Much has been said about Cookie’s rise on Empire. Taraji P. Henson’s matriarch stomped in post-prison wearing 5-inch heels (and some pretty powerful lingerie when needed) and demanded her rightful place on the throne of Empire Entertainment. But, as exemplified in Season 2’s second episode, “Without A Country,” the truth is, for all Cookie’s strength, she is limited by the men around her. Sure, Cookie does whatever she wants, but her relationships — be they familial, romantic, or otherwise — create constraints. In fact, all of the women on Empire are consistently held back by the male figures in their lives.
It’s not that she doesn’t try to go for broke, but Cookie’s not nearly as powerful as she thinks she is. There’s something to be said for faking it until you make it, but Cookie’s been held back (and continues to be) by every man in her life, from her no-good ex-husband, Lucious, to her three power-hungry sons. Cookie is the real brain behind Empire Entertainment, and yet she gave 17 years of her life up because she loved Lucious. Where would Cookie be if she hadn’t gone to jail and Lucious had? It’s hard to say, but I suspect she’d be doing just fine with her own label.
At the start of “Without A Country,” Cookie, Hakeem, and Andre have been cast out by middle son (and Cookie’s favorite) Jamal, who has been given the reins to Empire Entertainment by Lucious. This unlikely trio has the idea of creating a new record label, using whomever they can poach from Empire Entertainment as talent to get them afloat. Here, Cookie is completely trapped because of the posturing between her sons and her ex. First, Hakeem wants to start a record label with his mother and brother, then he wants to go back to Empire, then he leaks his album because who cares? Jamal, the new head of Empire, seems like he’s going to give his brother back his album, but then reneges and tries to get him back to the label instead. Andre, shocked and saddened by the fact that Lucious chose Jamal over him to lead Empire, goes with Cookie only to quit because it’s just “not him.”
And Cookie has to deal with all of this. She may be going out there to do for herself, but the ineptitude of her family forces her to play damage control, while she could be out there kicking ass and taking names. Cookie’s family prevents her from reaching her true potential, mostly because they’re too busy fighting and freaking out about their options to get it together. Cookie is truly “without a country” because she has no stability in her life.
Cookie’s not the only lady being smothered by the other Lyons. As a part of the new Lyon label, Hakeem wants to create a girl group, because of course he does. This is how we meet Valentina, played by guest star and singer Becky G. She comes to Hakeem’s girl group auditions with talent and stars in her eyes, but when she finds out that she’s going to be in a group with other women, she tells Hakeem that that’s not really her bag — Valentina is going to be big, and she’s going to be big on her own.
When he shrugs her off, she tells him in Spanish that she’s going to shine with or without him, and Hakeem, having the authority issues that he does, invites her for a bath and some smooching (I think that’s the only date Hakeem knows how to arrange). Hakeem talks Valentina into coming back to Empire with him, but only in a girl group. She agrees because it’s Empire and she thinks that putting herself into Hakeem’s mold will make her more powerful. In reality, it’s the opposite. Valentina has the drive and the talent to make it with Cookie and Lyon Dynasty, but Hakeem’s need to commodify the women in his life makes it hard for her to fight with him.
Hakeem tries to do the same thing to Tiana, his ex-girlfriend and a singer who is already a star by Empire standards. Tiana is in rehearsal, singing a song about “leaving that girl behind,” and her ex-boyfriend arrives to ask her for help. In true Hakeem fashion, he asks her for help with his girl group, and Tiana assumes that he’s asking her to rehearse with them and show them the ropes of being an entertainer. No — Hakeem wants her to join the group.
Thankfully, Tiana rebuffs Hakeem, telling him that she already has her own thing going, so why bother going back into a group? Tiana is the only woman in “Without A Country” that says no to Hakeem and sticks to it. She’s already on her way to the top — why stop her rise for him?
Rhonda and Anika are also “without a country” in the episode. Anika has been displaced in her lucrative career by both Lucious (who cheated on her, so she quit and went to Beretti) and Hakeem (who is sleeping with her and made her come to the new label). Anika hasn’t yet made a career decision that wasn’t related somehow to the Lyon family. She’s smart, she’s beautiful, and she, as Andre puts it, is one of the best A&R people in the music business. But she gets held back by Lucious and Hakeem.
Rhonda’s ambition flows mostly through Andre, who up until a few episodes ago should have been the one to take over Empire Entertainment. She boosts her husband along, and then he stops taking his medication. She stands by him, and then she has to kill Vernon because he is attacking Andre. With Andre, it’s one step forward and two steps back. I wonder how their new baby will change this dynamic.
The women of Empire are certainly strong, but they’d be even stronger if they could find a way to break down the barriers created by the men who claim to love them. Too often these ladies are held up by men who can’t get out of their own way. Maybe it's time they start relying on each other.
Images: Chuck Hodes/FOX (2); Giphy (4)