empire-s2ep2

Empire’s Latest Episode Promises More than Just Gags

The second episode of Empire's second season gives audiences more of what they came for: narrative, character development, and strained relationships.

Empire: Season 2, Episode 2 – “Without a Country”

The Internet has been hard at work scrying the meaning hidden within Empire’s ratings drop this past Wednesday. Can it sustain the hype that it built with its first season? Is the show’s sensational mix of melodrama and music untenable in the long-term? There is no question that big statements were made with last week’s season two premiere, and that Lee Daniels and company were intent on giving the folks what they’ve come to expect — sex, lies, intrigue, and challenges to the television status quo. But regardless of what the numbers say, Wednesday’s “Without a Country” bodes well for the show’s longevity, as it gets back to basics by showing an understanding of the elements that actually made the show engaging to begin with. Spoiler alert: it’s not the sensationalism — or the music.

It’s no secret that audiences — especially American ones — love a rags-to-riches story (bonus points if it’s of the against-all-odds/self-made-man stripe). And while one of the show’s pleasures is certainly the vicarious experience of gratuitous wealth and fame, its flashy elements have always been held together by flashbacks that grounded both the premise and the characters within a reality of poverty and strategic criminality. In a political moment where the possession of extraordinary wealth makes you no friends among the working class, a show about taking extraordinary measures to build a legacy for oneself and one’s family has significant resonance: it’s the American Dream. Wednesday’s episode of Empire shows that its writers recognize this, but then — in true Lyon fashion — it ups the ante by directly confronting the reality of the system’s ability to forcibly opt anyone out of the dream at any time.

This is exactly what happens in “Without a Country”, as Lucious (Terrence Howard), despite his empire, is languishing in prison. During his routine medical visit, we are told that an important document authorizing administration of the medication meant to treat his neuromuscular disorder has mysteriously gone missing. When later in the episode, Lucious has difficulty breathing in the yard, he is clued in by a particularly nasty prison guard (played by musician and actor Ludacris) that Lucious’s medication is being held hostage by the prosecuting attorney with whom Lucious sparred in the last episode. Rather than being cowed by this intimidation tactic and his deteriorating health, Lucious uses the pressure of his environment to tap into the creative impulse that got him off the streets in the first place. He’s been writing new music, and despite last season’s efforts to convince us that Lucious has lost his artistic edge, the new stuff is good.

While Lucious has been releasing new music from behind bars, the members of the hostile takeover — Cookie, Hakeem, Anika, and Andre — attempt to recover from the failure of their coup by launching their own label. It’s great to see the charismatic Ghetto Ass Studios and its proprietor make a return this season, as Cookie and company set up headquarters for their yet-unnamed enterprise within the same building. If the from-nothing origin story of Empire Entertainment was a huge draw in the first season, then this turn of events bodes well for viewers who can expect to see the same drama play out in real-time this season.

Indeed, we were given a taste of what family matters are in store, with Andre’s plea to his mother to “let him go” from the scrappy upstart venture. While all the Lyons warrant empathy in this episode, which works hard to humanize its whole cast, Andre comes out as being perhaps the most tragic figure. While last season we were treated to a picture of him as alternately a master manipulator or a loose cannon, Andre seems absolutely broken here. His heart is not in the new venture; it is and always has been with Empire. But even that is tainted, overshadowed by a complicated relationship with his father. “Why do you hate me?” Andre asks Lucious in the one of the show’s more emotional moments. A cut to a flashback of young Lucious (then Dwight) being sung a song by his mother, played in a guest cameo by singer Kelly Rowlands, suggests that in coming episodes we’ll come to understand more of why Lucious has become the man he is. Are there mental health issues looming in his history that inhibit his relationship to his oldest son? This episode offers no answers, but it’s a fruitful narrative avenue to open, as it promises more depth and nuance to two of the show’s most unlikeable characters.

Despite the overall somber tone of the episode, “Without a Country” also offers standard Empire fun. Cookie and Hakeem are on the move as fledgling label executives, and it’s heartwarming to see their new enterprise bringing them closer together. Despite spending most of Empire Entertainment’s successful history behind bars, Cookie was, we’re reminded, instrumental in its success. It wasn’t just her start-up money that got Lucious where he was; it was also her ear and her ability to inspire greatness in those around her. As she helps to position Hakeem as a successor to the (second) throne, we get to see her really shine in this role. She soothes egos and supports dreams, as she smoothes over the rough spots in Anika’s relationship with her talent, and encourages Hakeem in his desire to build a girl group. Despite his desires to have a multiracial trio (thank god for the gag about “Rainbow Sensation”), the group is shaping up as an all-Latina act. Yes, please.

One of the more notable things about this episode is its heavy infusion of music, which had been missing from the drama-packed end of season one. While penal pressures give Lucious new material that he drops from prison, Jamal also finds his muse. We see him performing two new songs in the episode, which is a generous change from season one, in which he seemed a one-hit wonder. The tension between his CEO duties and his creative impulse continues to be a motivating force in the character’s development, as is the ambivalent relationship he has with his family. He’s finally got the approval that he’s always wanted from his father, but is it coming at the expense of his other relationships? Nothing really shakes loose here, but it is definitely going to be one of the motivating forces of the season.

All things considered, I feel more optimistic about the future of Empire after this episode than I did after last week’s. It’s easy to toss shock-value gags, high production values, and celebrity cameos at audiences, but the reality is that without a genuinely involving narrative, audiences won’t stay put. Wednesday’s episode shows that Empire’s writers know what made the show such a draw, and it makes a tacit promise to keep them coming back for more of the same.

RATING 7 / 10
PopMatters