Grace Gealey, Bryshere Y. Gray

“Unto The Breach” demonstrates how Empire’s furious, relentless pace is its biggest strength and its greatest weakness. The show can be so maddening at times because it feels like a rollercoaster, but one with all drop and very little climb, and the ascent is as important as the descent.

The pacing issues also mean that plot elements usually seem to turn up a bit too early, or a bit too late. After Anika caught Lucious and Cookie in the act, for example, within minutes into the following episode, she had revealed to Lucious that she knew about the affair and they were having it out. “Unto The Breach” continues Empire’s tendency to rush through story beats that should feel more significant. Following her decision to defect to Creedmoor, Anika is playing it cool, planning some hilariously grand wedding with Lucious. Cookie storms in with Porsha, revealing to Lucious that Anika went to Billy Barretti. Anika storms into the driveway, where she and Lucious have an emotional confrontation while Cookie and Porsha start behaving as if they’re auditioning for Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes On A Cruise.

It’s a wild, unhinged cold open, which was fantastic for those viewers who most value Cookie as a sass dispenser, but it felt entirely too rushed. It boggles the mind that a show like Empire would zoom past an opportunity to do a simple, elegant mole plot. Let’s say Anika, furious about Lucious’ affair with Cookie, goes to work as a double-agent for Barretti, collecting damaging information or somehow sabotaging the label from the inside. That would work. What’s great about Empire is that because of its cast, its characters and its setting, every one of them unique, it could be a phenomenal show just by dusting off the most shopworn nighttime soap plots and plugging them into this unprecedented formula. Instead, it misses what seem like obvious opportunities.

It’s especially frustrating because Empire clearly understands the idea of a double-agent storyline, just not how to do it in a satisfying way. The show moves so quickly, it can do misdirection extremely well. It can introduce an element in a tiny scene, then do a bunch of other stuff so the audience forgets about it, then double back. I’d completely forgotten Anika whispered into Porsha’s ear in the elevator, offering to double her pay if she agreed to spy on Cookie. Here, we learn Porsha turned the tables on Anika, which suggests Porsha is far more sophisticated than she lets on, because a triple-cross is not child’s play. But by the time it’s mentioned again, the narrative promise is immediately stripped out of it because what made it an issue to begin with—the possibility of Anika exploiting a weakness of Cookie’s—had been resolved already. Apparently, when Anika studied at the prestigious Wharton School of Soapy Intrigue and Corporate Bitchiness, she took Covert Drink Dosing as her elective as opposed to Advanced Spying. Had she done the spying course, she would know that, ideally, paying someone to spy for you involves them sharing crucial, damning information with you, not the other way around.

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In addition to the pacing, this makes Anika seem that much more ineffectual. “I’m not a treacherous person,” she says to Lucious as he pleads with her to stay using every guilt trip, threat, and manipulation he can scrape up. Well, Boo Boo Kitty, it isn’t for a lack of trying, is it? Anika would like to be treacherous, she’s just really, really terrible at it, and has literally never logged a win against Cookie since the show begin. Maybe you could count the fact that Anika appears to have “won” Lucious, but regardless of whatever Cookie sees in him, it’s abundantly clear Lucious is about as appealing a long-term partner as a tapeworm. “Unto The Breach” never quite seems to get going because Anika doesn’t and hasn’t ever felt like a threat, and she’s been given ample reason not to play the one card she has, which is Lucious’ ALS diagnosis. Losing Anika to Creedmoor doesn’t seem like a huge business loss, and certainly not something to go to this amount of trouble over.

The idea of Empire Records in a state of crisis is a fun one, with Lucious declaring a state of emergency and the Lyons banding together to stem the bleeding. But even beyond the fact that Anika was the catalyst for it, the story never makes an ounce of sense. I’ve written before that Empire should steer clear of specifics and nuances of hip hop culture it clearly has no interest in engaging with, but in “Unto The Breach,” even the broadest of strokes seems like too much to handle. You don’t have to know volumes about hip hop music, or any kind of music really, to understand what contracts are, how they work, and the general idea that people are legally bound to them.

Think about this: Anika, a top executive working in a highly competitive industry, was doing so without the benefit of non-disclosure or non-compete agreements. To put this in perspective, there was a furor about Jimmy John’s sandwich shops at the end of last year because Jimmy John’s was making its employees sign non-compete agreements. That means if you were making sandwiches for Jimmy John’s, and an aggressive recruiter from Subway came in and tried to poach you, you’d be legally barred from accepting that job. Empire Records, on the verge of its IPO and locked in competition with a rival label, doesn’t think it’s most closely guarded secrets, techniques, and protocols are as important as pepperoni portion sizes. Empire’s artists don’t appear to be legally bound to the label in any way either, and can jump ship at any time and for any reason. This is not a thing. According to the conspiracy theorists, Drake’s new record—the one with the album cover that looks like Andre wrote it—was hastily released to fulfill his contract with Cash Money.

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If the audience can swallow this handful of horse pills, “Unto The Breach” is a frequently fun episode with some delightfully simple musical moments and plenty of outright silliness. Empire feels like a great show trying to wriggle out of its cocoon, and right now that’s because it’s in an awkward transition between the show it started out as and where it appears to be headed. Though the hook was a King Lear style race for the throne, it seems like the writers followed the heat between Lucious and Cookie. This has recent precedent; Scandal was supposed to be a completely different show, except that Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn had such explosive chemistry, the writers couldn’t resist harnessing that electric current. That seems to be just as much the case with Empire. Once Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson started doing their thing, the entire show started leaning in that direction. This no longer feels like a show about a corporate power struggle complicated by emotional family ties. At this point, Empire is becoming more like an adrenalized family drama set within a record label but not terribly invested in the goings-on there.

The best parts of “Unto The Breach” are those that followed the latter template rather than the former one, but showed how Empire is awkwardly trapped between the two. Having the Lyon boys get trapped in an elevator together is bad soap opera, but having Jamal and Hakeem calm him with a sing-along is kind of fantastic. Jamal sparring with Lucious in the boardroom is another example, as is Cookie challenging Royalty to a drinking match and then offering Malcolm a pastry or a baked sweet of some kind, it escapes me. Bear claw? Never mind. Those are the moments that feel most genuine and most authentic, whereas the scenes with Anika and Billy scheming over at Creedmoor feel like they’re taken from another show. The soap elements no longer feel like Empire’s strength, and the race for control of the label seems like a zero-man race at this stage.

What’s interesting about Andre’s struggle with mental illness is that it’s the plot element that would feel equally at home in the business-soap Empire or the family-drama Empire. Ending with Andre being placed under a psychiatric hold was telling, as it’s the most character-focused cliffhanger the show has done. It gives Trai Byers another opportunity to perform Andre’s mania, and there are tiny glimpses of brilliance throughout it, but Byers has trouble getting into that rhythm where all his tiny choices add up to something greater than their sum. That’s been the story of Empire as a whole, honestly, but while it’s too early to feel confident about this show, it’s impossible to write it off.

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Stray observations:

  • A huge thanks to Myles McNutt for bailing me out last week. I liked the episode a bit more than Myles did, but I completely agreed with his assessment.
  • This might be the best music they’ve had in one episode. “Conqueror,” with guest star Estelle and Jussie Smollett is absolutely something I’d play. Veronica’s acapella performance at Creedmoor was phenomenal. The brothers’ “Lean On Me” in the elevator is super-sweet, as is the stripped-down rendition of “You’re So Beautiful” at Leviticus. This is really the first time we’ve seen Lucious perform in the present day. Good stuff all around.
  • The video Jamal shot with Ryan is totally hilarious and insane. Given how costly Hakeem’s “Drip Drop” was, what’s the in-world estimate on the cost of “All Of The Above?” $9 million seems about right to me.
  • Empire has an artist named Coagulation. Though it’s almost certainly not spelled that way. I’m going to be in my study inventing hip hop spellings for that word. I shan’t be disturbed.
  • Hakeem knows someone with some C-4, so that’s always an option you guys.
  • Tiana’s back! And she’ll stay with Empire, but only on the condition that Hakeem take her back, and he turns her down. Whatever happened to Takeem 4 Eva? Whatever happened to “She make that thang go drip-drop, drip-drippity-drop?” Are those just words? When I was that age, making someone’s thang go drip-drop meant something.
  • Also, Tiana needs to learn to dream a little bigger with her demands. Cookie’s conflict of interest is glaring.
  • Jamal’s read, in all its glory: “You know, you’re right about one thing. Sexual proclivity is what put us in this position.Your proclivity and the fact that you can’t seem to keep it in your pants. And if the creeps and the bigots want to be over at Creedmoor, I don’t give a damn. Let them. I don’t want them at my company, and neither should you.”

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