Sometimes you have to walk through a valley to get to the top and, after Wednesday's episode of Empire, it seems the show may be pulling itself out of its slump. We'd known since the beginning of the spring premiere, when the Lyons banded together after Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), lost her baby, that the story would re-focus on its family narrative, but with slightly odd turns in previous episodes, some side-eye was warranted.
But this episode was a good one. We had a deliciously ominous opening as Luscious' (Terrence Howard) dusty henchman Thirsty Rawlings (Andre Royo) snuck up on Jamal's (Jussie Smollett) kid on a playground and snatched a lock from her hair in order to disprove paternity. Andre (Trai Byers), determined to heal his marriage with Rhonda, admitted he's not been in church much lately, which beautifully sets up what Rhonda said will be the thing that brings them back together: being cutthroat business sharks united in their quest to win at all costs. (Well, she didn't say that exactly. She actually said, "I want to know we want the same things." But later, when we learn that Andre has set up Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) in order to get back on Lucious' good side, we understand that her version of Sweet Nothings is "Who can we annihilate in order to get ahead?")
Also, Anika (Grace Gealey) reveals she's pregnant with Hakeem's kid, giving us all kinds of good stuff to grab onto--and this is all before the first commercial.
In short order, we see Lucious wrest back control of Empire from Hakeem after shady moves, including stealing the poor kid's capsule collection from Saks (R.I.P. Camilla!); planting drugs on Mirage a Trois's tour bus; and then, in a final coup, usurping Hakeem's presentation to shareholders so that they had zero confidence in him. In this meeting--which, by the way, includes another amazing performance by Tiana (Serayah) giving major Aaliyah feeling--we learn Andre has caved to Lucious' request to help him wrest back control. Earlier in the night, the brothers had been on the same team in their loathing for their father but, no: after visiting the grave of his also bi-polar grandmother, where a teary Lucious begged him for his help, Andre re-aligned with his dad. For the first time in a long time, the music business minutiae didn't feel cumbersome and clunky, but rather clear, simple and relevant to the emotional arc.
Even Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) who (for the time being, at least) is working hard to reunite her family, feels relevant again, following a few episodes in which she seemed to function mostly as a doll whose string was pulled to make her say crazy things. Her role as businesswoman is believable and solid, especially when she smoothly has Jamal remove the very gifted Freda Gatz (Bre-Z) from his album because she knows that the feisty rapper (who delivered a beatdown on a guy in her barbershop for disrespecting her father) will become a threat once she discovers Lucious had her father killed. In a newer, fresher and more sensible landscape, Cookie's hilarious one-liners now have more punch. Example: When Andre brings Anika to a (peaceful!) family gathering to announce she's pregnant and that Hakeem is the father, Cookie's "Are you that thirsty, you trick ass ho?" brings everything back together. This is the Empire we've missed.
Anika isn't giving up on that baby, though — even after Lucious surprises her by greeting her inside her apartment when she gets home (he keeps doing that! It's very Beelzebub!) and threatens her. She intones that she has secrets that could take him down, creating yet another link in a thick spider web of sinister motives and betrayals. You go, Empire!
Oh, and that dead mother Lucious has been referencing, and even took Andre to visit in the cemetery? She's not really dead, but, as we see at the end, tucked away in a home, singing to herself. How long has she been there, and why has Lucious lied about it? Finally, we have some good questions, and not ones about what the writers could've been smoking.
Empire airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on Fox.