That’s the incredible combo move Cookie pulled on Anika in Wednesday’s season finale after weeks of buildup. It was as if the fierce matriarch had mastered this long ago, as it took no amount of forethought at all for her to toss her drink in the debutante’s face with her left hand, and instantly sock her in the face with her right.
That’s also the combo move Lee Daniels and Danny Strong pulled on viewers in two back-to-back episodes, as they hurled at us every possible life changing, game-changing, absurd, hilarious, and wonderful dramatic moment, regardless of whether it made any narrative sense. Lucious has finally—suddenly—come to accept Jamal’s openness about his homosexuality as the lucrative, inspiring career move that it is. So of course in the world of Empire, they bond over a sexy, impassioned Spanish guitar duet, and Lucious convinces his once-endearing middle son to turn all Suge Knight and threaten his adversary, Baretti, while dangling him over the balcony of a very tall building. The tenacious Anika decides that partnering with Baretti and attempting to destroy Empire by stealing its top talent isn’t enough—she’s also going to get caught screwing Hakeem (an immature young man whose mommy issues apparently know no bounds) in order to dig the knife in Lucious’ back further. Oh, and Andre’s wife Rhonda is pregnant, Cookie almost snuffs Lucious out with a pillow, and Lucious doesn’t actually have ALS. He’s got something non-life threatening called myasthenia gravis (MG).
All of that doesn’t even begin to describe half of what occurred in the final two plot-heavy episodes, but you get the gist. Essentially, “Die But Once” and “Who I Am” play fast and loose with character development, making many of the characters we’ve come to appreciate (Jamal), or at least not hate (Anika), do inexplicably stupid things. It boggles the mind, but it’s also irresistible, because, well, it’s Empire, and this is the season finale—it has to go for broke. (I might add: A+ scoring of Mario Van Peebles and Debbie Allen as the directors of their respective episodes—the camera work reached cinematic heights, with an influx of 360 rotations, a couple of horizontally-shot sex scenes, and lens flare only J.J. Abrams could truly appreciate.) To watch the show usually means to completely disregard all logic and marvel at the show’s subversive, sometimes awkward, attempts to wrestle with very serious subject matter while refusing to cater to white audiences. (At one point, a homophobic Empire rapper refers to Jamal as “batty man,” a Jamaican slur for gay or effeminate men.)
Yet one splash-punch that isn’t so easy to shake off is the show’s incorporation of religion—which is amplified to the nth degree in the finale. Building upon Andre’s introduction to prayer through his musical therapist Michelle (Jennifer Hudson) while in treatment for bipolar disorder, Daniels, Strong, and co-writer on “Die But Once” Ilene Chaiken string religious references throughout quite literally (and clumsily) at every chance they can get. Andre decides to abandon the business and devote himself to church instead upon realizing Jamal will succeed Lucious at Empire. “Let’s see who’s more powerful, your God or your daddy,” smirks Lucious right before he goes on to entice Michelle with the prospect of recording a gospel album with her. Andre, betrayed, later tells Michelle, “My father is the devil, and you spread your legs for him.”
Perhaps what’s so troubling about all of this religious incorporation is the suggestion it seems to be making about its “power” to heal something as serious as bipolar disease. The connection was subtly made at the end of last week’s episode, which found Andre returning to Empire following his awkward prayer scene with Michelle. (I’d never before seen any one kneel between another person’s legs and bend over ever so seductively to say a prayer.) But the writers take it a step further in these final two episodes by all but implying that God—not Andre’s time spent seeking medical treatment, which isn’t really shown in depth to begin with—will “cure” him of his bipolar disorder. “There was always something missing, Dad, a void that I filled with darkness. But now I’m getting to know my God, and He’s filling that void with a higher purpose.”
As I briefly touched on in a previous piece about Empire’s depiction of bipolar disorder, mental illness in the black community is a touchy subject—and emphasizing the role of the church while largely ignoring the benefits of seeking formal medical attention could send the wrong message. When Season 2 arrives in the fall, I’ll look forward to Cookie’s adventures, of course (is that accidental murder hit she put out many episodes back ever going to come back to haunt her?) and seeing what effect the newly formed alliances will have on Empire’s future. But I’ll be especially curious to see how Andre evolves in his ostensibly post-bipolar state.