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Empire: A Family Feud Makes the Good Guy Look Bad and the Bad Guy Look Good

Different sides of Lucious Lyon and Jamal Lyon emerge on Empire.

Malcolm Venable

We're used to loving Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and loathing his father Lucious (Terrence Howard). But in Empire's "One Before Another" -- which peaked with an ugly and captivating family showdown -- we got glimpses of father and son that brought previously obscured parts of them into sharp view. That reveal was most surprising for Lucious, who started to look like someone who's actually sensitive and caring, with a point of view rooted in deep, if warped, love.

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Of course we love Jamal, the do-gooder who's now on a quest to spread his "message of love and light." But his sanctimonious sermons before the fiasco at the Empire Extreme event still failed to address is his own complicity in the empire he eschews. His dad is a monster, sure, and his kingdom is built on coercion and blood. But damn, Jamal. Protests ring a little hollow when you sleep at night on the Egyptian cotton sheets you bought with money from the company you're rallying against. You could join the Peace Corps! Teach music at an elementary school! Jamal will never acknowledge that he's more like his dad than he'd care to admit -- which is why it irked him to no end when Lucious told him point blank, "As soon as you accept you're just like me with a twist, the better of you are."

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He's a mean son of a bitch, but he's not wrong. And the twist isn't so much that Jamal is gay, but that his being gay makes him so defensive around his homophobic father (and industry) that his ability to really listen and maybe admit that his father might be right gets clouded. Jamal's anti-violence cause is admirable, but he's a little hypocritical.

He's being manipulative too, as Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) correctly pointed out. Hakeem made sure Jamal knew that Jamal's duet idea benefitted Jamal much more than it did Hakeem. He went along with it anyway though, in a moment that reminded us how impressionable and easily swayed Hakeem is especially when in the clutches of his daddy. Hakeem wants to be Lucious 2.0 -- a motivation Lucious exploits with ease -- and although Lucious is usually as agreeable as a sewer rat, his words for Hakeem weren't without merit.

Luscious has done what every dad wants his kids to do: make something of yourself, provide for your family. When he implores Hakeem to "show his daughter what his daddy is made of," and cites Kahlil Gibran's "A Tear and a Smile" (poetry!) to illustrate his point that life separates lions from losers, he's saying that his choices provide food and protection for his family. Is that not the highest love there is? The morality of how the success is gained is moot and anyway, lions don't rationalize. They hunt, they mate and they eliminate the weak.

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That's why Lucious looked positively giddy when Hakeem went H.A.M. on his brothers at the Empire Extreme event. Hakeem is beginning to swallow his dad's ethos wholesale, so much so that he dared to mock his brother's sexuality and threaten Andre (Trai Byers) over Nessa (Sierra Aylina McClain), in front of millions. He was unhinged, stomping around like an ogre, alienating his brothers but exciting his father who's thrilled to see him as ruthless as he is. Hakeem has always been this way, of course, but lacking anything resembling direction. With some sort of purpose, he's a formidable asset of Lucious' agenda.

Hakeem's display must've worked, because it apparently unlocked access to a part of Lucious that was almost shocking to see: gentle. Wearing silk pajamas (is there a more vulnerable ensemble?) we saw Lucious cradling his granddaughter as tenderly as if he himself had a bosom. He gives Hakeem a lesson in swaddling and supporting the infant too, signaling that somewhere, deep down, this is a man who has an innate desire to protect his family -- or, at least, the family that does his bidding and aligns with his kill-or-be-killed mindset. "I'll produce you again -- turn you into a destroyer of souls," he told Hakeem, hinting that this first revealing battle just may have been the beginning of a new family war.

Empire airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on Fox.