Jussie Smollett, Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard, Trai Byers and Bryshere Y. Gray of Empire
Fox

Cookie, Lucious and the Lyon sons are back Wednesday when Empire returns to Fox for a second season. The show, which is so big everyone is trying to claim credit for it, kept making ratings history week after week last season, including the finale, which set a record with 16.7 million total viewers. No wonder Fox brought the show back this fall (instead of for its midseason slot in January) and expanded the season from 12 to 18 episodes.

To get ready for the new season, here’s a recap of what happened to our favorite characters last season and a look at some of the new characters joining the star-studded cast for season 2:

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Former thug Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) built his record label, Empire, with drug money and has transformed himself into a music-industry mogul. His goal was to take the company public to make it even bigger. Thinking that he was dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, Lucious planned to continue his legacy by pitting his three sons against one another to compete for control of the company.

None of them were the perfect fit: The youngest son, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), a successful rapper, made rash—and often simple-minded—decisions; Andre Lyon (Trai Byers), the eldest brother, was a power-hungry shark with a mind for business, and his wife, Rhonda, got in touch with her inner Lady Macbeth to plot with him. But when Andre went off his meds, his bipolar disorder caused erratic behavior, making him unfit to lead the company. Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett), a talented singer and arguably the smartest brother, didn’t get much support because Lucious hated having a gay son.

Enter Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson). When the Lyons’ drug business was exposed, Cookie took the rap. After 17 years in prison, Lucious’ ex-wife returned to get her rightful share of Empire. All that animal print wasn’t going to pay for itself. Lucious was forced to give Cookie a stake in Empire. The feds kept trailing along after Cookie to pressure her to rat out Lucious about crimes from the drug days but she refused.

As far as Empire was concerned, it turned out Cookie was a natural at spotting talent and developing artists. Despite their love-hate relationship, Cookie and Lucious ended up in bed. The tryst was spotted by Lucious’ fiancee, Boo Boo Kitty (Grace Gealey). Actually her name is Anika Calhoun, but Cookie called her Boo Boo Kitty, so that’s what everyone in the audience called her, too. Sorry, Grace Gealey, that name will follow you for the rest of your life.

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A controlling Lucious started to alienate nearly everyone. Jamal and Hakeem were done with the way he was manipulating their personal lives, though Lucious really did Hakeem a favor by paying off a thirsty gold digger, Camilla (Naomi Campbell). Hakeem’s simple-minded revenge plan was to blatantly hook up with Boo Boo Kitty. Lucious couldn’t bring himself to care, but when he found out that Cookie’s baked goods were being sampled by security head Malcolm (Derek Luke), Lucious banished Malcolm and gleefully informed Cookie that she wasn’t really on the board because she was a convicted felon.

Pretty much everyone had enough of Lucious, except Jamal. After Jamal publicly came out, Lucious thawed a little bit and they got closer. They grew close enough that sweet, mellow Jamal went Suge Knight all of a sudden and dangled an Empire rival off the side of a building.

After being dropped from Empire, Cookie had enough of Lucious’ foolishness, so she stormed into Chez Lyon and found him sleeping. Funny thing, Lucious talked in his sleep—a lot. Among other things, he sleep-mumbled that his health disorder wasn’t ALS, so he was going to live. He also sleep-mumbled that he’d murdered Bunkie (Antoine McKay), Lucious’ flunky and Cookie’s cousin, which he only did because Bunkie wanted more money. Cookie grabbed a pillow and came close to suffocating Lucious, but she didn’t. Too bad it was caught on security cameras. Uh, why did he have security cameras in his bedroom?

The next morning, a chipper Lucious basically said to his sons:

* Oh, yeah, I’m not dying after all.

* Jamal’s the new head of the company. (Even though Lucious isn’t dying, the company did go public, and shareholders like a succession plan.)

* Your mother was ready to smother me with a pillow and I’ve got it on camera.

To get back at Lucious, Cookie plotted a takeover of Empire; her team included Hakeem (good luck with that), Andre and, most surprising, Boo Boo Kitty. When the women weren’t rolling around on the floor and clawing at each other, they made OK business partners.

Obviously, scheming Andre was furious about Jamal’s promotion. Turned out he’d been scheming all along with Lucious’ sneaky right-hand man, Vernon (Malik Yoba), to take over Empire. But when that didn’t happen, a fight broke out and Rhonda took a candlestick and killed Vernon. She then announced her pregnancy.

During a Lucious tribute concert, the feds strolled in backstage and hauled off Lucious, who was charged with killing Bunkie. Lucious ranted at Cookie because he thought she was the snitch. Turned out it wasn’t Cookie; the case hinged on Vernon, who at that point wasn’t likely to make his court date.

Lucious wasn’t sweating it. In his final scene, when he was sitting in his cell, he broke the fourth wall, turned to the camera, looked us dead in the eye and said, “Game on, bitches.” We didn’t even do anything and it looked like we needed to go on the lam. The series will pick up three months later.

Who’s Who in This Season 

Last season was already star-studded; expect even more big names this season in one-off or recurring roles:

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Chris Rock will portray Lucious’ fellow inmate. Originally he was supposed to be into fava beans and a nice Chianti, but Fox wasn’t having any of it.

Andre Royo, who played Bubbles on The Wire, will turn up as Lucious’ attorney.

Vivica A. Fox will play Cookie’s older sister. They have another sister, Carol (Tasha Smith), who sometimes visits from Philly to help Cookie carry out her plans.

Kelly Rowland will appear in flashbacks as Lucious’ mom.

Clarence William III has been cast as a music bigwig who mentored Lucious. It’s a reunion; Williams appeared in the 2013 film The Butler, which featured Howard and was produced by Daniels and Strong. Daniels has hinted that the movie’s star, Oprah Winfrey, will make a cameo.

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Marisa Tomei will play a lesbian venture capitalist with a role in Cookie’s takeover. Magic Mike XXL actor Adam Michael Rodriguez will play a character eager to “take these cookies.”

Other big names who will turn up this season include Mariah Carey (playing a diva?), Lenny Kravitz, Alicia Keys, Ludacris, Pitbull, Funkmaster Flex, Al Sharpton and Andre Leon Talley.

The season premiere, “The Devils Are Here,” airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.

Elaine G. Flores is a New York writer, editor and bon vivant. She’s a hard-core shipper and excommunicated soap opera reviewer. Her fictional dinner-party guests include Omar Little, Buffy Summers, Abigail Mills and Ichabod Crane. You can visit her site, TV Recappers Delight.