Woo! We start off with a bang, as the FBI storms Empire’s offices (with machine guns drawn, which seems extreme for an office environment) to the dulcet strains of Jamal in the recording studio. They tell Jamal they have a warrant to ransack his dad’s office, and snatch the phone out of Becky’s hands as she’s recording the proceedings. I have a hunch that this operation was not run strictly by the book.
Over at Cookie’s garage label, they barely have time to gloat before the feds are knocking on her door with similar authorization. At least their industrial space doesn’t have pillows to slit open and spew feathers.
Lucious is sleeping like a baby next to someone who is neither Cookie nor Anika, when he’s awakened, West Wing-style, by his delightful and hilarious lawyer, Thirsty Rawlins. Andre Royo is surely gunning for a best supporting Emmy. To Lucious’s baffled question about how he got in, Comedy Lawyer says, “I slept in the guest room with the twins–I needed that, thank you. Now c’mon, chop-chop. I made coffee.” That is one full-service lawyer. This early wake-up call gives Lucious the time to prepare for the FBI to arrive at his house, so when Roxanne Ford struts in with her hired guns, he’s standing in his foyer, stark naked. It’s a look, I guess.
Back at Empire, Jamal and Marisa Tomei are telling the office that they’re going to pull back, slow everything down, cancel media coverage until they know what’s going on. But wait! Lucious strides in–illegally–to say that they should do exactly the opposite, because that is more OG and thus more hip-hop. He gives his version of the Henry V St. Crispin’s Day speech, but I suspect it won’t be that simple.
At Leviticus, Thirsty’s briefing the family and explaining that the feds are just harassing him about the company because they’re trying to get at him for Bunky’s murder. Hakeem straight up asks, “Dad, did you kill Bunky?” Lucious lies smoothly while those family in the know side-eye each other. And now we see the purpose of this plot–Thirsty tells them that in order to resist the FBI they have to present as a happy family until they can find Vernon Turner and convince him not to testify. “And yes, I know, it’s a little…illegal,” Thirsty acknowledges. Love him!
Andre is noticeably NOT leaping out of his seat to explain that his lovely wife accidentally killed Vernon last season. But it’s keeping him up at night, and he’s puking from nerves and remorse. Rhonda, awakened, rolls her eyes and wonders why she married such a big baby. Hell, she had to dig most of that grave herself!
Back at Lucious’s office, Cookie’s come to parlay. She wants back on the radio and for Lucious to leave her artists and her masters alone. In return, she’ll get Hakeem and Jamal to shoot a brotherly music video that will prove the family is sticking by their patriarch. Classic bargaining/sniping ensues, until a deal is struck and they’re left sniping fondly at each other. Lucious calls Cookie “Grandma Moses” and she, outraged, tells him, “Look at your fat stomach!” I believe that Taraji and Terence really talk to each other like this.
Jamal seems relieved to have Dad back in charge so he can keep making his album and go back to the Rolling Stone feature they’re doing on him. At his loft, a photographer who looks like a troll doll on the end of a 3-day coke bender is muttering about poses and feeling and his dumb first concept (in front of a rainbow curtain) before parking Jamal at his keyboards so he can see the feelz. As Michael watches, first benignly and then with more concern, the photog mumbles more and more creepily about how gorgeous Jamal is, and how he wants to “be inside him.” Ecch. Jamal sings on, oblivious. (That might as well be his character description, now that I think of it.)
Andre has come to see Lucious at the club (at Cookie’s urging)…although Lucious is supposedly trying to mend fences, he still shows no remorse at keeping Andre out of Empire. Even as he continues to push away Andre, he insists he wants to be a grandfather to Andre’s unborn child. I would say that finally, Andre’s found an asset his father can’t co-opt, but I’m sure Lucious will find a way.
Oho, but wait! Perhaps I misjudged our poor neglected unmusical son: he asks, “If I could make this all go away, would you let me back in Empire?” Lucious is all, too bad that’ll never happen, but Andre secures his promise, and then off he scoots. Lucious is left looking suspicious about why his mushy eldest child is suddenly acting so confident. I’m left wondering how telling the FBI, “Your star witness got his head bashed in by my wife!” is not going to interfere with Andre’s day-to-day duties at Empire.
Lucious on set! He pops in to see Hakeem in his trailer at the video shoot, and tries to win him over with a mix tape. (Or whatever the hell you Youths call it.) Hakeem does his surly teen act and Lucious leaves without much of a fight, whereupon Cookie races in to find out if she has to rip him a new one for violating their nascent agreement. Hakeem reassures her, but outside, Lucious is getting to work on Marisa Tomei.
And while we’re here, can we talk about the concept for this video? There’s a geodesic dome, some old cars, and an assortment of booty-shorted dancers. WTF is this song going to be–the opening track on the Mad Max: Fury Road sountrack? As if the dialogue sprang from my very brain, the shoot director comes out to tell everyone that Lucious’s concept for the video is “a post-apocalyptic Black Panther theme with the brothers fighting police oppression.” Glad they had a song cued up for that! (“Real subtle, Lucious,” Cookie drawls.)
Oh, poor Rhonda! I think she’s the most loyal person in this family, and she gets nothing but grief. When she asks Andre if he’s feeling OK after his dry heaves last night, he tells her his plan–he’s going to dig up Vernon so that he can produce the body and show that the feds have no case against Lucious. Rhonda, not unreasonably, points out that she would go to prison in that case. He insists he can protect her, to the point that he’d take the blame himself if it got that far. (Oh, it’ll get that far. Hell, I give it 3:1 odds of getting that far before the end of the episode.) Then, just to put a cherry on Rhonda’s going-to-shit day, he leans in and whispers, “God’s been speaking to me.” Rhonda is clearly freaked, but holds it together while Andre hugs her and whisper-explains that God wants him back at Empire so he’s going to to whatever it takes. In her head, though, she’s saying, “Siri, find me the nearest psychiatric hospital with 24-hour lockdown.”
Music video time! “It Ain’t About the Money, It’s About the Power.” We get a verse or two before cutting to Cookie on the sidewalk, making a call…until she gets arrested by the NYPD for an outstanding warrant! She calls bullshit, but into the back of the squad car she goes. Of course she got pulled in (on a fake charge–Porsche jumped a turnstile and claimed to be Cookie) by Roxanne Ford, who says that if Cookie won’t turn on Lucious, Ford will just go after her sons, for example, by leaking Andre’s medical records.
That might actually not be such a bad idea at the moment, since Andre is in his garage, happily packing his shovels into the Lexus to go a-gravediggin’. Just as he starts the car, a rap on his window scares the heck out of him. It’s Rhonda, hair in a pony and snuggly black hoodie in place–she’s going with him, because she’s “ride or die, all the way.” I can’t tell if she’s genuine, or if she’s going to clock him over the head with one of those shovels.
Lucious takes advantage of Cookie’s absence to promise Hakeem radio play and management of the faithless Valentina if he comes back to Empire. This is interspersed with Cookie, seething in an interview room and remembering her previous stint in prison, where she wept and begged to get out. Making a decision of some sort, she demands that Roxanne return. What’s she gonna do?
She’s not going to walk back into the video shoot anytime soon, which means things are held up long enough for Coked-out Photographer to bring his finished portrait to the warehouse to show Jamal. All I can think about this whole scenario is:
It looks pretty good, and Lucious raves about it in Hakeem’s hearing, which of course means that Hakeem pitches a fit and has a tantrum about how it’s ugly, it’s “distracting” him and Cookie would have had it out of there already. Lucious calls him a mama’s boy and I fully expect to–yup, I couldn’t even finish typing the sentence before Hakeem destroys the canvas by driving a knife through it. Jamal and Lucious say nothing, but practically have twin thought bubbles over their heads reading “What a dick.”
Next verse of the video! Now everyone has their angry faces on. The dancing soon devolves into Jamal and Hakeem scuffling, then wrestling, and then Hakeem grabs a baseball bat as though to strike Jamal, who’s on the ground. The collected audience gasps and Hakeem collects himself, but with a final pout, strides away. Honestly, I’m over him. They’ve got to get some more nuance into this character before I create a time-saving macro for “Hakeem sulks.”
Ford is back with Cookie now, and she says she’s ready to talk. She explains to Ford that she simply can’t be without her sons again, and says that although she doesn’t know if Lucious did or didn’t shoot Bunky, she knows they were fighting. It’s immediately apparent (I think even to Ford) that she’s spinning a tale, insisting that they were fighting about Apex Radio. But perhaps I’m wrong? Ford insists that she can stop the deal from going through and tie up Lucious for years, and asks Cookie, “Now was that so hard?” Cookie feigns contrition and admits that no, it wasn’t so bad, and she’s sorry for insulting Ford’s weave earlier. Ford returns the compliment by saying that Cookie’s wig is nice, and we’re out.
Joining Andre & Rhonda’s romantic night of shoveling (and no, that is not a euphemism), they’ve dug a hole about six feet deep, but no sign of a body. Rhonda worries they might be looking in the wrong spot, but Andre’s sure–see honey, right by the tree with the hole in it! But Rhonda looks around and discovers they’re in a clearing surrounded by trees that ALL HAVE HOLES IN THEM. I think the next mystery Roxanne Ford needs to pursue is what mysterious malady is affecting all the local trees! Anyway, we go to commercial with them freaked that the body could be anywhere.
Quick scene to appeal to any modern art skeptics or former grad students, as Jamal apologies to Coked-Out for his brother’s behavior and says they’ll fix the canvas. But no, says Cokie! (as opposed to Cookie) Art is always evolving! THIS is the painting now, the one where it looks like your throat’s been cut! It’s about racism and homophobia! Whee! Michael stands in for the audience as he rolls his eyes.
Back in the woods, Rhonda’s pleading with Andre to give up and go home, do something else, stop trying so hard for Empire. They haven’t found anything, and the sun’s coming up. But they’re interrupted and have to hide when headlights approach! Come out with your hands up! Is it the cops? No, it’s just Lucious, who knows all and sees all. (I’m beginning to wish he were a little less infallible.) He had Thirsty put a tracking device on Andre’s car after their convo at Leviticus, since he had a hunch this is what Andre was talking about. “What did you do to your uncle?”
Rhonda comes clean, but is interrupted by a mechanical buzz, and they look over at Thirsty, who’s wielding some sort of jackhammer-shaped item on the dirt. Turns out it’s a corpse detection device! “And you just…have that handy?” Rhonda asks. Thirsty gives me a final gift for the episode, responding, “Only for the holidays.” Marry me, Thirsty!
Hakeem sulks. (But this time at a bar where a boy singer is doing old standards in wannabe Buble fashion. I assume the kid is a famous guest star, but I’ve no idea who. I refuse to believe Hakeem would spend five minutes in this bar.) He starts to text an apology to Jamal, but deletes it.
Boy singer introduces “his cousin Laura, singing for the first time in front of an audience.” Oh, what do you know, she’s beautiful! And although she starts out really quiet so no one’s paying attention, Hakeem smells his next artist (and girlfriend?). I also don’t know if Laura is played by a real famous person, but I assume that too. She’s generous enough to provide the song for our outro montage, which includes the following:
*Many hands making light work, as Thirsty and Lucious pitch in to dig up Vernon
*A little light street promotion/vandalism, as Jamal, Michael and Cokie snipe posters of his portrait on a construction site wall (um, aren’t they violating Rolling Stone’s exclusive? And why is the slash on Jamal’s neck going the wrong way? And how’d they get posters done so fast? And doesn’t Jamal have anything better to do than paste up his own posters?)
*Andre praying/apologizing over the body of Uncle Vernon, whom they’ve disinterred and put in the back of Lucious’s car. When Andre steps away, Lucious tells Vernon to rot in hell, the snitch. Then he gives Andre a big hug and tells him, “Welcome back to Empire.”
But what of Cookie? She’s out of jail, and back at the now-abandoned warehouse, where the cheese (well, Anika) stands alone. Cookie tells Anika that even though she knows Lucious lied to her, it’s Anika she doesn’t trust, so no-go on a working partnership.
And finally, we’re back in the true Lyon’s den: Lucious burns a photo of him with his boys (Bunky and Vernon?) while sassy Roxanne Ford trots out to her car, ordering a minion on the phone to put out the press release that the FCC has blocked the Apex Radio deal. As she slides behind the wheel, she glances to her right to see–cue screams!–Uncle Vernon’s decayed body riding shotgun.
And we’re out! Ride or die, indeed.