Six episodes in, it’s becoming clear Empire is a show that has to be appreciated on a scene-by-scene basis, not a show that strives for episodic greatness, and certainly not a show in which entire seasons are strategically planned, plotted, and paced. The immediate gratification storytelling model isn’t the worst thing in the world, and it’s what many of television’s most popular shows do. Scandal does it. American Horror Story does it. Sons Of Anarchy did it. True Blood was all about it. Empire is steadily earning its place among those shows, and the show is far more enjoyable viewed within the larger context of contemporary television storytelling. There really isn’t supposed to be a whole larger than the sum of its parts. It’s just about the parts.
“Out, Damned Spot” is wobbly not because it emphasizes immediate thrills over proper pacing and consistent characterization, but because it does the former while pretending Empire is interested in doing the latter. Take the hilarious cold open, for example, in which Cookie shows up for dinner with Lucious having deployed the evergreen “I’m damn near naked under this” seduction protocol. Cookie is greeted at the entrance by Lucious, who bursts Cookie’s bubble by informing her the invitation had nothing to do with the rose he gave her to celebrate their anniversary. To her chagrin, the entire family is there, and the dinner is to celebrate Lucious’ engagement to Anika. Listen, Cookie’s reaction is funny as hell. The petal pulling is funny. The champagne slurping is funny. The ass slapping is really funny.
Getting to that funny moment, however, requires the audience to suspend not only its disbelief, but its interest in a lot of other story elements that were presented as if they were of major consequence. Why would Cookie be invited to Lucious and Anika’s engagement announcement in the first place? Exactly whose idea was that? Why, given their history and Lucious’ current relationship, would Cookie be that presumptuous about Lucious’ intentions? She tells Lucious he’s being naughty by inviting her, which suggests she thinks Lucious is trying to tip out on Anika. So Cookie, whose throne was usurped by Anika while she was in prison, is willing to jump into bed with Lucious while he’s still with her and has made no overtures towards ending that relationship. Cookie is consenting, at least in the short term, to being the side piece. Second to Anika. Nope. None of that.
But setting that aside for a moment, there’s supposed to be broader significance to Cookie’s misinterpretation of the rose. As I recall, this is the same rose that led Cookie to order a hit on a henchman despite there being no indication he was trying to kill her. That was the shocking cliffhanger in “Dangerous Bonds,” and there’s literally not a single mention of it in “Out, Damned Spot.” That title refers to Lady Macbeth’s inability to wash away the psychological turmoil of her misdeeds. Cookie doesn’t seem to have that problem. Does that mean Teddy’s murder won’t pop back up later? Certainly not. But there’s not even an acknowledgment that something significant has taken place. It’s one thing to put a pot on the back burner, but last week’s cliffhanger feels like a pot on the back burner in the kitchen of the house three doors down.
Is Cookie still in fear for her life or is that threat completely gone now? It’s unclear. It’s equally unclear what’s at stake for Lucious as more characters find out he’s responsible for Bunky’s death. Vernon figures out the truth after watching Andre’s phony confession to the detective and confronts Lucious, who immediately admits guilt and explains why he did it. Terrence Howard performs the scene well, and the explanation Lucious provides is muddled in a fascinating way. He mentions the $3 million, then the general idea of Bunky trying to tear down what he’s worked to build, but clearly it isn’t about the money. Bunky came at Lucious wrong and Lucious has no appetite for disrespect. Bunky could have asked for two new velour tracksuits and a bottle of Paco Rabanne and he would still be dead. It’s the principle.
Bunky’s murder is a moot point for now, since Vernon swoops in to clean up the mess, as he always does. He arranges for a patsy to take responsibility for Bunky’s death, explaining it as a stick-up gone bad. There’s some effort toward shading Vernon in a bit as he talks with his 12-step sponsor, a positive development given how little we know about Vernon at this point. Andre is distraught upon finding out his suspicions were correct, and he still has a lackadaisical attitude about the importance of his bipolar meds, so Bunky’s murder will certainly pop back up. But there isn’t a sense of urgency about anything beyond the current moment. And truthfully, there isn’t a sense of what’s important and what isn’t. I assume Bunky’s murder will roar back into the story, but I can’t say I would be shocked if Bunky’s name was never spoken again. Empire is that kind of show.
Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but if Empire is going to offer immediate gratification, it has to kill it. It can be candy, but it can’t be bland candy. This week’s episodic story finds Cookie trying to rehabilitate Elle Dallas, Empire’s first major star, and as a self-contained story it’s…weird. One of Empire’s more interesting themes is its notion of a studio producer’s role in shaping artists and their output. There are the technical aspects, which both Cookie and Lucious have shown they excel at, but in Empire, producers mostly serve as psychiatrists and coaches. In every artist, the perfect take is barely below the flawed surface, but to get to it, the producer has to nudge the artist into the right headspace. It didn’t result in anything Empire hasn’t already done, but the novelty of Courtney Love’s presence was fun. That song though? I mean, Cookie’s the expert, so if she loved that take I’m happy to defer to her. But I’d sooner have the lyrics to “Drip Drop” recited at my funeral than listen to 15 more seconds of that.
Meanwhile, “Keep The Money” continues to be the jam, and as Jamal’s profile rises, his relationship with Michael suffers. This story is the reason for the plus on the grade; it’s a relatable, human story with clear stakes. Jamal’s deflection of Sway’s question about his love life speaks to who Jamal is becoming, and shows his willingness to sacrifice pieces of his identity in service of his career and his desire to make his mark on the label. It makes those points even more powerfully than his confrontation with Hakeem, especially given that there’s no mention of the robbery attempt or the gut punch, another plot point that feels like it never happened. The flaw is Rafael de la Fuente, who is…not good, and it doesn’t help matters that he’s always paired with Jussie Smollett, who only trails Howard and Taraji P. Henson in his grasp of his character. Still, Jamal’s plot this week is what I wish Empire was all the time. It’s still soapy and dramatic but it’s coherent.
Jamal gets another cliffhanger with the arrival of a woman claiming to be the mother of his child—a child so adorable she sent ripples of anxiety through my phantom ovaries. It’ll be interesting to see where that goes…maybe. Or maybe everyone will have forgotten about it by next week. That’s the larger consequence of the fast-and-loose pacing. Even the most shocking moments lose their impact if there’s precedent for them petering out just as quickly as they’re introduced.
- Not to belabor the point, but I broke two fingers trying to reach through the screen and hug that baby. I mean…not really because I’m typing right now, but y’know.
- The always welcome Derek Luke begins his recurring arc as a new love interest for Cookie, and not a moment too soon.
- Lucious starts taking an experimental drug from Russia to treat his ALS. I want this to result in superpowers but I’m not getting my hopes up.
- Hakeem really pulled it together between those two studio takes, didn’t he? That scene was pretty hilarious. Lucious pretty much says, “Son, you’re rapping poorly. Rap better, please.” And Hakeem is like, “Why didn’t you ask sooner? I can rap better and will do so immediately.”
- Speaking of Hakeem’s song, I was fascinated by the attempts to speak to the significance and message of Hakeem’s lyrics. Cookie and Jamal condemn the misogynistic lyrics, while Anika defends them, saying Hakeem’s sentiments about women being untrustworthy were “clearly metaphors.” I don’t think anyone who works on this show has ever actually heard any hip hop, but I do think it’s interesting how the writers are linking his misogynistic lyrics to his life experiences. His mother was absent for most of his life, and now his girlfriend is making time with another woman, and he’s pissed off about it. For the first time since Empire began, here’s a broader, provocative statement about hip hop. Perhaps hip hop’s misogyny problem is not a systemic issue, but rather the result of men who feel hurt and betrayed by women put in an environment in which they’re encourage to say whatever comes to mind, politeness be damned. I’m not sure I agree, but it’s an idea I’ll be chewing on.