If there is one thing I took away from the epic two-hour finale of Empire’s equally epic first season — besides the reminder that Cookie is, and will always be, the absolute best — it’s that I will accept literally anything that the series throws at me. Empire is inspired by Dynasty and thrives on the central rule of soap operas: Anything can happen and, most likely, anything will happen. Because Empire is so dedicated to the overly dramatic, occasionally veering into outright cheesiness, — and because it relies heavily on promos that tease, “You won’t want to miss this shocking twist!” — Empire quickly established itself as a series whose viewers are meant to embrace the utterly absurd and nonsensical. That’s why Empire was the most fun show on television this season: despite its detachment from reality and its numerous flaws, it was impossible to look away.
Last night’s thoroughly enjoyable but slightly exhausting season finale, two episodes titled “Die But Once” and “Who I Am,” was a roller-coaster of ridiculousness that twisted through multiple reveals and reversals at a dizzying speed, delighting in throwing something new onto the pile before viewers had a chance to fully process the previous scene. There are so many ways in which this approach could have failed (and yes, some things continued to fall flat), but because this is Empire, it remained infectious.
The basic premise of the show — Lucious is diagnosed with ALS and has to decide which of his three sons will inherit his empire/Empire — went out the window when we learned that Lucious actually doesn’t have ALS and isn’t going to die (“Even God can’t kill me,” he boasts at the end of the second episode). But Lucious still chose a successor: Jamal, who was the smart pick from the beginning, even though he’s definitely a little too soft for the job, despite his increasing displays of toughness (this change being the main reason why Lucious picked him). This dying-but-not-dying, bait-and-switch move is infuriating, but it works — Empire needs Lucious to work as a show, because we (and his sons) need someone to joyfully root against week after week. It’s a deliciously soap-opera move; the only way to top it would be to kill him off and have his identical twin brother appear out of thin air.
What’s more is that this wasn’t even the biggest twist of the night, not by a long shot. At one point, Hakeem freestyles that he’s going to essentially snatch his father’s crown and his father’s girl — and then he actually fulfills one of those promises by having sex with the woman who about two episodes ago was going to be his stepmother. As the finale progresses, Lucious punches Hakeem in the face, Cookie gets tossed out of Empire, Jamal threatens Judd Nelson by dangling him off a balcony, Cookie and Anika have the best catfight in the history of television, Lucious confesses his sins to a ghost during a fever dream, Cookie tries to smother Lucious with a pillow, Rhonda leaves Andre then returns and murders Vernon and then announces she’s pregnant, and this all culminates in Lucious being arrested and thrown in jail for shooting Buckie. Individually, these plot lines are hard to take in, but combined — and in the span of only two hours with commercials — it should be damn near impossible for a series to pull it off. Yet these are all events that I simply accepted, because in the world of Empire, not only is everything possible, but everything, in its own weird little way, actually makes sense.
That’s the benefit of starting off crazy and then getting even crazier: It makes all of the absurdity easier to digest and accept, and it heightens the fun of watching. Empire‘s biggest goal is to entertain viewers, and it does such a good job at it that the duller and more troublesome elements become somewhat acceptable.
Throughout the first season, Empire‘s biggest problem has been Jamal’s storyline. Through Jamal, the series made a noble attempt to portray homophobia in hip-hop/black culture (depicting it as much more common than it actually is) but ended up going completely overboard. The show put such an emphasis on the “hip-hop hates gay people” narrative that it occasionally seemed more like it was Empire — not the hip-hop world at large — that hated Jamal. It would be somewhat justifiable if this were an entirely fictional universe, but it’s supposed to take place in our reality (last night, Snoop Dogg and Patti LaBelle guest-starred as themselves), and in that context, it’s hard to believe that Jamal would still be utterly terrified of coming out, or that Lucious would continue to have such a problem with his son’s sexuality. (The repeated use of the Jamal-in-heels flashback has taken that scene from real and affecting to gross and sensationalized.) Even when a fan is praising Jamal for inspiring his own coming out, that fan is white. It’s telling that the writers didn’t have a young, black fan deliver the same message.
But also in the finale, we meet Black Rambo, a rapper who refuses to work under Jamal because he is gay. This entire storyline is tempting to completely write off, but, in true Empire fashion, the series found a way to (sort of) make it to work, through a fairly silly rap battle that begins with Jamal singing, “So what I’m gay!” It’s that signature Empire ridiculousness that makes the more rough-around-the-edges plots more palatable.
It’s not that Empire can do no wrong — it can, and it certainly does; Andre’s “pray away the cray” and Lucious’ angry response to Andre’s bipolar disorder will never sit well with me. Rather, it’s that Empire always manages to escape its problems by throwing in something flashy and over-the-top to distract us. When it comes to Empire, we’re basically like kittens fawning over something shiny. It’s a show that thrives on the surface: the musical performances and theatrics, Cookie’s fabulous clothing and one-liners, the rap battles and fistfights and cold-blooded murder. It may destroy its own plot or fail at accurately depicting the more important issues, but these are all things that can be fixed in Season 2. For now, Empire is about the spectacle, and that spectacle is all I need.