Like 17 million other people, I’ve been watching Empire.
And in keeping with the prevailing opinion, I think it’s a great show.
When I told my sister I was watching it, she expressed surprise. Not an unexpected reaction given most of what I watch is either fantasy, sci-fi, historical, or about science and nature.
However, Empire, at its core over the first season, is a succession drama, which I always love and happen to be writing myself in a historical setting. As well, I have a prior history with stories about record companies thanks to the 1985 movie Krush Groove, which my sister and I watched together and both enjoyed.
Empire is the story of multimillionaire record company mogul and former gangster-turned-bestselling-recording-artist Lucious Lyon.
Upon discovering that he’s terminally ill with only a few years left to live, Lucious decides he must choose an heir from among his three very different sons to someday take over Empire Records, which is soon to go public on the New York Stock Exchange.
Much of the action of the first season relates to the machinations of the three sons and their various supporters as they all endeavour to display their suitability for the job. At the same time, Lucious himself grows ever more desperate and despicable in his efforts to ensure his legacy and battle enemies both internal and external to the family-run business.
But succession dynamics aren’t the only reason I love the show; the characters are great as well, particularly Cookie Lyon – Lucious’s estranged wife and mother of his three sons – who is equal parts brash, demanding, accomplished, compassionate, and naïve.
That is to say, a complex, well-rounded female character.
One tough Cookie
Cookie begins the series having just been released from jail following a 17-year sentence for drug trafficking.
She and Lucious did this together in the rough inner city neighbourhood where they grew up and later started raising their family. However Cookie was clearly something of the brains behind the operation, both in that she’s the only one who was jailed and also because she repeatedly claims that Empire Records was founded with $400,000 of her drug money, which she immediately sets about trying to reclaim after her release from jail.
These two facts about Cookie – her criminal past and her jail time – make her a fascinating character of the sort not many female TV characters are permitted to embody. Cookie wasn’t just a gangster’s wife hanging out in the background like some sex-up chick from a hip-hop video; she was a gangster in her own right.
Regardless of one’s thoughts on drugs and criminal activity, there’s no question that male characters are often both criminals and heroic (e.g. Walter White, Dexter, Tony Soprano) while female characters are generally expected to be more lawful, likeable, and appropriately repentant of any wrongdoing they commit, which Cookie most assuredly isn’t.
As well, the fact that Cookie is portrayed as a talented and gifted music producer and the one responsible for helping launch Lucious’s career is very interesting and unexpected.
Lucious is said to have had music in his soul, yet he regularly relied on Cookie to help give his songs that little extra something. As well, it was Cookie who had the original vision to create their own record company, and is responsible for producing a number of Platinum albums prior to her incarceration.
Cookie continues to prove herself indispensible to the running of Empire Records as she manages her son Jamal (an up-and-coming R&B singer) and a handful of other key artists others deem difficult to work with or to have image problems in the media.
She wasn’t just given her job back to shut her up about the drug money, but rather because she’s a genuine asset – well-known in the music industry as a whole and repeatedly shown demonstrating knowledge, skills, and grit that few others possess.
Soft at the center
Cookie can work with difficult people because she can be difficult herself. Cookie Lyon is no manic pixie dream girl and we can all thank heaven for that.
She’s an over-the-top diva: loud, pushy, impatient, unfiltered, and self-possessed with no qualms about barging in on board meetings, rolling up in violent ghettos, or butting into conversations to offer her esteemed opinion whether it’s solicited or not.
She isn’t politically correct: she makes racial comments about her son Jamal’s Latino boyfriend, calling him “Dora” (the Explorer) and “La Cucaracha” (Spanish for “the cockroach”, after the famous song).
She calls Jamal himself a “sissy” for claiming he cares more about his music itself than fame or wealth, and refers to bipolar disorder and its treatment as “white people problems”.
She calls Lucious’s girlfriend, Anika, of whom she’s clearly jealous, “Boo Boo Kitty” (an on-the-fly epithet created by the phenomenal actress Taraji P. Henson, who plays Cookie) as well as “fake-ass Halle Berry”, and “yellow” in reference to Anika being biracial.
She calls her assistant, Porsha, stupid, and according to Porsha, says the same of everyone else since “that’s what she do”. Finally, she claims to have liked Lucious better when he was a thug and less concerned about his image within white society.
These shortcomings make a lot of sense for Cookie’s character, who doubtless received little formal education and then spent so long behind bars. They also serve to make the character, frankly, human.
We can all be jerks sometimes, so it’s refreshing to see a woman on TV released from the boring shackles of good girl perfection. “Bad” girls don’t usually fare so well in fiction, but in this case, even more so than Lucious – the ostensible star of the show – Cookie is a heroic figure.
Besides, there’s a softer side to Cookie as well. She is fiercely loyal to her family: to Lucious, who it’s revealed is the only man she’s ever been with sexually (a virtually unheard of representation of black women, who are typically portrayed as promiscuous and unfaithful), and particularly to her children. She laments the years she spent locked up while they were young and needed her.
Regardless of how she may occasionally tease Jamal about being gay, she’s fully accepting of his sexuality (as opposed to Lucious, who is vehemently opposed to it). As well, she’s desperate to build a relationship with her youngest son, Hakeem, who resents her previous absence and now wants as little to do with her as possible.
She genuinely cares about the artists she represents and goes out of her way to help them when they get in trouble. She also continues to believe in Empire Records and supports Lucious in whatever needs doing to see the company thrive, even though he abandoned her while she was in jail without ever saying goodbye and eventually shacked up with Anika.
Cookie is an incredible character – a true powerhouse – who’s likely to grow even more complex opposite Lucious as he continues further down his dark path.
Have you seen Empire? Who is your favourite character? What is your favourite song from the show? Let me know in the comments.