One thing can be said for certain about Empire: It is never boring. “Dangerous Bonds” is an incredibly dense, chaotic episode, and it’s fun to watch even as it makes sloppy, unfortunate choices. Being on a runaway train is exhilarating in the middle of the hill, it only starts being a problem towards the bottom. That said, “Dangerous Bonds” is an episode Empire can only get away with this early in its run, and hopefully its writers are aware of that.
What’s frustrating about “Bonds” is how frequently it stops short of its blockbuster potential, which is apparent from the Takeem-centric cold open. The music world’s new It Couple is all smiles on the red carpet, and Tiana is even acting as Hakeem’s dutiful cheerleader after walking in on him as Mommy was giving him a bath. Tiana’s psychology has been impenetrable since that encounter, with an oddly muted response that suggested she’s willing to put up with Hakeem’s bad behavior if their public partnership can increase her profile. But it’s much more clear now why Tiana’s fuck supply chain has broken down, rendering her unable to give a single fuck. Tiana has her own “chick on the side.” Hakeem is Tiana’s beard. The reveal is such a giddy, soapy moment, it’s disappointing how quickly the narrative possibilities are burned through.
The Takeem love triangle had all the makings of the perfect time bomb to have faintly ticking in the background as the characters go about their business, but Empire detonates it immediately, and in a particularly contrived manner. Rhonda happens to be in the right place at the right time to capture footage of Tiana making out with her side piece in a public space with industry types milling about, and Andre has her leak the video to trigger a Hakeem meltdown as he’s on the set of his new video. Andre is trying to do what the character promised in the pilot, but the execution and outcome of his sabotage makes for awfully clumsy storytelling.
Andre’s attempts to ruin Jamal’s session at the amazingly titled Ghetto-Ass Studio were equally contrived, and took story liberties that make Downton Abbey seem disciplined by comparison. The episode was already asking a lot by placing Rhonda in exactly the right place to collect the information her husband needed to carry out his nefarious plan, but then Andre fakes a telephone conversation to inform some street toughs within earshot of Jamal’s exact location and the fact that he’s probably wearing expensive jewelry. Oh, and also he’s gay and therefore super-easy to rob. The goons follow Andre’s directive so quickly and with such little discussion, he might as well have just told them to do it while spinning a hypno-coin.
Both plots had facile, convenient, or rushed resolutions. Rhonda uploads the Tiana video, Hakeem confronts her, they argue, then immediately reconcile. Why? Because Lucious explains that this opens the door to the possibility of a threesome. If you think Hakeem would need this explained to him, I have a pair of mezzanine-level Kidd Fo Fo tickets to sell you. It was also an off-pitch moment of heterosexual hip hop wish fulfillment for a show that’s had a decidedly queer bent for one about a world that doesn’t create space for gays. Of course, it does create space for lesbians, so long as they comport to mainstream beauty standards, as do Tiana and her girlfriend, and are willing to register with the Heterosexual Selective Service, which requires women to allow their vaginas to be drafted in times of penile crisis. “Dangerous Bonds” starts out as a television episode about the creation of a bottles-and-models hip hop music video, and then it just starts being one.
The bigger problem with the fallout from Andre’s scheming is Jamal’s reaction to the robbery attempt. The robbery scene doesn’t work on just about any level. It feels stilted and arrhythmic, and while it gives Jamal another welcome opportunity to demonstrate that he may be a punk but he’s not a punk, nothing makes sense about how he comes to the conclusion that Hakeem is the one who had him set up. Jamal is emotional, but he’s also smart. So while I can see Jamal pursuing some suspicions of Hakeem’s involvement, for Jamal to immediately make that leap and confront Hakeem in such a forceful, violent way that allows for no other possible explanation simply doesn’t ring true. It feels too handled, too manufactured, and all that wasn’t necessary given how good a job the writers have done with slowly ratcheting up Hakeem’s insecurities about his talent. That wedge was working well enough on its own without having to inject the robbery, an especially ham-fisted way to advance the Jamal-Hakeem rivalry.
It’s too bad given it’s all in service of Andre, who has become such a non-factor Lucious literally says he doesn’t understand Andre’s purpose around here anymore. It’s a fair point, and Andre hasn’t quite been the agent of chaos he initially suggested he would be. It’s time for Andre to insinuate himself into the competition for the Empire throne. But this particular way of doing so not only spoils a couple of other potentially great stories, it doesn’t actually do Andre any favors. “Dangerous Bonds” doesn’t show Andre as a force in his own right, it shows him as a guy who can live to fight another day if he gets a run of incredibly lucky breaks.
Speaking of lucky breaks, Cookie’s comes in the form of a single red rose, which turns out to be an anniversary gift, not a elegant, tasteful death threat from an associate of the guy she testifies against before a grand jury. This is one of those stories that needs a long time to develop before it’s clear if it’s working and how well. When Cookie initially started taking meetings with the feds, the implication was that Cookie’s deal potentially impacted Lucious or Empire Records. When Cookie says she’s afraid she’ll be killed, that close in the wake of Bunky’s murder, it’s reasonable to make that assumption. Now it seems as if Cookie’s relationship with the feds, which involves her witnessing the murder of an undercover agent, isn’t directly related to Empire. Presumably there will be a ripple effect from her hit on Teddy, who was just minding his business and actually prefers to threaten his victims with Gerbera daisies, for the record. But until the larger impact becomes clear it’s hard to make heads or tails of it.
It probably sounds as though I liked the episode far less than the grade suggests, and that’s probably true, but I’m also grading this episode on a curve. Empire’s biggest problem has been its inability to figure out how to tell self-contained, episodic stories. Neither the Kidd Fo Fo or Titan plots worked individually. Until Empire figures out how to do that, and it eventually will, it has to find another way to fill an hour. That means it doesn’t have the luxury of sitting on an egg like Tiana’s girlfriend until its ready to hatch. If Empire can’t use self-contained stories to pace itself, it has no choice but to burn through things quickly. And I’d sooner watch “Dangerous Bonds” than “False Imposition” any day of the week because it’s fun, even though it’s stupid-fun when Empire has the potential to be smart-fun.
- I prefer Jamal’s song, which is presumably called “(You Can Keep The) Money (Dolla Dolla Bill Y’all)” to Hakeem’s insipid “Drip Drop.” Which song would be a bigger hit in real life? The latter, obviously.
- John Singleton directed this one.
- Lucious proposes to Anika, who accepts, and the couple dances to a performance by Anthony Hamilton. As usual, Hamilton looks like a vagabond whose rags magically turn into a tailored suit after he’s sprinkled with fairy dust. He’s cute though.
- I really liked the scene between Anika and her mother, in which she communicates her disappointment and makes references to infidelity in Lucious and Anika’s relationship.
- Lucious has an interesting scene with Anika’s father, a doctor, who Lucious asks to vouch for his health to secure an insurance policy ahead of the IPO.
- If I was Lucious, I’d order a thorough audit on the “Drip Drop” video. It’s totally unclear where all that money went.
- If I was Lucious, I’d also be real careful about stuff like celebrating anniversaries with Cookie. That’s asking for trouble.
- Cookie Moment of the Week #1: “The name’s Cookie, ask about me.”
- Cookie Moment of the Week #1 (tie): “What you mean you people? You black, too.”