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‘Empire’ Season 2, Episode 1 Recap: The Lyons Come Roaring Back

The craziest thing about Empire (well, aside from the fact that its star thinks he’s reinvented math), is just how coherent the show is, despite the rapid-fire pace and all the shocking twists. In a show with more chill, what happened in the premiere could’ve made for a season worth of plot, but for the Lyons? Nah, they’re just getting started.

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Let’s examine the season two premiere. We start with a Global Citizen Festival-style concert in Central Park meant to help free Lucious Lyon from jail. The whole gang is out supporting him, joined by an unseen Bill Clinton, the real Reverend Al Sharpton, and CNN anchor Don Lemon, who appears to have enough self-awareness to be able to lightly make fun of himself for his subpar reporting in Ferguson. Cookie, emerging from a gorilla costume like the boss that she is, invokes #BlackLivesMatter rhetoric, protesting police brutality and disproportionate incarceration rate for African Americans. It’s powerful, important stuff, and it’s good to see Empire using its massive audience for good — although, as Hakeem notes, their cause maybe isn’t 100 percent sound in this particular situation, because Lucius definitely shot that dude in the face last season.

Right, Lucious: He’s in jail, and he’s about to be joined by a surprisingly terrifying Chris Rock, who plays Frank Gathers, a big-time dealer that Lucius used to sell drugs for — and that Cookie ratted out. He’s also got a daughter, a talented rapper that Lucius (ever the mogul) takes an interest in.

Jamal, meanwhile, seems poised to become his father, as the pressure and demands of managing a massive, multi-million dollar record company are getting to him. That’s especially true because everyone else in his family is trying to orchestrate a hostile takeover (are there any other kinds in the Empire world?) and lock Lucious out while he’s incarcerated, along with the help of Marisa Tomei’s rich lesbian investor character, Mimi Whiteman — a truly perfect name. Thinking that her investment gives them a majority share, Cookie, Andre, Anika, and Hakeem strut into the conference room like they’re the Hip-Hop Guardians of the Galaxy. Hakeem is riding a hoverboard because he’s a huge tool. It’s iconic.

'Empire' Season 2, Episode 1 Recap: The Lyons Come Roaring Back

But it doesn’t work. Jamal found time to get Mimi on his side, even though he was very busy not wanting to appear too gay and disassociating himself with The Real Housewives of Atlanta’s Miss Lawrence (sing, child). Despite this shocking boardroom drama, the family has to stick together though, because Gathers sent Cookie some nice roses and a frickin’ head in a box as thanks for ratting him out. And even though at some point everybody in the Lyon family has wanted to kill everyone else in the Lyon family, they don’t want anybody else to knock them off. So Cookie goes to jail to ask Lucius, who until this point has been very unconcerned with Gathers, to take care of the situation.

And, wow, he does. Gathers thinks that he runs things, and instructs his associates to kill Lucious on the spot when he stands up for his ex-wife. Thing is, a drug kingpin — according to Empire, of course — has less power than a savvy, billionaire music kingpin. His associates are actually Lucious’ associates, and he tells them to kill Gathers slowly and loudly. It’s Vee’s story arc from OITNB in a single episode.

Now that they’ve seemingly avoided getting whacked, Jamal kicks his family out, declares he is done with their traitorous assesses, and asks if they’d take the knife out of his back as they go. Also a state prosecutor is poised to take Lucious down for good, Jamal’s music-making is stalling, and, oh yeah, Rhonda killed Vernon last season. That’s probably going to go somewhere. A lot happened, and it’s only been the first 44 minutes of the season.

Compare this to Scream Queens, another show that SPIN watched so that we could make GIFs of Ariana Grande getting stabbed to death. As he does in American Horror Story, creator Ryan Murphy throws so many stylized twists and ~content~ into an each episode that they quickly become exhausting. It’s fun at first, but they burn out, starting, dropping, and knocking so many plot threads that nothing seems to matters. Empire brought in a massive guest star, started to set up a long-term enemy for Lucious on the inside, and then killed him off. But th show isn’t nipping budding storylines before they have a chance to bloom — all the developments, as quickly as they come and go, make sense without feeling rushed. It’s just that there’s so much crazy, Shakespearian drama in Empire that is has to be blasted from a fire hose, and not doled out drip drop by drip drippity drop.