It’s a real shame “Rise By Sin” didn’t come at the beginning of the season. Not this specific episode obviously, which braids together a bunch of season two’s dangling threads, but something similar to it. This episode and the last episode are far from perfect television, but they boast a sense of urgency and purpose that the rest of Empire’s second season has sorely lacked. The show finally feels dense and brisk, so even when the overall plot doesn’t quite hold together—which is most of the time—there are a lot of elements being serviced equally. That’s how the best nighttime soap operas work, by emptying a dump truck full of story on the viewers and letting them fish out the parts they’re most interested in. So an episode like “Rise By Sin” feels like it’s working even when individual pieces don’t fit together.
“Rise By Sin,” another better-than-usual installment credited primarily to producer Ayanna Floyd Davis, is at least one of the season’s most cohesive episodes, representing the final push to the all-important American Sound Awards and the showdown between Lucious and Jamal. If it was the first episode of Empire I’d ever seen, I’d probably be curious to see more of the show, if only because the chintzy grandeur of the ASAs and the nested cliffhangers made the episode feel like an event. Unfortunately I’ve seen every episode leading up to it, and after the initial sugar rush of “Rise By Sin” wears off, there’s still a nagging feeling that none of this is actually important. Not in the broader sense that Empire is just a goofy television show, but within the world of Empire Entertainment and the Lyons family. Intellectually, I get that it’s important that Jamal is gutshot and going into surgery, but there’s no emotional impact or deepening of my investment.
The biggest moment of Empire’s second season didn’t land as hard as it should have because everything that came prior to “Rise By Sin” has undermined the show’s credibility. All season I’ve been complaining about how nothing in Empire ever means what it means or carries any real significance or stakes. Frank Gathers was an existential threat, then Lucious tossed some money around and he was gone. Then Roxanne Ford was poised to topple Empire and Lyon Dynasty, only to wind up with a desiccated corpse in her front seat and a stinging professional humiliation. Ah, but the real threat to the future of Empire was the duplicitous Mimi Whiteman and Camilla, her partner in crime, until they were suddenly both dead without ever having posed much of a threat at all.
Lucious was tortured by the memory of his mother committing suicide in front him, but then he turned out to be the ultimate unreliable narrator, because Leah is not only alive, she’s totally lucid and awfully feisty. Cookie was imperiled by the connection between her lover Laz and the gang responsible for kidnapping Hakeem until she wasn’t anymore. Lucious Lyon’s real name was a closely guarded secret, and yet when it was revealed, the only thing to come out of it was the new concept for the “Boom Boom Boom Boom” video. I could keep going.
The consequence of flooding Empire with smoke, with no fire to show for it, is that when the show comes to what should be a colossal cliffhanger like Freda shooting Jamal or Leah preparing to reveal that she’s alive, I no longer have faith that those events will affect the characters or their relationships in a meaningful way. Will Jamal live? Of course he will. Will he and Lucious reconcile? Eventually. Will any of this have a business impact on Empire Entertainment? Does anything? Empire is a show in which the status quo wins out again and again, and it has to be that way because with plotting this fast and furious, we would be watching a fundamentally different show by now if each action had genuine consequences. The Lyon family lives large and runs the table, even when it seems like everything should be crumbling around them, and there’s no reason to believe anything that happens in “Rise By Sin” will change that.
Empire is a show about immediate gratification, not the long game, so to think ahead to what comes next is to miss the point of the show. But Empire frequently doesn’t work on an immediately level either because of the ramshackle plotting. Jamal’s shooting might have worked if there was a clear path leading up to it, but it feels as ass-backwards as most major plot points on this show, like an outcome that was planned ahead of time while the steps leading up to it were decided on the fly. That’s a totally reasonable and common way to build a story so long as the pieces fit together with minimal seams, but that’s never the case with Empire. When Cookie freaked out upon learning that Freda is Frank’s daughter, the reaction seemed to come out of nowhere, and her puzzling position on Freda’s relationship with Jamal never became clearer. To the extent that Freda’s presence represented a threat to the family, why not just boot Freda from the label? Or refuse to release her work until she’s ready to jump ship of her own volition? Why is Freda’s potentially dangerous presence in their lives a conversation between Cookie and Jamal rather than Cookie and Lucious?
The looming Freda threat sort of makes sense if you’re used to watching Empire while you fold laundry, but it doesn’t quite track. And it’s one of many pieces that are abruptly rushed into place just in time to facilitate the shooting. It’s more tragic if Jamal gets shot trying to protect Lucious shortly after Lucious rebukes Jamal in the ugliest way possible, but Lucious’ sudden freakout about Jamal’s sexuality feels weirdly timed and regressive for the character. Yes, Lucious is a raging homophobe and he still regularly needles Jamal about being gay. But at this point last season, Lucious and Jamal were ironing out their contentious past so that the season could end with Cookie and Jamal at odds for the first time. Now they have to be hustled back to their starting positions in time for the shooting, so Lucious walks in on Jamal and D-Major and flips out after assuming his son is a bottom. There’s certainly enough in the story to make a case for why all that fits together, but that case is hard to make when it feels so inorganic and forced.
The same can be said for Lucious and Cookie’s sudden nostalgic streak and their subsequent decision to attend the ASAs together. There’s an added layer of tragedy to Jamal’s shooting because it infuriates Cookie at the moment she and Lucious are at their closest. (Assuming you think something that derails their reconciliation is somehow tragic and not a relief.) Empire has never done anything to earn its moments of genuine affection between Lucious and Cookie because it’s never forced Lucious to actually atone for anything of the horrible things he’s done. It never looks right when Cookie warms to Lucious again as if all the events of the past year didn’t happen. And besides, it was Cookie who stepped in to ask Lucious to take care of Frank Gathers in the first place. If there’s blame to assess, doesn’t she deserve as much of it as Lucious does?
Carol is the final piece of the puzzle, as she’s the one who finally breaks the news to Freda that Lucious is responsible for her father’s death. As a way of having Freda find out about Lucious’ involvement in Frank’s murder, having Carol drunkenly blurt it out isn’t the worst, but it’s far from the best. It’s not much better than when Harper Scott, who is apparently dead in a ditch somewhere, let Andre in on the truth about Leah. Empire has a bad habit of assigning important jobs to unimportant characters, one of the many ways the show manages to make big moves while ignoring the cumulative effect of those story choices. If you have a bombshell to drop, give it to a character who can be whisked out of the show at a moment’s notice and never mentioned again. There are always greasy fingerprints all over the story, as if the characters are glamorous action figures rather than human beings with their own agency.
“Rise By Sin” is saved by a few good scenes, which are strong independent of their function within the larger story. Jamal and Lucious’ confrontation in the studio is brutal, both well-written and well-acted by Jussie Smollett and Terrance Howard. Smollett is great throughout the episode, as is Taraji P. Henson, who continues to make Cookie appealing even as her character becomes increasingly hollow. Cookie is compelling when she positions herself in front of the television hoping to hear that someone in the family won the ASA they’ve been bitterly divided about, only to find out that there’s no silver lining on this dark cloud. But whatever, this is Empire, so the sun will come out tomorrow.
- I was hoping D-Major would emerge as a proper love interest for Jamal, but man, that was a serious dick move in the studio. I understand playing it off, but he overshot the mark by like three miles. It’s not as if they were naked on the soundboard.
- Tariq is the latest fed interested in taking down Lucious and Empire. Why he’ll succeed where so many others have failed, I don’t know.
- Leslie Uggams is pretty much killing the game.
- Cookie was foul for dropping the dime on Carol’s herpes, and within only a few scenes of her telling Jamal she’s only snitched once in her life. Au contraire, Cookie.