In my review of last week’s episode, I’d said that it seemed like the writers were getting back to the basics that made the show great. Those basics, I argued, were all rooted in character development and narrative rather than in spectacle and shock intrigue.
I still stand behind what I said, although my faith in Lee Daniels and company is being tested with this week’s episode, “Fires of Heaven”. Despite his comments to the press that the longer second season of Empire would be slower-paced and more deliberate, Wednesday’s episode was a whiplash of the standard Empire fare: artists defecting from their labels, management stealing talent, a continued family feud, and new music. Cool… but after last week, I was really expecting more.
The show continues to flagellate a repentant and pitiful Andre (Trai Byers) as he is rejected again and again by Lucious (Terrence Howard) for reasons that are less than clear. As Andre rightfully points out, Lucious has made concessions for everyone involved in the hostile takeover except his oldest son. Another flashback to Lucious’ childhood, with his mother in the throes of what looks like a manic episode, may provide audiences a clue.
Andre’s own battle with bipolar disorder was a key plot point in the first season, and everything about the arrangement of the last few episodes suggests that it will be again in Season 2. However, after three weeks of watching a pained and broken Andre shuttled between his parents, I’m ready to see him catch a break. His poor treatment is starting to border on the gratuitous.
The double and triple crossings for which the show is famous come across in “Fires of Heaven” as formulaic and predictable. Empire has always been chess match played in a flamboyant, Machiavellian style, but this episode’s moves were so clearly telegraphed that it’s hard to admire them. Anika (Grace Gealey), turned out of the Lyon Dynasty label, was offered a job by Lucious, but in espionage, not entertainment. She in turn immediately tells Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) what Lucious is plotting, asserting her (clearly dubious) loyalty in the form of a vendetta: “It’s very important to me to hurt Lucious,” she insists.
Without a home at Lyon Dynasty and without a relationship to Lucious, it’s unclear what Anika is really bringing to the table in Empire. Like Andre, she seems to be sort of adrift and purposeless within the frame of the show. This is especially disappointing given that one of Empire’s early draws was its sensational female cast and their tremendous acting talent. With Anika reduced to Cookie’s punching bag and Lucious’ errand boy, the show is losing one of its most important elements: a foil for Cookie’s large personality and viperish wit. Perhaps the writers think they’ll compensate for the effect of Anika’s diminishment by bringing Latina pop singer Valentina (Becky G.) to the story’s forefront, but she doesn’t have the ability or presence to fill that particular pair of Louboutin’s.
Speaking of Valentina, someone needs to have a talk with Lee Daniels about getting everyone excited for a Latina girl group and then yanking that dream away from us. Sadly, it wasn’t ever meant to be, and I think we all knew it. Valentina’s desire for a solo career at Empire Entertainment was clear from her first audition, and with a ruthless business sense like hers, it was only a matter of time until she joined up with Lucious. Perhaps it’s only because this particular tune seems so familiar (remember Tiana [Serayah] ditching Anika in season one?) that I’m having difficulty suspending my disbelief with this episode: but do contracts not exist in the world of Empire?
Other elements of this episode fell similarly flat. The plot around the prosecuting attorney for Lucious’ murder charge remains a diversion from more interesting storylines. Lucious’ attempts to get Freda Gatz (Bre-z) off of the streets and into the studio fail to have real emotional draw, even though they do hint at some exceptional possibilities for future episodes. It’s hard not to imagine that the Lyons’ murder of Freda’s father won’t come to the fore at some point, and the idea of the young, queer rapper playing Trojan horse to the Lyon Empire is an intriguing one.
By far the most exciting part of this episode was Lyon Dynasty take-over of Lucious’ club Leviticus. The night was originally conceived of as a kind of welcome-home bash, with rapper Pitbull making a cameo appearance to perform with Jamal (Jussie Smollett). They put on a good show but, as always, Cookie takes it to the next level. Taking the mic while Hakeem’s (Bryshere Y. Gray) crew gets on the decks, Cookie introduces the new label and its biggest star: Hakeem Lyon. The boy prince launches into performing one of his latest songs, full of pointed jabs at his brother and father, who sit in the audience wearing alternately bemused and annoyed expressions. Finally, we are given the moment we’ve all been waiting for, as Timbaland (Tim Mosley), the man responsible for Empire’s sound, takes the stage.
As far as music goes, Empire’s only getting better. Season one had a couple of real hits in it, but Season two seems much more interested in breadth. I noted in my review of the premiere that Jamal seemed to be given both more new material and more opportunities to perform it, and Wednesday’s episode provided the same to Hakeem. Season one worked hard to make us think of Hakeem as a cocky product of wealth and privilege rather than a legitimate artist like Jamal, but season two seems to be reversing that dynamic, with Jamal in an administrative role and Hakeem busy creating music. We’ll see how that plays out in the future, though, as the final scene of the episode suggests that with Lucious out of prison, Jamal may be returning full-time to his music career.
All things considered, “Fires from Heaven” was a disappointing follow-up to last week’s episode. There is a point when perpetual plot twists become predictable, and non-stop drama becomes rather boring. Empire fans love its irreverence, its humanity, and its willingness to tell stories that you don’t see on TV. I’m not giving up on it, but I hope that next week avoids the same easy gimmicks and gives us some real substance.