When the time finally came for someone to take a shot at Lucious Lyon — not with a federal indictment or a backroom bargain, but a bullet — there was no way Empire would half-step it. It went down on an awards-ceremony red carpet in front of hundreds of cameras broadcasting live, shot in slo-mo, with a child of the intended target getting caught in the crossfire. If you could splice the DNA of the final scenes of New Jack City and The Godfather Part III, you’d get something like what last night’s high-octane episode (“Rise by Sin”) delivered.
So pour one out for Freeda Gatz, who by destroying her life with this failed assassination attempt (her musical collaborator Jamal took the hit and survived, if barely) finally became an interesting character. Sadly, she was already on her way there, leaving her sullen struggle behind bars to really come alive in her creative partnership with the guy she damn near killed. She even had a solid laugh line at the expense of Cookie‘s black-sheep sister Carol, who showed up to the ceremony drunk and prompted the young MC’s deadpan question: “You need me to call you an Uber?”
But her attempt to spare the Lyons from this embarrassment led to her downfall, as the older woman tipped her off that her father Frank Gathers died on Lucious’ orders. A few flashback snippets later, and Gatz is booking down the red carpet, stealing a gun from security, and blasting away — all dressed in white, like an avenging angel. It’s a great moment for a supporting player whose continuing presence in the show had gotten a bit baffling. Even better, it was a terrific way to tie together many of the season’s storylines, from the Gathers murder to the Cookie-Carol sibling rivalry to the Lyons’ father-son falling out.
Amazingly, the assassination attempt is arguably not the most explosive event of the episode; on Empire, the verbal pyrotechnics are just as impressive. Consider Cookie’s boardroom blow-up with Carol: The not-quite-recovered alcoholic/addict is teetering on the edge of the wagon thanks to Tariq, her old friend turned FBI agent, and the newly minted co-CEO tells her in no uncertain terms that neither the booze nor the boyfriend are a healthy influence. Her sibling sees this as part of a pattern that leads her to lose one significant other after another to her more successful sis, up to and including Lucious himself. When she tells the Lyoness that she doesn’t really care about her, out come the claws: Tossing shit around the room and shouting at the top of her lungs, she exiles her prodigal sister from the award show, from the company, from her apartment, and from her life. Taraji P. Henson makes a meal out of the scenery here for sure, but it stems from her character’s rage at being accused of lacking empathy for a family member. You can say a lot of things about her, but don’t you dare say that.
An even harsher confrontation occurs when Lucious catches Jamal mid-clinch with D-Money, the closeted superproducer who’s making a play for both the singer’s heart and his next record. The dude feigns disgust once he realizes they’re being watched, but the mogul, to his credit, sees through the ruse: “I see D-Money is still on the DL.” Yet he excoriates his son anyway, both for allowing himself to be manipulated by a man who’s keeping his true self hidden and for being gay in the first place. “I’ve tried to tolerate something that is intolerable to my nature,” he says, incongruously elegant in his expression of ignorance. “Lucious, don’t be a sissy bitch — put it in the music,” growls the young Lyon in a mockery of the dismissive advice his old man always gives him. Within seconds his father’s hand is around his throat and his fist is cocked. “The day you die from AIDS, I’m gonna celebrate,” he sneers, his words more hurtful than the punch he held back would have been.
But it wasn’t all gunshots and knock-down-drag-outs — the episode was sprinkled with the usual share of sharp one-liners. In addition to Freeda’s Uber quip, there was mentally-ill matriarch Leah Walker‘s antebellum insult of her son’s staff: “So many maids and people working in this house, it feels like Gone With the Wind.” Cookie had her customary half-hearted slams on the man she can’t help but still love, later saying “Shut up, Billy Dee” when he shows up in a tux to take her instead of a supermodel to an awards show. Even Jamal, rarely a generator of comedy on the show, got a good one in when he referred to the memorably be-cleavaged prosecutor who tried to take his dad down as “Tits McGee.” Yes, apparently you can say “tits” on a broadcast network now. Who knew? Empire: entertaining and educational. With the season finale coming up next week, let’s see if it stays that way.
Previously: Modern Family