‘Empire’ Season 2 Finale Review: It’s the Baby Mama of All Cliffhangers!
Recap and review of Empire – Season 2 Finale – Past Is Prologue:
Well, that was a hell of a way to ending Season 2, although I can’t say I’m surprised Empire went the cliffhanger route. It’s a classic TV tactic that Empire has employed in the past, to tremendous effect. And the same could be said here since, for the most part, I felt like this didn’t feel like a cheat. Granted, this is due in large part to what a strong episode preceded that cliffhanger. This really was one of the most exciting endings I’ve seen for any show this season, and I think a lot of it has to do with how the story centered on sacrifice: namely, the sacrifices that become necessary in order to keep the empire afloat. Love, happiness, personal relationships — all to protect the Lyon dynasty. Really, this felt like the only way Season 2 could have ended.
The first half of the episode is almost too beatific for its own good. Sure, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is depressed about having been shot, but three weeks have already passed since the incident, and he’s on the road to a full recovery. Even his declaration — that he will refuse to make music until the cycle of violence and incarceration plaguing his inner circle comes to an end — doesn’t really stick any longer than a few minutes in the episode, since he’s right back to producing a new song to perform at the wedding of Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) and Laura (Jamila Velazquez). And even though the Feds are still investigating the Lyon family, they seem to have contingencies in place to prevent the government from actually getting the drop on them. Sure, Anika (Grace Calhoun) considers leaping to her death rather than testify against Lucious (Terrence Howard) in the grand jury proceedings. But even this potential disaster is wrapped in a cloak of intimacy. Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) talks her off the ledge in a moment that ends up being one of the most powerful scenes this show has ever put together. It’s mostly on the strength of both Calhoun’s and Henson’s acting, as Cookie tells Anika that as long as she’s the mother of Hakeem’s child, she’ll always be a Lyon. Anika breaks down in heaving sobs as she’s pulled from the ledge, safe in the knowledge that she finally has the family she’s so desperately wanted. It’s a sad moment for the near-tragedy that almost occurred, but it feeds into the early narrative of everything going the Lyon family’s way. Hell, Lucious even manages to get Freda Gatz (Bre-Z) to record an apology rap to Jamal from prison. And to top it all off, Lucious has Cookie considering giving their marriage another shot. Granted, she can’t commit to anything more than a “maybe,” but “maybe” is a huge win for a guy Cookie rarely seems like she can even stomach. Of course, it’s absolutely plausible that they’d get back together, considering the tremendous chemistry between Henson and Howard, particularly in their hilarious back-and-forth in which Lucious tries to talk her into bed by promising to take some blue pills. It’s a rare moment of levity between the two, and it seemed to forecast a happier ending for the season than the Lyons usually get. Naturally, this is how know something HAD to go wrong, since peace isn’t something these characters really get. After all, we wouldn’t have a show otherwise.
Strangely enough, what gets the disaster ball rolling is an old rival of Lucious. Shyne Johnson (Xzibit) is someone the Lyons need to keep silent, since he knows too damn much. But Shyne’s silence comes with a price, and that price includes an invitation to Hakeem’s wedding. So Cookie reluctantly grants the invitation, over the objections of Laura’s parents. And, sure enough, Shyne makes a damn fool of himself, bringing hookers to the wedding and getting into a brawl with security after a clerk-in-disguise serves Anika her grand jury summons. Suddenly, nothing can possibly go right for the Lyons. Laura witnesses the spectacle and decides she can’t allow this to be her life, ditching Hakeem at the altar and leaving with her parents, who declare the Lyon family to be nothing more than a bunch of “thugs”. Hakeem is devastated, but few are more upset than Anika, who is positively terrified about having to testify in front of the grand jury. That’s when Lucious comes up with a diabolical solution: if he and Anika get married, then she can’t be forced to testify against him. It’s a clever workaround, and yet it results in something we’ve rarely, if ever, gotten the chance to see: a brokenhearted Cookie. It’s yet another highlight for both Henson and Howard’s Emmy reels, as Lucious pleas with Cookie to ride with him on this one, while Cookie tearfully agrees, but refuses to ever look at Lucious in a romantic light again. The immensity of sadness in that room is palpable, and the eventual marriage ceremony — officiated by Andre (Trai Byers) — is actually far grimmer than Jamal’s shooting last week. It has the tenor of a funeral, and the feeling of two people fully committing their lives to misery. And in an even crueler twist of the knife, Lucious reveals that he knows Anika really did push Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), solving that little mystery. I initially thought Anika was too obvious a culprit to actually be the culprit, which is why it probably ended up being as surprising a twist as it was. At the very least, it was a better twist than learning that FBI agent Tariq (Morocco Omari) is really Lucious’s half-brother, and that Lucious watched his father — also a cop — get killed by Tariq’s supposed father. It’s a bit of a jumbled mess, and I’m not sure how having Tariq and Lucious be related really adds anything to the narrative other than to make this feel like a smaller world than it should seem. But I digress, as the business with Anika leads to that huge climax.
After having her vision about Anika pushing her, Rhonda spends the episode on the warpath, even going as far as to solicit Andre to have Anika killed, arguing that he owes her for saving his life against Vernon last season. Andre isn’t hearing any of it, mostly because he doesn’t actually believe Rhonda’s insistence that Anika was the culprit. It all leads to the big moment on the walkway of the enormous building where the wedding was being held. Anika steps out for a breather after being called out by Lucious for pushing Rhonda. As if on cue, Rhonda follows Anika out to the walkway, and a fight ensues. Anika admits she pushed Rhonda because she wanted her baby to be the sole heir to the empire (and she even seems kind of proud of it), and the fight escalates to the point where both women are teetering over the edge of the building. Andre arrives just in time to see one (or maybe both?) of the women go tumbling over the edge. But who was it? We aren’t shown. Sure, it’s a bit of a cheap tactic, and I think the show would have had as much of a hook for next season if they’d shown us what happened. But I don’t mind this like I minded The Walking Dead Season 6 finale, because at least this cliffhanger wasn’t messing with an iconic moment in the lore of its parent series. But hey, what’s done is done. Hopefully, the show delivers on its return this fall by having the fallout (no pun intended) of this incident serve as a gamechanger that shakes up the status quo. With that said, I don’t see how it isn’t Rhonda who died, if only because she serves no real purpose in the show, and it makes no sense to marry off Anika to Lucious if she’s just going to die anyway. But maybe the producers just really wanted there to be a wedding, even if it was the grimmest wedding Charles Dickens never wrote. Here’s hoping we get a resolution worthy of this finale, since I really did find this to be one of the best finales I’ve seen so far this season. Empire does finales exceedingly well, whether midseason or at the end of the year, and “Past Is Prologue” is no different, because I’m already anxious for Season 3.
But what did you think of the Empire Season 2 Finale, “Past Is Prologue”? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Empire, read our review and analysis of last week’s terrific “Rise By Sin”!