Bryshere Y. Gray, Jussie Smollett, Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard

“This is not a family; this is a disgrace.”

Empire is not ashamed of being a soap opera, and it shouldn’t be. One of the qualities that helped set its pilot apart was its willingness to play characters to the extreme, creating forces of nature like Cookie that could be harnessed and unleashed as any individual episode might require.

Like many soap operas, family is crucial to Empire. The central “plot” of the series is the IPO, which has been predicated on Empire being a family company. From the beginning, however, the show has made crystal clear that the Lyon family is fraught with conflict: there’s the gay son battling with the homophobic father, the defiant son experiencing a classic case of Mommy issues, and the Machiavellian son who is out for himself above all else. All of this is true before Cookie’s arrival, but her return further pushes the show toward the question of what a family is when it’s been broken by a 17-year absence, the patriarch’s terminal diagnosis, and the pressures of succeeding in the music industry.

I wanted to take a moment to lay all of this out because it’s a lot for one show to sustain, and it ends up being more than “The Lyon’s Roar” can handle. In moments, the episode harnesses the energy of its familial turmoil and turns it into something triumphant like Jamal’s coming out or poignant like Cookie singing to herself in prison in a vulnerable flashback that captures what family meant to her while incarcerated. In other moments, though, the show lays out its Daddy and Mommy issues in scenes that so wholly embrace the subtext it’s as though you’re being assaulted by thematic parallels. By the end of the hour, I understand what the show is about, but I lack a clear sense of what it actually wants to do with these ideas beyond a never-ending collection of backstabs and shocking reveals. And while that might sound exactly like any other soap opera, there’s a part of me still waiting for an episode that fully uncovers the foundation on which Empire could stage this drama in the long term.

Effectively, Empire needs to calm down. The way “The Lyon’s Roar” unfolds makes me wonder if Danny Strong—the series’ co-creator, and the writer and director of this episode—has so bought into the idea of creating television for the Twitter age that the notion of pacing has just completely gone out the window. The show knows how to connect with the online audience’s appetite for catty dialogue: “If you want Cookie’s nookie, ditch the bitch” is tailor-made for the era of live-tweeting, and you can sense the show knows it. They even let Cookie have two different cracks at Anika, with “fake-ass Halle Berry” and “fake-ass Lena Horne” ensuring that both young and old demos have a reference point to connect to Cookie’s running commentary. Taraji P. Henson continues to chew on this part beautifully, and has a nice emotional arc in the episode with the flashbacks showcasing her vulnerability (which plays out as she tries to reconnect with Hakeem). Regardless of how I feel about the episode, Cookie is still working, delicately balancing the camp and the pathos.

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But then you have the Andre storyline, which starts with him pimping his wife out to a board member, and then to a board member’s husband, before the episode just chooses to forget that Rhonda was turned into her husband’s prostitute before she insulted Stephen Hawking and threw up into her salad after getting drunk. Those scenes are an ugly mess, rushed and comically grotesque in a way the rest of the show tends to avoid, and I kept waiting for them to be in some way justified by the way Andre’s story unfolded. Instead, though, Andre’s story became about the fact he was scheming behind his father’s back, the fact he is trying to be accepted as legitimate by bringing a white woman into the family, and the fact that unbalanced meds mean he’s playing Russian roulette under a single spotlight in an empty recording studio. And if those were the end goal (and there’s a lot happening in that end goal), what was the point of the earlier scenes except to indulge in the excess of sexual power-plays and how hilarious it is when someone vomits after drinking too much to avoid thinking about the fact her husband pimped her out to an old man in a wheelchair?

There’s nothing wrong with Empire being ridiculous: this is, after all, the show that had Jamal and Hakeem do a remixed version of “Money For Nothing” with a straight face, so my criticism here is not aimed solely at a lack of realism (although I echo Joshua’s comments last week that that was absurd). However, when the show embraces larger-than-life characters like Cookie or walking personifications of Mommy Issues like Camilla, there’s a clear sense of why the show is giving in to excess. In that case, it’s so that Cookie and Camilla could meet one day, and so Cookie could get off some snappy one-liners. And it was great! But there are other moments where Empire’s embrace of excess results in so many stories and so many characters with so many motivations that no one moment feels like it has room to breathe.

Jamal is the exception, and the episode ends up becoming his when he takes the opportunity to transform one of his father’s songs and come out publicly. Jussie Smollett has had the clearest arc in the series, and so his coming out moment resonated as a crucial step in his relationship with his father and the series’ exploration of this family’s tenuous steps forward. The camera moved with purpose during the performance, taking a moment to capture each character’s reaction, specifically contrasting Cookie’s joy and Lucious’ flashbacks to his shame over Jamal wearing women’s clothes as a kid. Jamal also had room to breathe earlier in the episode, when his brief scene with his daughter—ending in a duet of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”—put his position as a role model into perspective. While still not exactly subtle, and constructed through some hasty exposition from his new documentary filmmaker love interest, there’s a dimensionality to Jamal’s story that’s missing for Hakeem, and a sense of control that Andre’s story has been missing since day one.

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I realize this is part of the point. Empire is supposed to be a show that’s out of control, refusing to follow the rules of how dramas are supposed to flow or evolve so that the audience is left wondering what madness could unfold next week—it’s the Scandal model, effectively. But it’s also a show that proposes and starts filming a documentary in half-a-day, only to more or less ignore the potential to use it as a productive framing mechanism. It’s a show that loves the effect Anika has on Cookie but has no real interest in developing clear motivations for the character beyond that (to the point where “revenge” is the pure motivating factor beyond her going to Beretti at episode’s end). It’s a show that, at least in episodes like this one, is so busy performing its lack of caution that it never stops to wonder if there comes a point where ambition is not in and of itself a good thing.

That Empire is growing in ratings on a weekly basis makes sense to me. Cookie’s one-liners play well on social media, the show is connecting with a historically underserved and undervalued audience, and there is a propulsive engine to the show’s particular brand of chaos that makes the idea of tuning in next week downright Pavlovian. However, when asked to sit down and start writing about the way the episode was constructed, or the development of its characters, or even just cataloging the sheer number of things that happen, “The Lyon’s Roar” and Empire as a whole starts to break down—my hope at this point is that the show’s runaway success doesn’t keep producers from making adjustments to make this a television show that can sustain its chaos for more than a season.

Stray observations:

  • Joshua, who ran into some air travel delays, will be back next week. My thanks to him for letting me fill in and work through the issues I’ve had with the show when I’ve really sat down to think about it.
  • I appreciated the use of “You’re So Beautiful” as an anchor-point, a musical theme that connected the present and the past, brought the family together, and then became Jamal’s form of self-expression. It’s a productive use of original music as leitmotif of sorts, although I ended up finding the song itself kind of boring. Why couldn’t there have been an episode built entirely around different versions of “Drip Drop?”
  • Still more than a little confused as to who is taking care of Jamal’s daughter who might not even be his daughter, although no one seems too concerned about her paternity.
  • I’m struggling with just how famous Lucious is, and how much the media would engage with what happens in the show: there’s a huge press line at this party, and Anika apparently believes they all care about her engagement, and then Jamal’s coming out is breaking news, but I don’t really buy any of it?
  • Only Myles Cares About This: This is my hobby horse, and no one else’s, but the episode did some weird things in terms of showing footage from the (now abandoned, I presume?) documentary. I appreciated that the footage during Hakeem’s recording session was notably differentiated from the show’s own aesthetic, but it looked almost too degraded given the nature of the equipment Ryan was using. Then, when we saw Jamal’s testimonial, the footage was the exact same aesthetic as the show itself, which could be explained by the lighting setup but shouldn’t have been so starkly different. Surely all of you were just as obsessed with his discontinuity as I was, right? Right? Hello? Are you still there? Joshua will be back next week, I promise.

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