“Sins Of The Father,” the 10th episode of Empire’s gangbusters first season, proved somewhat polarizing when the fan reaction was all totaled. Of all the episodes since the pilot, I most enjoyed “Sins,” which confines the characters to Lucious Lyon’s mansion as the truth of Lola’s paternity is revealed to Jamal and the entire extended family. The tone of the episode is balanced, the characterization is consistent, the twists are rewarding, and the performances are competent, including that of guest star Naomi Campbell. But judging from the comments, quite a few people found it boring, and while I didn’t agree, I understood what they meant. The episode didn’t have the tent-show excess Empire became known for, and without the gaudy accessories, the underlying story was too plain.
At the time, Jamal’s putative baby mama had shown back up, and her armed hothead boyfriend was trailing her. Cookie’s relationship with Empire’s head of security was heating up, Lucious was putting Hakeem’s intergenerational lover Camilla on a slow boat to China, and the brotherly battle for supremacy at Empire was yet ongoing. It isn’t like nothing is going on in the episode, it’s that Empire is a show in which the point is less about what’s happening than how it happens. The second season isn’t terribly different from the first in this regard. The important thing is not that Mimi Whiteman fakes out Cookie by pretending to be interested in investing in her new venture, only to double-cross her and team with Lucious and Empire. What matters is that Lucious himself informs the Empire defectors of his victory in a surprise webcast from prison, because that’s totally unexpected, albeit totally implausible.
The difference in season two is that the show’s novelty has faded, so even the stunts aren’t as arresting as they once were, and what’s underneath simply isn’t as interesting. “True Love Never” doesn’t have what you like about Empire, almost regardless of what that is. It’s just crazy boring and exposes the deep flaws in this season. Nothing interesting is happening, and what is happening isn’t even happening in a fun or surprising way. The music is hit-and-miss, and the show is grossly overpopulated with characters who serve no purpose. Seriously, think of the cast regulars who are barely serviced. Rhonda, Tiana, Porsha, and Anika barely exist. Becky got to make out with a good looking guy, so that’s a win, but she’s not involved in the story in a meaningful way.
Even the things that made Empire such a delight are no longer reliably enjoyable in season two. The relationship between Cookie and Jamal was foundational to season one, so much so that the writers thought exploding that dynamic at the end of the season and aligning Jamal with Lucious opened tantalizing possibilities. Nothing much has come of the rift, and I’m usually straining to remember that Cookie and Jamal are feuding, let alone the sloppy specifics of why they’re feuding. No one was more ready for them to mend fences than me, but when it happens in “True Love Never,” it doesn’t feel as satisfying as I expected it to. Taraji P. Henson and Jussie Smollett clearly have a lot of fun together and have amazing chemistry, and that comes through when they perform together. But while the scenes are fun, they don’t feel like they’re part of a story being told. Cookie and Jamal were inseparable, then estranged, and are now reunited, but those phases don’t resemble any sort of recognizable journey. As with any other Empire story, it’s mostly a sequenced collection of events.
The ostensible impact of Cookie and Jamal’s reconciliation is that it threatens Lucious’ relationship with Jamal and possibly with Hakeem, but at best, this means yet another round of tug-of-wars between Cookie and Lucious. And at this point, all of the back and forth feels more like a dysfunctional battle between former spouses than the machinations of formidable corporations. Lucious got custody of the Lyon boys by default after Cookie got locked up, but now that she’s out, Cookie and Lucious are essentially figuring out how to split custody of their kids in a way that best serves their personal ends. The feud between Empire and Lyon Dynasty is still totally amorphous, so there’s never any actual impact to the additions and departures from either label other than someone’s slightly bruised ego. To watch “True Love Never” is to be told that it’s significant that Jamal and Cookie are tweaking Jamal’s new track at the Lyon Dynasty studio, but have no understanding of what makes that a big deal.
Meanwhile, at Empire, Andre is struggling to maintain his newly adopted strait-laced ways as Lucious throws new obstacles in his path. It’s yet another example of an Empire story that feels pretty inscrutable on a character level. To review, Andre had a dangerous manic flight after abandoning the medication he takes to control his bipolar disorder. The incident forced Lucious to recognize the truth he had been concealing from himself, that his son is afflicted with the same psychiatric condition that affected his mother. After completing a partially faith-based treatment program, Andre tried to join a coup to take over Empire, then pleaded for forgiveness only for Lucious to reject him due to haunting memories of his bipolar mom. Ah, but then Andre revived his stock by digging up Vernon’s body. Now that Andre’s back at Empire, Lucious apparently no longer associates his childhood trauma with his son, but does want to put his son through a battery of psychological trials including the stewardship of Gutter Life and the opportunity to rekindle his strategic infidelity with the deputy mayor.
Look, maybe that’s coherent to somebody, but it’s pretty incoherent to me. What exactly does Lucious gain by putting the screws to Andre after he has just managed to recover? And why did Lucious suddenly forget that Andre reminds him of his mother even as his visions of her intensify? These days, just about anything triggers a memory of his mother’s death by suicide, which she finally accomplished using the single bullet little Dwight missed while cleaning out and hiding her supply. What finally sets Lucious off is a pistol tattoo on the inner thigh of a woman he’s going to share with Mimi in a strong contender for Satan’s Threesome 2015. Lucious pulls out a classic-looking television mystery box and opens it to reveal the very pistol his mother used to take her own life in front of him. He calls Freda Gatz to the studio in the dead of night to record “Boom Boom Boom Boom,” because he has just the thing it’s been missing. Apparently it was missing him contributing a verse that sounds like Jacob Silj doing Craig Mack’s “Flava In Ya Ear” at the office holiday party, and some extra percussion from his mama’s gun. I s’pose.
I’m forgetting stuff here. Hakeem quietly refuses to replace Laura as the lead of Mirage A Trois, but teaches her some stage presence with a little (very little) help from Tiana. Cookie has an epic sex marathon with Laz, who has some kind of relationship with the guys who are extorting Cookie, but also working with her or something? Tiana and Porsha pop into say hi for about ten seconds each. Andre figures out that blackmail is just as powerful leverage as illicit office sex, though I’m not exactly clear how that fits with his newfound spiritual path. This show is just going down a really weird path. Three more episodes until the winter hiatus, but it’s a long, long hiatus. Fox isn’t running the final eight episodes of this 18-episode season until the end of March, which means it will return after nearly four months without a new episode. How am I supposed to remain invested in the story after a four-month break when a week is usually enough to wipe my slate clean?
- I really don’t understand the stuff with Laz and the crazy kidnapping extortion gang. It sucks that Cookie is being extorted, but she’s never mentioned any kind of financial difficulty and the Lyon Dynasty offices have come together pretty nicely. Doesn’t seem like Cookie is hurting, and maybe she’s paying too much for a service she would require anyway, but she also gets a really hot dude giving her the business for three days at a time. I feel like it all balances out.
- I really, really wish they hadn’t done that threesome scene that way. Specifically, I think the kiss between Lucious and Mimi was a terrible idea, another example of sexuality between women explored through its consumption by men. That’s tired.
- “Boom Boom Boom Boom” is not a good song. It’s not like the experience I had with “Drip Drop,” where I resented myself for liking it but found it catchy as hell. I just don’t like it.