“Die But Once/Who I Am,” the two-hour, double-punch to the gut that made up Empire’s season finale, encapsulated the best and worst of what this monster of a show has given audiences these past ten weeks. On one hand, it’s a bold, ballsy saga of a black dynasty, a rarity on network television. On the other, it reaches such dizzying, surreal heights of extreme ludicrousness, the show often borders on the phantasmagoric. (I’m not the only one who thought half of what happened in the finale was a damn dream.)
I’ve had many commenters tell me to just sit back and enjoy the show when it’s more the latter than the former. But no matter how much I try to give in to the show’s all-out antics, there’s always a part of me going, Yeah, this is too much. And that’s certainly what I was thinking during the finale.
I honestly don’t know where to begin. I was feeling the hell out of the first hour, which was scripted by showrunner Ilene Chaiken and directed by Mario Van Peebles. Then the second hour happened, with co-creator Danny Strong coming in to script it with Chaiken, and Debbie Allen directing most of it like that show she was on so many eons ago. We all know by now that subtlety is rarely practiced on this show — after all, this is still a Lee Daniels production! — but Jesus! This show went above and beyond in showing its ass (translation: acting a damn fool) to the viewing public. For God’s sake, this is a show where Patti LaBelle shows up to give a shout-out to the Black Lives Matter movement, and ten minutes later, two chickenheads get in a fight on a pool table. That’s pretty much Empire in a nutshell.
“Die” did give me some short-lived hope that Empire finally figured out to how to lay out its melodramatic hyperactivity without going completely crazy. It seemed like everything Chaiken learned while working as a development executive for soap-opera icon Aaron Spelling back in the day came in handy during this episode. No matter how outrageous things got, even with the dialogue bordering on laughable (“I’ll send a prayer down to you — in a flameproof jar!”) and the episode ending with Jennifer Hudson singing a rousing gospel song as Jamal and his Australian boyfriend have man-love in an Empire office and Cookie gets ready to smother a drugged-out Lucious for admitting he killed Bunkie (that whole sequence had Daniels’s lurid hands all over it), the episode still felt grounded.
“Die” was certainly Empire at its most Shakespearean. (Lucious’s half-dazed admittance of murder, with a ghostly Bunkie at the foot of the bed, was more Richard III than King Lear.) Lucious, who gets his invincible mojo back when he discovers he was misdiagnosed with ALS, was truly in I-am-the-king mode, kicking Cookie to the curb for snuggling up with Malcolm in the Berkshires (still don’t know how he figured that one out so quickly) and getting Jamal to do his dirty work when Baretti orders an injunction to stop Empire from going public. (And who else thought of this when Jamal had Baretti over that terrace?) Ironically, Jamal became the only Lyon boy willing to help the rat bastard when he gets writer’s block, since Hakeem was still pissed about Lucious sending Camilla off (of course he got back at him by suddenly smashing Anika, which he did tell Lucious he’d do during that rap freestyle with Snoop) and Andre still upset about not being made head of Empire and Lucious not visiting him when he was in that mental facility.
It definitely wasn’t as ass-out as “Who,” with the cast spending most of the hour snarling at each other like jungle cats invading each other’s territory. (Well, they are Lyons!) “Who” basically resets the whole show for next season, as Lucious is now the one in jail, Jamal is leading the company, and Cookie, Andre, Anika, and Hakeem form a vengeful union, ready to ambush the whole thing with a hostile takeover. I would be all for this new direction if it didn’t feel so frantically, frenetically slapped together.
What should’ve taken at least a few episodes to flesh out, Strong and Chaiken jammed in one. Of course, we also shouldn’t forget about Rhonda accidentally killing Vernon when he and Andre had a brutal throwdown in Andre’s living room, and Andre and Rhonda covering it up so Rhonda won’t go to jail with child. Also, Vernon was supposed to be the star witness for the case Agent Carter was rounding up against Lucious for murdering Bunkie. Carter eventually arrests Lucious at his big tribute show, and now Lucious believes Cookie, whom Lucious kicked to the curb once again for trying to smother him, is responsible for all of this. You see what the hell I mean by too much?
I hope the writers and producers of Empire will spend the off-season learning that they can take their damn time with their storytelling. The show’s a hit. They have a continually expanding audience on their side. The show has been renewed for a second season. They don’t have to serve up everything in one sitting. Well, good luck on next season, Empire — and try not to completely show your ass!
STRAY THOUGHT TIME
- The whole Black Rambo subplot was awful. First off, Black Rambo has the flow of a constipated 60-year-old man. (Why are all the rappers on Empire so gotdamn WACK?) Secondly, with Jamal leading the company, couldn’t he just tell this “rapper” to kick rocks if he doesn’t want to be on a label run by a “batty man,” instead of going to some dark club and engaging in a freestyle battle with Rambo that has him somehow winning the crowd over by singing a few loud bars?
- I’m going miss the hell out of Malik Yoba and Derek Luke. Let’s hope Malcolm returns from D.C. not ready to give up on Cookie without a fight, and Vernon comes back to haunt Lucious and Andre in their sleep.
- I know people have been anticipating a Cookie/Anika throwdown, which “Who” definitely delivered. But that shit was just too Basketball Wives for me. (Or maybe that was what they were going for.)
- Was Jennifer Hudson’s gospel-singing therapist really that wrong for accepting Lucious’s offer to sing for Empire? Andre made it sound like ol’ girl was whoring herself for the man when she was just accepting a great opportunity.
- If there’s anything that on-the-spot collabo between Lucious and Jamal has taught us, it’s that Terrence Howard has a guitar face.
- So Snoop Dogg’s whole appearance was really just him promoting his new album and single? Stay classy, Empire.
- “I ain’t known nothing since Y2K!” Porsha didn’t have a lot to do but thankfully, she gave us this line.
- "My mother’s white.” It seems like we waited the entire season for Becky to land that punch line about why she has such a white-girl name.
- It’s been fun. Now onto Wayward Pines!