There’s a question I’ve been asking myself since last season of Empire, when, for a fleeting moment, it seemed like Cookie and Lucious were getting back together, right before Lucious crushed those dreams by marrying Anika: Do the writers actually want us to root for Cucious (Lookie)?
Of course, what the viewer believes usually holds more weight than what the writers are trying to impose on us, and sometimes it works in the show’s favor when the audience has polarizing views about a TV couple. Through our desire to see that relationship fail, succeed, or transform, the writers determine whether or not they've got us hooked, and this gives them so much room to explore the story line. But what happens if we just don’t care about the leading couple? Or if their relationship represents a harmful cycle that most real-life relationships endure?
In episode 11 of season 3, entitled “Play On”, the question of whether or not we’re supposed to genuinely root for Cucious is extremely prominent. Between the flashbacks, Cookie’s mixed feelings and Lucious’ obnoxious belief that he can dip his hands in and out of the Cookie jar whenever he wants (see what I did there?), I realized that Empire really does want us to believe in this problematic couple. I find them both to be interesting characters, no doubt — but do I want to see them back together? Hell no.
“Play On” opens right after Cucious’ violent quarrel last week. Cookie showers, urgently scrubbing blood off her skin, while a cleaning crew polishes the Empire headquarters before anyone can notice what happened that night. Just like Cucious’ relationship, problems are tidied and concealed without ever being addressed.
Cookie confides in her bomb ass sister, played by Vivica A Fox, about her undying love for Lucious. “It’s like he’s got a hold on me,” Cookie says. I feel for her. Who doesn’t have someone that makes them feel that way? But Sista Vivica (her character’s name is Candace) shuts it down: “Just because he’s your first doesn’t mean he will be your last.” True that!
Cookie is dating Angelo, played by chocolate pretty boy Taye Diggs. Angelo reminds Cookie of the kind of man her father wanted her to marry: respectful, career-oriented, intelligent, caring. Lucious is the opposite of what her father wanted for Cookie. Through several flashbacks dispersed throughout the season, we learn that they fell in love as teenagers, her father kicked her out when he found out they were dating. Cookie got pregnant, and her father died from a heart attack not long after their falling out. There is a great amount of guilt Cookie carries from this disagreement with her father, and Lucious’ presence is a constant reminder of the difficult choices she’s made in the name of love. Angelo represents redemption — but does she love him, or the idea of him?
Let’s take a break from Cookie and Lucious for a moment, as other notable things happen in this episode. Jamal and Tory are officially partnering on music together. When Tory wants to bring some rock-'n'-roll edge to Jamal’s jazzy, funky new song, he isn’t feeling it at first, but they find a way to make it work. Cookie warns Jamal to clear the recording sessions every night before leaving the studio, and of course he doesn’t listen. Lucious listens to their song and uses Tory’s chords for one of his Inferno tracks — and honestly, it sounds way better on his song than on Jamal’s collaboration. Jamal has every reason to be salty about the betrayal, but creatively, Tory’s riff works better in Lucious’ interpretation.
Hakeem and Tiana seem to have gotten that old thing back, but with a new edition: his daughter Bella. Speaking of New Edition, I’m looking forward to seeing Bryshere Y. Gray (Hakeem) demonstrate the dance moves he learned while working on that miniseries. Anyway, Hakeem wants Tiana to be apart of Bella’s life, but she is hesitant (with good reason! No one likes baby-mama drama). But baby mama Anika may be out of the picture soon, as obsessive detective/Lucious’ half brother Tariq threatened her with dirt that he’s willing to use if she doesn’t comply with him on the Gathers case. In one scene, we see her on a bus, crying her eyes out. I have no idea where she’s going.
Grandma Lea, a.k.a. Lucious’ mom, makes some crude remarks about her bodyguard throughout the whole episode, striving to figure out their gender and sexuality. It’s unnecessary, and it isn’t the first time Empire has featured these uncomfortable moments. I wonder if the writers do so to ignite conversation on actual problems and biases the LGBTQ community faces all the time, or if they are trying to expose ignorance that is often found in the Black community towards LGBTQ people.
Now back to Cucious: Angelo confronts Lucious about his creepy affinity for Cookie — he even tries to put on his “hood voice” — but of course, Lucious isn’t phased. I wasn’t either. Lucious has killed people, Angelo. Please, back off, for your own safety.
As Cookie and Angelo walk away from Lucious, Cookie flashes Lucious a devious smile, one that can be read several ways. Maybe it’s a mocking grin, a victorious one, where Cookie’s smize lets Lucious know that she is definitely taken and her new man will fight to keep her. Or maybe deep down inside both Lucious and Cookie know that this is a joke, that Angelo is someone who is passing the time before they continue writing their epic love story. Still, I don’t buy this Cookie and Lucious thing.
It seems like other characters are in on this too. Last week, when Jamal and Cookie reminisced on how devious yet devoted Lucious is when it comes to Cookie, Jamal said, “That’s some twisted kind of love.” He said it playfully, as if twisted love is something to commend, to aspire to, because being in a bad romance means accepting and honoring the bad. Because after all, it’s still love.
Women, Black women in particular, are expected to stick around with the man they’ve endured the most with, as if suffering is a merit that heightens true love. It feeds into the strong black woman idea: We are so strong that we can take the most from our men, and still stand there valiantly on the other side. But for what? Lucious isn’t a prize.
And this isn’t even about Angelo either. Yes, he seems nice enough for Cookie, but the nice-guy trope is also flawed, and tired. It’s such a fine line for Cookie to teeter: Does she choose the nice guy or the really bad one? I opt for her to chose herself: the bad bitch.
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