed excited to be there. Her creative relationship with Jamal is the real deal, a give-and-take referred to at one point as “Eminem and Rihanna in reverse.” Yet as her willingness to kick the shit out of a guy who dares to sit in the barbershop chair still reserved for her slain gangster father indicates, she’s still intimately tied to the very man Lucious and Cookie had killed before he could kill them in turn.
This leads the Lyoness to draft a rival for her son’s artistic affections: Stacey Run-Run, a Nicki Minaj stand-in. (Nicki Mirage, if you will). Her fame and talent are equally impressive, but her jetsetting lifestyle and tenacious territoriality mean she’ll only phone in her verse, and that she’ll contractually forbid other female MCs from working on any record she’s involved in. That’s a nasty allegation to toss the character’s IRL analogue, but whether or not it’s true, it soon drives Jamal right back into Freeda’s arms. She handled the initial rejection well; whether or not she’ll accept him again is anyone’s guess.
A bigger question arises when Annika finally drops her bombshell: She’s pregnant with Hakeem’s baby. The layers of deception involved here are dense as hell. First we learn that Jamal’s daughter with Raven-Symoné’s character isn’t his after all, leaving this unborn child the sole heir to the Empire. (“This family talks about heirs like we’re in a Shakesperean play,” Jamal sighs.) The kid’s claim is backed up by Rhonda, the very woman whose own baby became a casualty to pave the way for this one. And when Lucious approaches the mother-to-be on his own, he makes the same offer he made to another of his son’s infamous flames: a $10 million buyout, have the baby, hand it over, and get the hell out of their lives. “Mothers die in childbirth,” he reminds her threateningly — always the stick and the carrot with this guy.
But Empire saved the biggest surprise for last. After spending much of the episode doing his boss’s dirty work — snatching a hair sample from the head of Jamal’s alleged daughter, overseeing the burglary of the Antony & Cleopatra fashion line — Lucious’s consigliere Thirsty Rawlings performs what looks like a good deed, paying a visit to a nursing home. But a payoff to the staff and a few flashback snippets reveal the real reason he’s there: So is Leah Walker, the mogul’s bipolar mother. That’s right — the story of how she killed herself in front of her son, driving him to become the man he is today, is bogus, or at the very least left out the salient fact that if she did indeed hold a gun to her head, no killshot emerged.
The episode began with the very rich, very white major shareholders complimenting the once-and-future CEO for his “gritty” honesty in the “Boom Boom Boom Boom” video; the material with his mother is the centerpiece of the clip, and the driving engine of both his comeback campaign to regain control of the company. If the news gets out that Mommie Dearest isn’t also Mommie Deadest, the allegations — or rather, the fact — of fraud could sink Lucious on any number of levels. He was able to make lemonade out of the lemon tossed at him when he revealed “Lucious Lyon” wasn’t even his real name. But that’s not a trick he’ll be able to pull off again, especially not when confronted with the crowd-displeasing pathos of keeping his own mother under anonymous lock and key all these years.
Old-school villainy of this sort is what keeps the leading Lyon interesting: Just when you think he’s all about cutthroat business tactics, industrial espionage, and the occasional murder, he pulls “I keep my crazy mother in an attic” out of his hat. That’s a four-quadrant killer, folks, and a pretty irresistible antihero.
Previously: Sins of the Father