Brow Beat

How Empire Pulls Off Its Crazy, Breakneck Plot Developments

Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon in Empire.  

Photo courtesy Chuck Hodes/FOX

About halfway through the Season 2 premiere of Empire, an entire coup was conceived, implemented, and thwarted. Cookie and her two scorned sons, Andre and Hakeem, conspired with Mimi (Marisa Tomei) to buy controlling shares of Empire, confronted the new head of the company (her other son, Jamal) in a board meeting, and found out Mimi betrayed them via a video conference call from an imprisoned Lucious Lyon. Somehow, there was still room for hashing out some prison politics—we finally met the mysterious Frank Gathers, played by a woefully miscast Chris Rock, who ALSO had his own anti-Cookie cause, tried to implement it, and was thwarted by Lucious. Lucious, it should be noted, met a lawyer, hired the lawyer, and was released from prison—and ALSO had time to record a single from prison—in the second half of the second episode Wednesday night. Also, both Andre and Hakeem had time to consider turning on Cookie before they even established their new label, Dynasty.

These plot summaries might sound like the Cliffs Notes version. They’re not. In the world of Empire, events that would normally take place over a season-long arc take mere minutes. With a bit more detail and development, each of these stories could be its own movie. But Empire writers fling plots right and left, and viewers don’t seem to mind the whiplash. As Last Week Tonight writer Josh Gondelman said on Twitter during the premiere: “More happens before the first commercial break on ‘Empire’ than has happened to everyone I’ve ever met in their whole lives added up.”

Empire’s quick plot turnover isn’t anything new: Last season, Jamal had some baby mama drama that lasted exactly one episode. One episode! Writers usually milk that stuff for at least a season. And this kind of fast-paced plotting seems to be all over TV right now. It’s the lifeblood of Shonda Rhimes’ empire. Think of every promo you’ve ever seen for Scandal or How to Get Away With Murder promising OMG moments before every commercial break. These shows are barrages of plot. But nothing moves faster than Empire. Empire moves so quickly, it’s already developing a spinoff for a character we haven’t met yet!  

As many have pointed out, both Shondaland and Empire owe a debt to daytime soaps, known for their relentless drama and rattled-off twists. But the pacing of Empire is even more steroidal. And yet, somehow, it works. The dialogue is so juicy and propulsive that it papers over the more improbable plot switches. And the writers have a way of surprising us, even when we think we’re no longer able to be surprised. Lucious’ misdiagnosis, for instance, was a curveball even for Empire—it seemed more likely that someone would find a way to cure his ALS. Above all, though, what we’re really investing in is the emotional arc of Cookie and Hakeem and Andre and even Boo Boo Kitty; they are the real engine of Empire. The constant plot developments, even at their most implausible, are anchored by such believable characters that the breakneck storylines feel more like dramatic atmospherics than the actual narrative backbone of the show.