Hakeem and Laura had the big wedding planned, and Lucious and Anika wound up tying the knot, but it was Boo Boo Kitty and Rhonda who really took the plunge. And as the pair took their battle over the edge, it wasn’t just Andre who looked on in dismay and disbelief — the audience did too. When the warring women fell off that balcony for Empire‘s season-ending cliffhanger, they took the show’s usually sure-footed storytelling instincts with it. Cutting to black before we could find out which character died was the culmination of a series of decisions that made the series’ final installment till next September — entitled “Past Is Prologue” — a reason to worry about the future.
The problem isn’t just that the episode ended on as close to an literal cliffhanger as you can get without a actual cliff, though that’s a big part of it. Plenty of venerable shows have shut down a season with a shocking demise or two; some, like Game of Thrones, have even reversed course the following year. But leaving viewers in the dark by merely teasing a death without revealing the identity of the deceased is both a cheat and a cheap shot, as any Walking Dead fan can tell you. It’s much more rewarding to let people grapple with the consequences of the loss of a character than to leave them wondering which character was lost in the first place.
This goes double when Rhonda and Anika are the characters in question. It’s not the fault of Kaitlin Doubleday and Grace Gealey, who’ve always made the most of these mostly peripheral roles. They’re two of the most attractive people in a cast full of lookers, for one thing (hey, don’t knock it — whether male or female, hotness counts on a soap). More to the point, they invest their parts with the intelligence and tenacity these women would require to find their way into the Lyons’ den and stay there. But that doesn’t make them central to the story, regardless of their place in the opening credits: They’re not part of the explosive nuclear family of five who really drive the story. Capping off a season with their fates in the balance is like ending a year of Mad Men with a fistfight between Harry Crane and Ken Cosgrove. They’re entertaining to watch, but they’re not where the action really is, even if their pregnancy-centered storyline hadn’t been the season’s weakest link all along. A comparison to last year’s climactic close-up on a locked-up Lucious murmuring “Game on, bitches” is not flattering.
Nor does their tête-à-tête and tumble hold up against last week’s twist ending, the shooting of Jamal by Freda Gatz as he dove to take a bullet intended for his dad. In retrospect it’s tough to understand why co-creator Lee Daniels and showrunner Ilene Chaiken, who co-wrote the finale, decided to end the season here instead of on that blood-soaked red carpet. Even if the singer’s status had been left up in the air, at least you’d know exactly what happened and who it happened to, giving you plenty of daddy-issue drama to chew on over the long months before Season Three starts up. Moreover, Lucious and his musical progeny are far more important to the Empire than their in-laws; using their conflict to close out the year would just feel right in a way that the Anika/Rhonda duel doesn’t.
In fact, a baffling amount of the preceding season, let alone the previous episode, was abandoned in favor of introducing brand-new characters and subplots. Jamal’s bullet wound? Healed off-screen in time for him to come home in a wheelchair after a title screen reading “THREE WEEKS LATER.” Leah Walker‘s chance to reveal her identity — and her son’s lies — to the press and paparazzi assembled outside the hospital? Brushed aside with a passing comment about Thirsty Rawlings snatching her out of the spotlight before she should squeal. Anika getting picked up by the Feds to testify against the Lyon king? This one at least remains a factor in the form of a subpoena and a suicide attempt, but most of the tension is defused right away when she tells Lucious and Cookie all about it in her very first scene in the episode. Why bother setting all this up only to blow it off?
So instead of building on the groundwork the show laid all season, the finale started constructing whole new storylines out of thin air. Suddenly, Lucious is having flashbacks to his cop father getting murdered in front of him, and Leah’s revealing that Tariq, the FBI agent pursuing him, is actually his half brother. Speaking of the Bureau, they’re not after the Lyons for any of the numerous crimes we’ve actually seen them commit, but for some dude the mogul killed back in the day on behalf of two other dudes we’ve neither seen nor heard of before. The killing also involves a dirtbag named Shyne, played by Xzibit, who’s so important all of a sudden that he’s the one who ruins Hakeem and Laura’s wedding, not someone we actually give a shit about.
Sure, there’s some fun stuff in here too, mostly thanks Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie, the show’s perpetual standout. She lightens the mood at her wounded son’s welcome-home party when he declares himself retired from music until the family’s vicious cycle stops (“Jamal is grumpy because he’s tired and he’s never been shot before”). And she delivers an iconic entrance when, decked out in the gaudiest print she can find, she struts into Shyne’s studio to the tune of Desiigner’s ubiquitous hit “Panda.” But it’s not enough. In ending the season by dropping Anika and Rhonda over that railing, Empire dropped a brick.
Previously: Shots Fired