In the immortal words of Drake, “this ain’t what she meant when she told you to open up more.” Throughout tonight’s episode of Empire (“The Tameness of a Wolf” — what is this, Game of Thrones?), Lucious Lyon has been prepping a music video that will tell his true life story, warts and all. This includes the childhood trauma he’s kept secret: the abuse he suffered at the hands of his bipolar mother, who shot herself in front of him over what she’d done. Proud of her ex’s honesty, Cookie screens a rough cut for her whole family at her birthday party. But instead of bonding them, it blows them apart. Andre explodes, lambasting his dad for hiding his grandmother’s illness — the knowledge of which could have helped him cope with his own. His father responds by calling both grandmother and son embarrassments. When it comes to being a bastard, psychiatry has yet to devise an effective treatment.
The irony is that in opening up about his past, Lucious has emerged a sympathetic figure for perhaps the first time in the series. Charismatic? Like most great TV antiheroes, definitely. But sympathetic? Unless you count the drugs-to-riches side of his life story he’s offered up — an element of the persona of any number of real-life hip-hop figures, nearly all of whom also exist in the Empireverse — there’s been little reason to look at Lyon as anything but a late-season Walter White: another man who overcame their hard knocks by becoming “the one who knocks” themselves. But the mogul’s pain in recalling his mother’s bipolar-induced abuse and death, as well as his subsequent time living as a homeless child, is real; ditto the teary-eyed fugue state he enters when confronted with the memories. He’s still a cutthroat businessman and a cold-blooded murderer, but it’s now clear that the parts of himself that could have staved off that fate drowned in that bathtub his mom dunked him in.
Yet in this episode in particular, his crimes are inescapable. The hour opens with a farcical memorial service for Camilla Marks-Whiteman, whom he goaded into taking her own life last week. Of course, why the Empire label — or the Empire writers — would honor a woman whose death is apparently being treated as a murder-suicide, with her in the role of the murderer, is hard to fathom. At any rate, her demise is treated as a punchline: Cookie calls her an “old battleaxe” and “a carpet-munching Romeo & Juliet,” and Lucious lobs mean-spirited, backhanded compliments at Hakeem for “killing her” with the sex tape he sent to her spouse. Is this callousness on the part of the filmmakers, who operate in an environment where audiences increasingly react to depiction of cruelty toward LGBTQ characters as exploitation, if not endorsement? Or is it an honest appraisal of the blasé way in which the Lyons would respond to the fatalities, up to and including causing them themselves? Either way, it makes it difficult to view the storyline’s in-world architect in a kindly light.
The same is true with the reemergence of Freeda Gatz, whom it seemed had drifted out of the storyline into the big rap battle in the TV-limbo sky. But when Hakeem and Jamal plan a revenge recording to hash out their daddy issues, she’s the first person they seek out. They figure they can convince her that Lucious’s involvement in her career was just a ploy to pick at them for his amusement. Gatz isn’t buying it — until she shows up on the set of her would-be mentor’s heavily revamped video for their song “Boom Boom Boom Boom” and discovers he’s dropped her verse.
The Oedipal drama doesn’t stop there. We already knew the Lyon King had her gangster father Frank Gathers killed in prison to protect Cookie, whom the druglord suspected of snitching. What we didn’t know was that Gathers gave the former “Dwight Walker” his first job as a hustler, the first step on his road to rebranding himself as “Lucious Lyon.” That makes the dead man as much a father figure to him as to Freeda — and gives Cookie every reason to freak out when she realizes what the continued alliance between the girl and her sons could uncover about her real dad’s death.
Still, family doesn’t have to be a horror show 24/7, as the episode shows in several tantalizing glimpses. No sooner does he put Camilla to rest than Hakeem has to referee a tour featuring two other love interests: his ex-flame Teyana and his current girlfriend, rising star Laura. The Latina singer comes from a far more supportive environment than her beau, as he discovers when her parents and siblings come to meet her backstage. “There’s nothing better for a father than when his child shines brighter than he ever did,” her dad says; when the young MC reacts with sadness, his GF’s folks respond with genuine concern. This is the kind of life he wants for himself, at least as much as the money, sex, and celebrity that come with his career as a music mogul. No wonder he pops the question: Laura is his ticket out as much as he is hers. (The union even earns an understanding smile from her jealous tour-mate, though it’s tellingly quick to fade.)
But it’s music, not blood, that forms the strongest connections here. When Hakeem and Jamal travel to Freeda’s inner-city neighborhood to find her, they’re warmly greeted by the locals, who love their songs and join them in an impromptu performance; the smiles on the faces of the two stars are a touching reminder of why anyone gives a shit about this business in the first place. And before it all goes south, a family singalong to Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” is the highlight of Cookie’s surprise party. Maybe Lucious is right. Maybe music is redemption after all.
Previously: Jokers Wild