In the pilot for Empire, Lucious Lyon was pure evil, more of a straight-up villain than an anti-hero. This meant he had a long way to go to be likable. Lucious had the greatest potential character arc and the most tragic flaws to overcome, including homophobia. The writers have so far succeeded in making him one of the most compelling characters on television, and they're now on the verge of pulling off another fete: making Terrence Howard likable.
For the majority of this season, Lucious has employed the iron-fist ruling technique to run Empire Records. More than music, he's selling the Lyon family brand as a product. His eyes seem to swim only with money and he cares about his three talented sons to the extent that it'll benefit his legacy. He killed his best friend. He practically disowned Jamal for being gay. The first episode featured a flashback of Lucious shoving Jamal into a garbage can after seeing him play dress-up. Not even a fatal diagnosis of ALS stopped Lucious from being contemptible—until recently.
At the center of Wednesday night's episode was an Empire Records showcase for investors. Lucious has a brush with death while in the middle of an argument with Cookie about the showcase, and the scare functions as a major turning point. He faints and is carried away in an ambulance. A doctor tells him the illegal meds he's been taking are killing him faster than the ALS.
Lucious, who's a little bit changed, later has a heart-to-heart with Jamal in his office. Jamal's boyfriend Michael has just left him. "I'm not sorry he's gone," laughs Lucious, before turning serious. "I am sorry that you're not happy. Eventually, you're gonna meet somebody who'll really understand what it's like to be with an artist. It's hard." Lucious also offers to take care of Jamal's alleged daughter and says, "You're on not on your own here." For now, a bond is developing, though I'm curious to see what becomes of his raging homophobia.
This episode also has Lucious finally reveal his ALS sickness to his family. It's another scene that softens him as he's now forced to face his mortality with the people he loves, and not just in his own head.
Howard, as Lucious, inspires love and hate. He's the best actor to play this role (Taraji P. Henson reportedly recruited him). He also has a disturbing past. It's hard to tell if Empire intentionally plays off this tense relationship, because the average viewer may not even know of the multiple alleged violent incidents (or that it may have cost him a role), and so these viewers have no prior judgment of him. All of that is indefensible. These conflicting feelings make it easier to hate Howard's character and makes it confusing when his character becomes more likable, as he did on last night's episode. It's impossible to dismiss and weird to write anything good about Howard because of all of this.
Howard has a reputation in Hollywood for being an arrogant dick (notably, the contract disputes over his role as War Machine in the Iron Man franchise). He looks like a pimp and a sweet-talker and a creep and the guy who'll swindle you out of $5 and the little kid who stole your candy in fifth grade and laughed in your face.
In the span of this season, I've seen his treble tremor of a voice described as: "a pastor preaching in a whisper," "a mix between a pissed off mosquito and a church mother," "pitch-perfect Phyllis Diller" (by Jezebel's own Julianne), and like he's "about to cry about freedom." The voice is part of the beauty of Lucious. It's theatrical, melodramatic, ridiculous and it somehow works. All of his speeches and lines are much funnier because they're delivered like a death-bed monologue.
Howard is also a singer, a pretty bad one. Listen to his acoustic guitar tune, "Sanctuary," from his 2008 debut, Shine Through It.
If you can finish the laughing fit, ask yourself: Why did he do this?
I'm glad he did, because it's extremely campy and adds another weird layer to Howard as Lucious. He's the type of singer that Empire Records would totally sign.
When it comes to women, Howard has disturbing views, including the time he described those who didn't use baby wipes as "unclean." He can come across as a hurt puppy in interviews (Jezebel founder Anna Holmes said she "came away with the impression that he hates women" after interviewing him), one who's liable to have "Bitches Ain't Shit" as his theme song. Howard told GQ in 2013, "I just, I was never good with women. I was that sucker. I'd fall in love and tiptoe down the lane with them. I've always been a dreamer. Women always take advantage of dreamers."
As a person who witnessed his dad kill a guy when he was two years old and who found out his ex-wife cheated on him with her high school sweetheart, Howard is clearly a complex ball of emotions. Lucious is a great character; Howard is a weird mystery.
On the show, he's playing off a female character who's intense and much more entertaining to watch. In a recent interview with Fox about the show, Howard described the importance of Henson's Cookie role, telling the interviewer:
"I heard a quote the other day. It said women aren't as successful as men because they don't have a wife behind them. Lucious wouldn't be who he is without Cookie's prodding and her knowledge and instinct about the music game and truthfulness. And as a result of that he was able to grow and the moment she's out of prison, as the series progress, you'll see they're working together is a beautiful thing but it still comes with its own consequences."
I sent an informal poll around to friends asking whether they enjoy watching Howard as Lucious Lyon or whether he's "despicable":
"Terrence Howard does a wonderful job of playing Terrence Howard playing a character that leads the life Terrance Howard could have had if anyone actually bought his album. I know that he's been accused of domestic violence before and that he's also a creep, though I didn't realize how often and how long he's been accused of being an abuser."
"I don't care for Terrence Howard at all, but he plays Lucious very well. I can tell when the lines blur, though. Pretty sure cheating and backstabbing are part of Howard's real-life drama... No acting necessary."
"Despicable is a little too strong considering I don't know him personally, but I did have the pleasure [sarcasm] of interviewing him a few years ago and he's definitely not acting. I wanna say he was in character as Lucious Lyon when I met him back in 2010, so maybe that means he was meant to the play the role OR it could mean he's a terrible actor. I'm going with the latter."
"I can do without him but he is a good actor. His moral compass is off but so is everyone else's."
"I still wouldn't fuck him. His eyes and voice are too shaky like he has multiple personalities. Maybe he has so many off-screen issues with women 'cause he was touted as being an actor to watch then kept losing roles 'cause of his perm."
My initial critique of Empire was that there wasn't much depth outside of Jamal and Cookie. As the ratings have grown progressively, so has the quality. It's easy to toss the show off as a silly soap opera and plenty of it is melodramatic and laughable, but as Julianne smartly noted: "Camp is definitely the highest art form and this episode is exponentially elevating my opinion of Terrence Howard's skills."
On Twitter, it's a real family experience watching this TV family. The show is both stereotypical and complicated. You don't think much about why you're watching; that might ruin the experience. But the writing's become increasingly sharp and that this is pure and complex black entertainment. With each episode, it's clear that everyone's in on the joke (case in point: Naomi Campbell's disgusted "What is bae?" line from last night's episode). Cookie remains just as electric as ever, and now it's clear that Taraji P. Henson has found her moment and that Terrence Howard is, well, Terrence Howard.
Image via fox.com