Becky G, Bryshere Y. Gray

When Empire is good, why is it good? When it’s bad, what makes it so? The challenge in comparatively evaluating Empire’s second season against its first is trying to pinpoint why the show blew up in the first place. Despite roughly a thousand think pieces since the first season concluded, there has yet to be a precise theory about Empire’s success, but the process is ongoing. Whether it’s a comment thread or a critic’s roundtable, conversations about Empire tend towards figuring out what the show is doing rather than how well the show is doing it. That’s why an unshakeable malaise is setting in just three episodes into season two. Everyone is trying to figure out if they still like the show without ever having fully untangled why they liked it to begin with.

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The broad explanation is that people love Empire for the “spectacle,” a word that comes up often in discussions about the show. It’s not an unfair description. There’s no more fitting word for a television episode like “Out, Damned Spot,” in which Cookie attends a Lyon family dinner to celebrate his engagement to Anika, only to fling open her purple fur coat revealing the immodest lingerie underneath. Obviously a show can’t sustain that type of high drama from scene to scene, but the deeper issue is the way that, in a show fueled by spectacle, anything that doesn’t rise to that description seems inept. It’s the same issue faced by pop culture awards shows, which also measure their success on social media saturation. At the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, Miley Cyrus grinded against Robin Thicke’s crotch until tiny wisps of smoke appeared. As for what happened the following year, who can even recall?

If “The Devils Are Here” is the 2013 VMAs, “Fires Of Heaven” is the relatively tepid subsequent year. During the summer, Lee Daniels talked about how the show’s pacing was going to be slightly calmer and more deliberate. The first two episodes didn’t jibe with those comments, as they were every bit as breakneck as anything in season one. “Heaven” makes a little clearer what Daniels was talking about, even if there was better language to describe it. In an apparent effort to split the difference between spectacle and narrative integrity, the writers haven’t slowed the speed of the storytelling, they’ve made the story more amorphous and diffuse. Empire still feels like itself because everything is happening so quickly, but not nearly as much is happening. It’s a high-speed joyride with no particular destination in mind.

That’s a shame considering how potentially juicy and rewarding a direction the Lyon family feud could be for the show. Because bitter rivalries are woven into the fabric of hip hop, Empire’s feud with the up-and-coming Lyon Dynasty provides a unique opportunity yet to tell a story that feels truly authentic and grounded in the Empire world. This show doesn’t frequently get the hip hop stuff right, but when Cookie and Sway make reference to KRS-One hustling PM Dawn off stage, or Lucious tracks Freda down at a rap battle, Empire suddenly feels like a show about hip hop rather than a show around hip hop. And hip hop beef is a sexy, interesting lens through which to filter familiar nighttime soap tropes. But in “Heaven,” the competition between the two labels feels more like checkers than chess.

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For one thing, the writers seem terrified of what would happen if they keep the characters apart for too long. There’s never a bad reason to put Cookie and Lucious in a scene together because there’s such potent history and chemistry between the performers, but should the entire Lyon family be interacting to this extent? Should Lucious really be convening an awkward formal dinner with the same family members he now considers traitors? Should Andre still be groveling for his job back at Empire, even going so far as to use his unborn child as emotional leverage? Should Jamal be sneaking away to try to smooth things over with Cookie because Lucious takes a shine to a new artist? With so much mingling and so many strategic and emotional realignments, the parameters of the war between Empire and Lyon Dynasty aren’t nearly as clear as they should be.

In the infamously shady music business, these are clear, compelling stories. Look at Straight Outta Compton and its depiction of Ice Cube’s split from and legendary feud with N.W.A., a story in which there’s never any confusion about people’s motivations. That’s the type of story Empire should be able to tell very, very well, but not without accepting the reality that these characters wouldn’t be pressing pause on their battle to the death long enough to break bread together. It would be terrific to see more emphasis on the philosophical, artistic, and financial disputes that typically define the battle lines in a story like this one. Instead, this is a story almost exclusively about people with bruised egos trying to bruise each other more, and that feels far too shallow. When Lucious swoops in to steal Valentina away from Lyon Dynasty and block the new labels access to radio airplay, it’s a stinging blow to Hakeem’s manhood and Cookie’s pride, but it doesn’t really feel like a win or a loss for either side.

Still, the David versus Goliath story of Lyon Dynasty and Empire has more juice than Lucious and his rivalry with Roxanne Ford, who is just a poorly conceptualized character. Her obsession with nailing Lucious Lyon to the wall vaguely echoes the NYPD’s hip hop task force, which operated under the assumption that musicians that incorporate criminality into their images and lyrical themes are bound to be a treasure trove of actual crime. Like the label feud, Ford’s pursuit of Lucious is an interesting idea that authentically ties the show to the world of hip hop. But as story, it’s murky as hell. If you’re going to choose a target to prosecute as the foundation of a larger political career, why choose someone who has become such a symbol of capricious, racist law enforcement that Don Lemon, Andre Leon Talley, and an offscreen Bill Clinton showed up to a rally for his release? In Empire, even a rivalry between two obvious foes like a criminal prosecutor and a murderer isn’t as easy to follow as it should be.

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Stray observations:

  • I’ve never understood Anika’s role on this show any less than I do now. Lucious drafts her to spy on Lyon Dynasty, despite the fact that espionage is literally the thing Anika does worst. It’s first on the ranked, reams-long list of things Anika does poorly. She can’t even dyke right!
  • I loved the shot of Lucious rescuing his glass as Cookie dragged dinner off the table.
  • Lucious to Anika: “If you wanted a go at my boy, you should have asked me. I’d have let it happen.” Oh, okay.
  • There’s another appearance from Kelly Rowland this week, which is interesting. It’s as if the show is setting up the story of Lucious’ bipolar mother as some kind of flashback-based mystery, and if that’s the case, I’m intrigued by what it could possibly reveal.
  • Timbaland appears on camera finally, appearing alongside Hakeem when he hijacks the stage from Jamal and Pitbull at Leviticus.
  • That Freda Gats track sounds like a long-lost Heather B. song. Oh don’t act like you don’t remember Heather B.
  • Speaking of Freda, she pulls her gun when the dude she’s battling makes reference to her father’s murder. Seems like if you’re going after Freda’s dad in a battle rap, the cannibalism thing is what you want to exploit.
  • This week in “Um…what?”: Anika tells Cookie that Lucious tried to employ her as a double agent to steal all of Lyon Dynasty’s music, including the new stuff they’re recording with Mirage A Trois. Cookie: “It’s an old trick called ‘jack your track,’ he takes my music, changes a couple notes, puts it out so I can’t do anything with it.” What now? Why doesn’t copyright law exist in this universe?

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