“What is this, we King Lear now?” —Jamal Lyon
So there’s this guy who’s built a giant kingdom, but he knows he’s going to die and he has to figure out a way for that kingdom to survive. The obvious choice is to pass on the spoils to his children, but he doesn’t know which kid to trust. He assembles them together and then asks the question that no father should have to ask: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” That turns out to be his tragic flaw, as he disinherits the wrong daughter and then spends another two hours wandering around in a storm complaining. Later, everyone dies.
Okay, sorry, that’s a recap for William Shakespeare’s King Lear, but I bring the Elizabethan comparison because, beneath its splashy fur coat-laden surface, Empire asks nearly the same questions about nearly the same family. In the pilot, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) learns he has ALS and has to decide which of his sons would do the best job with his music label as it heads toward its IPO. Unlike Lear, Lucious is wise enough to know that it’s not a good idea to divide your empire into three parts (and unlike Lear, he has sons), but he’s still asking the same question: Which of you is going to pretend that you love me the most? He doesn’t say it in those terms—it’s more, “which of you best fits my celebrity-driven brand and also isn’t gay?”—but the anxiety is the same. Lucious wants his sons to prove some authentic connection to him and simultaneously to be something they’re not. It’s not the best way of being a parent.
But Lucious, as we learn early on, isn’t any ordinary father. He built his music label from the ground up, making his way out of the ghetto through his own musical talent and sheer force of will. Of course, according to the Empire’s own queen Lear, Lucious’ ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson *praise hands*), that’s not entirely true. Cookie was Lucious’ partner in crime when they were first starting his music career. She put up the $400,000 that got the label off the ground and and she took the fall for drug possession when Lucious was first starting off his career. Now, 17 years later, she’s out of jail early on good behavior, and she she wants to get what’s hers. Barring that, she wants a way of getting revenge. In King Lear terms, this means turning one of Lucious’ sons against him. Again, not the best way of being a parent.
Let’s turn to the younger generation. In descending order of Lucious’ preference, there’s Hakeem (Bryshere Gray, a.k.a. Yazz The Greatest), who’s super talented but undisciplined; Andre (Trai Bryers), who’s got business savvy but no musical talent; and Jamal (Jussie Smollett), who’s also talented, but (and this is where Lucious gets hung up on things) gay. Empire introduces the brothers as Hakeem and Jamal freestyle on a family and Andre watches with his evil white wife (IMDb informs me her name is “Rhonda,” but I’m going to call her EWW) in the background. The implication is obvious: Jamal and Hakeem get along well, Andre’s kind of a spoilsport (and EWW is definitely plotting something).
After Lucious makes his announcement to Empire’s board about his upcoming IPO plans, he calls the three sons to his office and announces that he’s going to choose one of them to “groom” to be the face of the company soon. Jamal makes his King Lear quip and the brothers all grumble about how they don’t really want to be groomed. Still, Lucious persists with his terrible idea that will divide the family and announces that he’ll make his pick soon.
First, Lucious visits Andre in a boxing ring. Andre points out all the ways in which he would be a great pick—he used to wear suits as a kid to try to get into meetings, also, more importantly, he actually knows something about business—but Lucious insists that his “celebrity-driven brand” should be run by a celebrity. Andre is out.
NEXT: Cookie arrives on the scene…