Bryshere Y. Gray, Terrance Howard, Taraji P. Henson (Photo: Courtesy of Fox)

At this year’s winter installment of the Television Critics Association press tour, I overheard a snatch of conversation between a few good-and-drunk “d-boy” types from Fox. I was breezing past, so I got none of the context, but what I did hear stuck with me: “We already have a telenovela, and it’s called Empire.” Since then, I’ve thought a lot about the idea of Empire as a telenovela, as well as what Americans mean when they talk about telenovelas. I’ve been reluctant to use the word to describe Empire myself because there’s something condescending and sort of insidious about it, in the same way people use the word “soap” to describe Empire, as if soap opera is a genre that exists outside the parameters of criticism or storytelling fundamentals. And yet, watching “Past Is Prologue,” all I could think about was the telenovela of it all.

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When people describe something as a telenovela—and not in the super-flattering “This reminds me of Jane The Virgin” way—they’re mostly talking about histrionic reveals, often having to do with the truth of someone’s identity. It’s a reductive way of looking at telenovelas, because the reveals, and the gobsmacked facial expressions that go along with them, are the weakest element of that style of storytelling. But that’s frequently what Empire is—a telenovela as written by people whose only knowledge of them comes from American parodies. At least, this is my best attempt at explaining why Tariq, the latest federal gadfly determined to take Lucious down, is revealed as Lucious’ half-brother as if that’s some kind of shocking, satisfying rug pull. It’s mostly just confusing, and it brings up more questions than answers. That’s usually a good thing for a season finale, but in this case, the questions I now have aren’t ones I necessarily want the answers to. It’s just more information compressed into a show that hasn’t demonstrated its ability to handle narrative density.

Empire routinely crams 20 pounds of nonsense into a five-pound bag, and there are times when the approach works, when the writers harness the right dangling threads at just the right moment. The Andre and Rhonda story is one of those times, with a nice callback to Vernon’s death in last season’s finale. I can’t be made to believe that someone as shrewd and calculating as Rhonda would handle her suspicions by randomly attacking Anika in front of the entire family, armed with no more proof than a hazy memory of a shoe brand. And I’m also not clear on at what point Andre, who was initially convinced Rhonda’s “accident” was anything but, suddenly reversed roles with Rhonda and now believes his wife is making hysterical accusations. But one of the few emotionally resonant moments comes when Rhonda confronts Andre about her suspicions, then invokes Vernon’s name to remind him that she once went to a dark place to protect him.

It’s one of very few moments in “Past Is Prologue” that feels earned, since most of the episode’s biggest moments come out of nowhere, and rely heavily on huge chunks of exposition that are given no time to take root. Not much has ever been mentioned about Lucious’ father, save for Cookie’s random “the Nation [of Islam] killed your father” remark, but suddenly Lucious’ father is all anyone can talk about because Leah is around making ominous implications, as she is wont to do. (She apparently didn’t pull the trigger on revealing her identity to the world, because Thirsty intervened at the last minute, so last week’s dramatic cliffhanger was all for naught.) The stuff with Lucious’ father was a mess all around, in part because of the way the show handled the Leah reveal. All those yellow-toned flashbacks led to Lucious admitting his mother killed herself in front of him, a story we now know not to be true. The same aesthetic is applied to the flashbacks of Lucious’ father, Joe, being shot in front of him, and while I’m guessing this flashback is supposed to be objectively true, it’s hard to know what to believe from or about Lucious, the ultimate unreliable narrator.

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But in Lucious’ defense, it’s not entirely his fault that he’s so dishonest and malicious. You see, according to Leah, Joe Walker’s duality goes all the way down to the cellular level, with angelic and demonic sperm competing for the same eggs. Tariq, who multiplied from one of the white-hat sperm, echoes this idea once his identity is revealed: “Our father was a good cop, Dwight, but a bad man. I guess we each got half of him.” So…yeah, okay. The crazy thing about Tariq is that I kind of like the idea of Lucious being investigated by his half-brother. It’s the kind of idea that could yield some interesting stuff next season, given Empire’s emphasis on how the Lyons put their biological bonds before everything, including basic common sense. But I wish he’d been introduced much, much sooner into the season. After seeing him skulking around for two episodes, there’s not much of an impact to finding out that he’s related to Lucious. As I’ve said many times before, there’s never any good reason to believe Empire will make good on what it promises, which “Prologue” proves by having the three-week time jump completely erase Leah’s interview with the press outside Jamal’s hospital.

Speaking of Jamal—surprise!—he’s alive and well, though he starts the episode swearing he’s quitting singing until his family can work out their cycle of insanity and violence. Honestly, this doesn’t seem like that huge of a loss, but Hakeem is determined to have Mal sing at his wedding, so it’s treated as a matter of the utmost importance. Empire has a problem with over-manipulating its characters, using them as vessels to keep the plot moving while remaining indifferent to them. Freda Gatz gets that treatment this week. She probably deserved a bigger part of the episode, since it was her actions that threw everything into chaos. But she only gets one scene, a scene in which she doesn’t even get any closure from Lucious about her father’s death. All she gets is guilt, which he uses to convince her to record a “please start singing again” verse or something? Carol, who introduces Tariq and tipped off Freda, is totally absent because she served her purpose, and now she’s off on a bender I assume. Jamal’s story gets a slight bit of movement when he gives D-Major the cold shoulder, but there’s not much of him considering how big a role he played last week, and throughout the season.

It’s all about the wedding, another example of a sequence that required the audience to integrate a shitload of brand new information. Xzibit appears as Shine Johnson, a rowdy former associate who Cookie and Lucious have to keep their thumbs on, lest he reveal the 741st shocking Lyon family secret. Everything about the story comes together so abruptly, it’s hard to invest in any of it. There’s some slight misdirection, if you can call it that, as it looks like Shine is going to ruin the wedding by strolling in with four big-booty hookers (in fairness, he did write “four big-booty hookers” on his RSVP card), but it’s actually the process server who disrupts Hakeem and Laura’s special day. With the wedding in shambles, and Anika now expected to testify before the grand jury, Lucious has the bright idea to use the occasion to marry Anika so she can’t be forced to testify against him. Andre hesitantly performs the ceremony, but Jamal can’t bring himself to sing. Not for this twisted union.

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Look, this is definitely not how spousal privilege works on any planet. If you could just marry someone to preclude testifying against them after being served with a subpoena, the license line at the courthouse would be much, much longer. But the bigger issue for me, as always, is that I just can’t reconcile the Cookie Lyon I watched last season with the one who can’t manage to work Lucious out of her system. Taraji P. Henson is so good she almost sold it to me, but a reconciliation between those two characters is a direction I’ll never cotton to.

Luckily there was more planned for the final cliffhanger, with Rhonda attacking Anika for a second time, and one of them taking a tumble off a very tall building. Cutting out on Andre’s horrified face was a risky choice in light of all the recent examples of shows (mostly The Walking Dead) that have gotten negative feedback after leaving a character’s fate unclear. But it was a final bang bang bang bang to a season with all too few of them.

Stray observations

  • Shine Johnson? Damn, talk about an on-the-nose character name.
  • I don’t think Rhonda or Anika are going to die. I think one of them will fall, then wake up in the hospital with someone by the bedside like, “If Tiana hadn’t broken your fall, it would be you dead instead of her.”
  • I’m not clear, does Hakeem want to marry Laura or not? It seems like the writers never quite decided, not that it matters now. Also, why did Laura just kind of show up in the venue with no one seated and no processional music? I mean honestly, this wedding was kind of a disaster before the ninja process server arrived.
  • So, as if it wasn’t already obvious, Empire isn’t for me. And man, did I ever want it to be. This was a show I breathlessly anticipated before its premiere, and I still think the pilot and a few scattered episodes are fun, bitchy, soapy trash. People said, “Oh you just don’t get this show,” and I took umbrage at that because it’s usually just a lazy way to dismiss criticism that doesn’t align with yours. But you know what? I don’t get everything, and maybe Empire is one of those things. At any rate, it doesn’t do anybody any good for me to continue writing about a show I don’t get much joy out of. So when this show returns, I won’t be returning with it. Let the church say amen!

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