Season 3 of Empire starts off with a bang -- literally -- as the person who definitely, really, absolutely got shoved off the balcony in the Season 2 finale meets a gruesome end. That scene, played for mucho melodrama with an over-the-top operatic score, is shocking and juicy. [Spoiler's] death kickstarts a new round of Lyon lunacy that's equal parts visual feast and unbelievable action, but, as everyone who made it through Season 2 knows, Empire can be great, just OK or plummet onto the pavement like the character who dies in Episode 1. So how does the season look based on the first episode?
The truth is, it may be too soon to say. There's a lot being set up in this return, including: a new character who could have a huge impact on the future of the family (any more here and we'd be spoiling the death); a re-energized rivalry between Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) and his father Lucious (Terrence Howard); Tariq (Morocco Omari), Lucious' new half-brother and federal investigator circling around the family like a buzzard; Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) finding her place after Lucious betrayed her by marrying Anika (Grace Gealey); Shine (Xzibit) gaining momentum as a villain; and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) trying to find and keep peace internally and with his crazy family. There's a lot going on.
Whether you find the way all this is done enjoyable, or even convincing, is of course a matter of perspective but all this stuff (and more!) happens really fast in Episode 1. There's not much time, frankly, to chew on why these characters are doing what they're doing, sometimes making the lines between the genuine and the unintentional disappear. The fact that the season opens with a gory, traumatic death that then goes almost entirely unaddressed for the remainder of the 40-plus minutes, for example, certainly feels like more of the latter.
Empire is a soap after all, a universe in which things can believably happen just because the writers want them to, not because it has to make sense. If you're OK with that -- and to be fair, the hip-hop music business world can be stranger the fiction, indeed -- then sure, you can tune out and try to enjoy.
But don't look for too much fun -- especially those wonderful Cookie theatrics we've come to love -- in the first episode; nor should you have too high expectations. The first episode feels like the structural build-up for a story that steadily gains momentum, much like the second half of Season 2 that redeemed itself by refocusing on the Lyon family and the threats to its survival. What clearly remains constant from the start though, is the portrayal of Lucious as a dark lord/puppet master whose ruthless, cunning and manipulative nature gives Empire ample room to keep doing the unthinkable, which we start to see glimpses of by the second episode.