Empire’s season two debut, “The Devils Are Here,” picks up three months after the season one finale. Lucious Lyon is locked up on a murder charge while Cookie and Hakeem busily plot a hostile takeover of Empire Records. Hiding their plans from Jamal under the guise of a #FreeLucious campaign, they pack an outdoor concert with fans holding signs like a Black Lives Matter protest. Swizz Beatz steps onstage with a microphone saying, “There are 1.68 million Black men in mass incarceration in the American prison system.”
Suddenly a cage descends from the sky, with Cookie dressed as an ape grunting and growling. She pulls off the mask, twists her face, and gives a rousing speech against mass incarceration. “The American correction system is built on the backs of our fathers and sons. It is a system that must be dismantled piece by piece,” she shouts like a protest leader. “Justice for all. Not justice for some!”
This rallying opening scene continues Empire’s spirit from season one of throwing in lines of pro-Black activism. Even healthy jabs at several of the show’s cameo appearances (nearly all in the first 10 minutes)—like Al Sharpton and Don Lemon’s coverage of Ferguson and the N-word—thankfully continue to reflect the show’s current events relevancy.
But outside of its fleeting progressive moments, the heart of Empire is shadiness, seen during the concert as Cookie flirts and cuddles up to a potential investor, lesbian billionaire Mimi Whiteman (played by Marisa Tomei). Social media chatter seemed to find this problematic, pointing to stereotypes of gay female prisoners. But cliché or not, homosexuality is a true reflection of countless women incarcerated for most of their lives.
As the storyline continues, the infamous murderer Frank Gathers steps off a prison bus into the same jail as Lucious. Surprisingly played by comedian Chris Rock, at first glance he brings a laugh. But Rock manages to maintain his hardcore, icy glare in every scene, proving his reputation for murderous street vengeance that parts prison corridor crowds.
Back at Empire Records, Jamal finds frustration in handling the pressure of running a label and being an artist. The growing pains of transition bring continued tensions between him, Hakim, and ’Dre. Still angry about being passed over because of his seemingly soft nature and bipolar disorder, ’Dre wakes up in hot sweats of guilty over last season’s finale murder of Vernon.
But the beauty in all this Lyon family turmoil is seeing the father-son bond between Jamal and Luscious. When most of last season was spent showing Lucious’s struggle to accept Jamal’s sexuality, this first episode shows acceptance. Luscious plays incarcerated confident, parenting from inside prison walls and dropping much needed fatherly advice.
One of the most memorable scenes was the return of Boo Boo Kitty, Anika, now hooked up with Hakim. As we wonder why she’s even in this season to begin with, she exhibits her typical self-deprecation, gyrating to hopefully win the investment decision of Mimi—which she does not. Memorable scene two featured Frank Gathers and his taste for cannibalism, Rock in a plastic white bib spotted with the blood of Cookie’s cousin, who finally sputters the truth on her snitching secret. It’s a subtle scene that reports say Lee Daniels wanted to be more graphic until Fox pushed back. The missing elements make it come off misunderstood and plain weird.
But Empire, of course, is driven by the dysfunctional love of Cookie and Luscious, which bonds them together no matter the distance or distaste. And in the end, we’re reminded of this with a playful scene between the two, when Cookie finally pays him a visit behind bars to ask for protection from Gathers—which Lucious handles, without question, with a jailhouse torture.
Season two’s premiere of Empire was like a curtain carefully opening to reveal what will likely be a season packed with all of the over-the-top, melodramatic, tacky clothes and jaw-dropping plotlines viewers crave. This guilty taste for Empire’s addictive junk food will keep viewers sucking their teeth as they race back for more in episode two.