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Why ‘Empire’s’ Cookie Lyon Is the Best Character on Television

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Only six episodes of Empire have aired so far, but the Fox hip-hop drama is already impossible to ignore. The show premiered to impressive ratings and has spent every subsequent week ticking upward, hitting series high after series high. You have, no doubt, seen your Twitter timeline explode on Wednesday nights. Maybe you even have the song “Drip Drop” stuck in your head right now. It’s an utterly infectious show, one that is not always great but never fails to entertain — thanks, mostly, to a combination Empire‘s commitment to going full-speed ahead with wonderfully crazy plots and television’s best new character: Cookie Lyon.

Empire, created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, is often described as a musical drama series, a modern retelling of King Lear (there are numerous Shakespeare references throughout, including last week’s episode title, “Out, Damned Spot”), and a hip-hop soap opera (not to be confused with hip-hopera, a different great but under-explored genre) inspired by the ’80s soap opera Dynasty. It truly is a wild mixture of all of these things, featuring three competing brothers, catchy musical numbers, and deliciously soapy elements like sudden murders, closeted musicians, baby-mama drama, and everything in between. Empire knows that it is over-the-top, but it relishes in this knowledge, casually throwing in a drive-by here and a surprise child there. An average episode is anything but: an ALS diagnosis leads to experimental Russian drugs; sibling rivalry turns into a violent, staged robbery; a single red rose results in the misguided murder of an unsuspecting man.

But by far the best part of the show is Taraji P. Henson’s mesmerizing turn as Cookie Lyon, mother of the three boys, ex-convict, and all-around head bitch in charge at Empire — even if both Lucious (Terrence Howard) and his new fiancee Anika (Grace Gealey) want desperately to keep her out of the record-label loop. It doesn’t matter what they want, ultimately, because Empire is Cookie’s show. She is intelligent, blunt, and unapologetic. She is a real, fully fleshed-out character with wonderful attributes and irredeemable flaws. She switches between being sympathetic toward her gay son and speaking derogatorily about his relationship. She goes after what she wants and, so often, she gets it — even if she later regrets it.

Just take the last two episodes, “Dangerous Bonds” and “Out, Damned Spot,” which both heavily featured Cookie. “Dangerous Bonds” had a Cookie plot revolving around her increasing fear for her life after testifying about a murder at a grand jury hearing. Upon receiving a red rose, she assumes it’s a threatening message and puts out a hit on someone, only to later learn it was a gift from Lucious — but it’s too late to call off the hit. This isn’t the typical plot that television tends to give women, but Cookie isn’t the typical woman character in a TV drama. She is not around simply to be a foil to her ex-husband, or to pop up and push forward the storylines for the men who surround her.

It’s true that Cookie’s main narrative is tied to the ongoing, “Who will take over Empire?” season arc as she tries to ensure that it’s Jamal, and not Hakeem, who will become heir to the metaphorical throne. But throughout these few episodes, Cookie has existed independently and at the center of plots that focus on her and her goals, desires, and frustrations, rather than confining them to the context of Lucious (or even her sons). In the latest episode, “Out, Damned Spot,” Cookie sets her sights on helping an iconic female artist Elle (Courtney Love) who is about to be dropped from the label. When told it’s because Elle Dallas is “difficult,” Cookie scoffs and retorts, “Difficult. I know that word. Y’all like to toss us to the side when you can’t control us anymore because you’re lazy and don’t want to do your job.” With no one willing to put in the “work” it takes to get Elle clean and back in the studio, Cookie does it herself: She bursts into Elle’s hotel, stages a mini-intervention, gets her to remove her weave and fake eyelashes, and coaches Elle while she records a new, moving track.

Much of Cookie’s fascinating character is due to Henson’s brilliant delivery. There are lines in the script that shouldn’t work at all, yet every single thing Cookie says lands because Henson is all in. The cold open to “Out, Damned Spot” featured a family dinner in which Lucious announces his upcoming marriage to Anika, prompting Henson to steal the scene with her loud, annoyed slurps of her champagne and her angry, childish destruction of a rose, petal by petal.

Empire‘s ratings are proof that audiences are not only interested in but enthusiastic about programs with diverse casts (who knew!) and programs that celebrate unique and refreshing characters (the fiercely independent Cookie, who also represents ex-convicts; the complicated Lucious; the gay hip-hop musician Jamal, and so on). The show is already a huge and growing success for Fox, but it’s also poised to become a success for television in general.