“Sinned Against” continues the stunt-casting trend that has become such a distraction in Empire’s second season, but one of the episode’s guest stars comes across more like synergy than a stunt. Alicia Keys joins the cast in the role of Skye Summers, a character formed in the singer’s own image, with the same penchant for playing piano while screaming like she burned her neck with a hot comb and stepped barefoot on a Lego at the exact same moment. By the second performance of “Powerful,” Skye’s duet with Jamal, the logo had started to peel itself off my television. Not that I can blame it, because if Keys was that ear-splitting from the couch, it must have been like a My Bloody Valentine show that close to the screen. But in a way, Keys and her jet-engine belting work because Empire is essentially Alicia Keys as a television show. It’s attractive, seems cool, and is teeming with potential, but the volume is always cranked up to 13, which drowns all the nuance. This show is on fire, but the kind that requires evacuation.

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Empire continues to offer glimpses of the much better all-gas-no-brakes nighttime soap it could be. “Sinned Against” has some of those glimpses, but they are mostly obscured by sloppy storytelling, inscrutable characterization, and the achievement of a new level of a camp for a show that already prides itself on excess. The sloppiness stars from the very beginning of the episode, when we learn that the well-executed cliffhanger from “My Bad Parts” yielded exactly nothing. Anika apparently dropped Laura off at home without incident, then, considering the wig was already paid for, did a bit of reconnaissance and discovered that Laura is living in poverty with her large family. Scandal! Listen: Anika is a stupid person, like extremely stupid. But I had no idea she was stupid enough to think this was the right play. It remains unclear why working her way back into the Lyon fold is important to Anika to begin with, but Rhonda mentioned Lucious’ excitement over their new baby, so why is Anika trying to reinvent the wheel? Why resort to pettiness and class warfare when you’re already armed with nature’s strongest leverage?

Let’s hit pause on Anika and turn to Cookie, who had an incredibly busy few days between driving to Philadelphia with Candace to track down the drug-addled Carol, keeping the trains running with Cookie’s Cookout, and learning the ugly truth about Laz. I’m still not even sure what Cookie’s Cookout is and what it entails—is Mirage A Trois, like, the headliner?—so the less said the better. Cookie and Candace’s Philadelphia trip works better than anything else in the episode, mostly because of the performances by Taraji P. Henson, Tasha Smith, and Vivica A. Fox. They play off each other well and feel like actual people in those scenes. Rosie O’Donnell, one of the episode’s random celebrity guests, fares better than any recognizable guest star this season as Pepper, a woman Cookie knew on the inside. Empire always becomes effective and emotional the instant Cookie mentions her prison stint, and this is no exception. Still, the Philadelphia trip feels like a totally aimless excursion for a season that already feels so thin. It gives Cookie a few nice character moments, particularly when she apologizes to Carol for getting her involved in the dangerous world she chose. But besides that, what was it all for?

Granted, there’s the whole bit where Candace mentions a transgression from Carol’s past that would destroy Carol’s relationship with Cookie were it revealed. But while that’s a wonderful and classically soapy choice, Empire simply can’t be trusted with nice things. The reveal of the bull tattoo on Laz’s back, for example, was a brief moment of competence, but then nothing came of it. Laz staved off his crew, whose leader apparently goes by Big Heavy, then was revealed as a double agent to Cookie in a totally dissatisfying way. After briefly meeting Laz and expressing his disapproval, Lucious looks into Laz’s background and discovers his involvement with the gang responsible for kidnapping Hakeem. Cookie then asks Laz if he has the distinctive bull tattoo on his back and tears off his shirt to check. Now as I recall, Cookie and Laz have had a lot of sex. In fact, there was a honeymoon montage in which they were shown having sex all day, only stopping for food and to check email. Cookie’s never seen the enormous tattoo on his back? She has to ask him if it’s there, and she’s shocked to find that it is? Just why, Empire? All of this is in service of a moment meant to imply that Lucious killed Laz, but this is the show that would have had Chris Rock gnawing a human calf if the visionless bean counters hadn’t stepped in. Empire doesn’t do subtle, and it would be stupid to assume an implied off-screen death means anything at all. The scene is not only the latest in Empire’s parade of anti-climaxes, it takes away Cookie’s agency and gives Lucious yet another opportunity to rescue her.

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More than that, the reveal of Laz’s tattoo makes Cookie look like an idiot. And nothing I’ve seen about Cookie prior to now suggests that she’s an idiot. I could see a story where Cookie starts having her suspicions about Laz but ignores them against her better judgment because her emotions are involved or the sex is too good. But for Cookie to be completely blindsided based on her failure to notice a tattoo that spans a third of the guy’s back, that’s something that happens to a stupid person. That’s something that happens to Anika. But maybe Anika isn’t stupid anymore. Maybe now Anika’s thing is being Hollywood crazy, complete with a collage of clippings that she’s scrawled all over as if she’s the serial killer in some 1993 thriller starring Jennifer Jason Leigh. Never mind that she was supposed to be a competent, sought after record executive all of 17 minutes ago. Now Anika is psychotic, and to the extent she was willing to ignore her malicious impulses, here’s her new best friend Rhonda, who comes just shy of saying “You should kill Laura so you can have Hakeem, because I owe my fabulous life to committing a violent act against a would-be female interloper.”

Almost no character on Empire is written consistently. Cookie’s stupid when it serves the story, or Anika’s crazy-pants, or Lucious has a weakness for babies. I still can’t make heads or tails of how Andre went from being the spitting image of Lucious’ suicidal mother to being the most valuable Lyon heir. Sure, there’s the matter of Vernon’s exhumation, which somehow cleared Lucious of all the charges against him and restored his trust in Andre. And perhaps Lucious is feeling vulnerable after watching Hakeem publicly disown him, though it’s a pretty reasonable response considering Lucious sicced Freda on him in the hopes of embarrassing him and ruining his career. But I need Empire to stop with this “Lucious is baby crazy” nonsense. He was excited about Lola, but not so excited that we’ve seen a glimpse of her or heard her name mentioned before Rhonda needed to make a point, and let’s not forget that Lola is Lucious’ biological child. Not to mention that Andre tried to play the grandson card while Lucious was still locked up, and not only did Lucious refuse the bait, he took offense to Andre’s attempt to manipulate him. But that was back when flashbacks of Lucious’ mother were a thing, but those aren’t important now, and Lucious can’t stop cooing into Rhonda’s pregnant belly. This is not a version of Lucious that we’ve seen before, and I don’t mind making the guy a doting grandfather, but I do mind how sloppily this show spackles its holes.

Jamal is now the only character who has been written with some kind of consistency, but that’s probably because he doesn’t really have a storyline anymore. He’s no longer the head of the label and is working full time on his album, which is now titled The Black And White Album, which I’d like to think is a callback to the Michael Jackson-lite alleyway routine he did in season one. The Michael and Chase One triangle seemed like it was supposed to go somewhere, then vanished almost immediately. Now it’s all about Jamal’s kiss with Skye, which is about as sexy as a timeshare presentation. I can’t figure out why this was the “cliffhanger” before the winter finale. It’s not like Jamal hasn’t been with a woman before, or like he’s cheating on Michael, or like Skye would be unaware of his sexuality, so what exactly is the point of this story? And when will I be able to start talking about Empire instead of just asking questions about it?

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Stray observations

  • Empire has always flirted with camp, but the Lee Daniels cameo takes it way over the edge. That entire scene took me out of a show I’m never completely into to begin with. I just don’t know who that was for other than Daniels himself. It did nothing to help the scene or the story.
  • Jussie Smollett is starting to irk me a little, which is something I never thought I’d say. I don’t know if it’s the performance or the character but the Jamal and Skye scenes was interminable.
  • That “Powerful” song isn’t good.
  • What happened to the William Fichtner character Jamal was supposed to be working with? Has that just vanished too?
  • Also I’m going to assume Anika doesn’t know how to use the internet, because she didn’t have to give Laura a ride home to find out her address.
  • I’m still shocked that this was the penultimate episode of the year. I can’t believe how tepid this season is.

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