The conventional wisdom—according to me, anyway—was that Empire would dramatically deflate in the second portion of its bifurcated second season. The storytelling in the first 10 of this season’s 18 episodes was so rudderless and incoherent, I thought surely there was no way Empire could recover from a nearly four-month hiatus. When it’s hard to remember what happened in the prior week’s episode, who’s going to have any investment in this story after four months off the air? That narrative was based on the assumption that Empire would continue its metamorphosis into a dissatisfying hash made up of sassy Cookie one-liners, random guest stars, aggressive product placement, mostly forgettable music, and the political sensibility of someone who once skimmed Jesse Williams’ Twitter while waiting at the DMV. But “Death Will Have His Day” is not that version of Empire.

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“Death” resembles the show Empire promised it would become in its earliest moments. That’s a statement I’ve made about many episodes of Empire. Not only has the show failed to meet its full potential, it has swiped at greatness in so many clumsy, flailing ways, I’m not even sure I’d know what a perfect episode of Empire looks like at this point. But “Death” feels like a significant shift, and perhaps even the start of a comeback strong enough to elevate it at least to the level of a transcendently trashy nighttime soap. Maybe I’m a fool for getting sucked in again, but it seems like this time just maybe the Empire brain trust has gotten a grip on this story. It might be different this time, you guys.

Empire’s cast and producers did a PaleyFest session recently, and Lee Daniels acknowledged that the first chunk of season two missed the mark. Specifically, he said there was a conscious effort to scale back on the guest stars and control the pace more tightly. “Death,” which was written and directed by Danny Strong, seems to bear out the fact that there has been high-level conversations about what the show could be doing better. There’s a tighter focus on the core characters and a confident command of the operatic tone. The busy-yet-empty plotting has been adjusted too, and the story is suddenly leaner and simpler, with a clearer emotional throughline.

Though this is the second half of one season, “Death” watches like the premiere of a rebuilding year following a disastrous season. Indeed, the “previously on” package begins with the words “Last season on Empire,” as if to emphasis how long ago all that was. Honestly, it was a really long time ago, and if you’ve forgotten everything that happened in the fall that’s terrific, because the producers have forgotten about it too. Still interested in the particulars of that Apex Satellite Radio tie-up? Of course you’re not, but you’ll never hear about it again, so who cares? I’m guessing there are a lot of vestigial storylines we’ll never hear about again, including the fate of Laz and his crew, the rise of Freda Gatz, basically anything involving Tiana, Porsha, or Becky. Hell, even Mimi Whiteman, who was so instrumental in the hostile takeover, is nowhere to be found and not so much as mentioned. The biggest loss, and the one that most smacks of a creative overhaul, is the dissolution of Lyon Dynasty following its hasty acquisition by Empire.

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Cookie’s furious maneuvering is the fuel that makes “Death” go. She’s furious with Hakeem for helping Camilla wrest the company away from Lucious and convinced that the only way to destroy Camilla is to take her down from the inside, necessitating a ploy to get Empire to absorb Lyon Dynasty. None of this makes a whit of sense. First of all, I’m pretty sure I could raise enough money to buy Lyon Dynasty by vacuuming my car. Plus let’s remember, this is the same label that scrambled to keep its artists from flipping to Creedmoor, which they were apparently free to do whenever they felt like it. But suddenly Cookie, Andre, and Jamal are gaining leverage by wielding contract law, as if such concepts exist in this world. The scene is clumsy, but it has a good excuse. It’s a tacit admission that the Empire-versus-Lyon Dynasty storyline wasn’t working. I’m still convinced that it could have worked, and that it was a good idea at its core, but it was marred by the writers’ refusal to keep the characters separate for too long. It was never truly a family feud, and if there’s no intention to flesh that out, I commend the producers for scrapping it as efficiently as possible.

With Cookie now back at Empire, the Lyon Family’s battle lines have been redrawn yet again. Hakeem now sits atop the Empire heap, but at the expense of family unity, which trumps money and power in the world of Empire. No achievement is worth having if it costs you your family. That idea has been at Empire’s core since it began, so a scene like Hakeem being shunned while the family mourns the loss of Rhonda’s baby is bound to be effective. In fact, most of the Hakeem scenes work in this episode, and his rise to CEO fits in with the increased focus on the show’s most polarizing character. It’s not that the character has improved fundamentally, just that he’s now been presented with the love-versus-currency conundrum that all Empire’s characters find themselves in. Hakeem is sure to prosper if he keeps making the correct choice, as he did by declining to shoot Lucious (who turned Bunky’s murder into a taunt) and reconciling with Laura, even as it threatens his position at the newly reshuffled Empire.

Empire is taking steps in the right direction, but that doesn’t mean the show is suddenly amazing. Even if there’s a plan in place to completely reformulate Empire’s storylines, such things take time for a serialized drama. It’s like doing a U-turn in an aircraft carrier. So much of Empire’s dumbest stories and instincts remain. For example, Anika is still skulking around, taking advantage of Rhonda’s temporary amnesia, which apparently won’t last long because before the episode ends Rhonda’s already well on her way to solving the mystery behind Chekhov’s Louboutins. In the fall, I’d have said the writers need to use some kind of misdirect so Anika isn’t actually the culprit in Rhonda’s fall, but I take that back. Because if Anika isn’t involved in the death of Andre and Rhonda’s baby, what exactly is she even doing on this show? With Camilla back in the picture, Anika can’t even proudly call herself a side piece, and I still don’t understand why, if Anika is so smart and talented, she’s so obsessed with worming her way back into a family of people who loathes her. It’s a weird way to squander what could have been an interesting character, and I’m not sure how Empire redeems Anika at this stage.

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The bigger problem, and probably the hardest one to fix, is that Empire Records has become the ultimate MacGuffin. MacGuffins generally don’t work for television shows, because the longer the show goes on, the more time you have to think about the object of desire and home in on the fact that it ultimately doesn’t mean anything. And at this point, Empire doesn’t mean anything. It’s a hockey puck, and it almost never matters which team has it at the moment. Jamal makes references to how running Empire wasn’t what it was cracked up to be, how it pulled his attention away from his music and turned him into someone he never wanted to be. I guess so, but Jamal’s brief tenure in the CEO’s chair had no lasting impact on the story, and ultimately Hakeem’s isn’t likely to either. Just like the Lyon Dynasty feud was vitally important until it wasn’t anymore. It’s just a means of putting Lucious back on the outside and desperate to get back in while realigning the show’s core relationships. That’s fine in theory, but over time, there’s less of an impact when the plot hinges on who is controlling Empire at any given moment. I mean, that office is really nice, but it’s just an office.

Stray observations

  • The William Fichtner character, who I still don’t totally understand, is still around, and here he’s helping the show to back over Jamal’s ill-advised fling with Skye. Jamal clarifies to Cookie, and to Jameson in a new song called “Freedom,” that he’s sexually fluid. But he might as well have just said “Listen everybody, I know hooking up with Skye weirded you guys out, but I’m gay and I’m not going to do it anymore.”
  • That suit Hakeem had on…wow. I guess I’m most amazed that someone was able to tailor a suit made entirely out of white Silly Putty. But, if someone figures out how to do that, what are you gonna do, not roll around in the Sunday comics? Of course you’re gonna do that.
  • The opening scene of Cookie’s broomtastic confrontation with Hakeem is great, as is the dolly shot of Cookie moving in for the kill.
  • Lucious has never seemed like less of a character than he did in this episode. He’s central to the show, but his relative absence here wasn’t nearly as much of a loss as I would have expected.
  • I’m starting to forget the names of these songs. I now remember which one “Heavy” is, but what’s the one from the Pepsi commercial? The one that sounds like gay brunch in Ibiza? I like that one.
  • I honestly like Naomi Campbell’s performance. I still haven’t figured out why.

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