When Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is released from prison on bond in the third episode of Empire’s sophomore season, he addresses a small congregation of supporters and journalists to briefly discuss his plans for Empire Records. It’s meant to be a press conference, but by the end of Lucious’s predictably over-the-top speech, it feels more like a rally, with members of the audience raising their fists in support. It’s a scene that speaks to the outsized ambitions of Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s series, which began as a hip-hop-centric, melodramatic adaptation of King Lear. The “empire” that Howard’s character refers to at the rally is as much an internationally recognized record company as it is a symbol of tremendous power and control—over the public, press, and, ultimately, his own friends and family.
Lucious’s stubborn character remains one of Empire’s more irksome elements, as he’s written as all-powerful and largely unscathed by any action taken against him, incapable of being humbled or truly surprised. This was less of an issue in the first season, as his ostensible terminal disease made him depend and reach out to others to a certain extent. As season two begins, however, he’s seen holding sway over nearly everything in prison, including a variety of inmates whose families he supports, and is even able to outfox a former villainous colleague, played by Chris Rock. The show’s writers largely disregard the paranoid confinement, gangland intimidations, brutal violence, and lethal power dynamics that denote prison life, preferring to reiterate just how powerful, seductive, and confident Lucious is even in such a seemingly hostile environment. And the series never deems to give Howard’s character a private, solitary moment where we might get some sense of how the sheer tonnage of betrayals, murders, and other crimes he’s committed has affected him beneath his veneer of incalculable opulence and influence.
In contrast, his foil and ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), must face her own faults in relation to her betrayal of Lucious and her increasingly complicated relationship with their son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), the acting CEO of Empire. Though the language in season one was never as rich or witty as the Bard’s, there was a Shakesperean bent to how Lucious slowly pulled Jamal into his favor, gifting his openly gay son with acceptance and power. That same sort of familial infighting still powers the plot, and Empire is at its best when it sticks to outlandish, largely petty acts of dismissal of business arrangements, personal ultimatums, or outright threats. In one of the season’s best moments, Cookie ends an argument by slowly dragging a tablecloth, and the feast set on it, behind her as she leaves an antagonistic family dinner.
Much of the drama feels evoked from hip-hop lore, especially Hakeem’s (Bryshere Y. Gray) decision to leak his new album online and his subsequent partnering with Cookie to start Lyon Dynasty Records, intended to compete directly with Empire. Legendary beefs between Lil Wayne and father-figure Birdman, or ex-lovers like Future and Ciara, seemingly inform the dramatic contours of the series, and thanks largely to the involvement of music producer Timbaland, Empire has a sharp, engaging sense of modern pop sounds. The series taps into the self-aggrandizement, even self-mythologizing, that a great deal of modern rap and hip-hop are built on, which accounts for the occasionally ludicrous dialogue, but nevertheless exudes a potent fascination with the benefits and detriments of the ego that often comes with self-made celebrity.
Where the second season ultimately improves on the first is mainly in its sense of scope, of extending the already vibrant existing world of the series. The show’s tremendous buzz brought in bigger guest stars, such as Rock, Marisa Tomei, Chris “Ludicrous” Bridges, and Andre Royo, who plays Lucious’s new, criminally ambitious lawyer. Each one of these performers ever so slightly expands the range of emotions in the series, like adding new, fleeting sounds into a building beat. Royo’s quick-talking, unerringly clever defense attorney adds a zing of classical verbal humor, whereas Bridges’s disgruntled prison guard represents both potent societal frustration and barely veiled jealousy. Each of these characters boasts an obsession, or furious yearning, that matches the menacing needs of the Lyon family, similarly fueled by jealousy, greed, and pride. In essence, the series has brought the hedonistic, self-obsessed world of hip-hop braggadocio to vibrant, stylish life, with all its perversions, violence, and vulgarity. And like many popular hip-hop songs, the immense wealth and ritz that surrounds the Lyon family is meant as a distraction for a feverish need for money and power, an addiction that Empire consistently hints at, but which it has yet to fully confront in all its ugliness and desperation.