When was the last time the end of an episode of a television show made you laugh with delight? If you’re an Empire viewer, chances are good this is a regular occurrence. And if you watched tonight’s installment, it probably happened to you about five minutes ago. Cookie Lyons shows up at the house of her hot new security chief Delgado to finally set their slow-burn sexual tension alight; the guy takes off his shirt to reveal the longhorn-cattle brand that marked her son Hakeem‘s kidnappers. And boom! A sex scene turns into a plot twist without missing a beat, or a thrust. It’s yet another “oh, shit!” moment of the sort that’s made the Fox soap so damn entertaining, week after week after week.
Directed by New Jack City‘s Mario Van Peebles and boasting the impressive title “A High Hope for a Low Heaven” (we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Empire‘s episode-name game does not fuck around), this season’s sixth outing shows that the wrap-up of the Lucious-vs.-the-Feds storyline a couple weeks back does not mean the end of the intrigue. In fact, Delgado may be the Lyon clan’s most insidious enemy yet. Past rivals tended to emerge from one of the worlds the record-mogul patriarch is involved with, inevitably falling to our (anti)hero’s multidisciplinary mastery of music, money, and murder. But this new nemesis is an ex-cop turned security consultant who apparently runs a gang of secuestradores on the side; he’s got experience on every conceivable side of the law. What kind of damage can he do now that he’s got his foot in the door and his hand in the Cookie jar, so to speak?
The Lyonness is the lynchpin of his plan — and of the series. As always, Taraji P. Henson mines so much gold from this character, and by reacting to each new event — Hakeem’s hostage video, his relationship with her one-time rival Anika, his eventual on-stage comeback — it’s she who helps sell the plot points, no matter how outlandish. In the actress’s hands, every OMG problem is an organic outgrowth of plain old family matters. Without that connection, the show wouldn’t work.
She brings equal thoughtfulness to her romantic material. Check out the way she quickly looks around the room before she and Delgado share their first kiss, like she needs to visually confirm it’s safe to enjoy herself. Her dialogue during the sex scene doubles down on this dynamic. “So, we gonna do this or what?” she asks first. “Make me forget about everything that happened this week last. You said you got me, right?” For her, sex is just another security service he can provide, which makes his honeypot relationship with her that much more of a bummer. She’s terrific in every mood and moment. (And she looks incredible, too, even when wearing a number of leather belts that would make the Cenobites from Hellraiser say “That’s a little much.”)
Considering how soaps usually handle sex, exclusively portraying it either as hot stuff or a recipe for disaster, this episode’s varied approach to getting it on was refreshing and, yes, sexy. Let’s run it down: In addition to the Cookie/Delgado hook-up, you’ve got Becky (the great Gabourey Sidibe, who’s so much fun on screen you wanna text her to hang out after every scene) going hot and heavy with closet-Christian MC J Poppa, whom she assures us is “hitting all the walls.” Then there’s Hakeem and Anika, who reconnect at their most desperate moment, kissing while dripping with blood and tears as Van Peebles chaotically cuts back and forth between them. Jamal is so devastated by his boyfriend Michael‘s infidelity that he has to rip off David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” to accurately convey his heartbreak’s cosmic scale in song.
And Lucious has cultivated some kind of strange father/mentor/older-man thing with Freda Gatz, the incorrigible but undeniably talented artist whose dad he murdered, shortly before assuring him he was gonna make his daughter famous. On one level the connection seems sincere; he probably does relate to her more than he does to his sons, as he tells her. On another it’s hugely manipulative: When Lucious fails to get Hakeem back on his side by telling that he wrote a song for him, no problem — he simply repeats the story to his new female protege instead, with better results.
It seems contrarian to say, but it’s smaller moments like that which elevate this show above the competition. The high-speed hairpin-turn plot is all well and good. But it’s really all about how the cast sells scenes like the one in which Jamal and Andre snap Hakeem out of his post-kidnapping funk, alternating TLC and ball-busting like brothers do. It’s in the playful way actor Jussie Smollett delivers Jamal’s reaction to his dad’s alleged partying with a gay, Geffenesque music mogul: “Ohrrrrreally?” It’s in killer exchanges like the one between born-again Andre and his dad as they fight over the direction of the Gutter Life label: “You put me in charge!” “No, I put you in place. Don’t confuse the two.” A show like this contains so many moving parts, all of which have to go like clockwork for the series to be smart as well as merely sensational and successful. And right now, even the tiniest gears are spinning in the right direction.
Previously: Lord Have Mercy