If Empirestretches audience goodwill a little too far, perhaps it can be forgiven; whatever its flaws, it never fails to entertain.
EmpireAirtime: Wednesdays, 8 pm
Cast: Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, Bryshere Grey, Jussie Smollett
Subtitle: Season 2, Part 2
This season of Empire was, predictably, all over the map. Relationships were mended, lies were told, sex was had, and, of course, people were bumped off, all in the perpetual struggle for control of Empire Records. I mentioned in my review of the mid-season finale that I felt like we'd probably seen all of Empire's tricks, given its tendency to recycle material. Unfortunately, I largely feel as though that prediction turned out to be true. Despite the frenetic pace at which we were served one dramatic spectacle after the next, the second half of season two had a significant been-here-done-that feel to it.
Hakeem's (Bryshere Grey) older lover Camilla (Naomi Campbell) made a comeback, Lucious (Terrence Howard) and Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) flirted for the umpteenth time with getting back together, and Jamal (Jussie Smollet) continued to be put through the paces for/by his sexuality. Of all the major plot points, the only novel introduction was the return of a figure from Lucious' past: his mother, whom we -- and everyone else in the show -- were given to believe was dead.
Camilla's return to the Lyon family was surprisingly short-lived. Viewers will remember that she returned at the end of the mid-season finale as the wife of Empire Records investor-turned-hostile-takeover-coordinator Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei). While Naomi clearly expected to be unproblematically rejoined with Hakeem atop the throne to the empire, in her absence Hakeem had fallen in love with Laura (Jamila Velazquez), and while hesitant at first to dance to Camilla's tune, Hakeem, in true Lyon fashion, eventually dumps Laura in order to accrue power for himself within the company.
Nothing lasts for long within Empire, however, including Camilla's triumphant return. If there's little else good to say about the Lyon clan, they have a fierce sense of loyalty to the idea of their family, and that idea's firmly rooted within the Empire brand. At Cookie's, uh, "urging" (she beats him with a broom) Hakeem admits this, turning on Camilla in order to return the company to the family's control. As per usual, Lucious had to be a little extra about it, following Camilla to New York in order to ensure that she was removed from their lives -- for good this time.
With Camilla gone, Hakeem wastes no time in asking Laura to marry him, though, his plans are complicated by Anika's (Grace Gealey) revelation that she's pregnant with Hakeem's child. While we knew of Anika's pregnancy in the last half of this season, it was purposefully left unclear to whom the child belonged. She had, after all, been with Hakeem shortly after leaving Lucious. Laura's understandably thrown for a loop by the pregnancy, and, sadly, she returns Hakeem's ring telling him that they "have very different ideas of family".
For his part, Hakeem seems committed to taking care of Anika and their child together, even as he tries to create a life with Laura. When Anika begins displaying erratic and disturbed behavior, he rushes to provide her with emotional and material support. Even Cookie, who's never had love for Anika, seems to put real effort into bringing her into the family fold. Anika's distress at bringing her child into the Lyon family is legitimate, though, as Lucious stoops to an all-time low by threatening her life, noting that "women die in childbirth all the time". The threat's eerie but also suspicious, given Rhonda's (Kaitlin Doubleday) earlier spill down the stairs of her home, a fall that resulted in the miscarriage of her child with husband Andre (Trey Byers). While we're given various suggestions that Anika was to blame for Rhonda's fall, it's difficult not to also suspect Lucious, if for no other reason than that he's been shown time and again to have almost no moral compass.
This is yet again made abundantly clear in his treatment of Jamal following the latter’s surprising sexual liaison with pop songstress Skye Summers (Alicia Keys) during the first half of this season. Lucious has been nominated for an award for the first time in years, but his victory's threatened by the fact that Jamal has also been nominated, not only in the same category but in more categories than any other artist has ever claimed before. In an attempt to undermine the support offered to Jamal by the gay community, Lucious launches a misinformation campaign centered around Jamal’s "heterosexual indiscretion", and as a result, Jamal’s subjected to various acts of bullying and disapproval by a gay community that feels betrayed by what is perceived as his "flip-flopping" between sexual orientations.
Meanwhile, Jamal has drama of his own making. He briefly reconnects with his ex-flame Michael (Rafael de la Fuenta), and begins an ill-advised affair with a closeted hip-hop producer named D-major. (Believe it or not, no dick jokes have been made at the expense of this character name yet, which I find astonishing given Empire's love for low-hanging fruit.)
While he initially attempts to set boundaries, telling D-major (nee Derek) that he works hard to "live his truth" and doesn't want to go back into the closet, Jamal eventually gives in to the clandestine relationship only to have it completely implode. Lucious walks in on the two in a romantic embrace, and in an attempt to save face, Derek acts as though Jamal had made an unwelcome pass. The little scene provides the motivation for one of Lucious' most homophobic tirades of the series.
While the last seven episodes of this season lean heavily on the enmity between father and sons, the other relationships within the family seem largely to be thriving. With the exception of her post-hostile takeover beatdown of Hakeem, Cookie seems to be growing closer to all of her sons, even as they grow closer to one another. Each boy seems to have recognized the necessity of having allies, especially within this family; this is never more clear than following Jamal's being shot at an awards ceremony. Both Hakeem and Andre rally around their brother, taking him home from the hospital and expressing their mutual concern over his state of mind following the attack.
This desire for a more coherent family unit is largely what brings Lucious's supposedly deceased mother, Leah Walker (Leslie Uggams), back into the fold. While she’s initially unearthed, alive and (somewhat) well by a reporter with questionable ethics, it's Andre who pushes most vehemently for the matriarch’s reincorporation into the family. After all, it's she who shares Andre's bipolar disorder, and it's clear that it's both a desire to know his history and an identification with mental illness that guides his desire to be close to his grandmother.
As Lucious works harder and harder to keep his mother under wraps, she works harder and harder to make the Walker family history known both to his sons and to the wider public. For once, we see Lucious put back on his heels. While we know some of the violent upbringing he endured at Leah’s hands, she hints in vague asides to the Lyon boys at some other dark history. Given that this is Empire, there's literally no telling what that might be. The season finale ends with a hint at a couple different possibilities, but then again, if the show had a moral it'd be that "everything is not what it seems".
There is, however, one bright spot in the midst all the season’s bleakness: Hakeem and Laura, having reconciled their different expectations, get engaged. The entire Lyon family rises to the occasion, helping to plan the wedding while simultaneously attempting to keep the empire together in the face of the threat of a federal investigation into the company's criminal past.
This goes about as well as one would expect it to. Laura’s conservative, well-to-do family is scandalized by the outrageous, "ratchet" (Hakeem’s words) antics of the Lyons, and even Cookie's clever politicking cannot keep the various worlds present at the nuptials from colliding, ruining the day's tenor, and eventually driving the bride away. Not only does Laura leave Hakeem at the altar, but a very pregnant Anika is served with a subpoena requiring her to testify against Lucious in a grand jury investigation.
Ever the pragmatist, Lucious commandeers the wedding in order to marry Anika so that she cannot legally be required to testify against him. While the perverse nature of the change in program is overwhelmingly clear to both its attendees and the extra-diagetic audience, it's nevertheless dragged out to excruciating proportions, ending only in a catfight between Rhonda and Anika that sends one of them (we’re not sure which) over a hotel balcony.
At the end of the day, what's so disappointing about Empire is that it's ultimately cynical about its viewers and the extent to which they are either willing or able to suspend the disbelief that the show, at times, seems actually to be provoking. Do the writers genuinely expect for us to believe in the sentiment expressed by Lucious in the family anthem "Chasing the Sky" when he suggests that the love he feels for his sons is the truest thing in his life? Not many episodes ago he was threatening to kill Hakeem to take back his company, and it doesn't take long (uh, it's the next episode) until he's telling Jamal he'll celebrate when Jamal dies of AIDS.
This tension between ego and self-sacrifice, between interpersonal trauma and unconditional love, has always been central to the show's dynamic. I think it's also the part of the show that resonates with so many viewers, because learning how to love the people you didn't choose to live with is the kind of everyday human drama that can cut through the organized crime intrigue and hip-hop glamour that Empire also offers.
But at this point in the show’s career, it feels like the writers have run out of creative, believable ways to hit those notes. We've seen every configuration of homophobia, mental health stigma, and professional ambition that can reasonably be imagined, and despite my very deepest desires to the contrary, I'm afraid that, considered in full, this second season suggests the writers may not have anything more in store for us that we haven't already seen.
So given that Empire's been renewed for a third season, the question is, does one keep watching? Whether or not we’re conscious of it, this is always the question that stalks any show's season finale, and, of course, the answer is highly subjective. As such, I can only really answer for myself: Empire is still, despite all its flaws, a pleasurable experience.
It still does interesting things with its musical numbers, with its treatment of queer issues, and, of course, with Cookie. I am hesitant to say that she's the reason one ought to keep watching Empire, because to do so seems disrespectful to the other talent that supports the show. Overwrought plotlines aside, both Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Grey are excellent at their craft, and watching them perform musically is always a treat.
If Taraji P. Henson is the heart and soul of the show, it's only made possible by the undeniable chemistry that she shares with her fellow actors. Those moments in the show that stick with you are moments in which she plays perfectly off of the actors with whom she shares the scene: when she jibes Jamal about maybe being bisexual, when Lucious jokes about her twerking, when she exits the season crying because she's so defeated by the unchanging Machiavellian dynamic of the family. At this point, it's this chemistry that supports the boring, bloated plot dynamics; a sad fact made all too apparent by the inability of Kaitlin Doubleday to pull off the ludicrous scenes given to her in the final episodes of season two.
If Empire stretches audience goodwill a little too far at times, perhaps it can be forgiven for doing so, if only because whatever its flaws, it never fails to entertain. At the same time, it's unclear how far the writers can stretch this goodwill given that the substantial talent making Empire what it is, is likely to bring that talent more -- and better -- opportunities to do their thing. In the vernacular of the show: Empire needs to step up its game.