Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard

The key to understanding Empire is knowing what was left out of “The Devils Are Here.” The scene where Frank Gathers (guest star Chris Rock) sits across from Jamel, pressing him for answers on who snitched on him, wasn’t just supposed to have Frank ravenously attacking a plate of mystery meat while wearing an inexplicably blood-spattered bib. There were supposed to be shots of human remains so as to make clear that Frank is a cannibal. The higher-ups at Fox reportedly pleaded with Lee Daniels, who directed the premiere from a script by Danny Strong and Ilene Chaiken, to cut the more explicit shots of human body parts. Daniels finally relented, Rock was called back in for reshoots, and now the scene is considerably tamer. Gathers is still a cannibal—Cookie casually compares him to Idi Amin—he’s just not sucking on a human wrist like a neckbone. For Daniels, this represents meaningful progress.

The question becomes why a cannibalism scene was so important in the first place. The scene neither loses nor gains anything from giving Gathers a taste for human flesh. By the time the scene arrives, there have already been, oh, two dozen visual or dialogue clues to make clear Gathers is a dangerous, fearsome person who you trifle with at your peril. He would have been no less menacing eating pad thai with tofu, spinach lasagna, or banana pudding. (Actually, banana pudding would be kind of terrifying.) The cannibalism choice, for all its intended shock value, signifies nothing at all. It’s transparently the result of a creative process in which a team of rivals attempts to out-OMG each other, as if in a game of narrative brinkmanship.

In other words, it’s business as usual at Empire, which doesn’t just favor style over substance, it uses style to invalidate substance. Look at the cold open, in which Jamal and Hakeem perform alongside Swizz Beatz and Sean Cross in a benefit concert inspired by the efforts to free Lucious Lyon, who has become the latest hashtag-friendly cause célèbre. The entire premise of the scene is profoundly disgusting. Swizz talks about the nearly 1.7 million black men currently incarcerated, much like Lucious, who has apparently been sitting behind bars for three months without a bail hearing. Even Hakeem, who not long ago was urinating in a restaurant while clowning President Obama on camera, can’t stomach the situation. Why perform for Lucious when they need to be performing for innocent people? But is the argument that these 1.7 million black men are all innocent? Or that they’ve received harsher punishments than their white counterparts for the same crimes? Is there an argument?

For that matter, is this even a rally about mass incarceration, and why does it have to be that? Because, like, it’s totally possible to just make the argument that Lucious has been unjustly imprisoned, if that’s the direction the story is headed. Instead, Lucious becomes the symbol for all incarcerated black men even though the audience and most of the characters are well aware of Lucious’ guilt. He’s guilty of Bunky’s murder, and he’s guilty of being a generally terrible human being, so conflating him with legitimate social issues like mass incarceration and anti-black police violence is awfully tone-deaf for a musical. As if to twist the knife, Cookie politely excuses herself, hops into a gorilla costume and throws herself around a metal cage as it’s being lowered from a helicopter. Y’know, because the prison system treats black people like animals or something. There’s probably a deleted scene of Cookie walking off-stage and punching a unicorn in the neck, because why not?

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The cannibalism, the gorilla suit, the barrage of guest stars… what is it all for? Daniels, Strong, and Chaiken are, at least in theory, to be commended for not shrinking from the attention Empire now receives after becoming a freshman phenomenon. But this is the consequence of rewarding such craven, stunt-based storytelling. When a young child curses, and you laugh hysterically, the child curses more. Empire’s storytelling approach in its first season was “laugh now, ask ‘What in the name of Christ did I just watch?’ later.” In season two, the writers are doubling down on what has been proven to work. In case the message wasn’t clear, America’s anti-sweetheart Cookie dons a gorilla suit to create a potent visual metaphor: America, you’ve created a monster.

Such scenes are frustrating because on every other level, Empire seems to have matured a bit judging from “The Devils Are Here.” There’s a greater focus on the core characters, even with the explosion of guest stars and cameos, and less narrative whiplash than in the typical season-one episode. Jamal quickly became Empire’s most interesting character aside from Lucious and Cookie, and “Devils” plants the seeds for his dramatic devolution after being exposed to the corrupting effect of power. There even appears to be an effort to circle back to the storylines Empire used as kindling in season one, hence the appearance of Frank Gathers. Granted, it was a bit abrupt to resurrect the Gathers storyline for no other reason than to get Lucious and Cookie into the same room, but Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson have become to Empire what Claire Danes and Damien Lewis are to Homeland. At this point, their relationship is too dysfunctional, complex, and homicidal to resemble recognizable human behavior, but the performers sell it in an undeniable way.

What seems to be missing is a larger sense of purpose. God knows the writers approached the Lion In Winter premise in the most abstract way possible, such that Lucious could have handed the keys to the Empire to any of the boys without trampling over anything that came before. Still, as loose as that framework was, it propelled the story forward and generally communicated the stakes. As much as I’m looking forward to seeing the rise and fall of Jamal Lyon: Homothug Tyrant King, I’m even more surprised now than I was upon seeing the finale that the writers chose to install Jamal as the head of the company. Not because someone else deserved it more (though let’s face it, passing over Andre still doesn’t make a lot of sense), but because it seems like there would have been more potential in Lucious being jailed before making a decision. With Lucious in jail without it being clear who he wanted to serve in his absence, there would have been a family feud as the characters tried to outmaneuver each other to fill the power vacuum.

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Instead, the game changing element is the arrival of Mimi Whiteman, a rich and powerful woman, and by “woman,” I obviously mean “predatory lesbian.” Mimi is certainly over-the-top, but in all the right ways. The script definitely overdoes the lesbian come-ons, as if the show is written so people can watch it while juggling flaming batons without missing key story elements. But there are times when Empire stops being a hot-mess spectacle long enough to be a credibly outrageous nighttime soap, and it’s never done so better than in Mimi’s surprise appearance at the board meeting. Cookie, Andre, Hakeem, and Anika are prepared to gloat over their hostile takeover only for Mimi to literally swivel around in an office chair as part of a boardroom ambush. It’s an amazingly goofy, classically soapy scene, with a perfect, hammy performance from Marisa Tomei.

The only scene to top it is the closing scene, one that shows how amazing this show can be when it sticks to its character dynamics instead of doing the absolute most, every time, always. The family briefly reunites after the Gathers threat is neutralized, but it doesn’t last long, because Jamal is still pissed off about their failed coup. Cookie tries to force Jamal’s submission with a motherly slap across the face, then another, but Jamal maintains his composure long enough for her to back out of the door, horrified. It’s an incredible scene, wonderfully acted by Henson and Jussie Smollett. But how much longer will Empire be the show that makes me suffer through Cookie Of The Jungle to get to something great? How much longer?!

Stray observations

  • Lucious complains to Cookie that being in jail is hell, but honestly, it doesn’t look so bad. There appears to be basically non-stop free time, an amazing flat-screen television, and you get unlimited visitors. Your three hots and a cot can consist of human remains, if you so choose, and Lucious apparently has a smart phone equipped with Periscope so he can stream his boardroom bon mots live from Cell Block D. Your tax dollars at work, folks.
  • Speaking of the TV, what a lucky break Lucious caught when the cameraman at the concert decided to randomly linger on Cookie and Mimi for like seven minutes.
  • Chris Rock did the best he could here, and I’m not faulting his performance, but he was miscast, plain and simple. He did a fine job, but his voice prevented me from seeing him as Gathers. I kept waiting for him to do that joke about how Daddy don’t get shit except the big piece of chicken.
  • Back to the insane, offensive benefit concert, how about that #FreeLucious signage? The design is Run-DMC by way of Marcus Garvey.
  • Bre-Z, who plays Frank’s daughter Freda, literally has the perfect MC voice.
  • Miss Lawrence’s performance of Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” is a bit sketchy, but he was a fun presence, and his banter with Becky was amazing. Can that be a show?
  • Speaking of Miss Lawrence, Boring Boyfriend is back in Jamal’s life because Ryan was a ho. Maybe so, but he wasn’t whining about how you wouldn’t come to Fire Island with him. There are other dudes out there, Jamal.
  • Cookie to Anika: “Anita, dance with her. Why don’t you take your sweater off so she can see your sexy body?” And later, after learning their power play failed: “You can’t even dyke right.”
  • Cookie, after Lucious’ affectionate gesture: “Save that for Anika, or one of these lil boys you’re messing around with in here.”
  • Designer Tom Ford gets name checked twice, so… whatever that means.
  • Hakeem heads into the board meeting on a hoverboard. Never change, Hakeem!

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