This week's episode "Sinned Against" was aptly titled, as it seemed a blatant transgression against believability and audience investment in the show.
EmpireAirtime: Wednesdays, 8pm
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard, Bryshere Grey, Jussie Smollett
Subtitle: Season 2, Episode 9 - "Sinned Against"
Air date: 2015-11-25
In last week’s review of Empire, I said that we were only halfway through the second season, but I was delighted to discover that after this week’s episode there is only one more left this year. (The remaining season two episodes seem to be scheduled to begin airing in March of 2016.) While I have always found Empire to be entertaining, it’s become difficult to produce weekly reviews that are more than recaps bracketed by questions about plot holes. This week’s no exception to that trend, as "Sinned Against" was essentially a string of boring non-events held together by yet more unnecessary celebrity cameos.
It’s unclear how Lee Daniels and company thought this episode was going to work, given that it was set up to disappoint by letting last week’s cliffhanger fall completely, astoundingly flat. You’ll remember that the last thing we saw was Anika (Grace Gealey), disguised as a limo driver, driving off with Hakeem’s (Bryshere Gray) latest love interest, Laura (Jamila Velazquez) in the backseat. Twitter was on fire with speculations as to what crazy stunt Anika was going to pull, but I’m positive that the collective imaginative powers of the internet could not have concocted as ludicrous a scenario as the Empire writers gave us: Anika literally just drove Laura home… in order to see where she lived.
That a show known for over-the-top melodrama would set up a cliffhanger primed for explosive plot twists, and then let it fizzle out in such a bizarre anticlimax makes me wonder if this entire season has been an exercise in trolling the audience. If it hasn’t been an elaborate joke, then it’s at the very least indicative of a disorganized writer’s room with no unified vision of the show, its characters, or the plot. Each episode feels as though it pulls us in a completely different direction, opening up narratives possibilities that are never actualized and causing the show’s cast to act in ways that are completely out of line with the characters they’ve been developing over the last year. Lucious (Terrence Howard) mumbling baby talk to Rhonda’s (Kaitlin Doubleday) pregnant belly? Jamal (Jussie Smollett) kissing a woman? What’s going on here?
This season began with Lucious getting back to his roots by recording new tracks in prison and vowing to reignite his stalled music career. Nothing at all has happened with that. He keeps writing tracks for other artists and clearly, with this episode’s heavy-handed references to "legacy" and the "next generation", we're expected to understand that Lucious’s time as a star in his own right is over. However, he’s been talking about his legacy and passing the torch to the next generation since the first season; remember that all this started with him thinking that he had a terminal illness. The future obsolescence he is facing now is, for a man with an ego like his, in fact a worse fate than death, but the writers are being coy (and not in a good way) about making that explicit. In fact, there have been literally no references this season to either his chronic illness or his mistaken ALS diagnosis.
The sociopathic duo Andre (Trai Byers) and Rhonda have, over the course of the season, inexplicably morphed into the prototypical upper class American couple. He’s an executive, and she’s staying home to raise the child they’re soon to welcome into the world. At this point, Andre has his life more together than any of the other Lyons, but are we supposed to forget that just a couple weeks ago he was hearing the voice of god? A significant amount of time and energy this season went into dramatizing the parallels between Andre and Lucious’s mentally unstable mother, and explaining the latter’s displaced resentment of the former, but nothing’s been done with that since.
Another gaping plot hole is Andre’s attempts to Christianize Gutter Life Records through the figure of Becky’s (Gabourey Sidibe) boyfriend J Poppa (Mo McRae). Where did he go? Heck, where did Becky go? Why did we spend so much time on her conflict of interest just to have them both -- and Gutter Life Records too -- largely disappear from the horizon of the show? Speaking of disappearing acts, what was the point of dropping Jameson Henthrop (William Fichter) into episode six for all of two minutes just to never pick up that thread? This last plot hole seems all the more bizarre given the latest twist in Jamal’s character development. After using him as a way of exploring the role that homophobia plays in the public and personal lives of Black pop stars, this week’s episode had him kissing, uh, female pop star Skye Summers (Alicia Keys).
It’s possible that all of Jamal’s complaining about his being marketed too narrowly as a gay artist -- the impetus for Fichter’s cameo as a marketer -- is a run up to a broadening of his sexual identity; however, while sexuality is fluid, it’s not like Jamal hasn’t experimented with women before. Quite the contrary; it was revealed in season one that he’d been married. One assumes that attraction to women would be a known quantity by this point in his life. Furthermore, if the intent is to transition Jamal’s sexual attentions from someone of the same gender to someone of the opposite, it seems patently unfair that the show has simultaneously written out all of its other queer characters. Their presence has been central to the show’s identity and success. As I said last week about the show’s use of Laura’s virginity, this development is so regressive in its politics that it doesn’t seem to cohere with Empire as I’ve come to know it.
There were some pleasures and resolutions offered in “Sinned Against.” Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and her sisters really supplied the core of the episode. All three women are fantastic actresses, and their dynamic together is one of the most real the show has seen. After finding out Laz’s (Adam Rodriguez) true identity as part of the gang that kidnapped Jamal, Cookie has a mild meltdown that leads to a tender scene in which she convinces Carol (Tasha Smith) to get into rehab. It was nice to see Taraji P. Henson given some real material to work with, and perhaps it’s because of the quality of acting provided by Henson and the other central cast members that the celebrity cameos for which the show is known seem to fall so flat. This week’s performance by Alicia Keys was indicative of a larger issue in the show’s use of real-world musical talent; she’s an amazing musician, but she can’t hold her own in a scene with seasoned actors like Terrence Howard and Jussie Smollett.
The trailer for next week’s episode suggests that some plot holes will be addressed, but it also suggests that the fall finale will take us right back to where we began this season: in the midst of a hostile takeover that precipitates dramatic changes in alliances and loyalties. Maybe such a dramatic move can inject the show with enough energy to really pull it together in the second half of the second season, but after the schizophrenic writing I’ve seen these last eight weeks, I’m not sure that I believe -- or care -- that it will.