Empire ramped up the drama in its last episode, ending with cocky Hakeem being snatched right off the street by an unknown gang and tossed into a van. True to form, the show doesn’t keep us waiting, and we get the ransom demand before the credits.
Cookie gets a video showing a sweaty, duct-taped Hakeem, and at first blows it off, assuming it’s a sick joke from Lucious. But when she goes to the studio to chastise him, they quickly realize it’s no joke, and off they go. (No, Jamal! You stay here and think about how watching Michael get a beej from Coked-Out Artist can inspire your music.)
We get a quick look at Hakeem, who’s gotten his blindfold off and sees that the three kidnappers all have the silhouette of a longhorn bull etched into their backs. At the playground where Hakeem was jogging, Cookie and Lucious wait with the ransom for the kidnappers’ call. Aw, it’s nice that they can still do stuff together. When the call comes, the speaker on the other end of the phone points out a welder (just…doin’ some welding in the park, as you do), and Lucious confirms that yes, he sees them. Then they’re directed to a spot…three blocks away. (So why are we looking at the welder? Other than the aforesaid oddness of welding en plein air.)
Back at Empire proper, Andre is gleefully settling in for his first staff meeting as the head of Gutter Life. Becky sits at his right hand, eager to impress (she explained to her super-hot boy toy the night before that she had to prep), but Andre shuts her down pretty quick and makes clear that he is not thinking “mentor” right now. He explains to the skeptical staff that he plans to prune the GL list, looking not just at their stats and sales, but at “their wealth of character.” Um, is this because of last week’s baptism?
Back at the ransom drop, Lucious and Cookie race up to a sketchy black van and yank open the door to find…nothing. Before Lucious can move, Cookie’s already preparing to stomp the driver to death with her stiletto. She lets him live long enough to learn that “homeboy wanted to get out” and he doesn’t know who the kidnappers were.
Cut to a bloodied, disoriented Hakeem wandering a city sidewalk…and then cut to a sweaty, post-run girl (is it Anika? I can’t tell) on the phone with her mom, telling her “Stop saying it’s going to be OK. I have NO ONE.” Oh hey, it looks like she has Hakeem! He’s waiting on her front stoop, and when she sees him, he just lunges at her and engulfs her with his lips. Apparently fighting with her mom turns her on, because she reciprocates in kind. The quantity and variety of bodily fluids being exchanged here is grossing me out.
But apparently he eventually calls home, because we cut to Chez Lucious, where Hakeem is getting a house call. He needs a couple of stitches where the grabbers socked him in the eye, but other than that he’s in decent shape. One thing that wasn’t injured? His mouth. He immediately blames the whole thing on Lucious because he would never have been kidnapped if he wasn’t Lucious’s son. Well, yeah, Hakeem, but you’re so obnoxious the only reason you haven’t been killed and dumped in the river is that you’re Lucious’s son, so.
With that little kerfuffle out of the way (only on Empire can a major character be abducted, held for ransom, returned and declared basically OK in the first 15 minutes of the episode!), Lucious can get back into the studio with Jamal…who is pissed because the Staples Center won’t book him. They say he’s too “narrow” an artist to fill the venue, and Jamal says that’s code for gay, and Empire is marketing him wrong. Then he busts out some pretty great falsetto on some mediocre lyrics. (“You Broke Love”? It’s no “Drip Drop.”) They’re interrupted by William Fitchner in a pale blue suit and crazy glasses playing Rival Music Mogul. Oh! Sorry–turns out he’s playing Gay Former Music Mogul whom Lucious spurned in his youth, refusing to sign with him because of L’s homophobia. Also turns out he’s an LGBTQ activist on the board of the Staples Center–the plot thickens…and since Jamal had no idea that there was beef between the two men, he immediately loses control of the meeting.
I’m slightly confused about how Jamal thinks hiring a noted gay activist will contribute to making him seem “less gay,” but we don’t have time for that now. We have to catch a snipped of Hakeem’s girl group singing “Shootin’ Blanks”! And we have to freeze frame long enough to gawk at the terrible outfit on Frumpiest Girl: it’s 70s-style gym shorts with white piping, and a too-small grey tshirt with two palm trees screened over her boobs like groping frond-hands. The actress is in terrific shape, of course, but the clothes they’ve put her in gives her a belly so she looks like “the fat one.” Who’d you cross in wardrobe, honey?
Hakeem is there, and he seems to be fading in and out of that earlier fugue state. He barks at the girls for “changing” his song, which they deny, and then complains that their voices sound like static. I can’t tell if the show is trying to convey a concussion or PTSD, but either way, Hakeem is not fine.
Andre’s doing his interviews, winnowing the wheat from the chaff. I think at least one of the artists is a famous hip hop person, but I don’t know who he is. Forgive my ignorance. There’s also Frank Gannon’s kid, and a stoner of some sort. Andre is disgusted until he gets to J. Poppa (sp?). He’s snotty about what the J stands for, until he finds out that the J stands for Job. OMG, Bible Twinsies! They quote chapter and verse at each other, and then Andre asks if he’s considered incorporating the Word into his music. J. Poppa is thrilled, and so begins Andre’s mission to take the gutter out of Gutter Life.
Back at the Lyon’s Den, Lucious is trying to persuade Cookie that Hakeem is better off with him, and that only Lucious can keep him safe. Cookie’s not buying it. Hakeem, meanwhile, is at home spitting rhymes and punching out mirrors. Cookie goes off to talk to New Handsome Promoter Guy, who suggests that Cookie hire the kidnappers to be Hakeem’s new security team. I can’t imagine this will sit well with freaked-out Hakeem. NHPG swears his devotion to Cookie and promises to protect her himself. Smooching ensues.
The next day, she and Hakeem go to meet with the snatchers. (Hakeem’s along so he can feel like a man. Is riding shotgun with your mom really going to do that?) She plans to negotiate with them, and asks Hakeem, “You’re gonna be good, right?” He “yeah, ma”s her in his usual way, so in they go…but Cookie’s barely past “Hello” when Hakeem pulls a gun and is all “Who’s the bitch now, huh?” Um, YOU, dude, because there’s no way these guys aren’t armed. Why are you so stupid All. The. Time?
“Hakeem, please, lower the gun, baby.” Um, calling him “baby” is also probably not going to elevate his manhood here. But after talking Hakeem off the ledge, Cookie takes the gun…and holds it on the Head Bitch In Charge herself! Um…the job interview is over, it seems.
At Leviticus that night, J. Poppa debuts his first God-inflected rap to mixed reviews. Becky and Lucious are all, “Ecch,” but Andre’s sure it’s the way to go. Next up, Frieda the Wild Child. She sounds good and all is going well until some surly guy heckles her. The first time, she raps him down, but the second time she turns to Lucious to see why he’s allowing it, only for him to tell her just to keep her focus. She takes a moment to center herself…by kicking the guy in the face and stalking off. Andre tells Lucious they’re going to have to drop her, even though she’s talented. Lucious nopes that right away and insists that they’re keeping her, and when Andre protests that he’s been put in charge of the GL label, Lucious drops the facade and says, “I put you in PLACE.” So, I think that went well, yeah?
Pouty Hakeem is sulking and freaking out in the alley behind Cookie’s studio while the girl group gets ready to go on…somewhere. Lucious pulls up to offer Hakeem a new track he wrote about him, called “Boom Boom Boom Boom (Bang Bang Bang Bang)”. Now THIS is a worthy successor to “Drip Drop”! But Hakeem spurns the proferred flash drive and stalks off, because he’s a spoiled brat incapable of listening to anyone or learning from any of his experiences.
Lucious follows him into Cookie’s club to give Hakeem a lesson on manliness which devolves into “if you pull a gun, use it, and I don’t care if it means you wind up in jail.” Cookie is less enthused with this approach, as she expresses to Jamal and Andre as they roll up. The brothers toss both parents out so they can reason with Hakeem themselves. They buck him up (by running down their parents, but…fair) and the three of them do a little Dysfunctional Family Mind Meld.
The girls start on stage, and it’s all going well as Hakeem struts out, but the word “bitch” triggers him and he freezes. (Maybe Andre can use this as an opportunity to clean up music’s overuse of the word “bitch”?) The lead girl has the presence of mind to cover for him until he comes to and starts it up. The rest of the Lyons smile from the audience, with varying levels of concern behind their eyes.
After the show, Hakeem’s enjoying a quiet celebration with his label’s artists when there’s a knock at the door–Anika! Where you been, girl? Turns out she’s been calling Hakeem since the incident, but he’s been blowing her off…and continues to do so, though he thanks her politely as he declines to let her in. Poor Anika is off her game. Maybe Marisa Tomei’s home tonight?
Cut to someone about to have an even worse night–Frieda is trotting down the sidewalk of her sketchy neighborhood, and I predict she’s about to have a run-in with her music critic. But wait! It’s Lucious waiting for her, leaning against his SUV. She apologizes and says he’d be right to drop her, but he’s not going to because he sees “such a beautiful flame behind her eyes.” Ick, dude. But he’s not hitting on her…he’s just choosing a more malleable teenager to mold, since his sons seem to be having none of it. He invites her into the car by saying, “I wrote a song for you…wanna hear it?” Of course it’s the song he said was for Hakeem, but as he raps some sample lyrics for Frieda she lights up…and then she takes over and does even better. Lucious looks on like a proud papa. It would be touching if it weren’t so creepy and underhanded. But that’s Empire in a nutshell.
Cookie has had a crap week, but she goes over to HNPG’s apartment for some make-it-go-away loving. As they get down to it, the strains of “Boom Boom Boom Boom” swell on the soundtrack (heh) and our gentleman friend removes his shirt to reveal to the audience…the scar of a bull’s head etched on his back JUST LIKE THE KIDNAPPERS. Chung-chung! See you next week…