Thursday, October 8, 2015

Empire: "Fires of Heaven"

I can, and do, put up with a lot from Empire, but one thing I can't really abide is when the show is boring. I complained about the same thing with the last episode, but that one at least posed some interesting questions about the show's position on "family" and what that means to the Lyons' and had a couple killer scenes under its belt. This week's installment can't claim either. Family is still a word thrown around like grenades throughout the hour, but the same questions from last week are still floating around instead of being answered. And nothing of note happens. Which is surprising for Lucious' first episode back from the country club that pretended to be a prison.

So what is there really to talk about after the third hour of this new season of the show? The only thing that's really stuck with me so far are the scenes about Lucious' relationship with his mother. Before I gush about this too strongly, allow me to say that they seem to being pouring it on a bit thick with the characterization of Leah Walker's (being played by Kelly Rowland) illness. In much the same way that I thought they could have been a little more subtle and worked on their pacing a bit more with Andre last year, all we seem to be seeing of Leah are the extremes, and I don't think that that serves to really put a real face on this illness. However, the reason why I think this works a lot more than Andre's devolution is because these scenes take place solely in Lucious' memory and of course he'd be more fixated on the extreme highs and lows of his mother's condition.

So after the deft hand they employed last week, we're treated to a couple flashbacks that make Leah's condition explicit. She buys a bunch of "gifts" for a young Lucious even though it's well past his birthday, and she exuberantly helps him to open them. And then, seemingly in no time at all, she's plunged into a depression so deep she's nearly catatonic. The mention of needing to return the gifts in order to be able to eat suggests that not much time has passed between the two scenes. So either she cycles really quickly, or Lucious simply remembers these things in one go and they all get jumbled up in his mind. The latter explanation works much better than the former, and that's what I'm going to choose to believe in spite of not having enough faith in the writers to really buy that they'd have the kind of foresight to pull that off. But willful ignorance and blindness are still necessary to really get a lot out of this show.

These scenes do more work examining Lucious' motivation than anything we've seen thus far. We've seen glimpses of why he views Andre the way he does, some of his earliest connections to music, and assuming they take this story in the direction I expect they'll take it (which is about as bold of an assumption as I can offer), we'll probably see the basis for his commitment issues. It's hard to miss the fact that Lucious' father isn't in the picture, and I assume living with an unmedicated bipolar mother would have led to a lot of abandonment and trust issues. So what we've been seeing through these short scenes are explanations of who Lucious is.

The smart thing I think the show is doing is that they aren't allowing these explanations to serve as excuses for his horrible actions. Lucious is still a dick, and by no means do I think we're intended to sympathize with him currently, but the ability to know the difference between a reason and an excuse is something more advanced than I ever would have given this show credit for in the past. So the only thing left is to see where this all goes and how it continues to impact his present situation. Obviously he's going to continue to be a dick to Andre, but will this history and his potential guilt over Andre's condition drive him to be colder than expected towards his future grandchild? And I assume with this being introduced this season that there's no real way the truth won't come out by season's end. How, if at all, does that shake things up and change the other character's perception of Lucious?

We'll have to wait and see if we get answers to these questions, but in the mean time these flashbacks continue to present the sole bright point in otherwise dreary and boring episodes. The problem for Empire is that these scenes, compared to everything else, are too few and far between to save the quality of the rest of the show. So the assignment for the writers going forward is to find a way to either tap back into the fun level of crazy from last season, or to find a way to draw the pathos of these flashbacks through the rest of the episode.

Random Thoughts:

--In case anyone wasn't sure about Jamal's story about becoming more and more like Lucious, the two of them have a choreographed simultaneous removal of their sunglasses towards the beginning of the episode. It was pretty pathetic.

--Also pathetic was that Empire! salute from Lucious and the fans at his press conference. Give me a break.

--What the ever-loving fuck was Cookie wearing during Lucious' party?

--Am I the only one who finds it a bit ironic that they've brought Kelly Rowland in to guest star in a season where they seem to be doing a kind of Destiny's Child storyline with Hakeem's girl group?

--Speaking of Kelly Rowland, while I think it's probably easier to convey the extreme highs and lows of someone with this illness, I still think it's worth noting that she's been strong in her appearances.

--And speaking of guest appearances, can we not find a better rapper than Pitbull to guest on the show? And after a full season of being the musical producer for the show, Timbaland makes what I think is his first appearance in front of the camera this week.

--What a blessing to not have to deal with Jamal's annoying boyfriend this episode.

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