Empire was once a show that was campy, ridiculous and perfect in its own right, with only the slightest hint that its creators had achieved this trifecta on purpose. Season 1 played out like a toddler struggling to balance itself, and now the baby has realized its place in the world and it’s walking upright. The show has been a glorious mess all along, but Season 2's sad realization is that with none of the novelty and without much of the camp, Empire’s cracks are glaring.
Wednesday night’s finale ended with a literal cliff hanger—Anika and Rhonda wrestling on the roof of a building in a fight that might end with one of them dying because somebody has to die at this point. That Empire has lost much of its sheen is maybe the result of premature plot-cramming in Season 1. No more outlandish blowjob bibs and no more “Drip Drop” with 101 other things happening in one scene, let alone one episode. Even the songs this season were way too good (though still not that good).
The spectacle remains, with more of an emphasis on story over camp, a necessary but unfortunate decision. That story is ultimately one about family, betrayal and power. So while everyone has an agenda as always, Hakeem emerged as the central force. Not only did he pull himself up to become CEO of Empire Records (“I’m running for CEO,” he said earlier in the season), he also got engaged. He’s a real boy!
But oh no... Too bad his wedding gets called off, setting up a possible return to Hakeem’s old ways next season. Many of the plot lines linked back to him (at least in this second half of Season 2), so it’s no surprise that his character was the most developed and interesting, a benefit of maturation. He’s settled some of his bad boyisms, only after impregnating Anika and reaping the benefits of Camilla’s death via poison.
The other interesting Season 2 arc came from Anika, who went from being engaged to Lucius to pregnant with Hakeem’s child, from being a dominant Cookie foil to becoming a desperate twerking hanger-on, relegated to a position as the stray seeking a home and family. Cookie touches on this point when Anika is teetering off the ledge of a building in last night’s episode, ready to jump. A tearful Cookie, who’s really only concerned about the grandson Anika’s carrying, reminds her what she’s always wanted was to be a Lyon and now she has that chance if she lives.
The attempted suicide comes after Rhonda accuses Anika of pushing her down the stairs, which caused Rhonda to lose the baby with Andre. And after, in a moment reminiscent of the greatness of season 1, Rhonda rushes into the room to choke and punch Anika while screaming, “I know you pushed me bitch!”
What’s happened to Jamal? After a season of transition (a coming out, a breakup), he’s the legitimate star of the family. What he’s fighting for since his influence has grown is either unclear or uninteresting. His main battle is trying to reconnect his family, which in last night’s finale meant refusing to sing at Hakeem’s wedding (Jamal performs anyway because he’s a nice person) after recovering from being shot at the ASAs (the show’s version of the Grammys) by Freda, who really wanted to kill Lucius for killing her daddy (Chris Rock) in prison.
We’re lucky at least that Cookie is still fun to watch as she’s assumed her maternal and leadership role as the person who moves the chess pieces along with Lucius, who by the way, is still a feathery-voiced dick. Anytime you think he might suddenly become a decent human, we see him curving Jamal or willing to sabotage Hakeem. We also find out he lied about his mom’s death and that, in fact, she’s alive and unwell. Even this twist turned out to be uneventful.
The season again ends in limbo. Rhonda again tries to kill Anika, by pushing her off a building. And you’d think Anika would stay away from ledges or buildings at this point. But, like the show, she doesn’t always know what’s good for her.