This Empire review contains spoilers.
Empire Season 2 Episode 9
We’ve reached the penultimate episode before the fall finale of Empire’s second season, and well, things haven’t been going great. Year two for Empire has almost unequivocally been a sophomore slump. Sure, there’s been brief flashes of the madcap energy and freshness that was present in season one, but mostly, Empire has gotten caught in repetitive story beats, a reliance on forgettable guest stars, and a lack of any semblance of urgency. Hell, even the music has been worse? I’m not saying songs like “Drip Drop” and “You’re So Beautiful” are great, but has there been one song from this season that has been as memorable?
All of the above problems are present in this episode, and there are even bigger issues at hand, but for some reason, I might have liked this episode more than all of the others I’ve watched this season, so I don’t know what that says about me or about this show. I guess it’s sort of like grading on a scale. The biggest reason I think this episode succeeds is because it contains traces of actually characterization.
I know that Lucious being “baby crazy” seems a little like it came out of left field, but I actually think it works well given what we know about Lucious, a man who is obsessed with legacy and disappointed with his perspective successors. Having a grandchild is like getting another shot at finding a true heir, so it makes sense that he’s highly invested. I also like the fact that Lucious decided to go full steam with the Swift Stream deal after being pushed aside while Jamal was shining. Having Lucious simultaneously rooting for Jamal’s success while also being insecure about being replaced, and competitive, makes Lucious complicated and human.
Same goes for Cookie. It might seem like her being so easily duped by Laz isn’t plausible given what we know about our resident badass diva, but people aren’t just sassy, unflappable quip machines at all times. Sometimes people get caught up in lust and make stupid decisions and get blinded by people that are no good for them. That’s true to life. Seeing Cookie cry, and then immediately have a fragile conversation with her sister was humanizing, it showed depth. Don’t get caught up in the fact that maybe she should have done a simple background check like Lucious did, and just respect the fact that they bothered showing different sides to a character all together.
But as I kind of allude to, there are inherent problems with all of this. The Swift Stream plot is sort of the main storyline this season, but it feels so inconsequential. The one overarching thread of the season shouldn’t be the least interesting thing happening any given episode. And Laz having a change of heart, turning on his cronies and then getting caught all happened so quickly that it had no impact or time to resonate. Now we’re left with a guy whose name is literally Big Heavy as our main antagonist, and that’s no good.
If I’m diving into the bad, I should just keep going. How the hell does the show end last week with the cliffhanger of Anika driving Laura’s car, and then not follow up on it whatsoever? It’s like they realized that they hadn’t made Anika seem crazy enough, decided that they played their hand too early, and then spent this episode retconning it, by having Rhonda subtly suggest that maybe Anika do something terrible to Laura and showing Anika with cliché crazy-person newspaper clippings planning some scheme. Look, I’m all for turning Anika into the ex-girlfriend from hell Looney Toon character because all the previous things that they’ve tried to do with her have failed, but they’re botching something that easily could be fun and soapy. They’ve been botching storylines all year; Jamal has had virtually nothing to do, and Hakeem and Andre have been having the exact same fights with Lucious week in and week out, though it does finally seem that maybe the Lucious and Andre feud may be over, which comes virtually out of nowhere and ignores the whole “Andre reminds Lucious of his Mom” flashbacks. I’ll take it though, because I’m just ready for something else to happen.
As I mentioned earlier, the show has also been using guest stars as a crutch and not a particularly effective one at that. I really can’t blame the writers; after season one became the smash hit of the last five years, every actor in Hollywoood must have had their agent calling trying to get them on this show. Fortunately, tonight the guest stars work really where. I could watch a whole show devoted to Cookie and Vivica A. Fox as Candace squabble. Their trip to Philadelphia, as is the problem with these plots with guest stars, doesn’t add anything to the larger story, but at least the scenes work and Cookie, Candace, and Carol feel like real sisters. Oh, and of course Rosie O’Donnell and Cookie were prison pals! I thought O’Donnell’s presence would be distracting, but she was appropriate for the part, and anytime Cookie talks about prison, it’s always interesting.
Then there’s Alicia Keys, who I thought was great as Sky Summers. Right away, she’s seen singing with that powerful voice, and not along to a track but live, and immediately brings legitimacy to the musical aspect of the episode. Her and Jamal working in the studio was the most realistic portrayal of songwriting ever presented on this show, and they have a compelling conversation about the music industry and what it means to be a pop star. So what if the song they write is trite trash, I was waiting anxiously to hear these two talented people sing together. You could notice their incredible chemistry, and then it happened…
Jamal kissing Sky is potentially incredibly problematic. Having established gay characters turn straight can be seen as a harmful trope to the LBGT community. Would it have been so hard to give Jamal a new love interest that’s a man? At the same time, many people believe sexuality is fluid, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Jamal be caught up in the creative sparks flying and the moment. It could be interesting to see him reconcile with that impulse. There’s also the fact that Alicia Keys will probably not be sticking around, which makes this seem like a shock move and not a chance to have an interesting conversation about sexuality. On the flip side, her not sticking around likely means that they won’t have Jamal be “turned” and have a relationship with a woman. Basically, how Empire follows up on this will determine whether this was a reasonable move, or a disastrous one.
So now I’ve written about 1200 words about an episode of Empire that had lots of good and lots of bad, but the sheer fact that there’s so much to talk about proves that this was an improvement over the last few uneventful episodes. This season of Empire still isn’t trending in the right direction, but it continues to be engrossing and entertaining in bursts.