EMPIRE Season 1 Finale Postmortem: The Rise and Fall of Dwight Walker

     March 19, 2015

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Well hello there, Boo-Boo Kitties. In order to properly talk about the two-hour Season One finale of Fox’s juggernaut series Empire, our new TV writer Chris Cabin joined me for Collider’s third postmortem discussion. Below, you’ll find our thoughts on the first season, how many plots the show can burn through in an hour, and whether we are Team Hakeem or Team Jamal.

Allison: Greetings Empire shareholders. The IPO is public, Lucious isn’t dying, and I think the show set a new record for burning through plots in that two-hour finale. Before we get into that, though, I just wanted to mention once more what a huge surprise Empire has been this season as a new drama series. The ratings have been historic, but it’s no wonder: the show is so fun, ridiculous and incredibly likable (and catchy — thanks, Timbaland). The short-season format (for broadcast) has also worked to its benefit. But of course, nothing has made the show shine more than Taraji P. Henson as Cookie. Lee Daniels promised us “black Dynasty,” and he delivered. I’ve loved every minute of this old-school soap opera insanity, and will miss it.

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Image via Fox

As for the finale, I’m so glad that “Die But Once” aired in conjunction with “Who I Am,” because that first hour was a complete mess. Game time, bitches. What drew you in to Empire, Chris, and where do we even start with what just happened?

Chris: Holy Toledo! That finale was a whole lotta nonsense, but I also agree that I loved every second of this season and, for better and worse, the last two episodes. I’m glad you brought up the music because to me, its view of pop music is exactly what’s so consistently interesting about the series. The plot clearly borrows from King Lear, and to me, Lee Daniels has crafted something like Shakespeare by way of Kesha or Miley Cyrus or, to point to just one of the show’s cameos, Rita Ora. It’s also totally in line with where Daniels is in his career, following the surprisingly successful and, to me, hugely underrated The Butler, which took a similar attitude towards melodrama that Empire has. What I’m hoping — now that it is, indeed, game time, bitches — is that Daniels will be able to secure artists like Spike Lee to hone this series, and tap into its clearly larger social ambitions, without losing its infectious sense of humor and wonderfully chintzy drama.

Speaking of Daniels’ career, Terrence Howard gave one of his best performances of his career thus far in The Butler, and I frankly think that, without him, Empire simply would. not. work. What did we think of his work in “Die But Once” and the finale? 

Allison: Regarding the music — which I agree is a huge part of what makes this show special — how great of an advertisement for the show’s album was that concert at the end?

Also Chris I think you tapped into one of the biggest reasons why I feel a little soured about the Empire finale after having been so hyped up right after the episode when I kicked this conversation off. I feel like the show needs to be more ambitious (without losing that campy charm, but there’s plenty of room in between). As much as I loved the catfight between Cookie and Anika, Lucious’ stage-play monologue at the end of “Die But Once,” and the pillow gift (one of the funniest moments the show has had yet), I can’t help but also feel that so much time was misspent.

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Image via Fox

Empire hits on some really interesting threads regarding the relationships among the brothers, Cookie and Lucious’ power grabs, and what it means to have a successful music empire in a digital age. But while Jamal and Cookie feel like fully-formed, nuanced characters, Hakeem and Andre are still largely caricatures. Further, those deeper plots threads are always replaced with shoehorned nonsense like the Jennifer Hudson sideplot (whereas, Andre’s exploration of faith could really have been something). As for Lucious, I’m not the biggest Howard fan, but he was at his most grandiose in these episodes, with Lucious as plugged into his God-complex as is humanly possible. What about you? Do you feel like he grounds the madness? And before I deconstruct it further, what did you think the show got right with the finale?

Chris: The songs get stuck in your head; “Drip Drop” and “All of the Above” were particular highlights for me. Timbaland and the songwriters gave the series a crucial sense of artistic authenticity. Even when the songs were bad, they sounded like songs that I might here on the radio, the sort that make my eyes roll endlessly. I think back to initially promising shows like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and the major issue was that the actual art form being practiced in the show never felt genuine or particularly funny. That’s not the case here.

The two final episodes needed better directors, if not necessarily bigger ones, though the thought of Spike Lee taking on this material is thrilling. As you said, even at nearly two hours, the story felt rushed to attend to all the plot strands that had been built up and set up a few ideas for next season. There were ridiculous parts of this episode that could have been fixed with a few additional set-up scenes, or even just taking a breath in between humongous plot turns. The Anika-Hakeem hook-up seemingly came out of nowhere and didn’t even seem all that important in the scheme of things at the end. The writers also handled the conclusion of Malcom and Michelle’s storyline in the season like they were under some deadline, as if they just had to make sure there is a clean slate when season 2 hits.

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Image via Fox

That being said, I’m hugely interested in how they will go about Lucious’ criminal trial. Do we think we’re going to get to see Lucious in jail? Or will the series simply approach that world through flashbacks? I’m hoping the former. 

Allison: The pacing makes me worry for Season 2. There’s no need to rush any of these plots, and the editing was particularly atrocious at the end of the first hour. So many things just did not work, especially at the end of that crammed and largely ludicrous second hour — I mean, how many times can Cookie get kicked out of Empire? Plus, Rhonda the murderous mommy! Jamal the sudden CEO! Lucious doesn’t have ALS! I feel like us finding out Lucious was Lola’s father happened like 4 years ago, instead of last week.

But, the show did a good job of ultimately landing where it needed to. The subversion of Cookie / Lucious in jail was a nice touch, as was the switch-up of the Lucious / Jamal alliance versus Cookie, Anika, Andre and Hakeem. I like seeing those dynamics change, and the show does do a nice job of keeping the past alive (even after Lucious accepts Jamal, he still makes side comments about his his homosexuality, which feels true to the character).

As for the trial, I’d love to see Lucious struggle with his old life by being in prison, but you know he’ll probably be kept in some kind of lux situation even while there. I doubt we’ll see much of a trial, either, as the show just moves too fast for that. That all reminds me of one huge dropped plot from this season: remember when Cookie had a major drug dealer iced? Yeah, no one else on the show seems to, either.

Moving on to next season, what are some things you’d like to see happen, or done differently? And most importantly: Team Hakeem or Team Jamal?

Chris: There were a lot of dropped balls throughout the season. The detective storyline following Bunkie’s murder was one that stuck out distinctly to me, but then again, it’s not like I necessarily missed it. A lot of the more interesting plotlines felt as if they were used specifically for big twists and story turns. Vernon, for instance, was a character that I felt was always on the verge of becoming a more substantial force in the program, and yet was only utilized to orchestrate reveals like Lola’s paternity. 

empire-season-1-finale-postmortem-jussie-smollettOf course, the season was all about the family and, more importantly, intimacy. Lucious and Jamal’s relationship remains the beating heart of the show, largely because Lucious’s homophobia is rooted in a bigger fear of trusting other men with anything personal, let alone matters of sex, love, and romance. Lucious doesn’t really have friends, just business partners, and his inability to really connect with any of his sons throughout the season speaks to a larger vulnerability in Lucious, one that may very well be tested if we get any sense of him in a prison setting. Fingers crossed its not a GoodFellas situation where he’s just hanging out, making sauce and smuggling in lobsters or what have you.
It’s the energy of the show, the pacing of the story and the dedication shown by the cast, that has really brought fans in, I think. Most of the narrative is ludicrous, but earnestly and passionately so. Season 2 needs that same energy, but I do hope that its less Lucious-centric, if that’s even possible. I’d like to see more of Andre, as his storyline ended on perhaps the most unsteady terms, as compared to the other characters. If the story picks up with his release, there is tremendous danger that the second season will just feel like a carbon copy of the first. 
Oh, and I’m totally Team Jamal, even if his forgiveness of Lucious felt like something he found in a cereal box rather than a thoughtful conclusion.   

Allison: Ha! I totally agree, especially about your hopes for next season. The show shouldn’t work, but it does because like you said, it’s completely earnest in what it’s trying to do. I’ll miss the crazy, but am looking forward to its return, where I hope Daniels will get his way and be able to have another short season.

I would say I’m Team Jamal, but it goes against my #1 allegiance, which is to Cookie. Still, she’s always been so close to Jamal that I don’t think that hostile takeover is going to go anywhere without her trying to get ‘Mal on her side. She’s coming for what’s hers! (and that means her family … plus a load of money).

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Image via Fox

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