Cookie Monster: How Cookie Lyon Became the Most Compelling Character on TV

Whether you love the show or hate it, we can all agree that Cookie, played by Taraji P. Henson, is the breakout star of Empire.

Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon in Empire
Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon in Empire Fox Screenshot

For all of Empire’s critics—and admittedly, I’ve been among them—there has been one aspect of the show that fans, skeptics and those residing somewhere in between have all agreed on: Cookie, played by Taraji P. Henson, is the best thing about the show.

Cookie is the ex-wife of Lucious Lyon—a drug dealer-turned-rapper-turned-Jay Z-like figure with Motown-era hairstyles—who helped foster Lucious’ dream of running a major record label by providing the seed money she procured through selling drugs. As a new parolee, Cookie is out to get what’s hers: her piece of the company and her charting her own success within the music industry. The Fox hip-hop-centered soap opera, which continues to make gains in the ratings, has been rightfully described as the Oscar-nominated actress’s moment.

For those who have watched Henson through the years, we knew she had a funny bone, by way of films like Baby Boy, along with the capability to tackle dramatic roles, thanks to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; however, this is really the first time that Henson has had the opportunity to be the de facto showpiece of a project. She has made the most of it.

Cookie is so many things—loud, blunt, hood as hell, smart, funny and savvy—and as such, she is the most fleshed-out character on Empire, and increasingly one of the most compelling ones on television. Much of that is testament to the talent of Henson, who has managed to turn what could easily have been described as a caricature into a multifaceted persona.

In an interview with BuzzFeed, Henson told writer Kelley L. Carter: “I understand that mentality. I am from the hood. It wasn’t upper middle class; it was lower middle class. It was a garden apartment in the hood.” She went on to add that though she didn’t live in the system, she was around those who had, plus people who lost their lives to the crack epidemic that swept black communities in the 1980s. “I have compassion for it because I was around it, so I can’t judge it. I can’t say, ‘Ooh, you’re a dirty bird because you did this, you did that!’” the Howard University graduate explained.

Henson’s compassion is what makes Cookie so endearing. She manages to lend a voice not only to women of color who have been incarcerated—a rising population that’s only now really being represented recently in television—but also to lower-class blacks in general. Yes, similar characters have been featured on reality shows like Love & Hip Hop, but so often the show and all its sensationalism makes it difficult for some viewers to look beyond that.

Empire is no less messy, but it’s scripted, so perhaps that allows some to watch it without feelings of “guilt,” given that we know all of them are pretending—though one can never be too sure with whatever VH1 is airing Monday nights. Funny enough, Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta’s Joseline Hernandez thinks she’s a direct influence on Cookie. Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown and Mary J. Blige’s old wigs may argue otherwise, but even that speaks to the broad appeal of Cookie.

I’ve read comparisons between Cookie and Olivia Pope. Frankly, those feel misguided. Olivia Pope is fine red wine in an oversized and likely overpriced glass; Cookie is like Hennessy, only served in a champagne flute or maybe a mason jar, depending on the day. We can get drunk on both, and it’s about time audiences had the option.

The Cosby Show sect of black America has its nuanced depiction, thanks to the genius of Shonda Rhimes and Kerry Washington. Now those bopping in a lower tax bracket, thanks to socioeconomic status and/or student loans, can say the same. And while I find Being Mary Jane’s protagonist, Mary Jane Paul, to be an awful human being, it’s nice to see a black female character on TV who, like Cookie and Olivia, is not pressured to be perfect.

Cookie is a sympathetic and defensive mother to her gay son, Jamal but also, much like Archie Bunker, is rude and offensive in how she addresses both her son and his boyfriend, Michael. She’s also dually antagonistic, yet the moral compass of the show. She’s complicated … like the rest of us.