We’re one episode away from the season 3 finale of Empire, and in “Toil & Trouble Part 1”, the writers tried to do some things a little differently. They got rid of flashbacks, for one, and instead, we travel two weeks forward in time to Cookie causing a scene at the Vegas chapter of Club Leviticus. They withheld information, but not for too long, and they warned us that things are not always what they seemed...and that sometimes, they actually are.
That last notion was littered throughout the episode, and the first implication of that is with Hakeem. He’s been seeing adorable, chubby-cheeked babies everywhere and he thinks they're all Bella. His paranoia is instrumental to the plot: It symbolizes that Bella is closer to them than they know. She’s right where they suspected she is: with the DuBois, as last week’s episode revealed. But because the Lyons already shook-up Angelo to no avail, they've discarded the idea that the DuBois have taken her. It’s perfect: She’s hidden in plain sight. Things are what they seem.
And, of course, it wouldn't be an Empire episode without callbacks to commonly held prejudices and assumptions of marginalized people. After discovering that Charlotte Frost (Eva Longoria) doesn't drink because she’s Mormon, Lucious makes a bad joke: “I thought you were Mexican.” Charlotte then breaks down the difference between race, ethnicity, and religion to Lucious, a grown-ass man, and leaves their meeting with a gross warning: make sure Vegas’ Club Leviticus doesn't get overrun by “hip hop hoodlums from hell." I cringed. As neither insensitive comment is appeased, the only person who feels some kind of heat is Thirsty, who gets fired.
This is a grave move for Lucious, as Thirsty has been his ride or die, crooked lawyer for a couple of seasons now. Firing Thirsty further proves his loyalty to Giuliana, which made me wonder: Is Lucious hiding something? Is he gathering her trust, only to use it to his advantage in the future? Their relationship may not be what it seems.
Lucious tells Jamal that they should push back the When Cookie Met Lucious release, as the Inferno album and Vegas club debuts may be too much hype for his album to compete with. “You only get one chance to release your album. Why do it under all this competition?” Lucious says. “You need your own space.” That is some straight-up bullshit disguised as wholesome fatherly advice, because they could easily market Jamal’s album in a way that not only makes his album shine, but creates a collective anticipation for all three events.
Cookie is onto Juicy’s awesome, conniving ways, so she rounds up her own army against Giuliana. Wow. A whole army against one woman. Juicy is bad. Cookie’s first attempt at the resistance army is a fail: Her sons and Shine all back out. Hakeem really wants to find Bella (which is totally valid), Jamal is worried about his album, and Andre wants to do his own thing. He's a lone soldier, after all. But Cookie's second attempt is much more productive, which includes her sisters Candace and Carol (played by Vivica A. Fox and Tasha Smith), veterans Thirsty, Chicken, and another one of Hakeem’s pals, Candace’s husband, and Becky (Gabourey Sidibe).
(I’m currently reading Gabourey Sidibe’s new book, so I'm more excited to see her than usual.)
She’s in charge of unlocking the safe containing Giuliana’s incriminating ledgers, which will be in Vegas, where they're all going. Let’s call this Operation Steal Juicy’s Fruit. (I’d be interested in watching a crime show based on this unlikely crew of spies.)
Meanwhile, Lucious meets with Tariq. (Yes, Tariq!) The long-lost half brother/FBI agent who strived to get Lucious convicted, but was sent away after Lucious blackmailed him and bribed him with a ton of money. Anyway, he’s back, because Lucious needs his help finding Bella. But Grandma Lea still isn't feeling Tariq, so she spiked his quiche with glass (wow) and thankfully Lucious realizes it beforehand. This is great foreshadowing, by the way, and Grandma is not at all the innocent little old lady that she seems.
Tariq brings Lucious an informant, and when he doesn't comply, they beat him up. The two brothers bond over punches and kicks, which is disturbing for several reasons: 1) they're seriously bonding over beating up a guy? 2) why is it so easy for them to squash their at least three-decades-long beef over a human punching bag? (It’s also notable that Tariq is officially as dirty as Lucious. You got the juice now, Tariq.)
After Becky endures a rigorous safe-unlocking training course -- instructed by Thirsty and interrupted by Cookie -- we’re back in Vegas, to the opening scene. Operation Steal Juicy’s Fruit is going as planned: Cookie’s scene helped set things in motion, they've acquired the code into the vault, Candace's husband is distracting Juicy, and Carol has to distract the vault guard. But he's not into her, as he only has eyes for Becky (yes!), so Becky has to flirt with him instead, and Carol has to crack the safe (all that training for nothing). They’re triumphantly successful, and I just want to take this moment to request a spinoff based on these undercover agents, with Becky as the protagonist.
Cookie presents Charlotte the ledger, expecting her to call off the Vegas deal after realizing Juicy’s illegal activity. But unfortunately, Lucious, ever resourceful and a step ahead, interrupts with a half-million dollar bag of money for Charlotte to mull over. Operation Steal Juicy’s Fruit fails, all because Charlotte isn't as pious as Cookie hoped. To add insult to injury, Charlotte keeps calling Lucious and Cookie “you people," which is another racist way of insulting and generalizing black people.
Cookie tries to conduct a new plan with Hakeem and Jamal, but Jamal decides to push back his album and join Lucious’ Vegas show. Cookie, betrayed, isn’t relenting, and Lucious, as usual, says some patronizing things that are supposed to come off as sincere. Thankfully, Cookie can count on her oldest son, Andre, who gives her some key info on Charlotte. She’d drop the Vegas deal if any “thug activity” occurs at the club. So obviously shit is about to pop off in part two of the finale!
But there’s some good news: Tariq found Bella! He heads to Lucious’ mansion to tell him, but before they can enjoy their newfound brotherly love, Grandma Lea pierces a knife into Tariq's jugular when Lucious’ back is turned. It’s such a swift, quiet motion that now I feel hella paranoid about little old ladies. Tariq’s murder occurs right before he can tell Lucious where Bella is! I wish he was in less shock about his impending death and would just blurt out “the DuBois have her!” Or at least “DuBois!” But who am I kidding? I would be way too busy dying to think about leaving a crucial piece of info behind before I go.
Sigh. My little heart is broken. Will they ever find Bella? Maybe Tariq isn't dead? (Remember what I said about things not being what they seem?) Maybe Tariq keeps a diary and there's an entry in it about finding Bella and hopefully someone reads it? And who will clean up the mess that Grandma Lea made? We'll find out next week, in Operation Steal Juicy’s Fruit...I mean, Empire.