This post contains spoilers from the series finale of “Empire.”
In the end, the show’s ruthless antihero dodged a hit on his life and lived to see another day alongside his childhood sweetheart, who — after some insightful therapy sessions — goes by her given name. Loretha “Cookie” Lyon will see you now.
There were few surprises, but then again, it was not the finale producers initially planned. The show was forced to cut its final season short after the coronavirus pandemic shut down production. Co-creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong told Deadline they hope to eventually give the series a proper finale. And though it may be hard to remember the show’s heyday, its legacy certainly demands more closure than what Tuesday’s de facto final bow could offer.
“Empire” became a ratings juggernaut following its January 2015 premiere, picking up millions of new viewers by the week. The first season revolved around the Lyon family’s struggle over who should take the reins of their multimillion dollar hip-hop record label. The show’s sudsy drama and endless supply of celebrity guest stars and cameos — Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Naomi Campbell, Marisa Tomei, Chris Rock, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Chet Hanks among them — sparked lively discussions on Twitter that Fox channeled into raising (and monetizing) the show’s profile.
The unprecedented popularity of the series, which drew comparisons to “Dynasty” and “King Lear,” was among the success stories that spurred Nielsen to factor social media conversations into its content ratings. “Empire” also found success through a different rating system: the Billboard charts, which often featured the show’s original music.
The main attraction of “Empire,” though, was always its well-cast ensemble, led by Howard and Henson, who established an iconic character with her delicious, animal print-accented portrayal of the Lyon family matriarch. In the show’s pilot, Cookie gets out of prison after 17 years (a sacrifice that funded the label and spared Lucious from punishment for his own crimes) and arrives — in somewhat outdated style — to claim her half of the company. The couple was on and off throughout the series, but it was a foregone conclusion that they would be endgame.
The already complicated story lines proved increasingly messy about halfway through the show’s second season, and the series never quite matched the addictive magic of its first installment. But the show built a legacy beyond its soapy twists and turns, exploring mental health and LGBTQ issues in groundbreaking ways.
Some of the show’s most pointed (if occasionally clumsy) attempts at social commentary involved Jamal Lyon, Cookie and Lucious’s gay son, who longed to be accepted by his overtly homophobic father. But the character — a notable breakout for actor Jussie Smollett — also highlights the show’s complicated legacy. Smollett’s role on the show came into question when he was charged with lying to Chicago police after alleging he had been called racial and homophobic slurs during a brutal attack in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood.
“Empire,” then nearing the end of its fifth season, found its increasingly bloated fiction overshadowed by the bizarre real-life drama surrounding one of its most valuable players. Following his arrest, Fox announced that Smollett — who maintains he did not stage the attack he reported to police — would be removed from that season’s final two episodes. Controversy swelled when prosecutors dropped all charges against the actor a few weeks later, but Smollett’s significance to the show was evident even amid his legal troubles. As reported by Deadline last April, Howard, Henson and several of their co-stars urged Daniels and his fellow producers to let the actor return for the show’s final season. Fox later said producers had no plans for him to return to the show.
Not surprisingly, Smollett did not resurface in Tuesday’s episode. The actor, who was indicted on new charges this year following an investigation, last appeared in an April 2019 episode that found Jamal marrying his boyfriend; the show was praised for showing two black gay men pledging their love and commitment to each other on prime-time TV. In a credit to the show’s own character development, Jamal walked down the aisle with his mother — and father — by his side.
The show’s final episode did resolve some issues for Jamal’s brothers: Dumb, romantic Hakeem is a happily married man whose best music is still about his family. There’s also hope for Andre, Cookie and Lucious’s troubled but brilliant eldest son, who decided to skip his impulsive mission in South America in hopes of reuniting with his wife and son. And the Lyon family banded together once again to maintain control of their empire.
For better and for worse, that empire wouldn’t exist without Cookie and Lucious. So while Tuesday’s episode may not be the finale “Empire” fans deserve, it still hit the most important notes.