Bryshere Gray as Hakeem and Taraji P. Henson as Cookie, Empire
[Warning: The following contians spoilers from Wednesday's episode of Empire. Read at your own risk!]
Empire is back and Wednesday's episode settled two important questions: Who pushed Rhonda and did Empire get better after its long break?
Opening with Rhonda bloody and battered as her would-be killer walks out the door was certainly a good start. The scene reminded us, out of the gate, that Empire is a soap opera with dramatic tendencies -- not the other way around --and the pregnant-lady-in-distress bit certainly gives good soap.
As she moans in the darkness of the night, Andre pleads with Lucious (Terrence Howard), who's been voted out by Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), to vacate the premises before the cops come. Crazy Lucious is cemented to that chair and, from what we know of him, no paper or authority will get him to budge.
In our first Yaaas! of the spring season, Hakeem comes home to find Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) in his apartment, broom straddled across her lap. It's a clear callout to the epic ass-whoopin she put on him in the first season, but for some reason, this doesn't have quite the same oomph. She's admonishing him for giving the family business away - "You threw away our legacy!" "Why Hakeem? Why would you do this to your family?" - but, sorry, hasn't Cookie been just as guilty of sabotaging that same family business? Hakeem insists he didn't know he would make that decision until then; Lucious had it coming, he says. He's not wrong.
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Cookie warns him one last time to take the vote back - a single, impressive tear streaming down Taraji's face - before issuing another beatdown via broom, then with her purse. That Cookie is resourceful.
Back to Rhonda, who, covered in blood, asks God to save her baby, then uses her phone to set off the alarm to get rescued. Just as the cops storm Lucious' office, guns drawn, Camilla (Naomi Campbell) marches in looking FIERCE. It's a standoff until Becky (Gabourey Sidibe) rushes in with the news Rhonda is in the hospital. Cookie, Jamal and Lucious are at the hospital but when Hakeem shows up, Cookie, cloaked in the skin of a baby Sasquatch, pushes him away. "Don't nobody wanna see your ass," she says.
They break the news to Andre (Trai Byers) that the baby didn't make it in a great, heartbreakingly convincing scene that tightens the show's family focus. Andre rightfully breaks into hysterics but they try to calm him, worried he'll suffer another mental health relapse, although he's reacting as any normal person would after learning his baby just died. Andre is howling and writhing - putting to rest those rumors that Byers wanted to leave cause he wasn't given room to flex his Yale drama training. You better act boy!
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Rhonda, who has no idea what happened, renounces God and while a bit overwrought, this both illustrates what couples really go through and sets up a good conflict with Andre, whose faith got him through mental health nadir.
Cookie goes to Lucious' place comforting him, which is odd since they were mortal enemies not long ago. (Trauma brings families together though, right?) Cookie promises to take Camilla out from the inside within 48 hours while Lucious pledges to assassinate Hakeem if he tries to become CEO. We then find Camilla flirting with Hakeem while tinkering with a clothing line, which, GURL: didn't you just take over a record label? Make up your mind! Camilla is telling Hakeem her big plans for them--as soon as he gets rid of his little Mexican girlfriend (ouch, Empire)--when Cookie storms in since, apparently, security is pretty lax under the new management. Cookie and Camilla trade boring barbs over Hakeem and company ownership; even Campbell looks at one point like she was suppressing a laugh. It felt flat.
As Lucious hires a set of goons to enact a reign of terror (is that you Ewan McGregor?) Rhonda gets a visit in the hospital from shady Anika (Grace Gealey) who's all, "Oh honey, there, there." Anka coos as Rhonda grieves over losing an Empire heir, knowing full well she has a little Hakeem in her womb, giving us our first suspect in The Pushing.
Destiny's Problem Child, as Cookie calls Hakeem's girl group, is rehearsing when Hakeem bursts in, yelling at Laura (Jamila Velazquez) for being lazy. They trade barbs; in one of the most meta lines of the night one of the girls says, "I can't take this second-rate telenovela anymore." (Truer words, honey.)
Meanwhile, Jamal meets with Jamieson (William Fichtner), who can make big things happen for his career but demands he stick to being gay instead of, you know, bi or whatever he was doing when hooking up with Sky Summers (Alicia Keys). Jamieson rattles off a list of countries where being gay is punishable by death, including Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Somalia, as if Jamal is supposed to be the U.S. homo hip-hop ambassador. While highlighting a naked agenda for the show, it does educate the audience (if heavy-handedly) and expose some of the real sexual identity politics entertainers have endured for generations--although the pressure is usually to appear straight. Anyway, Lucious plays a dramatic piano solo as a montage of Empire board members being harassed plays, including a lady who comes home to find her kitty cat hanging in her hallway. If your eyes haven't rolled out of your head yet, thanks for hanging on.
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Cookie and Jamal have a heart-to-heart, in which Jamal educates mom on modern-day sexual identity politics ("Sexuality is fluid," he says, to which Cookie retorts, "Sounds like you just wanna be freaky-deaky.") She urges him to stay on Jamieson's good side, which prompts Jamal to do a song ("Freedom?") about liking boys, girls, whatever. You can almost hear DJs queueing it up for LGBT pride parties this summer.
In the hospital, where Andre, Jamal and Cookie are waiting on Rhonda's release, Cookie reveals she had a miscarriage. Jamal concocts a scheme to take down Camilla. When the three approach Camilla, they go back and forth about who'd get Jamal's album and some other music business mechanics, which, honestly, is one of the least interesting things about this show. A very slim majority of people understand or care about the meat of music business deals--licensing, 360 deals and whatnot--so when Andre says something about (Jay-Z's) Roc-A-Fella being structured in a similar way, it's clear you're supposed to be interested here, but, no. Hakeem, in his hideous Richie Rich looking suit, sides with his family as Camilla warns him not to trust them. "Everything you worked for can be gone," she says, acknowledging some actual work that must have happened off-screen cause we sure haven't seen it. Hakeem says he took Empire because his dad lost his way and for now, it looks like Camilla is shut out again.
Hakeem then visits Laura, whom we are now CERTAIN is a virgin thanks to the teddy bears, lavender, pink and porcelain horse figurine adorning her room. Hakeem is reluctant to seal the deal but she wants it, and so they do the Wild Thang...right under the cross over her bed. Who needs subtlety? Just as you want to jump through the screen and scream DON'T GIVE IT UP GIRL, NO! she says, "I love you" as they make love. It's a rookie mistake that everyone on Tinder will tell you means it's just a matter of time before he stops returning her calls. He says I love you back; we'll see.
Finally, Lucious meets Hakeem down at the docks where Lucious shot Bunkie (Antoine McKay) way back in the day. He gives Hakeem a gun and two choices: give up your aspirations for Empire, or shoot me now because I'll kill you. Again, we're supposed to feel something here, but, even when Hakeem puts the gun to his dad's head, you're unmoved. "Pull the damn trigger," Lucious yells, knowing full well he won't. You kind of wish Hakeem would, just to give this sleepy story some oomph. Alas, there's always next week right?