In the Season 4 premiere of Empire, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) lost a leg. He emerged with a wild case of amnesia and oh god is Empire good again? Looks like it. Fox's hip-hop saga has leaned into what it does best — outrageous storylines and family melodrama — with Leah Walker (Leslie Uggams) trying to up her body count, Claudia (Demi Moore) clearly up to no good and Lucious being manipulated instead of doing the manipulating. Yes, it's insane, but it's mesmerizing like a car crash no one can look away from. .
Since Empire started in 2015, it's has been saddling poor Lucious with one tragic affliction after another one — beginning with an incurable disease that went away then became something else when he was retroactively misdiagnosed. Producers have said the switcheroo was intentional, but it felt like a sloppy afterthought that weakened Empire's spine. Apparently, they've learned their lesson. Empire executive producer Ilene Chaiken has said that this season, Lucious' current health issues will last and color the narrative. Does that mean Lucious won't go back to being the devil incarnate when he wakes up out of his spell? Will he remember his mom killed his brother? Will Lucious' lost leg end be completely forgotten by Episode 5? Oh please. It's a fair question. And it'll be awhile till fans get any answers, but in the meantime, here's an abridged rundown of all the maladies Lucious has suffered so far. If we could all have his health plan!
ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease)
In Season 1 Lucious, his business, his legacy and his fractured family were in jeopardy owing to his diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which slowly disintegrates nerves in the brain and spinal cord and makes walking, talking, eating and breathing increasingly difficult. This was a strong, shocking way to open the series, with Lucious facing imminent death and his family scrambling to get their act together/compete for the throne. People diagnosed with ALS are given a brutal expectancy of only 2-5 years; Empire had a sense of urgency, tension and sadness built in. But as the season progressed, ALS — which in real life gets progressively worse — was forgotten in favor of other crises, and by the end of the season we learn that Whoops! Lucious didn't have ALS at all. What was initially a bold choice with a ticking clock and consequences turned into a confusing bait-and-switch that, in a way, colored how Empire would operate in the future: i.e. frequently flailing around to see what sticks.
With all due respect to people with myasthenia gravis, hardly anyone knows what this is. So yeah, Empire earns points for raising awareness about this motor neuron disorder — which hinders muscle and motor functions like ALS does but is much more easily treatable — but loses points for how it was rolled out. The misdiagnosis revelation at the end of the Season 1 felt like a cop out, a way for the surprise smash hit show to chart a new course forward sans the box it put itself in. How can Lucious shoot people or play piano with rapidly failing muscle coordination? One might imagine a writer asking. "He can't," another imaginary writer might've replied. "So let's just write it out!" Also, WHY? The entire point of this change was lost on us, since myasthenia gravis hardly ever becomes an issue again. Creators have said they intended this storyline all along, which kind of makes it worse.
Granted, Lucious was high on drugs for his Myasthenia gravis (and yes, that happens - we checked) when he started hallucinating that Bunkie — the minion Lucious killed in the first episode — was sitting on his bed. Getting visited by the ghost of someone you killed is a standard narrative not exclusive to the hip-hop mogul, but it's one more symptom that makes Lucious so...fragile. Can you even imagine his monthly insurance premium?
Not debilitating you say? Ha. Since we've known him, Lucious has rocked a struggle ponytail with zero hangtime, a Little Richard-style conk so stunning Jimmy Fallon made it part of his parody and went through a laughable do-rag phase. It's totally reasonable to theorize that Lucious' insecurity about his hair is what makes him so mean. Bigger men have gone to war over less.
Post traumatic stress disorder
Technically, PTSD is Jamal's (Jussie Smollett) thing; the aftermath of him being shot was a consistent storyline through last season. But mental health issues run in the Lyon family — Andre (Trai Byers) is bipolar, as is his murderin' granny Leah (Leslie Uggams). Lucious is no exception. Season 4 is just starting, but Lucious is already having flashbacks that make him break out in a cold sweat, making it clear his mind is swimming with images and sounds that trigger traumatic episodes. Now, Empire hasn't definitively named Lucious' condition PTSD — probably because fans would rightfully scream en masse SERIOUSLY GUYS HOW MANY PEOPLE ON THIS SHOW CAN YOU GIVE PTSD?! — but according to the National Institute of Mental Health, Lucious' flashbacks, cognition and mood symptoms are textbook PTSD.
Traumatic brain injury
Empire EP Ilene Chaiken has not called Lucious' current memory issue "amnesia" in interviews but "traumatic brain injury." That's less out of sensitivity for the condition or people with it, but more an effort to avoid copying + pasting the old soap opera cliche that's as predictable as the evil twin or "accident that awakens split personalities." Lucious can't remember who he is or who any of his family members are and by golly, that is and will always be TV amnesia. Or not: Lucious will obviously revert to his old ways sooner or later, making his memory failure something to be one day forgotten like the rest of these conditions.
Empire's most daring physical problem yet, this revelation was great for a). shock value and b). giving last season's explosion a real consequence that will stretch out for the remainder of the series. Empire now has a — sorry for this — firm leg to stand on, no longer toeing a line (sorry again) of narrative safety but committing to integrity that assures viewers the show is back (oh man, this is terrible) on solid footing. Fans have seen close ups of Lucious's stump, his artificial limb inside his loafer and the cane he relies on now to get around. Though Lucious hasn't yet experienced the 'phantom limb' syndrome amputees can feel after losing a limb, this is still a permanent development Empire can't retreat from. No matter what happens from here on out, Empire has shown it's willing and able to raise the stakes and stand by the wild turns it throws at us. That's a sign of good health.
Empire airs Wednesdays at 8/7 on Fox.