Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Behold the return of the earthbound Empire

Illustration for article titled Behold the return of the earthbound Empire

Empire is an inconsistent show, and not only in terms of quality. It can literally be a different show from one week to the next, an elasticity it shares with Glee, the earlier hit Fox musical to which I compare Empire often. It’s impossible to know which version of Empire will appear from one week to the next, which is part of the fun of this show and part of the frustration. Not only has Empire presented like six different versions of what kind of show it could be, it has presented each of those shows with wildly different degrees of success. One episode can be a goofy, meandering installment of the version of Empire that’s a series of musical numbers barely stitched together with English-language telenovela homage. Then, the next episode could be a scandalous, amazing installment of the version of Empire that reimagines the Aaron Spelling-era, full-octane nighttime soap and is to hip hop now what Models Inc. was to the fashion industry in 1994.

“The Tameness Of A Wolf” is a pretty decent episode of the version of Empire that is primarily a family drama, like Parenthood or Showtime’s Soul Food series, a show about people who love each other enough to work through difference and adversity. This version of Empire shows up with some frequency—the last time was this season’s “Be True”—and I’ve thought about this version the most because it’s the most consistently solid version of the show. “Solid” doesn’t always mean “stellar,” or even “great,” but I’ve never watched the family-drama version of Empire and walked away feeling the episode was a complete waste of time. More than that, when I watch an episode like “Tameness” I feel like I see a clear path forward for Empire, though it’s a path its current creative team is unlikely to take. This version of the show is purely functional and doesn’t represent a broader vision of what the show could be, which is a real shame.

An episode like “Tameness” buoys the rest of the show, even if it does so in an artificial and kind of manipulative way. When the Lyons put aside their differences and come together in celebration, or at least fight about emotionally relevant things that don’t have to do with pretend Empire nonsense, the show seems grounded and the stakes feel real. These episodes function like palate cleansers, resetting the board and reminding the audience that the most important things in this world are family and music, not money and power. Even after an infuriating stunt like Camilla and Mimi’s murder-suicide-cyberbullying whatever-the-hell-it-was, a few scenes of the Lyons behaving like vaguely recognizable human beings and it feels like all is right with the world. Again, “Tameness” isn’t a top-shelf version of the show I’m describing. Season two is still lacking a sense of purpose and direction. It’s like a pinata, except that it’s filled with arbitrary plot points instead of Tootsie Rolls, and each week someone new takes a few blindfolded swings at it.

The frustrating part is that while this episode serves the rest of the series, the rest of the series doesn’t serve this episode. Of all the different Empires, the family-drama version is the one we never get to the see the best possible version of because it’s so incompatible with the other versions. “Tameness” suffers from everything that has come before it. There’s nothing wrong with the Lyons having a strong family bond that withstands the tests placed before them, but that show doesn’t include characters like Mimi and Camilla, or Frank Gathers for that matter. There are no heads in boxes or gourmet human steaks served blue in prison. There are no gay flash mobs, and no auteurist photographers trying to fellate everyone within reach. I really enjoy the Lyons family stuff, and I’d love to watch an episode about Cookie’s first birthday since being released from prison if the show had laid the groundwork for that. But I’m sorry, once Lucious has killed Bunky, Cookie has tried to kill Lucious, Rhonda has killed Vernon, Andre has dug Vernon up, Lucious has revealed himself as Lola’s father while viciously rejecting and humiliating each of his sons several times each, I don’t know how you get here. When Cookie explained to Jamal that her connection with Lucious isn’t something you let go of because of “a few misunderstandings,” I literally cocked my head to the side quizzically.

In “Death Will Have His Day,” two significant things happened in the final scene. Lucious plainly admitted to Hakeem that he did, in fact, kill Bunky, and after Hakeem refused to respond to his taunts, Lucious vowed to take Hakeem out the next time he saw him. “I keep my promises,” Lucious said. Look, great, let’s roll with that. But then “Tameness” opens with a memorial service, an expositional sprint toward a world without Camilla and Mimi, followed by a family meeting. Hakeem’s face is still in the Empire logo, but Lucious doesn’t think to mention it. Lucious is sitting in the CEO’s chair, Hakeem doesn’t seem especially bugged by it. No one is taking anyone out. Jamal doesn’t confront Lucious about Jameson, nor apparently does Lucious care that Jamal revealed his real name. Lucious taunts Andre and Jamal by telling him how proud he is of Hakeem for earning his spot at the head of the company. Which…he still is, I guess, because Lucious has to make a video for “Boom x 4,” and it’s impossible to run a business and shoot a music video simultaneously. But I guess you can do it while you thaw the ice between a feuding Tiana and Laura. Seriously, I have trouble providing a fundamental description of what’s happening in this show from one moment to the next.

Empire isn’t about Empire Enterprises in any real way, which is why I wish ideas like “Who will run the company?” were pushed to the background as quickly as possible. Either this story can be characterized by family harmony or family rancor, but shifting between the two isn’t working. Lord knows this episode tries, though. Lucious and Cookie rekindle their feelings for each other as they work on the “Boom x 4” video, which goes from being a Sucker Punch remake starring Lucious to something more personal, a literal recreation of the childhood trauma with his mother. A lot of this is totally goofy, if only because the returns have diminished on the narrative value of stories in which an Empire artist is shepherded to greatness by being encouraged to speak their truth. But a lot of it just kind of works on emotional level if you don’t stop to think about it at all.


I guess that’s a broadly accurate description of Empire: It kind of works on an emotional level if you don’t stop to think about it at all. Hakeem proposes to Laura after seeing how supportive her parents are of her career, while Tiana feels some type of way about it. (That’s as detailed as I can be since I’ve barely seen Tiana all season and have no insight into her internal world.) Andre watches Lucious’ video and finds out the family history of bipolar, then gets really upset, which I sort of understand and won’t poke at. Cookie finds out about Freda Gatz’ connection to Frank Gathers and panics for some reason I’m not totally clear on either. That cliffhanger is pretty interesting in that it implies the writers assume the audience will understand the significance of a moment like that. Maybe someone does.

Stray observations

  • Rhonda has been named creative director of Antony And Cleopatra, so the fashion line Camilla designed and produced in 19 minutes will live on.
  • Speaking of timelines, the Cookie’s birthday thing floored me. Less than a year has passed since the pilot? Wasn’t Lucious in jail, or at least under legal suspicion, for like four months?
  • Rhonda is crashing with Anika for a while, so that should go well.
  • As macabre as Lucious’ video is, it reminds me of Mario Van Peebles’ performance in Baadasssss!, wherein he played his father, Melvin, during the production of Sweet Sweetback. As a child, Melvin had Mario perform a nude sex scene with a grown woman, which is weird as hell. So in the movie, Mario plays his dad and tries to get into his father’s headspace as he was making this decision to put Mario in this weird, potentially traumatic position. It’s an odd approach to Freudian psychology, but it’s not unheard of.
  • I rewatched Beyond The Lights the other day. Man, that’s a phenomenal movie, and it reminds me of what Empire could have been.