When was the last time you went into the woods, stood in a small clearing no more than 15 feet in
diameter, and saw that you were surrounded by a group of identical trees? Never mind surrounded, when was the last time you saw as few as two trees that looked exactly the same with the same unique identifying characteristics and were right next to each other? I ask because I'm a born and raised city kid, and even living in a beautiful state like Florida, I make it a point not to spend anymore time than needed outside. But I'm honestly curious about whether or not this is a common phenomenon that I've just never heard of or witnessed before. And I ask because such a question is what was rattling around in my mind during one of the important scenes in this week's Empire episode. The problem with this is that while main characters are trying to dig up dead bodies on a TV show, I shouldn't be stuck thinking, "But that's not how trees work."
The willing suspension of disbelief is a two-way street. I'm willing to meet a storyteller halfway most of the time. I'm willing to do my part and turn a blind eye to silly and nonsensical things in an effort to best enjoy the story, but you have to give me a story worth enjoying first. There's actually a great example of the show doing just that in the previous episode. The Lyons sit down to dinner in the wake of Lucious' release. Never mind how ridiculous it is that all these characters who hate each other and have split up, gotten back together, and split up once again would agree to just head over to Lucious' house to sit down to a meal. I'm willing to overlook the ridiculousness that is the origin of this dinner party in favor of the fun and drama of seeing these stupid characters all in the same place at the same time. In other words, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief in favor of the juicy soapy story that I find far more interesting than I do the continued woes of Andre and Rhonda and the Clue case of finding Uncle Vernon dead in the living room by candle stick. So if you can't make the story interesting, at the very least you have to make it make sense, and the two of them forgetting where they buried Vernon because all the trees in this one small space are 100% identical does not make sense, so the entire scene crumbles as a result.
Which is a shame because I was rather enjoying most of the episode before that. "Poor Yorick" is an odd tale of two halves. The first half feels like some of the better aspects of Empire that we've seen this season. The second half kind of falls apart. The entire episode is written and directed by Danny Strong, so I don't understand the reason behind the loss of logic past the midpoint, but there it is. One minute everything flows consistently and the drama feels organic, and the next minute Cookie's got weird PTSD flashes leading to stupid behavior and Hakeem is stabbing a painting that shouldn't be there in the first place.
But I feel like I've spent so much time talking about the bad of this season that I want to focus a bit more on the good. Starting with the opening FBI raid of Empire and the song it's set to. The music of this season hasn't felt as stand out and impressive as the music from last season. Don't get me wrong, I didn't think the music last year was setting any new standards or heights for contemporary Hip Hop, but a lot of it was at least catchy and memorable. They'd spent so long teasing "No Apologies" that it was impossible not to recognize the beat and the hook by the time we finally got to hear it in an episode. While I don't think "Battle Cry" is quite on that same level, it's easily my favorite song so far this season, and I thought setting it against the FBI raid was both really on the nose (as tends to be the case with Empire songs) and really entertaining. The opening scene offers good music, the chance for a bit of levity from Becky (which is always appreciated), and an opportunity to push some aspects of the story forward. It's a lot of heavy lifting for one Empire scene, and I'd commend them for it.
Also in the good column was seeing Adam Busch guest staring as the artist photographer brought in to come up with a cover for Jamal's Rolling Stone appearance. Seeing another Buffy alum show up in an episode written and directed by Danny Strong was really quite great. And I have to say I like his weird sloppy artistic energy. And I like the way he was flirting with Jamal throughout their scenes together. What I don't like are the shots of Jamal's useless and annoying boyfriend looking all pained over it, but I've said more than enough about how I feel about Michael at this point. Suffice it to say, if Adam Busch can manage to stick around, I'm going to start hoping for him to replace Rafael de la Fuente as Jamal's love interest. It's nothing against Fuente himself, who I think is easy on the eyes and talented enough to stick around. It's just that Michael was ruined for me last season and they don't seem at all interested in doing any character rehab on him this season, nor have they justified his continued presence on the show, so I'm ready for him leave. Couple that with the fact that I think Busch's character has a kind of vision and an energy that I'd really like to see paired with Jamal. I don't know that they'd make each other better, but I do think these two characters could stand to make each other more interesting which is a lot more than I can say about Jamal's current relationship.
There was one more small moment in this episode that I really enjoyed, but it was so insignificant that I almost don't want to mention it. The shot of Hakeem at that bar prepared to send Jamal an apology through text only to delete it and change his mind. It's not that he's not sorry, it's that he can't bring himself to say it just yet, and there's a lot going on in Bryshere Gray's face in that quick scene. I think all three of the Lyons' boys have had impressive moments this season and this was Hakeem's. Never mind that it doesn't seem like the kind of bar that Hakeem would ever be caught dead in; the whole thing simply hints at an aspect of this story I'd like to see them explore deeper: the effect this rift is having on Jamal and Hakeem specifically. They had the strongest relationship of last season, and seeing them put through their paces this year has been painful and sad. It only makes sense that they'd feel dubious about the actions they're having to take for one reason or another, and I'd like to see more of those little cracks in the facade.
The rest of the episode is stock Empire fare by this time. The good thing about this episode is that there are at least small tidbits of good that weren't really a part of the previous few installments. So it seems they haven't fully forgotten how to tell good stories, but I don't think this is some kind of turning point for things. Something has to jolt this show into gear before it starts to feel like we're all just wasting our time here. Here's hoping finding a dead body in a passenger seat is that thing.
--Cookie and Lucious have a funny scene where they shoot barbs at each other the likes of which only two people with their history would really be able to pull off.
--I think this show has to figure out what they want to do with Anika. All this back and forth bouncing between Cookie and Lucious isn't working. And while it seems like they've got her making moves to benefit Lyon Dynasty, all of them have been off screen and therefore might as well not happen at all. I've never seen a worse case of a character spinning their wheels.
--The music video scene was sadly predictable. I knew Jamal would throw the first punch, and I knew the bat would come into play. It's too bad because the more I see those boys together the more I remember that that's the best state for them. Talk about two people capable of making one another better.
--I haven't mentioned it yet, but I do think Andre Royo has been a joy as Lucious' lawyer.
--“If I die in police custody, I did not commit suicide.” It’s funny coming out of Cookie’s mouth, but the sad reality behind it and the necessity of it is tragic. Still better than seeing her in that gorilla suit though.