Season 1 in focus

by Bethany Rose

Empire is a modern day retelling of The Lion in Winter, set in the music industry, with an emphasis on the world of hip-hop. On paper, it sounds like an odd adaptation doomed for failure, but the result is one of the hottest shows of the season (Empire debuted as a mid-season show in January, but it is certainly also more popular than many of its Fall predecessors).

The main story centers around the Lyon family. Lucious Lyon, the family patriarch, is head of one of the largest record labels: Empire Records. On the surface, his life seems perfect. He has a beautiful girlfriend whom he’s planning on proposing to, three talented sons, a thriving business he’s announcing will be traded publicly on the NYSE, and all the material possessions that a music mogul could dream of. But this is a take on The Lion in Winter, not a retelling of The Partridge Family. In the first episode, the chaotic layers of Lyon’s life are revealed, clearly showing that not only is it hard to make it to the top, but it’s even harder to stay there.

The first of his problems is the return of his ex-wife, Cookie. After seventeen years in prison, she re-enters civilian life with intense fire and determination. She helped Lucious build his empire, and she plans on being a part of it again, never afraid to face an obstacle head on. She also hopes to reconnect with her children, all of whom are facing various obstacles.

Created by
Lee Daniels & Danny Strong
Lizzy Leigh, Jussie Smollett, Kaitlin Doubleday
First Aired
7 January 2015
Bethany’s Grade: A+

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The Lyon sons also each bring an exciting element to the show, while complicating Lucious’ life in various ways. Andre is the oldest of the Lyon children. He’s incredibly smart, and has helped Lucious handle the business aspect of the company, but he is also suffering from bipolar disorder and a strained marriage that often causes both he and his wife, Rhonda, to portray themselves as completely different people. He is determined to do whatever it takes to be the best, but that often comes with major sacrifices he is unable to handle. Trai Byers can signal the audience into Andre’s mood with just one quick frown. There is often a sadness and confusion in his eyes. You feel his pain but still struggle to understand just what makes him tick.

Jamal is the middle child and the son who has the easiest time accepting Cookie back into his life. This acceptance mostly comes from the fact that his mother knew even before she went to prison that Jamal was likely homosexual, and she always encouraged him to be true to himself. His father, on the other hand, is homophobic, and he is shown freaking out almost anytime Jamal’s sexuality is mentioned. Jamal is also a talented singer/songwriter, but it is with Cookie’s help that he is able to translate that talent into successful music sales.

Jamal is my favorite of all the characters (I’ll admit that I will always show bias in favor of any actor who’s been in one of the first two Mighty Ducks films). Jamal’s personal struggles as a gay man with a homophobic father created some of the most compelling storylines of the season. He was often seen searching for a place. He didn’t feel he fit in his father’s empire, not just because of the attitude he received regarding his sexuality, but because he was not as interested in the business aspect as Andre, but also not as willing to capitalize on his family name like Hakeem. He struggled in his relationship with Michael. He had a lot of the typical middle child “issues,” but once Cookie re-entered his life he started working towards making his own voice heard.

Hakeem is the youngest and was just a baby when Cookie was imprisoned. He has the arrogance of a spoiled rich kid, but he is much more complex than this surface observation suggests. He is also a talented singer/songwriter, but unlike Jamal he did not hesitate in using his family’s name and business to start his music career. It is also clear that the absence of a mother figure took its toll on him most of all. He tries his hand at a relationship with Tiana, but he is secretly seeing an older woman, Camilla, and he is know to call his “momma” during their sexual trysts.

Bryshere Y. Gray had the difficult task of making youngest son Hakeem equal parts likeable and completely infuriating. Unlike Andre and Jamal, Hakeem’s life experience is mostly informed by wealth and fame. He sometimes appears as an annoying, self-absorbed brat, but Hakeem is much more complex than that. While he grew up with more material goods than his brothers, he grew up without Cookie, so Lucious’ actions were the ones Hakeem best associated with. It was harder for him to accept Cookie back into his life, and at the start of the season Hakeem could easily have been called Lucious Jr. But he started to piece together how deceptive Lucious could be, and learned just how much he needed his brothers (and sometimes how much they needed him).

Lucious is affected by his three sons in different ways, and often sees the only solution to their problems (whether they are unique to one of his sons, or their overall issues with not getting along all the time) is the solution he comes up with. What makes all of Lucious’ problems worse is the news that he has ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that will cause him to lose voluntary muscle control. Doctors give him a two-year window of time to live, with the knowledge that his ability to run his empire will lessen rather quickly. So he needs to figure out what will happen to the business once he can no longer run it, all the while trying to keep knowledge of his disease from getting to the wrong people, particularly his rival Billy Beretti. Oh, and by the end of the first episode, Lucious commits murder.

The show’s first season was hot for a reason. It married dramatic, musical, and even soap operatic storylines with ease, never going too overboard in any one factor (or gleefully going overboard in a manner that the audience would love). The characters are both larger-than-life and grounded in reality, particularly Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie. While she knows how to make an entrance, most of her actions are clearly necessary. She cannot sit back and quietly watch Lucious pit her sons against each other and worry only about what’s best for him. She has to fight for what she deserves and against all of Lucious’ wrongdoings. Lucious might be a Lyon, but his betrayals and villainous actions are often done quietly, under the radar. It has helped him keep affairs secret, and, for the most part, his murderous past under wraps. There is a believability to Lucious that is a great credit to the talent of Terrence Howard. No matter how many times he is shown saying or doing something vicious, it is still often surprising when a new layer of deception is unveiled.

Barring some strange turn of events (like the entire cast decides to quit, or television ceases to exist) Empire will definitely be back for a second season. But since we’ll have to wait for that, let’s revisit the best of the best with the top five episodes of Season 1.

Episode 1: Pilot

As I mentioned before, pilot episodes of series are often difficult to judge. They are trying to cover a lot of ground in one episode, so they often feel both weighted down and rushed. But the first episode of Empire  felt invigorating, and I had no questions at its end that I would be back for the second episode. Even though it has the task of introducing an array of dynamic characters, all with their share of secrets, troubles, and goals, the episode never feels crowded or chaotic.

There are a lot of smart choices made in the episode, starting from the opening sequence which successfully edits in a flashback. As Lucious sits in the recording studio, guiding one of Empire’s artists to sing as though she would die the next day, we see flashes of Lucious in the hospital on the day he has ALS. Two of the season’s most important elements: Lucious as businessman and Lucious struggling with his terminal illness, are blended in a way that is engaging and compelling, rather than tedious or overwrought.

Episode 8: The Lyon’s Roar

Family is at the center of the show, but the Lyons are not always a happy one. This episode brings together some of the best and worst qualities of the family. There is a sense of togetherness that was often fragmented in the previous episodes, and each character is making strides to be a stronger family unit and individual (well, except for Lucious, who goes back and forth between a rekindled romance with Cookie and a duplicitous promise to ANIKA.) With the Lyon family working together in many ways, Andre and Rhonda’s place on the outskirts of everything his highlighted, as they are seen in their own disturbing story that shows how troubled Andre is and features one of the most intense scenes of the season (set, though, to one of the most beautiful songs ever: “The Great Pretender”). It’s also the episode where Jamal decides to come out to the public, doing so by surprisingly changing the lyrics to one of his father’s most famous songs (the three reactions: Cookie’s, Lucious’, and even Jamal’s as the lyrics are belted out are a reminder of just how separate the family still is).

Episode 12: Who I Am

Part two of the two-hour finale did everything I hoped the last episode of the season would do. While certain plots were resolved, new deals, news, and bond shifted the show into gear for the upcoming season. It was clear where the show had been and where it could go, with just enough changes happening to keep things interesting and make me anticipate the return even more than I thought I would. If there are any episodes other than pilots that I feel are difficult, it has to be finales (season and series), but again this episode was strong and avoided the pitfalls of many season closers. Most interesting is the new, stronger bond that formed between Lucious and Jamal, while Hakeem’s loyalty finally fell with Cookie (or, at least against Lucious). The family is once again divided, but in a way that wasn’t suggest at the season’s beginning. And in case the exciting plot developments weren’t enough to make it a great episode, Debbi Allen directed and Patti LaBelle sang with Jamal. Talk about a bonus.

I only picked three episode since it was a 12-episode season, but I could easily have put 11 of the 12 episodes on here. The only one that I feel doesn’t fit is Episode 5: Dangerous Bonds. There are still a lot of great things that happen, but most of the stories in Empire connect or continue throughout the season, and Cookie’s fear about her anonymous gift and its possible sender seemed to be tied up too quickly in that episode. Its still not a bad episode though, and it does give more insight into Cookie’s past, and there’s always a chance it will be mentioned again in the second season.