The best description of Empire’s two-part finale goes to Lucious, who, in describing his own concert, announces that it has to be “epic… like a supernova.” The two-hour spectacular was sublime in the old-fashioned sense of the term, a superhuman phenomenon that’s best appreciated at a distance, like hurricanes, supernovas, and Cookie Lyon.
That isn’t to say that the one-two punch of “Die But Once” and “Who I Am” didn’t have its flaws (hello, sudden misdiagnosis), but that over the course of two hours, Empire proved it was more interested in spectacle than in coherence, and that, in some sense, it’s all the better for it. There’s a certain truth to the fact that everyone in the Lyon family, and especially Lucious, thinks they deserve their own supernova, that they should run the company, that everyone else is just pretending. And there’s a certain kind of action that comes hand in hand with this way of thinking: The only way to shine brighter than the rest is to sacrifice everything and risk blowing yourself up in the process.
In its finale Empire, never quite self-destructed, even as it made the weird choice of rewriting its premise (for that life-changing development regarding Lucious keep reading), but it did prove its interest in old-fashioned stratospheric ambition. The point of music, Lucious argues, at one point, is that it can make you immortal. Empire is fascinated by the temptation to purse that impulse. And perhaps to balance it, the show also talks about the importance of family, of being grounded, of caring for the people who care for you. Tonight’s best scenes came between Cookie and Jamal, and Cookie and Lucious, as the Lyon family’s biggest ego-ed members attempted to reconcile their ambitions with their love for each other. Because in its best moments, Empire’s finale let the two impulses at its core ram against each other. It was big and profound and about the danger of trying to be both big and profound.
“Die But Once” opens with Lucious mid-supposed-ALS attack. He’s trying to work some new music for his concert, but he’s having trouble coming up with anything good. This might be because his sons are all ignoring him—Jamal has an album out, Hakeem’s still mad about the fact that Lucious paid off his girlfriend (he didn’t, but Hakeem doesn’t know that), and Andre’s busy finding God by way of Jennifer Hudson. It also might be because his muse, Cookie, has booked herself a romantic getaway in the Berkshires without Lucious. Cookie, it turns out, is shacking up with Malcolm, the hot head of security, and experiencing some very intense bliss in her first sexual relationship that doesn’t involve Lucious.
Through Porscha, Lucious gets word about his ex-wife’s sex-getaway and decides to take action. He pushes Cookie out of the company—it turns out she was never going to be on the board of directors in the first place, given that convicted felons aren’t allowed to serve on them—and swipes her name from the title of his concert. Cookie’s furious and so is Malcolm. He tells her that he’s going to take a job in security in Washington, D.C. She tells him that, no, she doesn’t want a bit part on Scandal. Instead, she’s going to stay in New York (or rather Chicago, where Empire actually shoots) and fight for her company.
As he’s sabotaging his relationship with Cookie, Lucious also tries to fix his relationship with Hakeem. He even gets Snoop Dogg to call Hakeem up to the stage mid-performance in celebration of Hakeem’s upcoming album. Of course, Hakeem uses the exposure to spin a rap about how Lucious doesn’t care about his family. Later, Lucious thanks Hakeem for the insult by punching him in the face. After burning, and being burned, by his father, Hakeem tells Jamal that he’s going to sign with Billy Beretti at his Anika-infested label, Creedmoor. Jamal tries to tell Hakeem to slow his roll, but it looks like Hakeem might just jump ship.
Like Goldilocks, after going through several unsuitable options, Lucious decides to settle on the son who might be just right. He comes to Jamal’s album release party, apologizes somewhat, and asks for help on crafting new music. Jamal takes Lucious back to their childhood home and makes him confront the bad memories (including the trashcan Lucious dumped him in as a child), but eventually, the two get to making music.
The result is a strange little faux-country song that includes Terrence Howard on the acoustic guitar, but the scene overcomes the eccentricity by emphasizing the connection between Jamal and Lucious. Earlier, in an attempt to win Andre back from the church, Lucious mentions that music fills a void, the kind of void that Andre sees filled by God. Jamal seems like the only Lyon son who sees music the same way that Lucious does. To him, it’s a way of bridging impossibilities. He says, when he was a kid, he used to watch Lucious perform and think, “If I could make music like him, there’s no way in hell this man wouldn’t love me.”
Lucious is really happy to hear the song, but he says that Jamal has to prove that he has a “monster” inside him to get the rights to Empire. To do so, he has to find a way to get the rights to some of the performers for Lucious’ concert back from Beretti (his label’s put out an injunction against Lucious). Jamal does so by closing in on Beretti at a party and holding him over ledge. It’s a little out of character for Jamal, but it’s just the kind of thinking you might expect from someone who’s drunk on Lucious’ promise of power. Beretti agrees to drop the injunction, and with a little encouragement from Lucious himself, Jamal decides not to drop him. Also, at the same party, Lucious notices Hakeem literally in bed with the enemy, hooking up with Anika in a side room. The boy does have some mommy issues.
Anyway, as Cookie’s sister Carol reminds her, all this Lucious business doesn’t matter that much because the monster’s going to die in about three years anyway, right? Nope! Hold the ice buckets! Lucious’ doctor tells him that he has myasthenia gravis (MG) and not ALS. MG is chronic, but he’ll be able to manage. He’s not going to die.
The news of his continued life gives Lucious a super villian-level laugh attack ,and he gets to work being as evil as possible. He visits Andre’s church and snatches up virginal gospel singer slash music therapist Michelle White with a recording contract just to show up his son and prove God isn’t real. Then he takes his insomnia-inducing pills right before bed, just in time for a heady guilt dream courtesy of Bunkie’s ghost as well as a visit from Cookie in real life. As he sleeps, Lucious confesses to Bunkie’s murder, which ticks Cookie off mightily (remember, Bunkie was Cookie’s cousin). So, in the name of family and all that is good, Cookie gets a pillow and places it over Lucious.