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'Empire' ends stormy season with rough waters ahead

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By Brian Lowry, CNN

The following contains spoilers about "Empire's" May 8 season finale.

The "Empire" finale explained the absence of Jussie Smollett's character, Jamal, by saying he was "stuck in the Seychelles" because due to "a storm, he can't get a flight out." A different kind of storm was actually responsible, but it still might have been the episode's most memorable moment, with a series that will come back for a sixth season despite creatively running on fumes.

The Fox drama had already experienced some jump-the-shark moments before the tumult associated with Smollett, who was first believed to be the victim of a hate crime, then charged with multiple felonies for allegedly staging the event.

Authorities subsequently dropped the charges, but the decision was publicly criticized by Chicago police and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who have sought compensation for the cost of the investigation. Fox -- which had been initially supportive of the actor -- announced that it was renewing the show, while stating that there were "no plans" to bring Smollett back. His contract was picked up, leaving the door ajar for the possibility of his return.

The off-screen drama surrounding Smollett somewhat obscured how exhausted "Empire" appeared this season. While "The Wire" alum Wood Harris has brought some sizzle as a new foe for Lucious (Terrence Howard) and romantic interest for Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), the shifting alliances, allegiances and betrayals have grown tiresome, as if the writers were running out of combinations.

Similarly, the subplot involving Lucious' long-lost son Jeff Kingsley (A.Z. Kelsey), with the benefit of hindsight, turned out to be little more than a device to bring Andre (Trai Byers) to a near-death experience, then conveniently provide an appropriate heart donor at the last moment, after Jeff committed suicide.

After breakups and reconciliation, the season's climactic series of events helped drive another wedge between Lucious and Cookie. That sets up the prospect of conflict between the show's signature characters, but also feels like a somewhat desperate measure to milk more drama out of relationships that have undergone a dizzying assortment of ups and downs already.

Although "Empire" ratings have fallen dramatically from its early heyday, Fox clearly erred on the side of caution in bringing back the established program for another season -- even if that meant potentially disappointing Smollett's fans, and having to come up with a more definitive explanation for Jamal's absence.

Still, even the show's trademark cliffhangers felt tepid, with Cookie and Lucious going their separate ways after she told him, "I can't trust you" and "I've gotta put me first."

"Empire" might have weathered a public-relations storm. But by this time next year, disappearing to the Seychelles, as Jamal did, might be the best move for all concerned.

For now, the network is putting its needs first. But like the Lyons' marriages, we'll see how long that lasts.