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A strong episode brings Empire back down to earth

My homie Clyde told me

B+
Bryshere Y. Gray, Jussie Smollett
Bryshere Y. Gray, Jussie Smollett
B+

Empire

"Without A Country"

Season 2 , Episode 2

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At the risk of beating a dead gorilla, Empire showrunner Ilene Chaiken did a fascinating interview last week in which she talked about the infamous Cookie-in-a-cage scene in “The Devils Are Here.” TVLine’s Michael Slezak asks about the Free Lucious rally scene and the thought process behind it, and Chaiken tells him the topical commentary about mass incarceration and black men in the criminal justice system was in the final draft she wrote with co-creator Danny Strong, but the gorilla suit wasn’t. In fact, the gorilla suit didn’t originate in the writers’ room at all. Chaiken says that was all the doing of Lee Daniels, who thought it was genius and wouldn’t be told otherwise.

I said, “Lee, I don’t know how I feel about it.” And he said, “I know it’s really controversial, and I know it’s scary, but you’ve got to trust me on this, Ilene. I know what I’m doing — and this is what I want to say.” ... He said, “Cookie is going to say, ‘How much longer are they going to treat us like animals?’ Because that’s what it feels like, I’m telling you from experience.” My first reaction was, “I’m scared of this. I don’t know if I like it.” But then I took a moment and thought, “Who am I to tell Lee Daniels that this is not the way to tell this story? I’m gonna get behind him. I’d be foolish not to.”

Chaiken doesn’t frame the disagreement in terms of racial difference—which is probably for the best—but the subtext is clear. Sounds like she wasn’t crazy about the scene and probably thought it was ill-advised, but as a white woman, she didn’t feel comfortable arguing a black man down about what will or will not offend black people. Of course, there’s also the practical matter of Daniels being her boss, and television being an industry in which highly-placed creatives are replaced everyday for refusing to toe the line. That ground-level stuff shouldn’t be downplayed, but it’s obvious that there are multiple layers to this creative arm-wrestling match.

At the risk of projecting, it sounds like Daniels and I share a tendency to decline to speak for black America except when doing so imparts the authority necessary to win an argument. If a white guy named Teddy was to say to me “What kind of shampoo do black people use,” Teddy would be met with the shade of 1,000 suns shining on 10,000 forests. But if Teddy was like, “I saw an article that said Starbucks’ African-American customers accounted for 90 percent of Pumpkin Spice Latte sales,” I would forcefully counter that claim. If Teddy dared ask me how I know, I would say “I’m black, motherfucker. That’s how I know.” I assert my right to have it both ways. I’d imagine there are times when Chaiken consults with Daniels on an idea or plot point, and Daniels says “That’s not my life, do some research.” Then maybe there are other times when he has an idea that feels connected to his blackness, and he feels obliged to make that known if his vision and hers don’t align. I don’t begrudge him that.

This kind of behind-the-scenes psychodrama always shapes collaborative storytelling, but it’s typically a little more subtle than whatever the hell’s going on with Empire. “The Devils Are Here” and “Without A Country” are two fundamentally different shows. Daniels makes the difference. He reportedly went to the mat for the two worst ideas in the premiere, Cookie as Donkey Kong and Chris Rock eating the sashimi formerly known as Inmate #830992. With a script written by former Source editor Carlito Rodriguez as directed by Dee Rees, the show is completely different and feels elevated on a number of levels. “Without A Country” feels like the show Empire was trying to become in its first season. The episode is still silly as hell, but in an arch, savvy way that suggests the show is being made by people who really love nighttime soaps.

Maybe that’s just because everyone’s tossing out the word “dynasty” all willy-nilly, a very literal nod to Daniels’ description of the show as a “hip hop Dynasty” before it premiered. The Lyon Dynasty is born, a collection of broken toys cast out of the Empire. “Without A Country” opens with Cookie, Andre, and Hakeem taking the corporate walk of shame, sad banker’s boxes in hand. Cookie’s not the type to fold, and she didn’t wear that hot-ass gorilla suit to watch all her hard work go to waste. So after a seriously erratic relationship arc in season one, Cookie and Lucious’ rivalry is becoming more formal. Lucious isn’t going to take kindly to Cookie appropriating his name, a plot element that echoes Tina Turner’s story. And he certainly won’t cotton to an escalation of the war they started with the hostile takeover attempt. “Devils” felt hollow in the middle because it didn’t communicate much about where the larger story is going. This episode draws the battle lines clearly.

The journey is even better than the destination. There are quite a few really nice scenes, and every move the writers make takes the relationships in an interesting direction. Having Lucious in jail fundamentally changes the rhythm of the show, so it’s all the more important the characters on the outside have enough going on. Granted, all the characters visit Lucious so often you’d think the Lyons were having a separate competition to become the mayor of Doowutchyalike Correctional Center on Foursquare. But there’s still pressure to make the show work with Lucious relatively out of play, and “Country” does it well. Each character in the Lyon Dynasty is given his or her own motivation for wanting to put everything into the new company rather than crawl back to Empire. But those motivations don’t always align, which is why Andre tried to flee Cookie to go back to the comfort of Empire only to have Lucious reject him. Both of those scenes had the perfect tone, and man alive, Trai Byers released the kraken. Beast mode, amirite?

Apparently the writers didn’t want to leave themselves in a vulnerable Lucious-free position for too long, because the episode ends with him being granted bail after his sleazy new attorney blackmails the judge. “Country” represents a more confident and mature version of Empire, but it’s not as good as it could be because the Lucious stuff is pretty flimsy. Everything about the bail hearing plot rolls out in a clunky, this-then-that kind of way. Chris Bridges has some lively scenes as an antagonistic prison guard, and Andre Royo is always a welcome presence. But it all feels exhausting because “Lucious is obviously going to beat the murder rap” is to season two as “Lucious is obviously going to be spared death” was to season one. There’s probably an interesting path laid out for it, but I’d love to just skip ahead to Lucious being free of the charges. I hate the idea of writers making big moves then hastily invalidating them, but I also kind of wish that would happen here. Especially since his crimes consist of killing a character that only appeared in one episode, and another character, ably played by Malik Yoba, who might as well have only appeared in one episode. I’ve sort of moved on, and it seems like the characters have too. Cookie maintains her pragmatic approach to dealing with Lucious, as if she’s got more pressing concerns than her feelings about Bunky’s murder. There’s been little mention of Vernon, even though that’s still a ticking time bomb. Seems like everyone’s ready to move on.

Lucious is even ready to drop new music before he gets out of lockup, so he assembles a group of inmate musicians and engineers, orders a bunch of equipment, and sets it all up in a storage closet to record his hot new single “Snitchin’ Ass Bitch.” I’m just talking about what happened in the episode, that’s all. It’s great to see Empire focused back on its music, and there’s plenty of it in “Country,” including a couple great Jamal songs and some cute pop stuff from Tiana. But “Snitchin’ Ass Bitch” is the centerpiece, and that song feels incredibly anachronistic. I’ve never had a solid idea of what type of artist Lucious is supposed to be, and I feel even more confused about it now. The kids want Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Wale, and Future. “Bitch” is like the bonus track on a UGK CD single imported from Belgium. Still, not bad for one take in a storage closet.

Stray observations:

  • I love Jussie Smollett’s performance in his Spilling The Tea interview. He sounded just as faux-warm and affected as most media trained young stars sound in actual interviews.
  • I’m concerned about Anika as a character. Specifically, I’m worried about how the character’s being written. Anika gets a studio session in which V openly disrespects her a storm out, once again implying her incompetence even while Andre insists she’s “one of the best A&Rs in the business.” Either Anika has practical value to a record label or she was riding Lucious’ coattails, but the story needs to follow one path or the other.
  • Hakeem had an office? What was in that banker’s box he was carrying out? I’d guess around 1,200 Magnum condoms, a small arsenal of Nerf guns, and what is widely considered “the Rolls-Royce of weed grinders.” Also probably some spare loofahs, because that dude loves a bubble bath.
  • Hakeem is pretty solid here. His impulsiveness is principled and serves the story well. He also conceptualizes Rainbow Sensation, and I hope he puts his foot down over that name, because it’s phenomenal.
  • My other gripe with “Snitchin’ Ass Bitch” is the decision to run the finished audio of the track over the scene of Lucious recording it. I get that the music is an alternative revenue stream for Fox, but having Lucious in prison was a great opportunity to show the raw talent he supposedly has. A full acapella performance on the yard would have been cool, and I think Terrence Howard could totally carry it off.
  • The flashback of young Lucious with his mother, his earliest memory of his mother’s mental illness, was well done. And Kelly Rowland’s appearance is exactly the type of guest apperances the show should do more of. It’s strategic and unobtrusive, unlike having Andre Leon Talley randomly pop up to throw shade at Cookie.
  • Chris Bridges is now such a serious actor, he no longer uses “Ludacris” in his credit.