You are probably not aware of this, considering that this information matters only to TV writers and the people who get paid to consume their work, but the final episode of Empire’s record-breaking first season was titled “Who I Am.” Considering the events of the episode, this title wasn’t just on the nose, it was on the rest of my face, too. But that’s the way of Empire; it’s less the measured prestige drama we’ve come to expect and more the broadly rendered parable that thrived in the decades before The Sopranos changed everything. Part of its immense appeal is that it’s a simple, familiar story, and its message is spoken clearly. Empire is blatantly about identity, both personal and cultural.
So much of this season revolved around Jamal coming to terms with being a gay man in the hip-hop industry and his father’s untempered homophobia, but Lucious’s two other sons struggled with themselves in other ways. Hakeem and Andre fashioned personas that were tailor-made to get their intractable, maniacal father to love them in the ways they were not loved as children. Hakeem became a stereotypical bling-obsessed Lothario with designs on being a larger-than-life superstar like Lucious. Producing extravagant music videos and having a woman by his side made him a man. Andre, on the other hand, chose business. He sought his father’s approval by molding himself into the ideal corporate figurehead. With Andre, you’d think he was born with a suit on and a calculator up his ass, but that’s far from the truth. Through 12 episodes, it became apparent that Hakeem and Andre chose these paths to please their unapproachable, emotionally withholding patriarch. In the end, Lucious picked Jamal to run Empire Entertainment — the son who was the most comfortable just being himself and who chose to stand defiantly against the very idea of conforming. If you’re Hakeem or Andre, that amounts to the ultimate betrayal.
Grantland’s David Jacoby observed in our finale precap that Jamal, Hakeem, and Andre are all different sides of Lucious’s personality: Jamal is artistic, Hakeem has swagger, and Andre has business sense. But what we learned in the finale is that just as these attributes are a put-on for his sons, so, too, are they for Lucious. Lucious Lyon is a character played by a broken, scared man named Dwight Walker who’s just trying to escape the ghetto. As a title, “Who I Am” could apply to any number of Empire’s characters, but it most aptly pertained to Lucious. The repeated flashbacks, showing him committing shockingly cold acts of violence, underlined that who he is is a killer with a deficiency of conscience and a deeply ingrained survival instinct. Dwight Walker came from a brutal world, and he never really left that place. He just created Lucious Lyon as a means to pass through the rarefied air of the music industry.
If these themes and character traits sound familiar, it’s because they are. A long time ago, Mad Men’s examination of the dichotomy between the real man, Dick Whitman, and the smoke screen of Don Draper gave us the poor boy who grew up to be a powerful, borderline sociopathic middle-aged man struggling with the damage he’s wrought throughout his life. With seven episodes left in Mad Men’s run, Matthew Weiner and Jon Hamm have resisted the opportunity to make Don Draper a full-time villain. Even though his lies have become so much a part of who he is that he probably doesn’t even know when he’s not telling the truth anymore, Don retains a shred of humanity. Through the writing and the subtlety of Hamm’s performance, I see the love Don has for his kids and for Peggy, and how it tempers his tendency to act only in his own best interest. He’s a traumatized child underneath the superhero costume of wealth, power, and intellect that he created. Don Draper and Lucious Lyon share a lot with comic-book archetypes like Bruce Wayne/Batman. All three are characters who manufactured an adolescent power fantasy out of a traumatic upbringing. The journey of each of those characters has been dictated by what they’ve chosen to do when that fantasy became manifest.
Lucious Lyon is not becoming a hero, though. That final image of Lucious behind bars communicates malevolence so loudly that my ears are still ringing this morning. This episode constitutes a full heel turn and requires a reexamination of the entire season. “Even God can’t kill me,” Lucious says in an ominous narration over a mirror image of the prison tracking shot from Cookie’s flashback in Episode 8. Lucious has never seemed to have much of an actual bond with his family, and even when he attempts to make amends at the start of the season finale, the gestures are ornate, tacky, and seemingly more about his overblown “legacy” than actual interest in the three men at the table with him. Wherever Cookie goes, she takes a family portrait with her. All Lucious takes is his hate, greed, and desire for power. Why is Lucious always so surprised when his children or his ex-wife reject him? He’s done nothing to earn their trust.
Conversely, Don Draper wants to love his family, but he has no idea how to do that in practice. That trait defines so many 20th-century TV dads, from Archie Bunker down to Homer Simpson, that it’s hard to see it as a coincidence. Don Draper’s reinvention story takes place squarely in the middle of the 20th century, a time of great social upheaval and class mobility. The Draper dream seems like it could only logically occur during prosperous times for white men in America. Don is forged in the shadow of World War II, rises to power in the Eisenhower boom years, and loses his bearings during the chaos of the ’60s and ’70s. At the end of the series, I fully expect to find him continuing to grasp for meaning, rather than being gifted any easy resolutions.
Lucious Lyon, though, could exist only today. In the popular imagination, this is a boom time for African Americans, even if in reality it’s far from that. We live in a world of Jay Z, Beyoncé, Oprah, Barack Obama, and, well, Empire. The upwardly mobile black person becomes less of a novelty and more of a pop cliché every year. “If you try hard enough, you can be just like Will Smith,” we’re told. But we’re not all born to be Will Smith. In fact, most of us would kill to be DJ Jazzy Jeff. The dual identity is common in hip-hop, more blatant than in most other pop music genres. The MC name takes on Lucious Lyon–esque proportions and often becomes its own persona. Nicki Minaj and Kendrick Lamar can have dialogues with themselves in the middle of their songs because they’re so good at inhabiting other characters, but I wonder: How much of their true selves did they have to give up to find their success?
We try and try and try to be what we are not, in the hopes that we can fool enough people to make it over the hump. Hakeem pretends to be hard. Andre aspires to being accepted in white upper-class society. Lucious creates an Übermensch character to hide from the world. These are stories that are both specific to the black experience and, in some ways, totally universal. Who you are is almost never who you want to be.