Wednesday, February 4, 2015

TV Review: Empire Episode 5: Dangerous Bonds

I swear I don't know where to start with this episode. My notes aren't even that in depth because I think we might have just watched the best episode of Empire's first season. There's a reason I love the current run of soapy TV; it has the ability to cram more story elements into one hour than a typical drama does, and it can be as melodramatic as it wants and no one can say anything against it. This episode moves with a breakneck speed, it pushes a number of stories drastically forward, and it never once feels forced or out of place. At its best, with everyone clicking on all cylinders, this is what Empire is most capable of achieving. I hope this show sticks around for a long long time to come.

I made a crack last week about Tiana's seeming disinterest in Hakeem's relationship with Camilla and how it didn't ring true that so many people of color on this show seemed to be heading into open relationship territory. Well it's time for me to eat my words because we just found out that Tiana's disinterest is actually due to the fact that she has a girlfriend of her own on the side. My how the plot thickens on this one. Empire set itself up to be an important show about queer sexuality within the black community back in the first episode when they had Jamal talking candidly about his homosexuality, but now with Tiana, it seems poised to blow the roof off of this subject. Is Tiana a lesbian? Is she maybe bisexual? Or is she just a woman well in charge of her own sexuality with no hang ups on labels and what other people think is appropriate? Any of those options are equally possible, but whatever the reasons, one thing is clear, Tiana is one of the only lady loving ladies of color on TV today and I couldn't be more excited.

Some part of my excitement for this story development comes from how the show handles it. Hakeem seems, at least to me, genuinely upset that Tiana is seeing someone else, not upset that that person is another woman. That's not to say that there isn't a clear level of sexism inherent to his reaction;  clearly he thinks it's fine for him to have a chick on the side, but when he's the one being cheated on it's all different, but there doesn't seem to be any homophobia at play in his reaction. At least not to me, which continues to make Hakeem as fascinating figure. He's clearly bought in to certain aspects of Hip Hop culture, but there just doesn't appear to be a homophobic bone in his body. He loves his brother, one of the guys in his entourage (who I'm very very interested in by the way) seems to be gay or at least in keeping with a nontraditional gender expression, and now he doesn't seem to go to an automatic homophobic or even heteronormative place when he finds out his girlfriend is into girls. It's Lucious who makes the suggestion that Hakeem having two girlfriends could be a good thing. More and more as this show goes on I'm starting to think that a major part of its thesis is that the aspects of Hip Hop which are rooted in homophobia are just a lingering symptom of a dying breed. If Lucious represents the old school and everyone else is the future, then Empire is saying that the future of Hip Hop is one that will be totally free of homophobia.

This ideology isn't new. Indeed, it's the way we've been looking at the world at large for some time now. It's no secret that the younger generation doesn't feel the same way towards homosexuality as the older generation does. As such, we've long believed that all that we need to fully effect that shift was for the older generation to die out. Hip Hop (much like all industries dominated by ideals of masculinity) just seemed to be one place where that shift was taking a bit longer than others. But given how quickly the show is progressing Lucious' illness, it seems like the writers and producers behind Empire have different views on how quickly homophobia will be the exception and not the rule within this culture.

I think this also shines through in Jamal's story for the episode. As he finds himself in the seedier part of town renting out a studio space to record his new song which he thinks will be the single to launch him into the stratosphere. The cutting of the music scenes this week were all about the pending Hakeem / Jamal music battle. We see Hakeem going with all the glitz and glam that his father's money can buy as he creates the music video that would put him on top. But the song behind the video is lackluster at best. I can't help but to think that that was purposeful on the show's part because they've been pretty great with the music thus far. But lyrics like “She make that thing go drip drop”  make me think Hakeem’s talking about an STD instead of something sexy and appealing, so he might want to rethink that. Conversely, Jamal's working all day trying to get the music right and lacks all the flash that Hakeem's got. We've got two different approaches; one that places the art and the music first, and the other that seems to place the artifice and the glamor first. I'm not sure yet if Empire wants us to make value judgements on which option is better, but I'm casting my lot with Jamal on this one.

And it's that skill, hard work, and dedication that gains Jamal the respect of the men he's working with. These are lower class, inner city, Hip Hop loving and performing men. So for them to say things like "I know you've got that gay thing going on and all, but this is on point," you know Jamal's on to something. It's refreshing that that's the path that this storyline takes because as Jamal and Cookie were walking up to the recording space at the beginning of the episode, I was worried the show was going to end up placing Jamal in a situation where he'd be seen as basically just slumming for awhile before he needed to head back to his lavish lifestyle and appropriate what he needed from his little field trip. But instead the show seems to be saying that this is where real music, where real struggle comes from, and anyone with the skill and the ability to put in the work is capable of making it in this crowd.

Meanwhile, Cookie's storyline is about as breathless as they come. In the span of an hour she testifies in front of a grand jury, receives what she thinks is a death threat, jumps in a cab to drive over to Philly and see her sister, arranges to have a man killed in an attempt to protect herself from him, and then realizes that what she thought was a death threat was actually just an anniversary gift from Lucious and she's had a man killed for nothing. That's not to mention the multiple phone calls handling Jamal and Tiana's respective drama. In short, Cookie is a fucking beast! It would be easy to say that the show needs to slow some of this down, that some of these story elements come at too fast of a clip to really resonate, but I don't think that that's the case here. Everything progresses logically, it's easy to follow, and the overall effect is to make us as breathless as Cookie feels herself. It's all done to tremendous affect and I wouldn't change a thing.

But more than just her capability of handling herself in a crisis what I love about Cookie is her exceptional musical ability. I don't know if she can sing, or play music herself, but she has an ear for melody and the ability to make a good song great. Twice she listens to Jamal's new track and both times she makes the perfect call on how to edit it and make it better. In Empire's world, there's a use for everyone. Take for example Andre in this episode. He's mostly there to stir shit up between Hakeem and Jamal, but he's also got quite a head for business. While the Shakespearean power struggle between the three sons bothers me on a logistical level, it's been fascinating to see what they each bring to the table. Andre is the business sense, Jamal the pure artistic talent, and Hakeem is the raw untapped potential which when directed can be devastating. If the three of them don't end up applying their respective skills towards running the company together, then I think the show will have missed out on the best course of action.

Either way, all things considered, I think we were left with the best episode of the season thus far. There was betrayal, deceit, suspense, drama, great music, and fluffy over the top antics. If this show can keep this up for any span of time, I think we'll all be having heart attacks before the end. Excuse me, I need to go lay down now.

Random Thoughts:

--In case you didn't hear, Denzel Washington wants in on Empire. I've already been speculating on who he should play, and to be honest, all options are equally appetizing. If they haven't already finished filming the first season, then someone needs to make this happen before the wrap for the year.

--From the Hot Mess Pile: I thought this episode was honestly stellar all the way around so there's not much Hot Mess within it. But I will say that I don't remember ever seeing Tianna's girlfriend before. It's highly possible that I just wasn't paying close enough attention before, but if this is indeed her first time showing up, then I think the show's continuing its streak of messy character introductions. I don't think it's a problem that this is the first we're seeing of her, but I think knowing who she is would have made more sense when we saw her at Rhonda's job. Otherwise it just all seems a bit too convenient.

--Cookie's sister tells her "Oh please your kid’s ain’t real, they rich." The class issues within this show are starting to come forward more and more in these last couple episodes. While Titan doesn't show up this week (which is really annoying since I think dropping that story would be a huge mistake), the question of what Hip Hop and what the inner city deems as "real" is brought up once more.

--The final scene between Jamal and Hakeem just broke my heart. Partially because of the dramatic irony or it all and partially just because I hate seeming them fight. I was hoping they'd stay united for just a bit longer.

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