Spoilers ahead for the most recent episode of Empire.
At first, the kidnapping of Hakeem Lyon seemed to resolve itself like most Empire plot twists do: very quickly, with few long-term consequences, its hype-making hashtag designed to be forgotten. The previous episode ended with masked men in a van snatching the young rapper while he jogged; within the first 15 minutes of this week’s installment, his parents paid a $40,000 ransom and he was free again. On to the next cliffhanger?
Not quite. The youngest Lyon spent the rest of the hour struggling psychologically, undergoing a crisis of masculinity that can be added to the list of Empire’s provocative storylines related to gender.
Till now, Hakeem has largely been defined by rashness, swagger, and insecurity—a Napoleon complex that comes in part from competition with his older siblings (“Shoulda taken the more famous brother, the one with talent,” a kidnapper says in this episode), in part from rapping in the shadow of his superstar dad, and in part from the fact that he’d never before had a close relationship with his mom. There’s also the fact that he’s trying to succeed in hip-hop by projecting an image of a macho confidence.
But becoming a hostage didn’t make him feel macho. When first carried into the lair of a local criminal group, Hakeem jumped up and started a confrontation—which quickly ended with a punch to his face and the words “little bitch.” That encounter recurred in Hakeem’s mind throughout the episode, and he later talked about how ashamed he felt about it: “I didn’t do nothing. I didn’t fight back. I wasn’t strong.”
Once the hostage situation was over, he acted out with demonstrations of his stubborn independence (he refused a doctor’s exam), sexual power (his very first act when free was to show up on Anika’s doorstep), and capacity for violence (he pulled a gun on his former captors, even though he said he’d play it cool). All of these things are pretty blatant ways of trying to counteract feeling emasculated, a word the Empire showrunner Ilene Chaiken used in her post-episode interview with Variety. Hakeem wasn’t helped when his father told him to “man up” and “grow a sack” and stop “wallowing in pity and bitchassness.”
It was a pep talk from Hakeem’s two older brothers that finally made Hakeem feel better. They told him he was smart to not fight back, that despite his size and age he was always the most fearless Lyon, and that he’d already proven himself by surviving Cookie and Lucious as parents. “You really think Dre and I would act any differently if we were in your situation?” Jamal asked. Heartened, Hakeem took to the stage and rapped with the girl group he’d been grooming.
That it was the openly gay Jamal who helped shore up Hakeem’s self image is significant. Jamal began the series struggling with the disapproval of his father, who threw him into a trashcan when he wore a dress as a little boy. But by now, he’s proven to Lucious that his worth has nothing to do with his sexuality or the traditional idea of manliness. In fact, in this episode, we learned that Empire has tried to market Jamal as a “gay artist”—a label that the singer finds limiting, but that also shows Lucious is no longer trying to deny who his son is.
Much has been written about how the Jamal storyline is especially significant in the show’s broader social context. “From comic strips to movies created by African Americans, critical media scholars have consistently written about Black hegemonic masculinity as the continuous bombardment of Black men who are represented as hyper-masculine, aggressive, heterosexual men who enjoy sexual access to women,” Sheena C. Howard explained earlier this year at The Huffington Post. “Mass mediated forms of communication have rarely carved out room for a Black masculinity that falls outside of these constructs.” But Empire, with Jamal, has carved out that room.
And now, in a small way, it has done something similar with Hakeem. In last night’s episode, he had to move past the idea that that his self-worth, masculinity, and brute strength are all the same thing: His brothers are right that if he’d tried to “man-up” against the guys who snatched him, he’d probably have died. The show also reminded viewers that toughness isn’t just for men. Cookie used her motherliness to get Hakeem to put down his gun—which she then picked up to use in her own intimidation efforts. Later, Lucious offered the rapper Freda Gatz a beat he initially intended for Hakeem, saying that because of her struggles and raw edge, he feels a closer kinship to her than he does to any of his sons.
And as it turns out, the saga of Hakeem’s kidnapping isn’t totally over. In the final scene of the episode, Cookie hooked up with her new head of security, who’d convinced her to pay off the guys who’d grabbed her son. When he took his shirt off, viewers saw that he has the same tattoo as those guys. Which means the battle for safety probably isn't over, and the Lyons—male and female, gay and straight—are going to once again have to prove their toughness.