Thursday, March 19, 2015

TV Review: Empire Episodes 11 & 12

I think the last two episodes of Empire's first season are the most perfect encapsulation of what this season has been. I know that that might sound a bit like a compliment, but I don't think it's really intended to be. Because truth be told, the first hour in this two hour long extravaganza, "Die But Once," is brilliant for a number of different reasons, but the second hour, "Who I Am," is a train wreck. The Av Club Reviews of this season have often chided the show when it tackles issues surrounding the company or the music industry as a whole, but praised the show's work on the family and character level. In a nutshell, "Die But Once" is all about the characters and the Lyons family, and "Who I Am" in spite of its title is all about Empire Records and hostile corporate takeovers. As such, the writing is on the wall about which episode is the better of two. I also think that it's generally a better idea not to air two separate episodes back to back like this. I think there are a lot of good things to be said about a two-part episode being aired this way, or even two episodes of a show that's more tightly serialized than Empire is (look no further than the last day of How to Get Away With Murder episodes for an example of this). But what we had here were two very different episodes of the show that could have benefited from a week long break in between them.

But first things first, I'm going to try for a little optimism here and suggest something: What if the overall story of Empire's first season is a story about a hubristic man planning to bring his family together and unite them under his singular vision only to succeed in pushing them farther and farther apart? When you look at "Die But Once," that seems to be the suggestion. In the aftermath of Lucious' confession about his paternity of Lola, sending Camilla away, and leaving Andre alone with his illness, everyone (except Jamal, oddly) has just jumped clean off of the Lucious bandwagon. Cookie is off having a romantic weekend with Malcolm in the Berkshires, Hakeem is getting ready to sign with a different label and compose a freestyle that will be a blatant Fuck You to his father, and Andre is ready to turn in his resignation and give his life over to the Lord. Or to Jennifer Hudson, at least, and who can blame him on that front? And so it's in the penultimate episode that we finally see the fruits of all of Lucious' seeming labor. If when he sat his sons down in that first episode and purposed this little competition what he was hoping for was a moment when all of them would be standing shoulder to shoulder to bring Empire Records to the next step, then he was vastly mistaken.

But does that reading of the season track through all 12 episodes? His family didn't seem to be too torn apart at the beginning of that first episode. So what might he have been intending on bringing together? And at what point did we ever see Lucious doing anything that would ever benefit someone other than Lucious? So while I don't really accept that particular reading as gospel, it was the closet thing I could find to a seemingly full story that would have drawn to a close in these two episodes.

But that's to take nothing away from "Die But Once" itself which is a wonderfully engaging and entertaining episode for the show. Everything from Cookie and Malcolm's sexy fun times, to Becky's priceless sass, to Hakeem's revenge worked wonders. But the star of the hour had to be the latest in a season long run of Lucious and Jamal scenes; this one featuring the two of them banding together to make music. It's the honest culmination of their relationship. It's beautiful, moving, and powerful; the song they create is one of the better tracks the show produced all season, and it all can't help but to leave you feeling a bit warm and fuzzy inside.

If there's one downside to the scene, it's that it left me in a state of disbelief that Lucious could possibly have gone all this time without fully realizing just how talented Jamal is. I think the jealousy arc they set up back towards the beginning of the show (and never really touched on again) might account for some of that, but Jamal's been killing it on a level that Hakeem hasn't, and I'm simply not capable of believing that it would have taken this much time for Lucious, musical genius that he allegedly is, to see it. Here in lies the problem with Lucious' cartoonish level of homophobia. If you want me to believe that Lucious might try to deny that Jamal is his son, I'm willing to go with that, but if you want me to believe that because of Jamal's sexuality, Lucious would have spent years and years of his life ignoring his obvious talent, I can't really wrap my brain around that.

It's a powerfully moving scene when watched on its own, but it can take on a more sinister light when pitted against the scene where Lucious tells Jamal to get the rights to his old music by any means necessary. The scene where the two of them are making music is inter-cut with scenes of a murder Lucious committed. And then we see Jamal ready to throw Beretti from the roof in order to get what he wants. The suggestion is that in order for Lucious to fully accept Jamal, Jamal's got to become more like him. It also makes you wonder if Lucious' motivations for going off with Jamal and singing with him weren't this dark all along.

All of this brings us to the point where Lucious names Jamal the next leader of Empire records. These two episodes are written by Ilene Chaiken and Danny Strong, but both of them clarify just how much of Empire was always meant to be an exercise in Lee Daniels' own wish fulfillment. Daniels has been open about his own relationship with his father, and it's easy to see the parallels between his and Jamal's story. So I can't help but to think that Jamal getting the company and finally gaining Lucious' love and acceptance is meant to be something cathartic for Daniels. Whether or not it all rings true is is something I think everyone has to answer for themselves. I don't buy it, personally. I think especially in the wake of the news that he doesn't have ALS after all and won't necessarily be dying anytime soon, I think it's more likely that Lucious would put off making his decision for one more season just to give Hakeem more time to come around and find himself in a position to take over.

But Lucious naming Jamal as his successor is the decision that kicks off "Who I Am" and that leads to some of the most nonsensical moments of that finale. I mentioned before that these two episodes didn't have to be paired together on one night, but some part of me wonders whether or not Fox looked at them individually, saw how ridiculous this last one was, and then paired them together in the hopes that the first episode would carry enough positive momentum to propel viewers through the second and into hiatus without much complaint.

Lucious' decision has been made, the silly competition for who will run the company is over, and instead of allowing the brothers to heal and move past it, it simply incites a new revelry between them. Andre and Hakeem band together to unseat Jamal, and for some reason that isn't at all made clear and that I wouldn't buy anyway, Cookie joins them. Jamal and Cookie's relationship has been nothing but strong for this entire season, and yet in the course of one episode Jamal is pissed at Cookie for even entertaining the notion of killing Lucious, and Cookie seems to no longer think that Jamal should run Empire but that he should have immediately split it with Hakeem as soon as Lucious offered it to him.

Don't get me wrong, that's what I want too. I've been saying for weeks now that the perfect outcome for all of this would be the three bothers running company together. But the ease with which Cookie seems to jump from team Jamal to team Hakeem is ridiculous and it makes me think that she's less interested in her sons succeeding than she is in hitching her wagon up to whichever star will have the most benefit for herself. It's the first time I honestly stopped to wonder if Cookie was actually any better than Lucious at all. I'm also not saying that Jamal needn't be a bit disappointed in his mother for her homicidal intent, but the extent to which he looks shocked and disgusted was surprising to me. I think more of a "Well that's fucked up, Ma, but yeah I get it, he is a total dick after all," would have been more believable. But the look of betrayal on Jamal's face when Lucious showed him the tape of Cookie with the pillow was just a bit much to me.

"Who I Am" suffers, as all the worst episodes of this season did, from Empire's inability to slow the fuck down. It's a breakneck episode rushing through setting up the Empire Records line of succession, the hostile takeover, and Lucious' arrest for Bunkie's murder (yes the same Bunkie that none of us have really even thought about in many many weeks). In its rush to setup some of the foundation for next season, Empire forgot that they needed to produce a strong caper to this season.

The majority of what happens within it is ridiculousness without the excitement of typically good Empire ridiculousness. Vernon dies because little old Rhonda hits him with what looks like a small candle holder in order to get him off of Andre? Give me a break! I neither believe that she's strong enough or that that weapon was hefty enough to do that much damage. It's a scene that reeks of forced drama intended to set the stage for their major crisis next season, but it doesn't feel real or earned by any means.

The scenes where Lucious gets arrested and where Cookie and Anika finally get into the fight we've all been waiting for are far better earned by the show simply because they've been setup from the very first episode. Granted the show forgot all about Bunkie's existence until this week, but it was still a storyline we all knew would have to be addressed sooner or later. The only problem with both of those scenes is that neither of them have any sort of long standing consequences to the show as a whole. Cookie and Anika are agreeing to work together immediately after throwing blows, and we all know Lucious won't be in jail long. So why get invested?

 It's a bit weird that a show so perfectly encapsulates everything it's been all season in two episodes, but there you have it. It was shocking, juciey and entertaining in parts, and boring, convoluted, and nonsense in other parts. But seeing as how this inconsistency is exactly what we'd been given for the 10 episodes prior to these two, should we really have been surprised?

Random Thoughts:

--I mentioned it once but didn't go into details, but Lucious isn't dying after all. Instead of ALS he has Myasthenia Gravis which is actually a real thing. I expected there to be some kind of cop out with his march towards death, but I was hoping it would come in the form of some kind of miraculous new treatment, or some change in circumstances that just caused his symptoms to slow down or something. His not having ALS at all annoys me and I'm not totally sure why.

--Snoop Dogg was great in "Die But Once," and Hakeem's freestyle was a lot more skillful than I expected. It wasn't perfect, but given Hakeem's silver spoon issue and the thought that he would have ultimately bypassed that underground kind of rap battling left me unsure as to how good he could be expected to be.

--Mario Van Peebles and Debbie Allen directed these two episodes. I didn't notice anything remarkable about the direction of either, but I'll have to watch them through a second time to make sure. Either way, Empire's ability to draw in big names both behind and in front of the camera has to continue to be commended. Especially since Snoop Dogg and Patti LaBelle also found themselves in these episodes.

--I'm very sad to see Malcolm go right when he and Cookie were getting started. We'll miss you, Derek Luke. And your great abs too!

--Speaking of which, I think the sex scene between Malcolm and Cookie was award worthy!

--Also great was the Cookie and Anika fight. Partially because it was a long time coming and everything we hoped it would be, but also partially because of how surprised I was that Anika honestly held her own in it. I didn't expect it to be such a close bout.

--The speed with which Jamal seems to start serving his own interest over those of his brothers when he's named the successor is ridiculous and unbelievable. The suggestion seems to be that he's had this darker, more Lucious-like, seed within him all along, but I don't buy that for one second. They could have done much better.

--Going forward, I would love to see Empire finally start to slow down and take its time with more of its storylines, plan its seasons out in advance instead of just playing it episode by episode, and get to the point where its capable of making the business storylines just as entertaining as the family drama. I can't think of anything I'm less interested in than this hostile takeover story.

--Thanks for sticking it out with them through this first season. Hopefully I'll be able to do this again next year with the show's second season.

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