Empire recap: The sins of our mothers
As the midseason break looms, Empire is finally getting to the root of Lucious Lyon's problem
No one is free from the consequences of their choices, whether it's deciding to ruminate on the past or look to the future; deciding to invest in your own needs or the needs of your loved ones; or deciding whether you're willing to sleep with the deputy mayor in order to have a gang injunction charge dropped on a budding female rapper whose father your father murdered in prison.
And that's not to mention decisions about whether to merge with another company or just knock its CEO out in a boxing ring; or deciding whether you're up for a threesome with your lesbian business partner, even though you were very recently rabidly homophobic.
Yes, these were all actual choices faced in Wednesday night's Empire, "True Love Never." Never let it be said that this show is afraid to veer into unexpected territory.
But for all the soapiness of the episode's many decisions, none matters as much as a choice made years ago. Throughout the season, we've learned about Lucious Lyon's troubled relationship with his mother, Leah Walker. Via flashbacks, we've watched her increasingly erratic behavior, from straddling the line between "baptizing" and drowning a young Lucious to buying him a mountain of early Christmas gifts when the two didn't even have enough to eat. Her behavior likely stemmed from bipolar disorder — a mental disorder shared by Lucious' oldest son, Andre.
In the season's third episode, we learned that Andre doesn't worry about passing on the disorder to his coming child, assuming it isn't hereditary because none of his siblings has inherited it. (Someone should really direct him to WebMD.) Lucious has never told him about his own mother's battle with bipolar disorder, but it's clear she's the real wedge between Lucious and his eldest son.
This week, we finally learn why — and it's all about a choice Leah made to leave her life in the hands of chance, just as Andre once did.
Lucious tells Freda Gatz, his young protégé, to dig more deeply into her own troubled past with her father, and allow that anger and pain to show in her music. "You were face to face with the monster. You don't run from it. You embrace and merge with the pain," he tells her.
But he doesn't follow his own advice. When pressed to make his music more personal, he remembers what was likely the defining moments of his childhood, in a trio of flashbacks.
The first two show a prepubescent Lucious burying a handkerchief of bullets. The final one shows why: His mother frantically searching the house, scrambling on hands and knees as she tears the place apart. Finally, she finds what she's been looking for. She places a bullet into the chamber of a revolver and spins it, like a Russian Roulette player. Then she places it to her temple, "Boom, boom, boom, boom." It's almost like a beat.
Exactly, in fact, like the beat Lucious made for his new track with Freda.
It's left unclear if Lucious witnessed his mother commit suicide that day — there was a one-in-six chance that bullet was in the chamber. But watching his mother kill herself would certainly explain some of Lucious' behavior.
Take the friendly sparring match with Jago, the founder of a music streaming service Lucious hopes to merge with Empire Records. Lucious steps into a boxing ring with him to discuss business as they take light jabs at each other — but when Jago says his lyrics seem shallow, Lucious hits him so hard that he's rushed to the hospital. There, Lucious and his business partner Mimi Whiteman flood the young CEO with morphine and convince him to call his lawyer and arrange the merger.
Taken in conjunction with the new flashbacks, this latest impulsive act in a long, long string of terrible acts raises a question: Do all of Lucious' terrible choices stem from his mother?
You can call it a reason, or simply an excuse — but whomever you want to blame, it's clear that Lucious has chosen to push almost everyone away. As always, Lucious technically gets what he claims to want: a new streaming service, a hot track, and Freda's freedom, which should lead to an even more powerful Empire Records.
But as always, those victories come at a cost. Pay attention to the look in his eye when he figures out that Jamal, his supposed ally, has been working with his scheming ex-wife behind is back. Lucious may have Empire Records — but it's all he has.
Read previous Empire recaps:
- Empire episode 6 recap: The definition of insanity
- Empire episode 5 recap: Second chances, holy water, and unmarked vans
- Empire episode 4 recap: Love, war, and the healing power of grave digging
- Empire episode 3 recap: 'Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we war'
- Empire episode 2 recap: No steps forward, two steps back
- Empire season 2 premiere recap: What's in the box?