Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) in the “Out Damned Spot” episode of Empire on Feb. 11, 2015 on FOX.
Everyone on Empire is deplorable in their own way. There aren’t any good people on the show so much as there are people who simply aren’t as bad as others. That’s one reason the show is so entertaining: It speaks to our desire to root for the bad guy at times.
‘Empire’ Recaps: Episode 1 | Episode 2 | Episode 3 | Episode 4 | Episode 5 | Episode 6
As we enter the second half of the season, starting with Wednesday night’s new episode (9 p.m. ET on Fox), Billboard ranks the seven main Empire characters by likability:
7. Hakeem Lyon (Bryshere Y. Gray): The hate for Hakeem knows no bounds. He doesn’t have any redeemable qualities to speak of. Most rappers who think they’re hot suffer from naive delusion. Some are talented but not as much as they think they are. That’s not the case with Hakeem: He is not talented at all, and outside of the booth he can be just as grating. He urinates in the middle of a restaurant while saying Obama is a sellout. He’s hurt that his girlfriend Tiana has a girl on the side instead of seeing the endless opportunities that await him and the hypocrisy of his own infidelities. And he says things like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole need to watch out for him. He may be a fictional character, but my disgust for him is very real.
6. Anika Gibbons (Grace Gealey): The soon-to-be-Mrs. Lyons is what kids these days would call “basic.” Sure, she comes from good stock, with a father who is a doctor and a mother who is a debutante, but she couldn’t be any less interesting even as a foil for Cookie. Lucious doesn’t seem to be crazy for her so much as he likes that she isn’t prone to talk back the way Cookie might, and she doesn’t seem to have a mind for business the way Cookie does. Anika doesn’t scare anyone, and she continues to fail to do so.
5. Andre Lyon (Trai Byers): I’m laughing half the time Andre tries to act as if he’s a genius businessman just because he graduated from Wharton. We’re still getting into his backstory, which is why I don’t quite buy the idea that Lucious doesn’t want to see him prosper simply off the fact that he seems too square. I actually think it’s a matter of competence. Andre has yet to demonstrate an ear for music, which handicaps him; in order for art to make money one needs to know which art is and isn’t valuable. Andre just seems to know what to do after the money is made, which is cool if your goal is to be balling out in middle management.
4. Tiana (Serayah McNeill): There’s not much to dislike about Tiana. She’s believable as a star waiting to burst, and you can see she’s ready for the brightest lights on the biggest stages. She’s professional and doesn’t seem to get too up in arms over Hakeem’s escapades with Camilla. She also is an unapologetic bisexual with a girl on the side herself. And yet, I have absolutely no faith in her future as a tolerable human being. When she switched from Anika to Cookie as her manager, it was foreshadowing that she’s going to be a handful to deal with in the future and cause serious drama down the road.
3. Lucious Lyon (Terence Howard): The very thing one hates about Lucious is the thing one likes most about him: He’s a cutthroat businessman who doesn’t want to let go of what he’s built. He’s going to have to, though, because of his ALS, therefore he wants to make sure everything stays in the family. The entire situation makes him look at once ferocious and also like the consummate father. He still cares very much for Cookie, as though to say that he’ll never forget the woman who supported him when starting out. And yet, he’s also in love with a woman who helps keep him on top: Anika. Keeping the peace between those two doesn’t look easy, but Lucious does an admirable job of keeping them separated and not letting things get too dicey. His only glaring weakness is his ignorant views on Jamal’s sexuality. It’s not only deplorable, it’s idiotic. But outside of that, if Lucious is supposed to be a bad guy, he’s the fairest one on television.
2. Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson): People may think there’s been some sort of mistake. How can Cookie not be the most likable character on the show? The answer is simple: She still doesn’t know quite how to act right. She’s adjusting to life on the outside as much as she can, but there are certain things she should have grown out of but hasn’t, such as the slick little remarks she makes about Jamal’s sexuality; she’s good for at least one every episode. And although she is Jamal’s biggest defender and doesn’t reject him the way Lucious does, she can’t help but treat Jamal like a pawn in her little game against Lucious.
One thing I admire, though, is Cookie’s soft side, which is gradually unfolding before Lucious. The fact that she doesn’t have a man and hasn’t even been thinking about getting one is the elephant in the room. After 17 years in prison, she hasn’t lined up even a casual encounter with someone tall, dark and handsome? It’s pretty unbelievable, but that only means there are more sides to Cookie than the tough one we’re seeing; that’s a good thing.
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1. Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett): The most talented son of Lucious and Cookie Lyon is also the guy you’re rooting for the most: Jamal. Not only has he stood up for himself against his father’s homophobic ways, thus leaving behind a very comfortable life, he has also stood up for others. He won’t let Hakeem talk to their mother crazy. And he won’t let his mother talk to his boyfriend Michael any old way either. All the while, the music he creates is better than all other music we hear on the show. With all that talent and what looks to be a heart of gold thus far, Jamal is becoming the Empire star.