Jennifer Hudson, Serayah, Trai Byers, Bryshere Y. Gray, Jussie Smollett, Terrance Howard, Patti LaBelle

This insane commercial is shrill, awful, and an affront to basic decency, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It popped into my head as I watched “Die But Once” and “Who I Am” due to how frequently I was typing the phrase “so much stuff” in my notes. One would need an ample army of Stuffies in which to stuff all the stuff that happened in the two-hour Empire finale. So much stuff happens between the two episodes, it’s difficult to parse it all. It’s like nine episodes of Behind The Music compressed into two hours. There’s so much stuff that I’d imagine the two-hour event was a bit of an endurance test even for Empire’s most passionate fans. But some elements from both episodes worked so well, it made the elements that didn’t work that much more irritating. It’s the kind of irritation I’d experience if I went to one of those elaborate buffet chains and allowed a complete stranger to make my plate based on his whims. Even if I loved the turkey leg and the broccoli cheese casserole, I’d be low-key furious if there were beets and cantaloupe taking up valuable space where something awesome could have been.

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“Die But Once” gets off to an amazing start with Malcolm and Cookie on their romantic rendezvous while Lucious has to muddle through his worsening symptoms and writer’s block on his own. I was intrigued by Malcolm and Cookie’s relationship, so I was disappointed to see their story come to an end so quickly. I’ve seen complaints about the abruptness of their pairing, but I thought it came together elegantly. The writers teased it for weeks, then he confessed his feelings and shit got real. It only makes sense for Cookie to leap at Malcolm given she spent 17 years in prison and her only sexual outlet is Lucious Lyon, who is only the catch of your dreams if you’re a Maury producer who fell asleep at her desk. Cookie deserves to get hers. They enjoy a chaste love scene in the Berkshires, but the tryst gets Cookie banished from Empire and Malcolm on the first thing smoking to Washington D.C.

The Malcolm fling sends Lucious into a jealous rage, and he banishes Cookie from Empire, only the first of the two times that happens in the two hours. This alone makes a case for letting this finale be Empire’s only foray into back-to-back episodes. A planned two-hour episode could be interesting, but these were distinct episodes aired in sequence, and when Empire is juggling this much per episode, watching two induces whiplash. Moderation is key because of the show’s naturally repetitive rhythms. Because the larger story is about the struggle for control of Empire, the show will always have cyclical stories about someone leaving or threatening to leave the company. But Lucious has been so profoundly evil, everyone is sprinting at once, and Empire’s revolving doors get put to a lot of use. Andre doesn’t want to be CFO anymore, opting instead to attend Wednesday Bible study with Michelle. Hakeem is so livid about Camilla, he’s bold enough to diss Lucious and threaten to have sex with his almost-stepmother in a freestyle before a packed house. (That he soon makes good on that threat communicates a lot about the lengths to which Empire will go to drop a jaw.)

The only character still engaging with Lucious is Jamal, a connection that begins when Jamal’s album starts selling briskly and garnering positive press, and Lucious begins telling Jamal he’s next in line to run Empire without acknowledging it’s sort of by default at this point. Jamal’s motivation for wanting to run Empire has been a moving target. First, he didn’t care to run the label at all. Then he wanted to run it to spite Lucious. Then, to run it in spite of Lucious and all his misdeeds. Now, after coming out, it looks like Jamal is mostly motivated by his stubborn desire to win the fatherly approval Lucious has withheld from him for his entire life. Lucious can’t get a single soul to help him finish his terrible song, and when Jamal steps in when others won’t, his reward is more taunts from Lucious about throwing him in the trash. Most people would lose it on Lucious, especially in the immediate wake of the paternity bombshell, but Jamal calmly takes a couple of digs, helps with the song, and has a few laughs. The more disrespect Lucious dishes out, the more eager Jamal becomes to prove his worth. I really enjoyed the scenes, but I’m generally a sucker for any scripted depiction of collaborative songwriting. Plus, whatever Jamal’s strategy was, it works. By the episode’s end, he and Ryan are breaking in the executive desk.

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“Die But Once” is surprisingly light on Cookie, but she gets the pivotal final moment, when she hears Lucious confess to Bunkie’s murder while in the throes of a fever dream. Lucious also mentions the purportedly good news: He doesn’t have ALS, he has myasthenia gravis, which causes similar symptoms but can be managed and isn’t fatal. In a frantic ending montage, Lucious goes full messianic cult leader and Cookie creeps up with a pillow as if to smother him. The resolution of Lucious’ health issues is conflicting. His mortality had to be dealt with at some point, and since there isn’t any option outside of having Lucious go from having a terminal illness to not having one, the misdiagnosis angle isn’t a bad way to go. However, it’s the choice that doesn’t allow Lucious’ condition to deteriorate again, and with one opportunity to show the lion in winter, I’m surprised the writers didn’t want to squeeze more juice out of Lucious’ deathbed desperation.

The decision makes more sense by the end of “Who I Am,” which also has some fun, satisfying scenes, but feels overhandled, like too much effort goes into prodding the characters to get to where they’re supposed to end up. Lucious presents each of the boys with a gaudy trinket, but only the one that goes to Jamal represents Lucious’ blessing to head the company. It’s an oddly-timed announcement on a story level, since Lucious also takes the opportunity to tell the boys he’s not actually dying after all. As a result, Lucious only selects one of his sons to assume a bigger role in Empire at the very moment that role loses its urgency and becomes abstract. The scene with the brothers squabbling after Jamal’s coronation has real potential, but it’s limited by the fact that Jamal’s power is mostly symbolic at this stage. He’s making bold moves with Andre and Hakeem, including pushing back the release date on Hakeem’s album, but does Jamal really have that kind of authority with Lucious no longer on borrowed time? The scene feels like it was written to fit with the cliffhanger, with the characters doing and saying whatever was necessary to lay the groundwork for Jamal as the official head of Empire.

All of “Who I Am” has that kind of hustle to it, and the result is a scatterbrained episode that creates some promising threads for next season, but doesn’t seem to mind how it gets there. After their brief reconciliation, Lucious and Cookie are back on the outs when Lucious reviews the security footage in his bedroom, revealing that Cookie strongly considered smothering him. Jamal, whose loyalty has now shifted entirely to Lucious, is disappointed in Cookie and mostly unbothered when she accuses Lucious of killing Bunkie. Lucious finishes winning Jamal over by coming to his defense after Black Rambo bumrushes the Empire press conference, yelling that as a real MC, he refuses to work for a “batty man” like Jamal.

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I’ve been complaining about Empire’s homophobia problem since the show began, and it has only gotten worse. The Jamal plot is outright terrible. The Empire team clearly wants to create a realistic, authentic world but also reserve the right to take flights of fancy, and the show can’t have it both ways. If in Empire’s world, no attempt was made to mirror the actual hip-hop industry, if the show only featured musical artists in character, and if it steered around the specifics, it could play such things as fast and loose as desired. But this is a world in which Snoop Dogg, Juicy J, Rita Ora, and Patti LaBelle exist, Lucious name-checks The Cold Crush Brothers, and the artists in his concert are donating a portion of their earnings to Black Lives Matter. If that’s the lane Empire wants to travel in, material like the Black Rambo plot will never, ever work.

Members of the LGBT community are still disrespected, demeaned, othered, abused, and killed at a staggering rate. That’s a story worth telling, and Jamal’s negotiation of his sexuality has provided Empire’s first season some of its most poignant, affecting material. That’s why it’s frustrating to see it cheapened with the Black Rambo stuff, which is ham-fisted as hell and takes huge liberties for a show that works so hard at verisimilitude. This kind of flagrant, boastful homophobia does not widely exist in the hip-hop community, and it does not widely exist in the black community, and I need this show to knock it off. This thread is becoming actively offensive, considering the word “faggot” has been uttered more often in season one of Empire than on the overwhelming majority of hip-hop records. At what point does this go from reflecting homophobia to fomenting it? The story might be justifiable if good scenes came out of it, but the underground rap battle is among the worst scenes this show has done. Jamal winning the crowd over with that treacly song was corny and has zero connection with reality, while Black Rambo’s flow is only matched by that of Karl Rove.

As fervently as I hate the Jamal story, “Who I Am” redeems itself by creating robust opportunities for season two, even if it has to do so through brute force. For example, the brute force with which Rhonda, who gets all of four minutes of screen time, caves Vernon’s head in when he and Andre are fighting for some amorphous reason. Like how forcefully Agent Carter gets crammed back into the story in just enough time to arrest Lucious for Bunkie’s murder, a murder she’ll have trouble proving after Andre and Rhonda finish pulping Vernon’s body in the Vitamix. Like the sheer force of a final shot resting on Lucious’ face while he’s imprisoned in what looks like the Paris Catacombs.

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The goal of “Who I Am” was to radically redraw the battle lines, promising an entirely different dynamic when Empire returns, and that feels exciting. For Cookie, Anika, Andre, and Hakeem to engineer a hostile takeover is an absolutely delicious idea, which has as a bonus the scrappy Cookie and Anika periodically rehearsing for their inevitable World Star girlfight video. With Jamal as head of the company, Empire can use him to explore the corrupting influence of power, a theme these final episodes swiped at but never pursued fully. And Lucious, newly emboldened after cheating death, is a cornered animal, confined in squalor while Cookie makes herself at home in his mansion. Good stuff, but a whole lot of it, and it’s partially obscured by some pure nonsense. What looked like a more deliberate pace taking hold in “Sins Of The Father” wasn’t that at all. Empire is back to its machine-gun storytelling and clearly has no plans to let up. It’s potent, but definitely too potent for a double dose.

Stray observations:

  • It’s atypical for me to have such a precise idea of what a grade should be, but I wish I had a minus to split between the two episodes. A B- feels too low, but a B feels a tad bit generous.
  • The original music in this episode didn’t rise to the show’s capabilities. I kind of miss “Drip Drop.”
  • I didn’t understand how Michelle’s decision to sign with Lucious as a gospel singer compromised her morality in the way Andre implied. It’s not like Lucious said “How would you like to become this generation’s Adina Howard?”
  • I’m pretty surprised by how tame the love scenes have been, mostly because of the stuff Shonda Rhimes has been doing at ABC. Given how lurid Empire can be, a sex scene like Cookie’s scenes with Lucious and Malcolm feels out of place. Even the glimpse of Hakeem and Anika, which is intended to scandalize, is PG-13. I’m just saying, when your freshman drama is pulling 14 million viewers a week, Standards doesn’t tell you what to do, you tell them.
  • Hakeem considers defecting to Creedmoor, because he’s not under a contract either. No one is, it seems. Personally I think it’s kind of sweet that Lucious runs Empire according to the honor system.
  • Lucious Lyon’s real name is Dwight Walker, he reveals in his Don Draper moment.
  • Mario Van Peebles directed the first episode, Debbie Allen the second.
  • Lucious to Jamal: “What do you know about death, boy? What do you know about them killers? I’ve faced death since I was 9 years old.” In fairness, Jamal has dared two gunmen to shoot him in the very recent past, so maybe not that lecture.

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