It’s Wednesday again and I miss Cookie. I know I’m not the only one, given how Fox’s runaway hit show “Empire” increased its tune-in audience by 43.75% over the course of the season, from 9.9 million for the January 7th pilot to 17.6 million for its regular 9pm time slot during last week’s double-episode finale. The numbers are higher if you factor in DVR and Internet views. The show, featuring the roller coaster life of former drug dealer turned hip-hop mogul and CEO of Empire Enterprises Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) and his extended Philadelphia clan by business and by family, most notably his three sons Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett), and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), and his ex-wife Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), is not without its critics and controversy, which only adds to the fun. Even Alessandra Stanley, of The New York Times and the Shonda Rhimes debacle, deemed the season “pretty perfect.”
As fans await news of when the second season will air — the sooner the better so long as the writers have enough time to craft new melodramatic arcs offering both authenticity and surprise, and showrunner Ilene Chaiken expects they will get back to work in mid-April — our collective longing for the “Empire” characters will multiply exponentially. The jam-packed finale’s plot twists, described by Vanity Fair’s Katey Rich as “these moments [that] whoosh by,” serve as the “groundwork for the scheming and shenanigans to come” according to Variety’s Brian Lowry, who seems overall unimpressed and calls the show “essentially a ‘Dynasty’ retread, a splashy primetime soap combining sex, money and power, with music and the predominantly African-American cast offering updated – and clearly, well timed – wrinkles.” It’s been almost 35 years since “Dynasty” debuted and 2015 seems like a perfect (read: globally unstable) time for an update of the over-the-top American family. “Empire” works because it’s high melodrama laden with the difficult truths of contemporary life, rocky terrain designed to spark discussions about our society’s most pressing challenges including class divisions, income inequality, seismic shifts in technology and business, non-traditional family structures, LGBTQ rights, and the ever-urgent topics of race and gender. Plus, it’s obvious that the cast is having a ball.
The music, which critics have described as “sometimes approximat[ing] the broad feel of Broadway music, emphasizing relatability over innovation” and “the so-bad-it’s-almost-good soundtrack,” offers the show’s characters an additional language to hear and speak, a language that is all about emotion. While more generous viewers might suspend judgment regarding whether Empire’s musical talents’ tracks, or those of its rival Creedmoor Records, for that matter, could make it in the real world, naysayers might be surprised to learn that the show’s soundtrack has been selling as well as Madonna’s new album and vying for the top spot on the Billboard 200 chart.
“Empire” also aims for classical literary roots and makes clear its kinship with Shakespeare’s “King Lear” from the first episode. When Lucious announces to his three sons that he will choose one to groom as his successor at the company’s helm (what he doesn’t tell him is that he’s been diagnosed with ALS), middle-son Jamal asks: “What is this? We ‘King Lear’ now?” Yes and no. There is one key difference. Lear has no queen and Lucious has Cookie. And that is part of the show’s genius: the reimagining of the Lear narrative arc in the contemporary hip-hop world with a quick-witted queen vying for power.
Cookie both complicates and enriches the plot lines from her very first appearance in the pilot episode, the scene where she is released from prison early for good behavior after serving 17 years for a drug deal gone bad. Her physical reentry into the everyday world of her children and ex-husband upsets the clarity of Lucious’ succession plan, not least because she’s eager to remind him that he started Empire with $400,000 she made selling drugs. Cookie, always attuned to questions of business, is bent on recuperating her investment plus profits. Her presence makes clear that no matter what Lucious says, the successor is not only his to choose and the inheritance is not only his to bestow. It is fitting that we watch her leave prison immediately following the moment where Lucious announces his plan and Jamal makes the King Lear reference. Cookie’s release and the familial jostling that ensues slows down Lucious’ decision-making process and buys time, which makes it possible for him to realize that he does not actually have a fatal illness before it’s too late and he’s pulled himself completely out of the game. In other words, Cookie makes it more difficult for Lucious to do what Lear himself did, which is to hand over his kingdom naively only to find his power and agency stripped completely by his progeny. Cookie, at her best, keeps Lucious on his toes and ready to hustle.
As rendered by the masterful Taraji P. Henson, who wastes no opportunity on screen to humanize her character, Cookie also presents us with a compelling contemporary story of the individual on the margins: a person who has made serious mistakes in life is given an unexpected second chance and is hungry to seize everything she can. Though her future suddenly looks shiny and bright, Cookie does not forget history. She relies on her memories of past events, of herself and her children and Lucious before he became a mogul living the fancy life, to her advantage. We trust her because we know that she knows and takes pride in where she and Lucious started. Cookie is both for real and skilled at putting on a good show, and we love her for her ambidextrous abilities. She is a woman in her prime with the rest of her life to live and we are ready to watch her achieve anything. Her children grew up while she was in jail (an interesting move on the part of the shows’ creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong because it frees Cookie from extended years of housework and childcare, or perhaps parallels what those years might have been, but either way it leaves Lucious to figure out how to raise the kids) and they are now men leading their own lives, making their own mistakes. She loves them fiercely, but will not be defined or stopped by them. This take on maternity and on the ongoing life prospects of a mother (or father) of adult children is refreshing and totally current.
By the end of the season, Cookie and Lucious have changed places and he is now the one in jail for the murder of Cookie’s cousin Bunkie. How will Cookie’s relationships with her three sons — suit-wearing and Ivy League-educated Andre, soul-searching songwriter and recently out-of-the-closet Jamal, and bad baby boy rapper Hakeem — change now that their father is unable to deploy his usual day-to-day machinations? What will happen with the recently IPO-ed family business? Will Jamal, named the successor by Lucious despite their impasses about his sexuality and his general approach to life and business, have what it takes to run the roost? And will Cookie visit Lucious in jail even though he never visited her?