The cast of Empire

Fox has officially renewed Empire for a second season, which is exciting news even though it seemed a foregone conclusion after “The Outspoken King” managed to add more viewers to the already impressive number that tuned into the pilot. The second-week ratings bounce was framed in the press as a surprising development, but it shouldn’t have been. With a premise as potentially deadly as “the hip hop Dynasty,” there are bound to be early adopters and stragglers, so it’s no shock that the healthy buzz following the pilot drew more curious viewers.

Advertisement

I’ll be curious to see what the numbers are for “The Devil Quotes Scripture,” an episode that represents what I imagined as the best-case scenario for Empire. It’s joyful trash. It’s just a shame so many of the episode’s plot points relied on information relayed in “The Outspoken King,” which, with the exception of the music, represents what I hope is Empire’s nadir. Had “Scripture” been the second episode, it would have reaffirmed the promise demonstrated in the pilot, but late is far better than never.

What’s most interesting about “Scripture” is what it’s missing, namely the politics of hip hop, which is clearly a subject matter best avoided by this show. Empire doesn’t need to capture the hood zeitgeist, it only needs to be a traditionally executed nighttime soap in a non-traditional soap environment. For example, Lucious’ homophobia works quite well as a story element localized to this family. It becomes an anchor when it’s framed as broadly representational of attitudes towards gay men in hip hop or in the black community. No more of that, please.

“Scripture” uses Lucious’ refusal to accept Jamal to ideal effect, using it to ignite Jamal, who up until this point had stayed largely above the fray. My concern about the Jamal character, besides the very-special-episode tone his storyline sometimes takes on, was that the writers would portray him as a spotless human being because he’s gay. It would be too facile and preachy to have Hakeem on one end of the spectrum, urinating in restaurants while railing against Obama, then have Jamal on the other end of the spectrum as the gentle, guileless gay kid who just wants acceptance. A character like that doesn’t have much utility on a show like Empire, which requires all of its characters to bare their claws when the situation demands it.

Advertisement

Empire’s King Lear set-up was initially a two-man race, with Jamal only involved as much as Cookie chose to insinuate him against his will. Now it’s more interesting, especially as the strife between Lucious and Jamal awakens Hakeem’s insecurity. Though no one has said so explicitly, it’s clear Hakeem would be an afterthought if Jamal was straight or if Lucious accepted him regardless of sexuality. The shifting dynamic between Jamal and Hakeem is among Empire’s most engaging elements, and “Scripture” advanced it in all the right ways.

It did so by bringing in Puma (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who Cookie tracks down, hoping he’ll be the one to write a hit song for Jamal. Gooding’s appearance is brief, but he fleshes out a character that serves to deepen the history between Lucious and Cookie. Puma harbored an unrequited love for Cookie, and a song once rejected by Lucious is suddenly a hit once Jamal tweaks the arrangement. Terrence Howard makes some great choices, and the look on Lucious’ face when he hears the song tells a story also fleshed out in Ilene Chaiken and Joshua Allen’s script. It isn’t just about the song, it’s about Lucious and Cookie. There’s still a foundation of love and respect between them, albeit one riddled with cracks. Lucious wasn’t just angry, he was a bit jealous, too.

The entire family dinner sequence was a wonderful thing to behold. Though the idea of Cookie, Jamal and Michael winding up at Lucious’ house for dinner is one a viewer could poke holes in, if inclined to do so, the result is so much soapy, bitchy fun, it almost wouldn’t matter if a tornado blew them in from Kansas. The scenes veer towards nighttime soap cliché, all the way down to a performance followed by sarcastic clapping, but that’s what makes them fantastic. I’m not even sure TNT’s Dallas reboot could pull off a sequence with this much of a slavish devotion to genre tropes. But with this environment and these characters, scenes that would come off as tired on another show feel fresh in Empire.

Advertisement

I’m interested in the title of “Scripture” because it says a lot about how Empire’s writers view Lucious, or want the audience to view him. The title ostensibly refers to Lucious, but “the Devil” seems a bit of an overstatement even with everything we’ve seen, including Bunky’s murder. In “The Outspoken King,” Howard played Lucious’ reaction to the news of Bunky’s death purely as a ruse, and because it was established as such, the audience could easily interpret his behavior in “Scripture” the same way. But the episode’s use of flashbacks implies more complexity to how Lucious’ is processing what he did to Bunky. At this point, I don’t see Lucious as a pure anti-hero. I see him as a pragmatist and an ideologue with terrible ideas, but not rappin’ Vic Mackey. I’d argue that’s a more interesting version of the character.

A more nuanced Lucious comes through in the flashback sequences, and a more nuanced Cookie, too, for that matter. It seems more than coincidental that the two strongest of Empire’s three episodes is the one that heavily relies on flashbacks. That’s because Lucious and Cookie’s dimensionality comes from those flashbacks. As good as Taraji P. Henson is, there’s limited appeal to Cookie as a robot programmed to throw shade. Because the flashback device is one best used sparingly, or at least not in every episode, Empire needs more scenes set in the present that evoke Lucious and Cookie’s individual and joint histories without actually showing them in the past.

But these are the finer points I want to be dissecting with Empire, not the nuances of Lucious’ approach to dealing with the Kidd Fo-Fo controversy. I’m prepared to call “The Outspoken King” an unfortunate fluke.

Advertisement

Stray observations:

  • The noose is tightening around Lucious, but slowly. Empire can get away with a lot of soap clichĂ©s, but I’m not sure the unreliably schizophrenic witness is one of them. That was definitely weak.
  • Anika has come across weakly so far, so it was good to see her refusal to blink when Cookie confronted her.
  • Any idea of who the federal agents are using Cookie to get to? Frank something or other?
  • I’m going to want at least one hilariously gross sex scene between Andre and Rhonda per episode.
  • In a pinch, I’ll happily settle for a hilariously Oedipal sex scene between Hakeem and his “mommy,” Naomi Campbell.
  • The Gladys Knight appearance was a nice touch.
  • The Swedish music producers were a funny, if cheap addition.

Advertisement