(Totally confused about what the hell is going on here? Go read this brief summation of Empire's first two episodes.)
Three episodes in, Empire has reached a self-reflective point. Lucious Lyon is a powerful, well-connected celebrity, the kind of person we would expect to be able to get Gladys Knight to sing at Bunkie's funeral, and so she does. That casting choice also functions as a signal about the creators and producers - they are the kind of important people who can get Gladys Knight to do a guest spot on Empire, and she's not the only celebrity they trot out. Naomi Campbell is here, playing a semi-secret love interest of Hakeem's. So is Cuba Gooding, Jr., in the role of Puma, an old friend of Cookie's who used to be a songwriter and now runs a dude ranch for troubled youths.
I dare you to call him anything other than Puma Gooding, Jr. going forward. Also, how do you not get one take of him shouting "SHOW ME THE HORSEY!"
Outside of Naomi, it's unclear if these characters are meant to pop up regularly or just did one episode so Empire can say "look we got this famous person will Jazzy Jeff be on next week well you'd better tune in!" (I assume he will play a no-nonsense fire marshal who shuts down Leviticus for not keeping its fire extinguishers charged. Jeff is not interested in being typecast.)
Trotting out all these famous friends is particularly interesting because, at the end of Episode 3, most of the main characters are pretty isolated. Whatever bonds the Lyon family once had are nearly all fractured. Is being able to call in a favor from Gladys Knight all that great when you can't peacefully coexist with your own children? Don't answer that.
But let's focus on the business at hand. Power rankings don't feel right for Empire - the better approach is to look at which characters are on the brink of having everything collapse for them. Don't you dare call that an inverse power ranking. You're wrong.
CRUMBLING EMPIRE IMMINENT WARNING LIST
3. Detective Walker.
The lead investigator into Bunkie's murder, he has one, and only one, lead at the moment: a homeless man named "Old Salty." Old Salty is 1) mentally ill and 2) likely an alcoholic, which makes him an ideal eyewitness. When Old Salty starts rambling about Daniel and the Den of Lions, Walker pulls up a photo of Lucious and gets a positive ID. So his case is now based on a witness who would be incomprehensible on the stand and an identification that might as well be a practice exam question in Criminal Procedure. Sweet.
We haven't discussed one of Hakeem's love interests, a new R&B artist on the Empire label named Tiana*. Lucious wants the two to stay in the spotlight as a couple, but Hakeem is still involved with Naomi Campbell, which Tiana doesn't know about. Surely an ill-conceived romantic entanglement with Naomi Campbell as one of the parties won't end poorly. Hakeem's also being repeatedly told that he's clearly going to be named next in line at Empire just because he's Lucious's favorite. This frustrates him and makes him feel as though he's not being recognized for his own talents. Oh, and Jamal seems pretty done with being his creative and emotional shoulder to lean on.
*Tiana rhymes with Rihanna. Tiana's music sounds like early Rihanna. Tread lightly, Empire. That is not a fanbase you want to piss off.
His ALS symptoms seem to be worsening more quickly than expected. He has been thrown off Cookie's trail after Agent Carter came to Empire's offices posing as a parole officer. (She wore a jean jacket, because parole officers and fifth grade teachers are really the same thing when you think about it.) The cops suspect him in Bunkie's murder. And his relationship with Jamal has become so toxic that Jamal, who previously just wanted to play in quiet bars and coffee shops, now aggressively wants to take over Empire purely out of spite. Oh, and he's about to go to war with a rival record label CEO. We'll get to that at the end.
Also, no call from Barack this week.
(Just outside the top three: Jamal, who is so furious with Lucious that he moves out of his all-expenses paid loft and will almost certainly let his rage guide him towards a bad decision.)
COOKIE'S WEEKLY WEAPON OF CHOICE
Words - wait, don't get disappointed. While we all would have enjoyed Cookie charging Anika (Lucious's current girlfriend and head of A&R at Empire) with a carving knife at the family get together, her prayer before dinner is even better. She's praying for you, Anika! Can't get mad about that.
A SCENE THAT I IMAGINE WAS CUT FROM THIS WEEK'S EPISODE
ANDRE: Whew, that was some good intercourse.
RHONDA: Definitely. It's neat that I'm fine with you sleeping with other women, as you did with the Deputy Mayor, so long as you do so as an assertion of power.
ANDRE: I'd say you find it arousing!
RHONDA: I do! What should we have for dinner?
ANDRE: Something that signals we lust only for more power and have no other meaningful human interactions.
RHONDA: We could find a restaurant that's having a 90th birthday party for a sweet old lady and pay them to cancel the event so we can have the place to ourselves.
ANDRE: Perfect. Can we order the meat of an endangered species?
RHONDA: Yes, but you have to eat some salad with it.
NEXT WEEK ON EMPIRE
J U D D N E L S O N .
He's playing the aforementioned head of a rival record label, and his facial hair sleaze game is somewhere in between New Jack City
and Boondock Saints II.
Please, please, PLEASE let us get a Judd Nelson-Cookie screaming match that ends with her blowing up his car.