‘Empire’ Season 5 Returns With the Lyons Reclaiming Their Throne

Running a record label in Fox’s “Empire” just does not get any easier as season five continues. You don’t just have to worry about the product you’re putting out there, but vengeful, estranged children might return to destroy your master tapes with cyber attacks. Thus begins the second half of season five for this soap opera disguised as a TV drama. The Lyon family gets back together to take control of their, ahem, empire, but secrets from the past threaten to shake the foundations of everything and everyone. Now let’s get the scandalous elephant out of the room. This is the first episode of “Empire” to air following the Jussie Smollett case, but the series is itself so twisty and wild that it barely makes a dent.

Returning to the messy plot from the season’s first half, Lucious (Terrence Howard) and Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) are still reeling from accusations of data mining. The killer blow came when their arch nemesis, Kingsley (A.Z. Kelsey), revealed to the world that he is actually Lucious’s son, spawned years ago in his past. Cookie is emotionally shattered but must stay focused as the two are about to reclaim Empire. Jamal (Jussie Smollett) asks his fiancé Kai (Toby Onwumere) for help in clearing the Lyon name. Kai is hesitant at first but is soon enough meeting with Lucious with leads that prove Kingsley was behind the data mining. Vindicated, Lucious makes Kingsley sign a confession, then he and Cookie return to the helm of Empire, and they throw a big party to celebrate. But of course nothing is settled so easily. Cookie goes searching for Kingsley’s mother, and Kingsley is still thirsty for vengeance, to the point of infecting Empire’s master tape files with a virus that can wipe it all out.

It’s hard to deny “Empire” remains crazily entertaining. The writing is suffering because like many shows of this type, once it enters a fifth season the showrunners are digging everywhere for new material. It was almost decreed by the TV gods that at some point the Lyons needed to close control of Empire before roaring back in. We even get the quintessential situation where Lucious and Andre (Trai Byers) hang a sucker out a window to get information on Kingsley. There’s some humor in the moment because Kai is shocked that this how his future in-laws settle disputes (“welcome to the family” is all Lucious can say). Later he will confess to Jamal that he can’t take it because the Lyons truly scare him, so he walks out the door and Jamal is left kicking his keyboard in heartbroken anger. But at least the Lyons know how to throw a party, celebrating the return to Empire with Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) performing a song about thrones and lions (what else?). This is one of those shows with so many little subplots it’s almost hard to keep track. Hakeem performs a little too closely with Maya (Rhyon Nicole Brown) and so Tiana (Serayah) is left seething with jealousy. When Andre isn’t hanging people out from windows, he’s dating a very lovely woman who laments that he won’t join her for church (not surprising considering he just nearly threw a guy out a window).

The two best scenes inaugurating the final lap of this scene are examples of how “Empire” manages to rise above its soapy pretensions with some fine acting. When Cookie goes to a hospital to see Kingsley’s mother, Tracy, who had been a junkie for years, it’s a quite strong, tense moment. It forces Cookie to reflect on how she and Lucious rose to the top, building Empire through the drug trade. When she gets back home and explodes on Lucious, telling him their image is all a sham, it’s so well done because Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard are such great actors. Yet the best guilty pleasure moment has to be when Kingsley confronts Lucious in a recording studio, revealing that he has infected Empire’s master files in order to wipe out the history of Lucious’s accomplishments. Not even the James Bond movies go that far.

Yes, yes, Kevin Smollett is still present, so it will be interesting to see how the season does away with the character. But those tuning in by now are doing so because they like to follow all the drama and style. “Empire” tends to get a bit too ridiculous for its own good, but it’s not a snoozer.

The second half of “Empire” season five premieres March 13 and airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.