Last night’s season finale of Empire ended with Lucious Lyon behind bars, staring directly into the camera and purring right to the audience. (“Game time, bitches” was a Terrence Howard original, apparently.) I’m not super interested in Lucious’s inevitably temporary jail experience, though. I want to know about Cookie’s prison experience.
Cookie was in prison for 17 years. That is a long, long time! That’s more than a third of her life. But she seems to have adapted back to ordinary society — well, “ordinary” society, we’re talking about Empire — with seamless ease. Her fashion sense is distinctive, yes, but it’s absolutely current. She’s fully familiar with the Teen Choice Awards, even though she was incarcerated before those started. She’s apparently super media savvy, but she was in prison for seven years before TMZ ever launched. She can oversee a video shoot, even though she would never have encountered digital videography before. When Cookie went to prison, people were selling 9 million albums a year. I’m not saying prisoners have no access to information or technology, or that Cookie couldn’t have devoted herself to staying up to date, but there are people who’ve been at the forefront of media and production who have not been incarcerated for whom success is more elusive.
Perhaps Cookie is just that good? Maybe! But we just don’t know enough about her for that to feel like a totally satisfying answer. What part is genius, and what part is hustle? What was she like in prison? What did she learn and unlearn there? How did that experience harden her, or did it? We caught a glimpse of Cookie’s rougher side last night, because hey: If you spend 17 years in America’s dehumanizing, violent prisons, you probably learn your way around a fight. We got a good idea of Cookie’s hand-to-hand combat skills last night when she cold-cocks Boo Boo Kitty — and sure, Anika gets in a few good swings, but then Cookie flips her onto the pool table and starts choking her:
We’ve seen Cookie engage in physical violence before, and now we know she can really deliver a beatdown.
But given the injustice of her incarceration, and the fact that her husband and children stopped visiting her in prison, and her ongoing, frustrating entanglements with the criminal justice system, shouldn’t Cookie basically be a homicidal Kimmy Schmidt at this point? If she really wanted to kill Lucious, couldn’t she?
Cookie was the breakout character of Empire by a light year. I want to know everything about Cookie. I’d watch a web series of just one-line Cookie facts, or a documentary about how she applies her fake eyelashes and maintains her very pointy manicures. What I really crave in season two is a flashback episode depicting some aspect of Cookie’s life in prison, her heartache but also her perseverance. I mean, Cookie must have been atop the food chain, if Orange Is the New Black and Wentworth have taught us anything about fictionalized representations of female inmates. Cookie’s badassery is unassailable, which is why I’m curious about her vulnerabilities, her moments of weakness, the vile cretins who tried to keep her down. I don’t just want more Cookie; I want a fuller, deeper depiction of her.