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The 'Empire' Touch: A Cookie By Any Other Name

Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) has been the highlight of the first season of <em>Empire</em>.
Chuck Hodes
Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) has been the highlight of the first season of Empire.

Empire closed out its remarkable first season on Wednesday night with a two-hour finale that proved once again one of the fundamental lessons brought to you by this show: whether this is your cup of tea or not, the people who make Empire really know what they're doing.

In the finale (and if this needs saying, we're about to talk about the finale, so don't claim you weren't warned), we finally got the answers to some of the questions asked in the pilot, while at the same time, it was only entirely clear what was going on about half the time.

The first answer: Of Lucious Lyon's three sons, who would be given the keys to Empire Entertainment? Jamal, who initially appeared perhaps the least likely to be his father's ally and who, by the end of this season, may have been the only friend his father had left. Or he apparently was. One of my favorite things about Empire this season has been how frequently I either (1) know for sure that I have no idea what's going on or (2) am not sure I have any idea what's going on.

At the close of the season finale, Lucious had been arrested for the murder of Bunkie, which we know he committed. Cookie knew, she had told at least Jamal, and certainly Vernon knew. (I honestly can't remember if Boo Boo Kitty knew. She knew about the ALS. But maybe not the shooting in the face.) But as far as who was responsible for going to the police and getting Lucious arrested, it certainly looked like it was Andre and Hakeem based on their smug expressions, but then the lady who I previously thought was federal law enforcement but who now is maybe in charge of murders (?) suggested that Vernon was her "star witness," so maybe he had turned Lucious in on his own.

Again: (?)

Maybe I'm supposed to know the answers to these things for sure. Maybe I'm supposed to be able to infer them. Maybe I've been led astray on purpose. Maybe they're going to tell us later.

In a broader sense, in the sense of King Lear or whatever Shakespeare play we're using as our touchstone these days, I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT'S GOING ON.

Here's what I do know: Lucious doesn't actually have ALS — psych! Cookie tried to smother him with a pillow! But he stopped her! And videotaped it! And showed it to Jamal! Who seemed less angry than one might expect! Andre's wife left him because he was engaging in emotional canoodling with Jennifer Hudson! But then she came back just in time to murder a dude with a tchotchke! Jamal almost threw Judd Nelson off a building! Everybody got suuuuuper worried about the loyalties of Rita Ora! Jamal got into a rap battle with a guy named Black Rambo who didn't seem to be very good at rapping but super hated Jamal for being gay, and instead of rapping, Jamal opened by singing "So I'm GAAAAAAAAY!", which seemed maybe a little bit on the nose, but then he saved it by ending his performance by calling the guy "bitch!" in a teeny weeny voice!

And, of course, Cookie GIF-ably threw a drink at Boo Boo Kitty and then punched her, which has been coming. Boo Boo Kitty pulled Cookie's hair: fight. Cookie broke Boo Boo Kitty's pearls: fight. Cookie tried to strangle Boo Boo Kitty on the pool table: fight. Finally, Hakeem brought some order to the proceedings by pointing out that really, Cookie and Boo Boo Kitty should join hands and (figuratively) croon a warmly upbeat tune about how much, in reality, they both would sort of like to smother Lucious with a pillow. Join hands, ladies! Join forces! Dream of VENGEANCE!

It sneaked up on me how Empire, over the course of the season, complicated these people who initially seemed to be of limited dimension. Jamal, in particular, began as The Nice Gay Son, and they didn't seem to have a lot to say about him other than that. But as things went on, he turned out to be, quite understandably, still pretty angry about being thrown in a trashcan by his father and still pretty ambitious when it comes to his career. I would believe he finds some satisfaction in being his father's only remaining lieutenant; I would also believe he finds some satisfaction in getting his father locked up. Both of those things would ring true for me, because — wait for it — he's a complex kid now.

Andre, too, who seemed (as Eric Deggans pointed out in this space yesterday) to be Dutiful Business Son in the pilot, got more complicated not only as we learned he struggled with mental illness, but as he turned to church as a possible solution — a development that is very common in real life for troubled people and very uncommon on television.

I have to admit, I'm still working on caring what happens to Hakeem. And, actually, Lucious. Sometimes I think it would be a better show if Lucious had died as they originally promised, and then floated through every show as a ghost, appearing to various members of his family to breathily pronounce lessons about life and occasionally threaten someone.

But of course, in a lot of ways, the success of Empire comes down to Cookie. The writers, the costume designers, and actress Taraji P. Henson have known from the jump exactly who Cookie was, even in the moments where other people were a little harder to figure. Despite the centering of her prison stint in the early development of her character, what emerged about Cookie was her ferocious love her kids and her genuine, bone-deep ambivalence about Lucious. She certainly hated Boo Boo Kitty, the new woman in his life, but she only sometimes seemed to actually want him back, and she never seemed to want him more than she wanted to do what she could for her kids.

Cookie's style, her speech, her bearing, her lush dive into fashion (as our Michele Norris pointed out to me last night, after 17 years in prison garb, you're not thinking loungewear) ... everything about her has been somehow both classic and specific — she is every great soap matriarch, she is every fierce mom, but she is also a woman who even in business calls herself Cookie without self-consciousness. In a genre that has often needed to put the Good Woman against the Bad Woman (think of Dynasty's Alexis and Krystle scrapping in the pond), Cookie is really both. She is the bad woman and the good woman, the dangerous woman and the loyal woman, the good mom and the bad mom, the most sexually confident woman you may ever see on television to point out that between marrying young and being in prison, she's only ever had sex with one guy.

Empire is a show that helped demonstrate that as television gets better and stronger and is a more respectable place for talented people to get their best work, you don't only get a better class of self-styled prestige dramas. (Which — hey, don't get me wrong — I love a good self-styled prestige drama.) You also potentially get a better class of glorious, sparkly, wackadoodle entertainment; better work on shows whose co-creators will proudly call them "fabulous, heightened soap opera." This kind of show is, in fact, very very hard to do well. It's easy for high-conflict, plot-gobbling ensemble dramas to seem frenetic and desperate, throwing in complications just to keep the audience from getting bored and never developing any kind of stakes. Most shows like this fail. Most shows like this are not all that good, just like most shows in general are not all that good.

But the folks who make Empire managed to keep it so light on its feet and so full of both emotion and weirdness that it became a perfect confection for the current chatty television-watching world. When it returns to Fox, I probably still will only know what's happening about half the time, but provided Cookie's earrings haven't gotten any smaller, I'll be there.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.