Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Empire: "Without a Country"

What does the word "family" mean to you? I'm an old school lover of language, so the idea that words with such a clear and obvious denotation can have such varied connotation is something that will always amaze me. To some people, family is a source of strength, support, and unwavering, unconditional love. To other people it's a curse; a source of unending horror and a repository of painful memories. To the Lyons, family is a weapon, or at times maybe a shield, but seemingly never anything stronger or more transcendent than that. Over the course of a season and two episodes, we've seen the characters on this show cry, spit, and throw claims of family at one another to justify some of the most vile and horrible actions. But have we ever seen the other side of that coin? Do the writers behind this show have any positive notions about familial relations? And if they don't, is that a problem?

Empire's second episode of its sophomore season is nowhere near as engaging as its first. This is always a problem with Empire since the cracks in this show are always more visible and less defendable when the episode in question isn't as good. If there aren't as many laugh out loud Cookie lines, or soapy drama so juicy you can't help but to leave your jaw on the ground for the entire commercial break, then you're left seeing nothing but the man behind the curtain. But what continues to amaze me about this show is the presence of small moments that are nothing short of astounding.

Towards the end of this episode, Andre goes to visit Lucious in jail and beg his forgiveness and to be let back into Empire. As anyone could have predicted, Lucious says no, but then Andre pleads his case with a kind of quite furry that's more compelling than if he'd just stood up and yelled his indignation to the rafters. Lucious has shunned Jamal his whole life for being gay, but now he gives Jamal Empire. Hakeem sleeps with Lucious' fiancé and helps in the hostile takeover, but still Lucious wants him back at the company. Andre makes one mistake, and then apologizes for it in a manner that no one else is interested in, and yet Lucious says no. When Andre asks why it is that his father hates him so much, we're treated to a flashback of a young Lucious in his mother's arms as she sings him a lullaby. In the midst of it, she seems to zone out a bit and the assumption we're left to make here is that she suffered from a mental illness same as Andre does; Lucious doesn't hate Andre, he hates the way he reminds him of his own mother who probably hurt him due to her own struggles.

As an explanation for his actions, this ranks right up there with the hint from last season that he was simply jealous of Jamal's talent instead of hating him because he's gay. Granted, the show hinted at that and never took it any deeper than that surface level last year, so there's no reason to expect a deeper treatment of this subject matter either. However, the scene plays brilliantly, and the flashback of Lucious and his mother is just subtle enough that it's open to interpretation. It's all done with such a deft hand that you're left wondering how could this be the same show that had Cookie dressed as a gorilla in a cage to beat home a message last week? If each Empire episode was full of nothing but those kinds of moments, can you even begin to imagine how much better of a show it would be?

But if it was full of those moments, those moments wouldn't be as special as they are here. The scene between Lucious and Andre is a diamond in the rough that is the rest of the episode. An episode that features Hakeem being an idiot and trying to force their new label to fly before it can even crawl, Lucious making a radio ready track from a prison supply cabinet, and a horribly uninspired performance from guest star Ludacris.

That's not to say that "Without a Country" is a total waste of an episode. There's some important place-setting in this hour, and if the first episode served to wrap up storylines left over from last season, this hour has a lot more to do with setting up some of the stories we'll be dealing with over the course of this season. Place-setting will always be a thankless job in TV, and with the full season order having been bumped up from 12 to 18 episodes, a few slow filler episodes are unavoidable, but there had to be a better more interesting way to handle this.

One thing that seems interesting about this season is the juxtaposition of Cookie and Lucious. Cookie was the far more sympathetic party last season. It was hard not to be when the show started with her strutting out of prison in that fur coat and immediately making her way to see her kids. While Lucious started the season out pitting his sons against one another, Cookie started out trying to just bring them together and start recapturing all that she missed out on. Now Cookie's the one setting them against each other in service of getting what she wants and while Lucious hasn't become the good guy by any means, he still feels like the wronged party.

This episode sees her make the plan to start her own label, struggle to keep Hakeem in line enough to do the work that needs to be done so he can actually put an album out, continue to fight with Anika, tell Jamal they're starting their own company with as much of a threatening glower as she can, and then lose Andre as an ally in spite of her attempts to hold on to him. It's another remarkable scene as she follows him down the hallway repeating his name only to have him beg her to let him go, but it's also a scene that sets Cookie up as just as big a failure on the family front as Lucious ever was. I've questioned the purity of her motivations in the past, and this episode made me question them more. Clearly she's owed something for taking the fall for Lucious all those years ago, but does her recompense have to come at the expense of her kids? And if she doesn't care whether it does or doesn't, can she ever claim the moral high ground over Lucious again?

I ask that because the heart of the show clearly always has been and maybe always will be the battle between Cookie and Lucious with their kids as both collateral and collateral damage. It's family as a war zone. And if that's what the show wants to be, then that's fine. If the writers have nothing positive to say about the family dynamic, then they're more than entitled to their opinion. But I said last season that my preferred outcome for the show is one where the brothers band together to run Empire as a unit. I've noted multiple times how my favorite parts of the show continue to be these little moments where there's some kind of love and devotion shining through, or at least the deeper bonds and scars (which can be simultaneously painful and beautiful) that family creates. So while I have to acknowledge that my preferred version of the show isn't the only possibility, and might not even be the "best" possibility, I can't help but to wonder whether or not a show that was about the strengths of family and about the Lyons banding together to take on the world wouldn't be a show that resonated more deeply with a wider audience? Then again, if the ratings are any indication, Empire is reaching a wide enough audience doing what it's been doing this whole time. Maybe it's not broken, and if that's the case, then it can't be fixed.

Random thoughts:

--I've mentioned him before, but Hakeem's gender fluid bestie is one of my favorite side characters on this show. I want to know more about them. How do they identify, how do they know Hakeem, and what's the overall plan for them on the show?

--I'm ready for Cookie and Anika to stop the overt fighting. I think if the show took them in more of a frenemies direction with constant backhanded compliments and little barbs being flung but no more overt hostility, that'd be for the better. They don't have to like each other, but maybe just work together for the greater good.

--Still trying to figure out what the point of Michael is. I was very happy when he wasn't on the show anymore. No matter how adorable Rafael de la Fuente is.

--Tiana is back in this episode but no reference to her sexuality or her previous relationship to Hakeem. Which isn't a problem, per se, just a disappointment.

--Andre's never been my favorite character, but he certainly owned it this week. I understand the drama capable of being created from his more manic moments, but these moments of just quiet despair always resonate so much deeper for me. I don't think Trai Byers is a bad actor, but I do think he's maybe a bit better at this things than he is the louder, crazier moments.

--Who should we be rooting for at this point? Who are you rooting for? Is the point to just make all of these characters equally hatable? I still love Jamal, but the more he devolves into Lucious, and the more scenes of him yelling and looking around with that stank face, the more I jump off that bandwagon.

--Part of the reason I wanted to write reviews for Empire is because I tended to disagree with the reviews posted on my number one TV review site, AV Club. Joshua Alston, whom I generally love in his other coverage, and I simply have different takes on the show. However, his review on this episode is really good and one I agree with fully in spite of us having different opinions on what stands to make this show "good." Either way, you can check out his review here if you're interested to see where our opinions differ and where they converge.

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