The premiere episode of Starz’s seminal New York City crime drama, Power, introduced a world that is now blaringly unfamiliar nearly six years later. A very married James and Tasha St. Patrick walk hand-in-hand into the opening of Truth nightclub. Tasha and her best friend LaKeisha are thick as thieves, bonding over drinks and designer threads. James’ drug-toting alter-ego, Ghost, commits a brutal murder within the first ten minutes. Ghost’s partner-in-crime, Tommy, is eyeing a red-haired waitress named Holly. Tariq St. Patrick adorably tries to con his dad into doing his Spanish homework. And after 18 years, James has a chance encounter with an old flame, Angela Valdez; the two trade googly eyes and jokes about the old ‘hood while knowing little to nothing about each other’s current lives.
Yet, some things about that very episode bear a striking resemblance to the show’s sixth and final season. Before turning into a cold-blooded killer himself, Ghost scolds Tommy for cavalierly bringing street drama to Truth. Ghost’s flashbacks of his murderous act turn to lovemaking with Tasha into a moment of animalistic catharsis. Tommy lets out a hearty laugh at Ghost’s dream of “growing up, going legit and living happily ever after.” Tariq naively questions how his dad even learned to speak Spanish. Tasha watches dreadfully from across the room as a visibly enamored James takes Angela’s phone number. Angela defends abandoning her and James’ teenage courtship with a foreshadowing truth: “I would’ve dropped everything for you. Everything my parents worked for, everything I’d worked for.”
Ultimately, the old and new worlds combust, leaving the death of James “Ghost” St. Patrick in their wake.
“The show kind of told its own end,” says Courtney Kemp, Power’s creator and showrunner. “If you’re writing for as long as we have, the characters start to tell their own stories after a while. You’re not really as much in control of them as you think. There are certain things that they do and certain things that they don’t do, certain things that they will and won’t say and do, and so you go with where the story is leading you.” But how does a bevy of creatives stay in-tune enough with a fictional world to relinquish control and allow for natural progression? Apparently, with an incredible amount of empathy—even for the story’s most devious.
Omari Hardwick describes his Power character, James “Ghost” St. Patrick, as “dynamic,” “duplicitous,” “big,” “angelic,” and “magnanimous.” Try your luck at adding “narcissist” to that list of adjectives, and Hardwick will stop you in your tracks. “I would say that he’s maybe the most empathetic character in the entire story,” he says. “He went to a little white boy—who was the only white boy in the neighborhood—and to a girl who hid powder and drugs for him, and said, ‘We could be more.’ He didn’t say ‘I could be more,’ he said ‘We can be more.’ By the end of the series he says, ‘Tommy, I got more.’ And that’s only after asking Tommy a million times to believe in we. Tommy said ‘No, ain’t no more.’ Tasha said ‘No, ain’t no more.’ But Ghost kept saying ‘we;’ he never said ‘I.’ Eventually he said ‘I.’ Eventually. The narcissism was a growth pattern.”
This level of humanity has been a part of Hardwick’s approach since the very beginning of his career. With roots in poetry and hip-hop, Hardwick asserts that affinity for the human plight is necessary for artists of any kind. “Those that are natural at this—those that look like they were pulled off the side of the road and made for every character they play—that natural thing is as synonymous with empathy as anything else that makes you a naturally good artist.” Even with the early knowledge that Ghost would either die or go to jail, Hardwick insists that treating James St. Patrick as finite would be against the ethos he brings to his craft. “I would imagine that you do a disservice immediately to the character if you’re thinking about that. I’ve always been an actor who believes that a character can’t be known until the job is actually completed.”
If viewers tally up what they know about Ghost, the math may not check out on the side of righteousness, even after Power’s final curtain call. Twenty murders. One failed marriage. One fallen mistress. One child lost, another scorn. And if one say, Googled the traits of a narcissist, Ghost would certainly fit the profile. Inflated sense of importance. Entitlement and need for admiration. Obsession with success, power and finding perfection in a mate. Manipulative for the sake of their own interests. Unwilling to consider the feelings of others. Hardwick, however, proposes that we look at more than just figures and textbook symptoms.
“He grew up with no mom,” the actor points out. “There’s no father introduced to Ghost. There’s no uncles, no brothers, none of that; he’s just got surrogate people all around him. The only family we know of Ghost is the one he made with Tasha. That’s the only family we know. His major overriding insecurity is that he’s still on a search, not only for betterment, but first to be better, you gotta know who the f**k you are!” This staunch ability to come to Ghost’s defense suggests that Hardwick, in fact, succeeded in his personification of such a labyrinthine figure.
No less confounding is Ghost’s right-hand man Tommy Egan, whose on-screen rap sheet boasts upwards of 30 murders—including his ex-girlfriend and his father. Crimes of passion, albeit often misguided, carved Tommy into an “emotional gangsta,” calling into question the difference between brutality and heartlessness. For actor Joseph Sikora, the lines are not so fine. “I think sometimes people make the mistake of saying Tommy is a sociopath,” he says. “Which of course he couldn't possibly be because of how emotional he is and how much he is present in all aspects of his life, even if it is murder.”
“Even if it is murder.” The phrase alone is striking evidence of a connection Sikora has grown to his fictional counterpart. “I feel like it's the only way to be in a relationship with a character, is to make it intimate so you know all the dynamics of that person's personality and thought process,” he notes.
Similar to Hardwick, Sikora—who Hardwick affectionately refers to as his “very talented Scottie Pippen”—urges Tommy’s critics to consider his character’s origin story. According to the actor, Tommy’s volatility is an asset on the streets, and a liability in his relationships. “[Tommy’s emotions] also can be his downfall with trying to build his family and find love, probably because of the lack of love he had from his mother growing up and then obviously growing up with a father who was absent,” he says. “A lot of that comes out of him trying to fill those holes.” Ultimately, Sikora brings it back to the beating heart of the matter. “I think Tommy Egan's legacy is that there's humanity in everyone. That everybody needs love. And sometimes, maybe not even sometimes, all the time, it's that you can always judge the action but you should hold back from judging the man.”
An intentional feat by Kemp, Power’s enduring dichotomy finds nobility and savagery in a constant tug-of-war, making it difficult to crown any of its characters as a hero or villain at any given scene. This tension finds the show forsaking the black-and-white, and existing in the grey. Still, any defense of murder and treachery remains jarring—for everyone except Kemp, that is. “Well, I guess the question I have for you is, why is that surprising though? They don't watch the show like you do.” Fine. Checkmate. “They're reading the scripts and they're having to inhabit the character. So, of course, they have to be invested. And plus, when you write well, every character is in their own positive intention. There is no such thing as a villain. There is no such thing as evil.” The proposed absence of evil hasn’t stopped the show’s audience from finding characters they love to hate, however.
For many fans, Michael Rainey Jr.’s portrayal of Tariq St. Patrick was worthy of picking a switch. The once innocent, wide-eyed son of Power’s principal character is led into darkness by his father’s former mentor, Kanan Stark. Under Kanan’s street tutelage and through the revelation of Ghost’s distortion of their family life, Tariq begins a marathon of crime and disrespect that succeeds at getting under the skin of viewers—a fact that Rainey Jr. is proud of. “Actually, all of this feels like an achievement,” he says between elated laughter. “If people are in tune and they're engaging with my character, then it makes me feel good. No matter if they hate my character, I love my character. But I feel like if you could make an audience hate you then that's a good thing.”
Less likely to be categorized by viewers as a “good thing,” is Tariq’s own track record, which, though less extensive than Ghost’s, culminates with an unthinkable deed: the murder of his own father. Still, Rainey Jr.’s voice is somehow filled with assurance when describing Tariq’s love for the elder St. Patrick. “It was just hard for him to show how much love he has for his father since his father is disappointing him so much,” he says. “It's his father at the end of the day, so he still has a lot of love for him, but he also just doesn't really know how to show it and he's just kind of lost in it.” Even as a younger thespian, Rainey Jr. enacts the same compassion for his character as his more seasoned peers, using his own life as a driving force.
“Ghost and Tariq’s relationship is kind of similar to me and my father's relationship,” he reveals. “That's a reason I really relate to those scenes with Ghost and Tariq where they're really going at each other because that's something real in my life.” Though the St. Patrick’s father-son fissure suffered a bloody ending, Rainey Jr. points to the admonition in their story. “I feel if they watch it, then they could learn from it. Just because you don't have the best relationship with your father, it doesn't mean you should rebel and act the same way,” he warns. “I feel like there's always a way around things. And if you just talk things out, and just hear each other out and listen, then I feel like things could get straightened out and you can have a healthy relationship.”
Coming in second on the “Power’s most hated” list, is Andre Coleman, the series’ resident slithering snake. After rising in street ranks from Ghost and Kanan’s protege to running a drug operation of his own, Dre’s fall from grace lands him breaking a cardinal rule: snitching to authorities. Witness protection aside, actor/singer Rotimi Akinosho still holds his character in (very) high regard. “This is a kid that was a corner kid with Kanan and ends up being the most sought after character because he has taken everything from Ghost, Kanan, and Tommy and has forced them to be a group, to work together to bring him down. No one else on the show has had a trajectory like that.” Akinosho is also very adamant about his criticism of Ghost—to whom he insists Dre owes nothing.
“I feel like they both are very narcissistic, but I think that the difference is that Dre genuinely, genuinely wants to do the best for his daughter,” he says. “I think with Ghost, he's so caught up in his self and the narcissism in himself that he doesn't see anything or anybody's side of anything. Everything is somebody else's fault.” Ask Akinosho if he believes Dre is a better father than Ghost, and his answer is, “One-thousand percent.” How then, does he justify Dre committing a blood-splattering murder with his daughter in his arms? Necessity, of course. The “Love Riddim” crooner, like his other castmates, is a sworn defender of his character’s sanctity.
“With Dre, it's literally two sides of him, where he's the killer, but then when he's with his daughter, he's the softest, most caring person and wants what's truly the best for her. And so, I think the motive of fatherhood is different, you know?”
Kemp has previously cited parenting as a leading theme on Power. From Ghost, Tariq and Raina, to Tasha and Tariq, to Dre and Heaven, to LaKeisha and Cash, the definition of “mother” or “father” is contorted to reveal a spectrum of light and darkness. In the single most sinister display of parenting, Kanan, played by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, murders his son, Shawn, in cold blood. The scene immediately called to mind 50 Cent’s relationship with his real-life eldest son, Marquise Jackson, who he’s been estranged from for nearly a decade.
While the rapper-turned-actor has been candid about using his own life to fuel his character’s interactions with Shawn, his father-son divide was also a driving force in Kanan’s scenes with Tariq. Accessing another facet of his strained relationship with Marquise, 50 Cent taps into his son’s penchant for making friends out of his father’s enemies. “The intention was to kill [Tariq] on that couch [in season three]. But when I found out he doesn’t like his father, I’m like, ‘Wait, slow down,’” 50 says. “The relationship is actually the one my oldest son builds with anybody he sees me argue with.”
On the whole, the parallels between 50 Cent’s storied journey and Power’s plot doesn’t end at his parental hardships. For the South Jamaica, Queens native, the show is closer to home than any of his castmates; in fact, Kemp would often call him to discuss his former life of crime while writing episodes of the series. With this level of intimacy, it was no wonder that 50 upped the ante from executive producer, to actor, to director by the show’s final season. In his directorial debut, empathy may have played its biggest role yet in his work. “A big part of directing is being able to communicate or give an alternative description of the emotional piece of the performance,” he says. Per usual, he attacked this new role like he’s attacked everything: by striking a nerve. This time, with Alani “La La” Anthony.
In the third episode of season six, Anthony’s character LaKeisha Grant is out on a limb while aiding Tommy in the kidnapping of Alicia Jimenez, a drug lord in federal custody. As Keisha makes her way inside of the courthouse, 50 Cent compels Anthony to dig deep by likening her son, Kiyan Anthony, to Keisha’s son, Cash. “I told her, ‘La, when you get to the top of the steps, you realize that Cash... that’s Kiyan. And there’s not gonna be anybody here to take care of him if once you decide to go through that door, it doesn't go right,’” he whispers, reenacting the moment. “I’m giving her a note using her actual son as a character.”
Likely, a purposeful choice by Kemp, Keisha’s final display of motherhood ends in the character’s death, as Tasha thwarts Keisha’s plan to drop a dime on Tommy and run off with Cash by lodging a bullet in her chest. “It was poetic,” Anthony says of the scene. “And it was tough to shoot too, because we've had such a journey on the show, Naturi’s character and mine, as friends. To see it come down to this was very sad and hurtful.” The showdown, which finds actress Naturi Naughton committing Tasha’s first on-screen murder, also finds Anthony at her most vulnerable. “To see two mothers come down to that and as Keisha was laying there pleading for her life, she's saying, ‘What about Cash?’ Like, what about my son? That was heartbreaking because that's just a mother's love.”
If Power does indeed serve as a commentary on motherhood, Naughton says it shows how painful of a duty it can be. “Motherhood requires us to become superhuman. And I think that every superhero sometimes gets hit. Every superhero sometimes falls or their wings don't always open up the right way. Or their cloak doesn't always help them fly. I think people forget we're also human sometimes. That's why it is so painful because you have to put on a mask at times and be a superhero for our kids.” For Tasha, being a superhero for Tariq finds her looking her son in the eye, and uttering a line that sends shockwaves: “Alright Tariq, I’ma teach you the game,” a move even Naughton didn’t expect. “That was a moment where I was a little shocked and taken aback. Like, ‘Wait a minute, what?’ I had to turn the page and reread it.”
“Sometimes I want to tell Tasha, ‘Tariq just needs a good ol’ whooping! What are you doing protecting him?!,’” she says. “I think that's Tasha's flaw, that she's blinded by love for her son. And I think that's something that she will have to suffer for.”
Suffering, according to Naughton, has become a way of life for her character. “I think that Tasha has emotionally been dragged through the mud, honestly,” she says. She also notes, however, that much of Tasha’s suffering comes at her own hand—or heart, rather. “In a lot of ways Tasha's deep love for even Ghost, even after he dogged her, cheated, she was still the one sitting up at court. Still, the one trying to raise money to get him bail money. She's still the one that was lying for him to protect him whenever he was under fire. Tasha's love of course for her son is also blinding. I think that's her flaw.” So what, then, does Power teach us about love? Naughton’s answer is swift: “That love will get you killed out here in these streets.”
But Naughton doesn’t want anguish to be the point of Tasha’s tale. “I hope that Tasha signifies the strengths of us as black women, the resilience that we possess,” she says.
Finality is a new idea to attach to a show that has run for six seasons. For the actors, there’s a wider rear view of what each of them hopes the show and their characters will represent. It’s just not that simple for Kemp, who has already begun working on Power’s spinoff, Power Book II: Ghost, starring Mary J. Blige and Method Man.
“I cannot step back from the show and say that I know what the legacy is,” she admits. “What I can tell you is that the show is about, ultimately, 50 Cent, my dad, the election of Obama, what it means to be a black man in America, what it means to be a father, what it means to be a mother, what it means to be a son or a daughter, what it means to be Black, what it means to be white, what it means to be brown or Asian. It's about race. It's about culture. It's about music. I mean, it's all those things, but I can't tell you what our lasting legacy will be.”
Photographer: Karl Ferguson Jr.
Art Designer: Nicole Tereza
Videographers: Vince Patrick and Jason Chandler
Makeup Artists: Julia Jovone (50 Cent, Rotimi, Joseph Sikora), Autumn Moultrie (Courtney A. Kemp), AJ Crimson (Naturi Naughton), Sheika Daley (La La Anthony), and Vanessa Scali (Lela Loren)
Hair Stylists: Johnny Wright (Courtney A. Kemp), Aviva Perea (Lela Loren), Alexander Armand (Naturi Naughton), and Ray Dodson (La La Anthony)
Wardrobe Stylists: Christina Pacelli (Courtney A. Kemp), Merced Jackson (Rotimi, Joseph Sikora, 50 Cent), Alyssa Sutter Studios (Lela Loren), Brian Mcphatter (Naturi Naughton), and Maeve Reilly (La La Anthony)