Empire returned last week after a short hiatus and spent no time pulling us back from the cliff on which it had last left us hanging. After a successful kidnapping and ransom, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) was returned to his family in one piece, if a little worse for wear. It doesn’t take long for it to become apparent to the viewer (if not to the other Lyons) that ‘Keem is suffering from some degree of PTSD following what was clearly a traumatic experience. Resentment for his parents’ high profiles and for his own inability to fight off his captors and make good on the machismo so essential to his rap persona lead him to a number of self-destructive and erratic behaviors, including a random hook-up with (a completely broken) Anika (Grace Gealey).
If bad interpersonal decisions are so common on the show that they aren’t able to telegraph mental torment anymore, then Lee Daniels and company drive the point home by dramatizing Hakeem’s inability to perform musically. In the studio with his soon-to-debut girl group Mirage a Trois, Hakeem can’t seem to get on beat, and he takes his frustration out on the girls. Later, we see him practicing at his apartment, struggling to stay on task as he experiences hallucinatory flashbacks and screams vengeful lyrics at someone who isn’t there.
The true target of Hakeem’s misdirected aggression is, of course, his captors, but no one seems to really know who they are. Lucious (Terrence Howard) seems convinced that they’re a neighborhood gang intent on getting to him through Cookie (Taraji P. Henson). During his captivity, Hakeem referred to them as “cowboys”, a reference to the distinctive cattle brand they were all sporting on their backs. Whoever they are, they don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Acting on concert promoter and pseudo-security man Laz’s (Adam Rodriguez) advice, Cookie attempts to bring the kidnappers on the Lyon Dynasty payroll in order to stop the attacks. The deal goes south, however, when Hakeem pulls a gun on the gang’s leader, forcing Cookie to intervene. She tearfully begs Hakeem to put the gun down, insisting that she would step in front of the bullet before she’d let him go to prison.
This was the first of two scenes in which the Lyons (excepting Lucious, of course) rally around their youngest. Later, before the concert debut of Mirage a Trois, Andre (Trai Byers) and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) come to check on their brother and offer their support. Tearfully, he admits to feelings of emasculation and fear, and his brothers assure him that his reaction to the kidnapping is normal and understandable. After a tender hug (the likes of which we haven’t seen since season one), Hakeem goes on stage. These moments when genuine love and care overcome the petty Lyon rivalries really make up the heart of the episode, and assure us that despite all the drama and the differences, this is still a show about a fiercely loyal family. (Well, excepting Lucious, of course.)
While “High Hopes for a Low Heaven” wasn’t short on the drama and sexual intrigue (Becky [Gabourey Sidibe] finally gets her share of Empire debauchery), the major reveal came from Cookie’s late night romp with Laz. I wasn’t exactly surprised when the two hooked up; their chemistry was apparent from their first meeting. What did catch me off guard was the distinctive cattle brand on Laz’s back as Cookie stripped off his shirt, which suggests that slimeball lawyer Thirsty (Andre Royo) isn’t the show’s only wolf in sheep’s clothing.
This week’s episode “True Love Never” confirmed that Laz is, in fact, colluding with the crew that kidnapped Hakeem, though it’s unclear as to whether they intend to take Lyon Dynasty for more than just money. When Cookie plans an “old school cookout” to showcase label talent, Laz convinces her to hire the “Cowboys” as event security, though this is only the first step in a several planned double crosses. What’s perplexing about this whole thing — other than the fact that Cookie spent three days in bed with this guy without remarking on the giant steer’s head on his back — is the role reversal of Hakeem, ever mistaken about the intentions of those with whom he shares his bed, and Cookie, usually the icon of street=savvy skepticism. “I don’t trust him, mom,” Hakeem insists, to which Cookie responds gently, “You don’t know him”. Clearly, Cookie doesn’t either.
Meanwhile, much has happened on the musical front at Empire Entertainment. After garnering an invite to a prestigious “living room performance” at producer Huey Jarvis’ (Clarence Williams III) home, Jamal gets serious about taking his sound to the next level. He had expressed reservations in the previous episode about Empire’s insistent marketing of him as a gay artist, going so far as to bring a new PR man (with whom Lucious has history) on board. In this episode, he turns to Cookie to help him really take his sound to the next level, and the extra effort is apparent when Jarvis, during the living room session, remarks to Lucious that he’s taken Jamal’s sound “to the next level.” Judging from the displeased look on his face, it seems as though Lucious recognizes the Cookie touch — once so important in launching his own sound — on the new track.
Given that Lucious had earlier courted a living room session at Jarvis’s home and been rejected, he has reason to worry about his continued relevance. His own music has been lacking the rawness that made him famous, and it’s not clear that he has what it takes to compete with his sons, especially with their mother’s production. As a result, Lucious seems to be putting all his bets on Freda Gatz (Bre-Z). After having Hakeem turn down his new track, Lucious takes it to Freda ostensibly as debut single for her, although as they record it seems more a comeback vehicle for Lucious. In fact, the distinction between the two is becoming blurrier by the episode. Lucious tells Freda that he identifies with her more than he does his own sons, and the more he coaches her the clearer it becomes that his identification is more projection than anything else. “What did your daddy do to you?” Lucious asks Freda during an unfruitful recording session. “What did yours do to you?” she retorts.
But we know from previous that it wasn’t Lucious’s father that traumatized him; it was his mentally ill mother. We get to see more of that backstory in this episode by way of flashbacks in which we see Lucious hiding the bullets with which his mother plays Russian roulette. After a debauched night in which he and Mimi (Marisa Tomei) both try and pathetically fail to have sex with a groupie, Lucious finally takes some of his own advice and confronts the “monster” he is always telling everyone else to bring to their music. In doing so, he also realizes just what the new track is missing: the percussion of a revolver cylinder being spun and the hammer falling.
The least interesting aspect of the last two episodes has been the ongoing epic conflict between Andre’s newfound faith and the life of deceit and vice that he’s built for himself. His pastor continues to give him eerily terrible advice, which makes one wonder if we have yet another outsider threatening the family from within. One of the most promising aspects of season two was the opportunity it seemed to offer for an explanation of Lucious’s coldness toward his son by way of an exploration of Lucious’s childhood. Regardless of whether he actually saw her kill herself, as this episode seems to suggest, it’s clear that Lucious associates his oldest son with his mother, and the show seems to be going to great pains to encourage us to do the same, as it’s offered us the image of a suicidal Andre twice now. However, like so many of Empire’s narrative promises, it seems as though the show is never going to make good on this one.
At this point, that’s really the main issue with the second season. It keeps introducing new plot lines and dramatic twists and turns without ever really capitalizing on the ones it’s already set up. The result is a lot of loose ends and too many half-developed characters about whom it’s incredibly difficult to care. In fact, that has seemed the general trend of the last several episodes: swap out all Season one’s tried and true talent with milquetoast versions of themselves. Season one primed Tiana (Serayah) as a bisexual superstar with a killer business instinct, but Wednesday’s episode has her literally teaching the wooden Laura (Jamila Velazquez) to replace her as the show’s central female talent. Lucious may have found his equal in emotionally and morally degraded Mimi, but even Marisa Tomei can’t make up for the hole in the show’s dynamic created when Anika was jettisoned from the main narrative.
None of this is to say that the show has stopped being fun or entertaining; it hasn’t. It’s just that like many of the show’s fans, I had high hopes that this season would prove to Empire’s haters that the show had more to offer than just music and melodrama. After these last two episodes, I’m starting to lose faith that it does.