I think this week saw one of the better episodes of Empire that we've seen in awhile, but I also think that the heydays of the show's first block of episodes is officially dead and gone. That's not to say that the show isn't entertaining any longer, because nothing could be farther from the truth on that one. But the revelatory nature of the show's early movements are gone. Gone are the days when I thought we were in for some grand sweeping pronouncements and deep storylines dealing intelligently with topics that we just didn't see being touched on as often in TV. I'm mourning for those (seeming) losses, but still nowhere near close to wanting to give up on this show. Because at the end of the day, even considering the ridiculous lows this show is capable of hitting, it never ceases to be fun to watch.
One of the places the show teeters on the line between important storytelling, and silly soapy nonsense is in the Andre storyline this week. Allow me to start with a disclaimer: I do not have, nor have I lived with or spent an abundance of time with anyone who does have bipolar disorder, at least not to the extent that Andre seems to. All of my limited experience on the subject comes from storylines on other shows and years of watching ER. With that being said, I don't buy the progression of Andre's illness and symptoms this week. I'm not saying that it's impossible; again I have no extensive knowledge of this kind of thing. I'm simply saying that I don't buy it. I don't believe that someone could stop taking their meds and in the course of less than 24 hours proceed from a relatively stable state into a complete manic state such as we see Andre in before the episode's midway point. It's another situation where the show needs to (say it with me now) slow down.
Had Andre gone off of his meds in the last episode, and slowly spiraled into his manic state, this wouldn't be a concern. Or if the episode had taken place over the course of a couple days instead of the one day it's clearly established to have taken place in, this wouldn't be a concern. But when I spend more of my time saying "It doesn't make sense for him to have hit this low this quickly," then my attention is taken away from what he's doing and how the other characters are reacting to same. Which brings us to one of the more pivotal moments in the episode: the elevator scene. I think this scene would be important even without being underscored by Andre's mania since its really the first scene between the three brothers without the divisive influence of their wives or parents. But I couldn't help but to imagine just how much better the entire thing would have played out with more build up to it. What if Andre went off his meds an episode or more ago and we watched a progressive spiraling of his mental state over time? And what if two or three episodes back we were treated to a flashback scene of the boys living in that bad neighborhood and gunshots are heard and Andre is the one that rushes to get Jamal and Hakeem, both of whom are crying, and get them both down on the ground in case more gunshots ring out. And while they're all down there crying and afraid, Andre starts to sing Lean on Me, and Jamal quiets down with tear streaks all down his face, and baby Hakeem even stops squalling to listen. And then you jump to this episode where Andre, hitting the rock bottom of his days long cycle, freaks out while trapped in the elevator and in the midst of his yelling and panicking, all we hear is Jamal and Hakeem starting to sing and beat box Lean on Me, and it calms and quiets their older brother down. The benefits of those changes, of that little bit of per-planing on behalf of the show would have worked wonders. You're welcome, Empire, I fixed the scene.
Not that the scene, as is, is fully broken, per se. The truth is that I watched that scene and felt the intended emotion from it. It didn't bring tears to my eyes or anything (though I think had it happened the way I prescribed above, then it would have), but I certainly understood where they were going with it all and I was able to meet them halfway. All I'm saying is that those little things that the show still isn't doing to the best of its ability takes a scene that could be great and meaningful and important and leaves them just good. Maybe to a certain extent this is just me trying to enforce my own view of what the show could and should be onto it. Maybe Empire has no interest in being great or important on that level. But if that's the case, then I think there's a serious problem with some of what they've leveled against their characters. If you don't have something meaningful to say about living with bipolar disorder, then making one of your main characters bipolar starts to feel like a gimmick. It feels exploitative and reductive to people living with it if the only reason you made Andre bipolar is so that you could have scenes of heightened drama and explosiveness. There's more to a person with mental illness than that, but I'm not sure that there's more to Andre than that. In the end, I feel as though none of the writers have ever dealt with mental illness, and as such, Andre feels like a token. I may be wrong around that, but if I am and if this is something the writers have first hand knowledge of, then they need to do a better job making it feel real and accessible to the rest of us.
The rest of the episode is pretty standard Empire fare. Lucious' bigotry is kicked up a few notches in the wake of Jamal's coming out. It was expected, but I thought the show missed an opportunity here. If Lucious' anger had been based more on Jamal's ability to take one of his old songs and update it, personalize it, and make it into something that was even more successful than before, then I think that would have been a more interesting development than the basic "I'm not going to respect any of the good you do just because you're gay" angle. Cookie's in rare form as she plays a drinking game with a group of men in order to ensure one of Empire's artist doesn't jump ship. She gets in a few great lines with Derek Luke's character, and then is magically sober again a couple hours later and ready to go for a meeting to bring Tiana back into the fold.
Speaking of which, it would appear that my prayers have been answered on the Tiana front, by which I mean that she came back around for another episode. I think the way she's handled in this episode is the equivalent of praying for food and someone handing you a poisoned apple. She's staying with Empire, but there's no real evidence that we'll be seeing more of her in the future, there's no mention of her sexuality (in an episode where Jamal's sexuality is a topic on just about everyone's lips no less), and for some reason that I don't even think the writers understand she wants to get back with Hakeem. Where was it established that she and Hakeem were meant to be some kind of deep forever love? I was under the impression that for Tiana at least their's was always more of a show relationship than anything deeper. Or is that still the case and all she wants is to be back with him for the boost it'll offer her career? Not knowing the answer to this question doesn't bother me nearly as much as my feeling that the writers don't know either.
But for all of this complaining (and really it's a lot more complaining than I originally intended there to be), the episode was fun, funny, and entertaining. The soapy moments are ridiculous, no one believes for a second that Lucious' and Baretti's men would be found in a Mexican standoff in the middle of the streets in broad daylight, but that doesn't make it any less fun to watch. And one place where the show's breakneck speed continues to work for them can be found in the first scene where Cookie outs Anika's backstabbing to Lucious. In another show, this would have hung over the characters heads for a lot longer, but here one episode ends with Anika going to Baretti's office and the next episode begins with Lucious being told about it. It's something I'll continue to respect the show for, I just wished they knew how to balance it. After all, anyone who drives with their foot constantly on the accelerator is eventually going to end up wrapped around a lamp pole somewhere.
--If you want to see what I think of as a bipolar storyline done well, look to Showtime's Shameless. The way that show has been handling Ian for the past two seasons, and the things they were capable of showing with Monica in the first few seasons have just been stellar. The rest of the show is crap, but it continues to get the Ian storyline right on multiple levels.
--Another slight problem I have with the show is that we're only 3 episodes away from the season finale and it still doesn't really feel like we're building towards anything. I'm worried that when everyone looks back at the overarching story of the first season, we'll all be disappointed to find that there really wasn't one.
--Lucious as much as admits that he's tapped Hakeem as the person he wants running Empire when he's gone. This is what I suspected from the beginning as being the only reason the competition was introduced back in the pilot. Andre's got the most business sense and has worked there for years, so he makes the most sense, but it was clear from the start that Lucious wanted Hakeem. Which makes so much of the foundation of the show seem a little faulty in a couple ways.
--But along those lines, if there's one thing I'll continue to say for sure about this story, it's that all three of the brothers running the business together continues to be the outcome that just makes the most sense. The elevator scene confirmed this for me.