As a wise man once asked, “What’s a king to a god?” For Lucious Lyon, anyway, the answer is clear: jack shit. As the focus of much of this week’s episode of Empire — titled, with the show’s typical level of chill, “Fires of Heaven” — the artist/mogul/murderer acts like a recording-industry Zeus, throwing thunderbolts at his hapless subjects below.
Free on bail, the man of the hour brushes off press inquiries about the future of his company (now that most of his family has been forced out) by declaring “I am Empire.” During a walk-and-talk with his heir apparent Jamal and his cutthroat lawyer Thirsty Rawlins through the streets of Manhattan, he learns he’s legally barred from reentering the office to rally his employees. “You can’t stop a king from speaking to his subjects,” the younger Lyon reassures him. “Blasphemy,” Lucious replies. “I’m a god.” He then gives a press conference that’s just this side of a Nuremberg rally, in which he transforms the black-power fist into a cult-of-personality fascist salute. Ego has driven rock stars from Axl Rose to Kanye West; Lucious makes them all look like Brian Wilson during his sandbox phase.
But the patriarch has the tools and the talent to back up the talk. The episode’s plot is largely concerned with his son, Hakeem, and ex-wife Cookie‘s attempts to turn their preposterously named all-Latina girl group Mirage à Trois into a force powerful enough to take down Daddy’s kingdom. Given that the young MC treats the project as a disposable rocket booster necessary to launch its leading lady Valentina into orbit around his junk, that’s a tall order. But just when Cookie’s cane-wielding drill-sergeant routine soon whips the girls into shape, Lucious materializes in the lobby of the radio station where the group is making their debut (on a show hosted by hip-hop radio personality Sway, unconvincingly played by hip-hop radio personality Sway). Turns out the God-Emperor of Empire now owns the network and intends to blacklist all artists associated with the Lyon Dynasty upstart label. That’s all predictable enough. But stealing Valentina from her group, her label, and her man in one fell swoop? It’s fitting that the company’s called Apex Satellite Radio; he’s definitely the apex predator in this jungle.
And Lucious, like the show he centers, has more than just plot twists in his arsenal — he’s also just weirdly funny to watch. Check out his synchronized sunglasses removal with Jamal at the press conference. Listen to his hilariously labored food/pride metaphor: “It’s chewy, and it’s hard to swallow.” Gaze upon the Austin Powers–level dirty look he shoots his estranged family after declaring “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we war.” Confident, cocky, and crazy blend together in this character til it’s tough to tell one from the other; what this says about performer Terrence Howard is open to debate, but it’s certainly entertaining to watch.
Which is not to say he has a monopoly on being magnetic. Taraji P. Henson is somewhat sidelined this episode, but she has her moments for sure. The slew of semi-racist jokes Cookie hurls at Valentina when she finds the singer shacked up with Hakeem are as dubious as a Donald Trump rally — “I’m not talking to you, Guadalupe, you need to find your drawers!” — yet her ability to always go there, wherever “there” may be, is part of her gonzo charm.
Sometimes, though, actions speak louder than words, as the awkward post-prison family dinner she attends at Lucious’s invitation demonstrates. She gets some good wisecracks off at her ex’s expense: “I doubt if Jesus Christ Himself could save you without burning his hands.” Dragging the tablecloth from the banquet table, however, along with every plate of food along with it — that has a much bigger impact. (Hat tip to Rhonda‘s hilariously whitebread reaction: “Oh my gosh!”)
Cookie’s biggest success this week, though, came when she crashed Lucious and Jamal’s big party with Pitbull and Timbaland in tow, while wearing a bustier made entirely from gold chains as thick as your wrist. Yes, her seizure of the club’s soundsystem so Hakeem can perform a diss track about his dad is about as plausible as Meek Mill successfully storming the stage at Drake’s OVOFest, but Empire sensibly treats realism as an ingredient rather than the whole recipe. In a brother-against-brother civil-war showdown that’s pure fantasy, cameos by two gigantic hip-hop hitmakers add some factual spice. Three episodes into its second smash season, this show has yet to screw up the mix.
Previously: Jailhouse Rock