Let’s have a conversation about Camilla. Remember Camilla? She’s a character on Empire played by Naomi Campbell who made recurring appearances in season one. She’s a cougar who was having a torrid affair with Hakeem Lyon, who called him Mommy because his Oedipal issues ran deep due to Cookie’s lengthy incarceration. Hakeem and Camilla took lots of bubble baths together, and because Hakeem is rich, most people probably assume they drew the bath using all manner of pricy, exotic bubble baths and scented oils, but I suspect it’s just the variety of Dawn Ultra that smells like orange zest. Both Cookie and Lucious, who aren’t generally prone to agreement, concurred that Camilla was a corrupting influence on Hakeem, so Cookie shaded her, while Lucious paid her to leave town and never contact Hakeem again. Camilla refused the money, but Lucious sent her away all the same. Hakeem moved on roughly two dozen times, and all was well in the Empire.
This history is brought to bear in “Et Tu, Brute?” but don’t feel bad if that brief primer on Camilla Marks—now Camilla Marks-Whiteman—only felt vaguely familiar to you, or felt totally familiar but wasn’t helpful to your understanding of the episode. Camilla’s past has very little to do with Empire’s present, even though the episode presents it that way. It’s the worst kind of narrative stunt, the kind that presumes the audience will confuse events with story. The Camilla reveal isn’t nonsensical, which puts it head and shoulders above most of the storytelling Empire has done in the first half of its season. The story, apparently, is that a scorned Camilla lay in wait while aligning herself strategically and romantically with the all-powerful Mimi Whiteman, then used the Swiftstream deal as her opportunity to execute the exact same corporate coup Mimi has been fending off all season as she extols the virtues of Lucious Lyon. Is any of this possible? Sure it is, just like it’s possible for Porsha to jump a subway turnstile, pretend to be Cookie when she gets arrested, then get rehired by Cookie on the strength of bringing a dog into the office. But not everything that’s possible makes for a compelling, well-told story, and “Et Tu, Brute,” like much of Empire season two, seems to value theoretical plausibility above all else. Never mind whether it’s interesting, smart, compelling, or unexpected. In Empire, whatever could happen, can happen.
There could be, for example, an industry prize called the American Sound Award, and everyone in the music business could be on tenterhooks while awaiting the nominations, which for some reason is a day-long process involving all manner of celebrity announcers. Hakeem could be considered a front runner for an award called Rapper of the Year, one that apparently doesn’t require the nominee to have released any music aside from a leaked album and a few subpar verses in a rap battle. There could be an industry party where Jamal duets with his new girlfriend Skye Summers, who is then bizarrely interrogated about her racial identity by Charlamagne Tha God. Lucious, the alleged hip hop legend whose songs are outshined by everything else Empire has to offer—”Drip Drop” included—could be nominated for Song of the Year for the abysmal “Boom Boom Boom Boom,” which may well be the show’s original music nadir. Sure, there’s a universe in which all of these things could be true, but that universe can’t be the backdrop for competent storytelling because it isn’t governed by rules anyone understands.
Empire’s complete disconnection from objective reality is going to be what ultimately does the show in. Consider that now Empire Records, the 800-pound gorilla that hold the entire music industry in its grip, has been turned into nothing more than a publicly-traded MacGuffin. It doesn’t have any intrinsic meaning as an institution or any kind of significance as a music industry power player or a family business. If it did, it would be impossible for Cookie and Hakeem to branch off and start a scrappy upstart that almost instantly becomes successful enough to pose a legitimate threat to Empire come awards season. Empire is just a thing to be passed back and forth, to exchange hands over and over again with no discernible impact, even as the characters insist that the constant shuffling has an impact on the characters.
By the time Empire returns next year, nearly four months will have passed since its most recent new installment. When it returns, apparently it’s going to mean something that Empire has changed hands or that a very pregnant Rhonda was pushed down the stairs by a masked assailant. But it was also supposed to mean something when Jamal was named the head of the label. Or when Hakeem got kidnapped. Or when an associate of Hakeem’s kidnappers bedded Cookie only for Lucious to out him as a traitor. All of this is supposed to be adding up to something bigger than the sum of its parts, and it just never, ever does that. It’s impossible to invest in a show with no clear stakes, no heroes, no villains, and no crystallized story. And it sucks, because to watch the pilot is to be reminded what a promising show Empire once was. Now it’s a sad, soapy husk which can’t even manage to turn out good original music anymore. Whether or not the show rebounds next year, some time apart will be a relief.
- The William Fichtner character is back! Don’t tell me what his name is or what he does, but at least he didn’t vanish into thin air like so many before him.
- Cookie replaces the crumbled Cookie’s Cookout with an event in the prison she used to call home. It’s not a very interesting story, but Jezzy (guest star Da Brat) got her right together about the gorilla suit.
- Jamal’s Pepsi commercial looked terrible, and the way the show cuts to and from the spot makes for a clunky use of product placement considering.
- Anika definitely attacked Rhonda, yeah? I suppose because she wants Drip Drop: The Next Generation to be the heir to Lucious’ throne?
- I still think “Powerful” is some insipid, cloying nonsense, but I will concede that the official studio recording is far better than Jamal and Skye’s unplugged versions.