Jussie Smollett, Terrence Howard, Bryshere Y. Gray

What is this Empire, where did it come from, and where has it been hiding for all these weeks? The Empire of “Sins Of The Father” bears a resemblance to the show’s past six episodes, but it’s a fundamentally different show. “Sins” is focused, well-paced, and suspenseful. It’s intricate and deliberate instead of being dense and harried. Many of its scenes rank among the show’s best this season. It has a long memory. It displays a level of discipline and patience uncharacteristic of the bulk of season one’s episodes, but still finds time to pack in a good amount of new music. If this Empire is here to stay, season two could be the stuff of legend.

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The biggest variable here is the episode’s tone, which is dramatically different than the rest of the season’s wildly fluctuating middle portion. “Sins,” written by first-timers Ed Gonzalez and Jeremy Haft, is the closest Empire has come to achieving a fitting, balanced tone. Lee Daniels frequently mentions Dynasty when discussing Empire, but only this episode, the pilot, and “The Devil Quotes Scripture” fully realize Daniels’ “hip hop Dynasty” vision. Dynasty was an insane story full of rug-pulls, twists, and campy excess, but it wasn’t a silly show. To the extent there’s humor in Dynasty, it’s of the tongue-in-cheek variety. Empire has gotten silly and even nonsensical at times. That’s why I’m slightly uncomfortable when I hear the sentiment—which comes up often in conversations about Empire—that it’s “so crazy you just have to go with it.” Soapy crazy is good for a show like Empire, but goofy, nonsensical crazy is bad for any drama, and it isn’t always easy to tell one from the other.

“Sins” is the right kind of crazy. It features one of the most over-the-top moments of the season, and yet feels the most grounded. The plot’s relatively small scope is a major improvement. It’s not a slow episode by any means, but it isn’t one of Empire’s grander plots. There isn’t a huge crisis within the label that needs fixing, a glitzy investor showcase, or a pivotal performance. It’s about the signing of documents, for heaven’s sake. One of the guest characters is a bookish, white notary, a choice one could easily mistake for a direct reference to the recent Saturday Night Live sketch had it not been written and shot ages ago. But because of the emotional stakes involved, the memorialization of the IPO never feels like a story about legal formalities.

It helps that the episode progresses in a linear fashion from the previous episode, starting with a near-catatonic Andre in the hospital with the Lyons, save for Lucious who has no interest in seeing Andre in this condition. Andre isn’t quite the nucleus of the episode, but this is the most prominently he’s been featured in an episode since Empire began. For most of “Sins,” Andre is either on-screen, or a deeply felt absence offscreen as the rest of the family processes the situation. During Andre’s breakdown in “Unto The Breach,” it was left unclear whether the family knew about his condition, didn’t know about it, or chose not to know about it. Cookie has good reason to be surprised, given she was still in prison when Andre’s behavior became erratic. But as a flashback reveals, Lucious was well-aware Andre suffers from bipolar disorder, but lashed out at Rhonda and the diagnosing physician for saying so. Jamal and Hakeem witness the scene, so in the elevator, they knew what was happening to their brother but couldn’t acknowledge it because they’d never done so before.

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The one quibble I have with the episode is how it handles the topic of mental illness in the black community with the same blunt hysteria with which Empire approached homophobia in the black community. To be fair, Lucious’ reaction to Andre’s diagnosis is consistent with the character and subtly acquits the show’s oversimplified approach. Once Lucious seemed like a mere homophobe, but based on his reaction to Andre’s news, he seems like the raging narcissist he’s revealed himself to be. For Lucious, his sons are not independent entities who happen to have some genes in common, they are direct extensions of his ego. If something is “wrong” with his sons, it means something is wrong with him. There’s shame for Lucious in his inability to produce a sane, straight son. I guess Hakeem technically counts, but one must scrutinize the judgment, if not the sanity, of someone who thinks “Drip Drop” is an appropriate song to sing to a child.

Still, while I think that interpretation of Lucious makes sense, it also seems like a secondary reading of what is actually Empire’s suggestion that mental health stigma is a disproportionately serious problem in the black community just as homophobia is. I’ve read my share of “Why Empire Is Bad For Black Folks” think pieces, not one of which has been worth the time I invested in it. That said, I’d venture to guess that the unsettled feeling I get when Empire plays with generalities this way is similar to the feeling that makes people write those kinds of pieces. Both Lucious and Cookie intimate that Rhonda is somehow responsible for infecting Andre with her white people brain cooties or something, which makes the show feel weirdly dated unless that particular black pathology narrative makes sense to you. It doesn’t to me. For a host of reasons, the Lyons are not representative of the broader black condition, and Empire gets awkward when it seems like it’s suggesting otherwise.

But let’s focus on the positive: Raven-Symone has returned as New Olivia, finally addressing the pressing questions about Jamal’s daughter Lola. Of all the logical potholes of the season, the one people have fixated on most is the lack of a paternity test for Lola, but that’s always made sense to me. When a gay man comes out to his unreceptive family, one of the common coping mechanisms is the old “it’s just a phase” routine. Someone like Lucious, with a gay son he’s deeply ashamed of, dreams of the day a woman comes in toting the gay son’s child, proof that he’ll eventually snap out of the gay thing and go back to women. I could see Lucious being selectively trusting in this case, because if a paternity test proves it’s someone else’s child, there goes the prevailing wisdom. Of course, with Lucious, there’s always another secret, and this time it’s that he’s actually Lola’s father, not Jamal.

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The scene in which this is revealed is complete insanity, but again, the right kind. Olivia’s abusive partner Reg muscles his way into the Lyon Mansion courtesy of coked-up Vernon, and pulls a gun, which ends up pointed at Cookie’s head when she makes a move on him. Lucious is hysterical and desperate to save Cookie, the leading lady in his new fantasy forever now that Anika has grown tired of his shit. But he blurts out the truth about Lola, so now Cookie is equally tired of his shit. “You just don’t want to die alone,” she tells him, before trotting off to ask Malcolm to take her somewhere in one of the season’s best cliffhangers.

It’s an underplayed scene reflective of the episode’s tonal shift. This Cookie isn’t diluted or stripped of her boldness, but the character is utilized in a more judicious way. She’s still ratchet Cookie, trying to position herself on the dining room table just so to give Malcolm the perfect peek up her dress, but she’s more recognizably human. She isn’t firing off catchphrases or drop-kicking boardroom doors in moments that feel like shock for its own sake. Taraji P. Henson has gotten to play many sides of Cookie, but this episode gives her the widest range of moments in a single episode—heartbroken with Andre, sex kitten with Malcolm, fierce with Reg and Camilla, resentful with Lucious—and Henson nails every one.

It’s no coincidence that “Sins” is the best Empire episode since “Scripture.” Both episodes are largely confined to Lucious’ cavernous estate, where characters interact freely, frequently, and in unexpected ways. Even Rhonda, who hasn’t had much opportunity to tangle, gets her claws into Lucious when she objects to his funneling stock to Cookie. But the episode’s success is as much due to what is missing from it as what is present in it. Anika is nowhere to be found. Porsha had the day off. Hakeem’s misfit entourage continues to fade from view. And there are no specifics about Empire’s business or what ridiculously named artist they’re trying to stop from going over to Creedmoor. “Sins” is neither silly, nor buried in the fuzzy details of Empire’s business, just like Dynasty is not silly and doesn’t get into the minutia of how one goes about sucking oil out of the ground. This is the Empire I’ve been waiting for.

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Stray observations:

  • Mary J. Blige appears briefly in a flashback singing “It’s A Shakedown” with Lucious. That song title is a bit on the nose, but okay.
  • Jennifer Hudson is music therapist Michelle White. Two things Michelle: 1.) Is the therapy just you performing for your patients? You have a great voice so that may not be a bad thing, I’m just seeing more music than therapy. 2.) You realize you’re not supposed to put your breasts that close to a man’s face when extending a prayer invitation, right? That seemed kind of unfair.
  • I don’t understand what’s going on with Vernon at all. I’m not clear on what his role is in the company or in the family, and I don’t get why Lucious is still so upset about this “coup” with Andre.
  • Jamal and Ryan hit a road bump when Ryan says he’s not interested in raising Lola. Good thing her mom picked her up! If the studio’s a-rockin’, so on and so forth.
  • Some great choices from director Rob Hardy, especially the shot of Cookie walking out on Lucious after calmly devastating him. That face is priceless.
  • Lucious was hit from all sides this week, because Camilla read that dude for blood. She should just stay gone before she ends up like Bunky.
  • Cookie to Malcolm: “Have that oil bubblin’ hot when you put your chicken in.” Nice.
  • The scene of Jamal and Hakeem singing to Lola is so, so precious. All the Lola stuff was gorgeous and sweet.

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