Fox’s smash-hit drama “Empire” closes out its first, fabulous season this evening. And given its success with both critics and audiences, it’s inevitable that other networks will try to replicate the show’s charms. Still, while it’s one thing to pull off a black family drama, it’s quite another to pull off one like “Empire” — and this would be an easier lift if network TV actually tried to tell such stories on a regular basis. Creating a character as vivid and singular as Cookie Lyon, the former record label doyenne intent on reclaiming her domain after a long stint in prison, will be rather more difficult. In Cookie, Taraji P. Henson has given television its best new female character of the season.
Like most female characters — actually, like most television characters — Cookie has flaws. But what sets her apart is the way they’re expressed.
There isn’t a contradiction between her job and her character, a sort of storytelling that has become known as a Vocational Irony Narrative. which when applied to women, often serves to reinforce the insidious message that it’s impossible to have a high-powered personal life. Cookie’s not Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), the savvy Washington crisis fixer who eventually had to admit that her affair with President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) is a considerable scandal, even by the standards of a show where nice little old lady Supreme Court justices are swiping national elections.
And unlike Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), the high-powered lawyer with a troubled personal life on “How to Get Away With Murder,” Cookie doesn’t seem crushed by the pressure to present an unsustainably perfect public image. Her prison record and the way her husband threw her over are a matter of public record: If you try to insult Cookie, she’ll happily confirm all your worst expectations. “I’m not one of your jailbird mates, okay?” Camilla (Naomi Campbell), who is dating Cookie’s son Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), tells Cookie at the White Party. “I wish you were,” Cookie snaps back at her with lascivious, malevolent glee. “You look like you got a long tongue.”
Cookie may never quite achieve respectability. But she’s also free from the expectation that she try. Her aphorisms aren’t just colorful: They’re things we were clever enough to type into Twitter and brave enough to actually send out into the world. Who hasn’t wanted the chutzpah to declare the self-affirming equivalent of “Don’t forget to thank your Cookie on this historic occasion!” on a particularly good day?
If Cookie were just rude and self-indulgent, she wouldn’t be such a radical and delightful figure. She’s good at being mean because she’s emotionally perceptive, a skill that serves her well when she’s managing artists.
Sometimes that means delivering a cutting, direct assessment, like the order to “stop rappin’ like you from the streets, ’cause you not about that life!” Cookie gives Hakeem, who in fact gets more fun to watch when he stops posing and focuses on giving listeners either party anthems or raw emotional dispatches. In other moments, she’s a pragmatist, informing Hakeem’s ex Tiana (Serayah) that just because she has been caught on camera kissing another woman doesn’t mean her career’s at risk: “You’s a freak,” Cookie tells the younger woman, “And that’s a good thing. We can sell that.” Cookie’s power is such that she can even tame Courtney Love, recruited to “Empire” in a bit of genius stunt casting to play difficult aging star Elle Dallas.
For all that, Cookie does harbor real fears: Earlier in the season, they prompted her to order a hit on an old family friend, a decision that will almost surely have consequences tonight. But she’s not broken by her terror.
And at a moment when sex on television can be awfully fraught, it’s hard to think of a character who has more fun in bed than Cookie Lyon. She and her ex-husband, Lucious (Terrance Howard), share a warm, comfortable chemistry — you can see how the pair got to a place where, as she put it, “He tried to outdance me, girl. Next thing I know, we got three sons.”
Her pure enjoyment of sex and her self-confidence as a sexual person save her from the humiliations and hurts that might stymie lesser mortals. Show up to what turns out to be a family dinner in lingerie under a coat? In Cookie’s playbook, that’s an opportunity to show up Anika (Grace Gealey), her rival for Lucious’s affections.
Like the wisest adventuresses, Cookie has a healthy sense of self-protection: When she and Lucious start sleeping together again, she gives him a number of unprintable orders about the other woman in his life. And Lucious’s weakness on the matter proves disappointing, but not flattening. Watching a tipsy Cookie howl “Take these cookiesssss!” at her bodyguard Malcolm (Derek Luke, overdue the starring role in a romantic comedy he so richly deserves) is a lusty delight.
“Empire” was wise enough not to try to make Cookie a universal figure: She’s the product of a prison-induced time warp, a woman who shines under pressure in part because she has so much experience creating potentially humiliating situations from which to extract herself. Most of us are probably smart enough not to try to pull off her animal prints or her general approach to life.
But even if “the streets ain’t made for everybody — that’s why they made sidewalks,” it’s still a delight to watch Cookie bestride back alleys and boardrooms. In “Empire,” she’s a conquerer to rival the wannabe queens and liberators on “Game of Thrones,” even if the only dragon at her disposal is lizard print.