Wednesday, March 11, 2015

TV Review: Empire Episode 10: Sins of the Father

There's a common theme that creeps up in a number of stories and shows and countless other places: It doesn't matter where you start, it only matters what you become. I think it's a quintessentially American point of view. In a country that's founded on, or at least that has greatly embraced the principals that anyone can transcend their parents' station and just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become anything they want to be, the idea that someone can start as a pauper and end as a prince is not only fanciful but believable. It's a story that I enjoy, but as a method of storytelling, it's something I find suspect. This is because in a perfect world the story would track at a consistent quality and pace throughout. But the world isn't perfect, and sometimes stories stumble out of the gate only to pick up steam in the middle and then rocket home at the end. And sometimes there are stories like the one about Jamal's alleged daughter. It was a horribly problematic beginning, a pointless and mostly absent middle, and then an explosive and surprisingly moving end. So I ask, if two thirds of the story were problems, but the last third totally sticks the landing, does it really matter? And what does this mean for the series as a whole? Empire started out strong, waned a bit in the middle, and now seems to be heading towards an entertaining if disconnected season finale. So what does that mean for the show as a whole through its first season?

I'm not sure about the answers to these questions. Chances are they're all purely subjective, but this episode was so enjoyable that I can't help but to ask them. It's not that I think this is the first episode that's been legitimately good in awhile. It's just that this is the first episode where the good soapy silliness was so good as to make the unbelievable ridiculous moments moot by comparison. Malcolm is declaring his deep love for Cookie after sharing only like three scenes with her and just last week explaining why she's off limits to him? Who cares, I ship it anyway so let's just get on with the sexy fun times. Olivia's back with her abusive boyfriend who's basically come back in order to get her and her daughter back so he can kill them? Who cares so long as we get the bombshell that Lola is actually Lucious' daughter and not Jamal's! The last few episodes of the show have had some fun moments, a few zingers, but no revelations on par with this. Jamal's coming out isn't as big a moment since we've known he was gay all along. Even Andre's psychotic break isn't all that surprising as you could have guessed it was coming since the moment the word bipolar was spoken. But this? You may have guessed that Lola wasn't Jamal's. You may even have speculated that she was Lucious'. But there's no way to guess at the effect that that news would have when divulged in this manner.

And that's the real treat of the episode. The news that Lucious is the father is actually secondary to the fact that he would tell everyone not in a moment of self-aggrandizement, not in an effort to hurt Jamal, but at a moment when he thinks that that information might actually save everyone's lives. Is it a purely selfless act? I'm not so sure I'd go that far, but it's certainly as close as I think Lucious Lyon is capable of getting. And it's this element that impresses and intrigues me the most. Not even half an hour after telling Jamal that Lola doesn't need to be raised "In that lifestyle" (we'll come back to this issue later), he's willing to throw himself in front of a bullet in order to save Jamal's life. If there's one place Empire has been consistent throughout these ten episodes, it's in the complications in the Lucious/Jamal relationship. Lucious seems to hate him, and yet he'd take a bullet for him. Jamal undermines Lucious at every turn, and yet he's ready to sing on the family song after hearing that Lucious is dying. Their relationship goes so much deeper than just gay son and bigoted dad, and that will forever be to the show's credit. I've complained about the uselessness of Lola's presence multiple times since she was introduced four episodes ago, and I stand by those complaints wholeheartedly, but if this is where the show was heading all along, I'll scale back my criticism.

Another story seems to end this week but this one simply fizzles out instead of getting the bang that Lola and Olivia get. Camilla is gone. Hopefully for good, but ultimately who knows. She spends a lot of time this week trying to makeover Hakeem, give him a new sound, and using the word "we" when she's talking about his career, but by the end of the episode Lucious has shipped her back to her homeland not to return until he's dead. On the one hand, I'm happy to see her go, on the other hand what did we actually learn about her, or through her about Hakeem, while she was with us? In my notes while watching the episode, I question who she was, what was her motivation, and what was she getting out of this entire relationship? We can do a lot of the shading in of this character ourselves, and perhaps that's the show's ultimate goal, but I would like to at least feel like the show has the answers to these questions instead of putting it all on the viewer, and I'm not sure I left this episode feeling as though that was the case. It would have been an interesting development had she actually taken the money and we saw that she'd been just using Hakeem all this time to get out of her considerable debt. But she didn't, so it seems as though she wasn't, and if not that then what? Love? Camilla truly loving Hakeem is a possibility that would make sense, but I'm not sure how interesting I'd find it in the grand scheme of things. Either way, what a waste of Naomi Campbell that turned out to be.

There are also two small moments in this episode that reek of the show wanting to make mention of a big issue only to then skate over it and not engage with it fully. The first comes at the beginning of the hour when Cookie makes a passing mention of how bipolar disorder and music therapy are just silly white people nonsense. Here's a moment when the show could fully engage with the problematic manner in which the black community tends to view mental illness and how that often leads to people of color not getting the help they need to make it through such troubled waters. But instead the show treats it as a funny Cookie throwaway one liner and moves on. Even later in the episode when Jamal calls Lucious on the way he ignores issues about his kids that don't fit in with his perfect little world view, it's treated more as just another instance of Lucious' bigotry than the deeper racial problem that it is.

The other moment is in Lucious' conversation with Vernon. He mentions how he would expect the power grab move from Andre since Andre is book smart, but he never would have expected it from Vernon who's street smart and therefore should have known better. The difference between the two and the manner in which Lucious clearly values the latter over the former could be important. It's a subject the show has touched on a couple times now. But yet again it's just a quick one off mention meant to spur Vernon's drug fueled pity party and make him the catalyst for the episode's big climax.

Next week is Empire's big two hour season finale. Based on the preview, I can't say that I'm not ridiculously excited to see what the big soapy drama that will have everyone talking on Thursday will be. But what I'm more interested in is whether or not they can stick the landing. Empire started strong, got bumpy in the middle, and now has the ability to finish strong as well. If it does that, they'll have bookended the first season well, and I think most people will easily forgive the questionable middle passages. But if it simply fizzles out like the Camilla storyline did, then a few people might find themselves questioning why they spent those thirteen hours going along for the ride in the first place.

Random Thoughts:

--I mentioned early on in these reviews that one of the good things about this show could end up being the way it was capable of zigging when you expected it to zag. One place where I would have liked to see that happen is in Lucious' conversation with Jamal about why Lola shouldn't live with him. It'd have been funny if Jamal was assuming he meant he didn't want Lola raised by a gay guy when what he actually meant was he didn't want her to be raised by a poor person in the hood. Still problematic, but since I've recently become exhausted with each new iteration of Lucious' extreme homophobia, it would have been a breath of fresh air.

--I understand the easy interpretation of Lucious coming clean had more to do with him stepping in to save Cookie than it did him stepping in to save Jamal, but I like my reading better.

--When we got around to the reappearance of Olivia, I found myself thinking that she didn't seem to have any of the same manic fire that she did when she was dropping Lola off in the first place. One thing this ending did was give me the ability to re-conceptualize that earlier scene. If her manic presentation was more about a woman stressing out over coming to the conclusion that her only option to save her daughter was to give her away, then I think it makes a bit more sense. It'll be interesting to rewatch those scenes with this outcome in mind.

--With that being said, however, I would have liked to see a bit more emotional distress from Raven-Seymone in the scene where she's about to leave the state. If you're upset you had to leave your baby with Jamal in the first place, maybe you can also be upset that you're about to flee the state and officially never see her again at all.

--Nice work from Jennifer Hudson in her first guest starring episode. The scene where she asks Andre to pray with her when it looks like she's about to seduce him was another nice moment of the show subverting viewer expectations. Although the "Pray your troubles away" approach might fall in the black people not getting the mental help they need category.

--The flashback hair in this episode was just atrocious.

--Ryan left Jamal when Jamal decided he wanted to be a full time father to Lola. It's a development that I honestly don't care about one way or another as I'm not really attached to Ryan and because I'm not at all attached to the idea that Jamal had actually grown enough as a character to make that decision on his part make any kind of sense. But I did like the way they were capable of having a grownup discussion about it in which neither of them had to come off as the bad guy. It places them a step up above Jamal and Michael as much as it pains me to say it.

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