Empire Season 2 begins with a set piece befitting last season’s biggest hit: a giant, outdoor “Free Lucious” concert, complete with protest songs, sign-waving activists, and a Cookie Lyon entrance so bonkers I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it. But it’s a testament the show’s unique blend of over-the-top spectacle and moral complexity that this isn’t a moment of righteousness; it’s an opportunistic propaganda campaign.
The Lyon family knows that it can use the movement against police violence and the mass incarceration of black men to paint Lucious as an innocent man, even though he really did kill Bunkie Williams. What’s stunning is how the writers and cast carry this off without trivializing or discrediting the movement itself — in fact, there are even moments that feel like consciousness-raising.
This is what makes Empire magical, not to mention wildly popular: its ability to be so many seemingly contradictory things at once. It’s smart and silly, gripping and luxurious, full of great acting and writing and campy as hell, earnestly political and a giant claw-foot bathtub’s worth of soapy fun. Aside from the glittering costumes, larger-than-life characters, and radio-ready music, it accomplishes this through balancing multiple lightning-paced storylines with big, Shakespearean themes like ambition, creativity, tolerance, revenge, and — most of all — the intertwined ideas of family and loyalty.
The show’s debut season focused largely on Empire Entertainment mogul Lucious Lyon’s (Terrence Howard) ALS diagnosis and subsequent, King Lear-echoing need to choose one of his three sons as a successor — a decision that’s complicated by the return of Lucious’ ingenious ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson in the breakout role of 2015), who has just served 17 years in prison on his behalf. By the end of that abbreviated, 12-episode season, Lucious had discovered he wasn’t dying but named an heir anyway: his middle son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), a talented singer and songwriter initially rejected by the patriarch because he was gay. Lucious’ sudden arrest on murder charges in the final moments of the finale left Jamal to lead the Empire and threw Cookie’s loyalty into question. Meanwhile, Lucious’ other two sons, Andre (Trai Byers) and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), and ex-fiancée, Anika (Grace Gealey), plotted a hostile takeover of the company.
In its first three episodes — including a premiere that might be the show’s tightest hour to date — Season 2 seamlessly transitions into a new set of conflicts brought on by last season’s biggest developments. Not only is Jamal plagued by the threat of a takeover, but the burden of running Empire takes its toll, testing his strength and morals as well as robbing him of time to focus on his music. In prison, Lucious comes up against a very different power structure. And Cookie’s strained relationship with her ex-husband and all three of her sons finds her role in the family business in flux.
Next to addictive storylines, Empire‘s greatest strength is its characters. Season 2 starts out strong on this score, with two marquee stars playing against type: Chris Rock is quietly terrifying as Frank Gathers, a powerful drug dealer who has a history with Lucious and Cookie; and Marisa Tomei will have Twitter all-caps squealing in her recurring role as libidinous lesbian venture capitalist Mimi Whiteman. From the music world, Ludacris and Becky G. join the cast as a prison official with an agenda and the ambitious new talent Hakeem discovers (by sleeping with her), respectively. But perhaps the most promising new face of all is Frank’s daughter, Young Ma (Bre-Z Murray), a fiercely talented teenage rapper who brings loads of authenticity — along with a compelling mix of motivations and some real danger.
Among its existing characters, the show is wise to focus on Cookie — whose appeal needs no further explanation — and Jamal, the second most likable Lyon, whose evolution from artistic outcast to morally conflicted leader is a Season 2 highlight. By centering him, Empire also makes strides to improve upon last season’s inconsistent treatment of his sexuality, which too often relied on the unfair assumption that his family, fellow musicians, and audience (all predominantly African American) were virulently homophobic. In Season 2, Jamal’s gayness is more often treated as a fact than an issue, fleshed out in small, revealing moments: a TV anchor asks him about his female fans, a meeting with a flamboyant performer suggests he’s not as comfortable with some aspects of his own community as we might have expected. And the show as a whole follows suit, loosening up its approach to queerness enough to have some fun with it. To this end, Cookie throws a party for Mimi that you’ll have to see to believe.
As wonderful as the new season of Empire is, it still suffers from one key problem: there’s a bit too much going on, which means some characters and plots are duds. Andre, in his attempts to win back his father’s trust, might be even more needy and grating this season than last. The scenes that take place in prison focus too much on things we already know about Lucious — he’s cutthroat, but his family comes first — and largely miss an opportunity to comment on the penal system. And the show’s tendency to focus on petty conflicts between women is getting old. At this point, Anika’s primary reason for existing is to get into “catfights” with Cookie, and a side plot that finds Hakeem acting as svengali to a girl group takes it as a given that the trio will compete rather than collaborate.
Luckily, none of these elements takes up enough screen time to substantially interrupt the fun or excitement of any given Empire episode. Much like its centerpiece, Cookie, this is a show that knows its strengths and flaunts them. And the narrative trajectory of its second season suggests that Lucious’ hunt for a successor was only the very beginning — this story has years and years of twists left in it, and characters captivating enough to carry off every last one of them.
Empire Season 2 premieres Wednesday on Fox.