For a minute, for one giddy, glorious moment, I finally got it. I saw the Empire that the millions of people who tune into this show on a weekly basis have apparently been seeing when I couldn’t. The Empire faithful have a mantra: “Just relax and let the absurdity wash over you.” It’s a flawed argument, because you could make the same argument about something like, say, Steve Brule. There are different kinds of ridiculousness, different kinds of absurdity, and different ways for a television show to exist outside of the traditional ways of telling stories and conveying ideas. One man’s ridiculous trash is another man’s ridiculous treasure, and it’s possible for those two men to disagree without declaring that either one is missing the point or watching it wrong. But there’s one scene in “The Lyon Who Cried Wolf” that made me understand the impulse behind the “Keep Empire weird” sentiments, if not necessarily the logic behind them.
I’m referring, of course, to the final scene, in which Mama Leah summons Lucious to the dining room in the middle of the night to feast on cakes. Oh, the cakes! There was a carrot cake, some kind of chocolate cake with berries—black forest maybe?—and many more, a confectionery spread grand enough to leave a bridal war council overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choices. Mama Leah tells Lucious she has dismissed his domestic staff and forces him to eat her cake, which is the least he can do to show he loves her after locking her away for 21 years in some kind of sweatshop run by people who have figured out how to monetize elder-care bingo. It’s honestly one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen on television, but unlike the infamous shady gay flash mob, it works. It’s hypnotic and terrifying and leaves a hell of an impression, even while it’s totally unclear what it means or why it’s important. I’m still not convinced Mama Leah is history’s greatest monster, because I love cake enough to be indifferent to the motives and mental stability of the person baking them for me. But the scene definitely made the case for why Lucious wanted her out of his life. It’s as if she doesn’t even care that he’s on a juice cleanse!
It’s one of many scenes in “The Lyon Who Cried Wolf” that seems to have escaped from a better, more consistent television show than Empire has been in its second season, or really ever. “Wolf” is the first episode credited solely to producer Joshua Allen, and he kind of hits it out of the park. The contours of the story make more sense than Empire has in ages, and the episode serves as yet another baffling example of how, even at its worst, there’s still enough meat on these bones for the right writer to come along and make a meal of it. “Wolf” is far from perfect, and I’m still trying to figure out what a grade-A episode of Empire would even look like at this stage of the game. But if this show’s aim is to push past my analytical gag reflex and assault me with operatic excess, this is how I want it done.
Empire frequently has trouble telling clear episodic stories with discernible stakes because so much of its universe is based on a theoretical model of how the music industry works. For example, when Cookie is fretting about whether or not Cookie’s Cookout is going to come together, or Jamal is trying to decide if he should work with Stacy Run-Run, it’s always just kind of like, “Um…okay.” And “Wolf” is no different, with the Lyon Family banding together to create a performance that will win them a coveted time slot during the ASA telecast. I don’t really “get” any of that, but it seems to work better here because it’s rooted in the show’s latest forbidden romance between Jamal and D-Major, the latest power broker who the Lyons have to impress in order to move to the next level. I wish Empire didn’t always play so fast and loose with the concept of who Lucious, and by extension Empire Entertainment, is to the music industry. If he’s such a legend, why is he always forced to grovel for media attention and industry accolades? But again, the winding road leads to an interesting story for Jamal, so it’s easier to forgive.
It’s shocking that it took Empire this long to tell a story about a closeted gay man in the industry, though one could argue the show already told this story last season with Jamal, who now acts as though the idea of someone being closeted is unfathomable. Jamal is being pretty obnoxious about the whole thing, but in a way that’s typical of recently out gay men, many of whom lose the ability to empathize with a closeted man the moment they no longer are one. But it takes the story of Jamal’s sexuality in a potentially intriguing new direction in which Jamal has to get used to being the Michael. It also gives Empire the opportunity to explore a different way of being closeted in the industry. Jamal was closeted in a “world’s worst kept secret” kind of way, whereas D-Major seems far more interested in keeping his sexuality to himself, to the extent that if he had to choose between his feelings for Jamal and the perceived risk to his career from being outed, it isn’t entirely clear what choice he would make. Empire isn’t The L.A. Complex, but it’s positioning itself to tell a story similar to the saga of Kaldrick King.
Jamal and D-Major’s sudden slobfest could be seen from a thousand miles away on a cloudy day, but there were moments in “Wolf” that I’d call genuinely surprising. Thirsty’s dirty work with Harper Scott caught me off-guard, even though Harper is a character I never have and never will care about. And at long last, Rhonda figures out that Anika is responsible for her fall, y’know, because Anika only has the one pair of shoes, and because Louboutins are surprisingly accommodating to swollen, pregnant-lady feet. Okay, fine. At least Rhonda is on the right page with only two more episodes left to go in the season, so that offers some story potential for two characters who barely exist. I’m not at all interested in Hakeem’s wandering eye, because I never bought into his relationship with Laura in the first place, and because the show has squandered every opportunity it has had to make Hakeem a compelling character in his own right. (He perked up during his brief stint atop the Empire throne, but naturally that ended before it could really begin.)
“Wolf” is a strong episode, by Empire season two standards, but all is not forgiven. As much as I loved the final scene, the path to it is something I can’t make heads or tails of. Lucious’ explanation for why he lied about his mother’s death is utterly non-sensical (though Allen’s script sells it about as well as can be expected), and I’m still resentful of how Empire went about misdirecting the audience about Leah’s death. I’m far less forgiving than is Cookie, and Andre, and basically everybody in Lucious’ life. What exactly does Lucious have to do to piss people off? To destroy his family bonds? To jeopardize everything he’s worked for? Lucious is the pariah that is never treated like one, so I’m glad to see Leah back, if only to mete out some karmic justice. Even if that justice only amounts to being force-fed buttercream frosting.
- This episode was directed by the super-talented Millicent Shelton.
- Carol’s secret is finally revealed: apparently she was involved in killing some people for Lucious while Cookie was in prison. If anything that seems to strengthen their sisterly bond, so I don’t see what the big deal is, but I’m sure the show will attempt to explain it at some point.
- An episode featuring Becky, Porsha, and Tiana. Miracles happen!
- Lucious’ falsetto face must now be added to the long list of traumas I carry with me each day: