The Lyons might be stronger together, but they are more entertaining apart. Consider that at the peak of Empire’s creative potency, the Lyon family was the most fractured it has ever been. Cookie was coming off of a 17-year prison bid and trying her best to acclimate to a family that had moved on without her, which meant forging a relationship with Hakeem, who had never known her. Jamal’s sexuality made him ineligible for his father’s approval. Lucious had shot Bunkie and was scrambling to conceal that along with the truth of Lola’s paternity. The brothers Lyon were at one another’s throat as they vied for the Empire throne, including the incident in “Dangerous Bonds” when Andre went so far as to steer a group of armed thugs toward robbing Jamal in the studio, knowing Hakeem would be blamed for it. Those story beats have mostly been forgiven or forgotten, and the Lyons are getting along pretty swimmingly compared to their contentious past.
Empire’s second season isn’t the story of a family whose genuine bonds are repeatedly broken by their avarice, their professional ambitions, or their dark secrets. The Empire writers seem to think that’s the story they’re telling, but the actual character dynamics don’t support that story. “Poor Yorick,” which was written and directed by Empire co-creator Danny Strong, further exposes how unsturdy a foundation this show is built on. The familial rift that led to the creation of Lyon Dynasty should, in theory, mean the characters are more at odds with each other than ever before. But the Empire-Dynasty feud hasn’t been allowed to escalate to a full-on civil war. So far, the only devastating punch has been Lucious’ purchase of Apex Satellite Radio (which somehow precludes Lyon Dynasty from getting onto any radio station anywhere ever) and his derailing of a just-formed girl group with one unreleased song to its name. The hockey match between Empire and Dynasty isn’t going to be much fun to watch if Mirage A Trois is the puck.
The Lyon family needs to completely fall apart before it can rebuild, but the writers won’t let that happen. Before the battle lines have been properly drawn and the stakes have been raised in the musical family feud, the Lyons are already joining forces to fight a much larger threat. In the handsomely shot opening sequence, the FBI is raiding the Empire offices in a montage set to one of the new songs from Jamal’s forthcoming album, tentatively titled The Artist. (You’ve got more time to think about that title, Jamal. We believe in you!) Meanwhile, at the scrappy Lyon Dynasty, Cookie is rebuffing Anika’s latest attempt to get back into her good graces, and is all too thrilled to hear about Empire’s legal woes. Before the schadenfreude can reach full volume, the feds swoop down on Lyon Dynasty too. It’s a huge letdown to see Dynasty get pulled into the investigation, because it seemed like a setback for Empire that would give Cookie the opportunity to get a leg up on the competition. Instead, the companies are forced to team up to defend themselves against the indefatigable Roxanne Ford.
The general idea here is a sound one, having the Lyons suspend their infighting when a more potentially destructive enemy presents herself. But because of Empire’s insane pacing, there’s no disciplined build-up that makes the Lyon detente feel significant when it happens. Nothing has happened in the story to make this a satisfying payoff, or even an intriguing complication. And it doesn’t feel real because the Roxanne Ford isn’t working on any level. To put it bluntly, what the fuck is her whole deal? Ford’s behavior isn’t that of a federal prosecutor trying to put points on the board in order to get ahead politically. She’s on the war path, so blinded by rage that she drags Cookie in for questioning, and threatens to release Andre’s medical records unless Cookie gives her information. What information? Literally any information. It’s not at all clear what Ford wants, why she wants it, or how she’ll benefit from getting it. Ford is apparently the replacement fed for Carter, the woman who was leaning on Cookie for non-specific information on Empire just as Ford is, and hasn’t been seen or mentioned since she arrested Lucious in “Who I Am.” But Carter seemed to have pragmatic reasons for her actions, while Ford literally snarls the entire time she’s on screen with no indication as to why.
Despite the hollowness of the looming threat pushing the Lyons together, they end up together all the same, joining forces to shoot a video for a song Jamal and Hakeem recorded together for Hakeem’s since-leaked album. The strategy is discussed in an emergency family meeting at Leviticus, a scene that further exposes how inscrutable this show has become. Hakeem asks Lucious whether he shot Bunkie, and Lucious claims he’s innocent, while Cookie sits in the room and makes a mild, disapproving expression, but says nothing at all. Cookie is so good at holding grudges, she won’t allow Anika as much as a toehold within her company, but can sit silently as Lucious denies killing her cousin after confessing to doing it? Either that isn’t Cookie, or I don’t have a solid understanding of who Cookie is. I’m also baffled as to why Andre would be at this meeting at all, since he’s ostensibly unemployed and has no formal affiliation with either Empire or Dynasty. But it’s similar to the dinner scene in “Fires Of Heaven,” a congregation of people who are constantly in each other’s faces while in the midst of an allegedly bitter feud.
The benefit of Andre’s presence at the meeting is him figuring out Vernon’s rotting corpse might be the answer to all their woes. None of Andre’s other attempts to worm his way back into Empire have panned out, but Lucious assures him this is his moment. If Andre can track down Vernon and neutralize the threat he poses, he’ll regain his job as CFO. The CFO position has apparently remained unfilled all this time at a multi-million dollar company, I guess because the interviewing candidates kept getting snagged when asked “Tell me about a time you buried and/or dug up a corpse to keep your boss out of prison.” Well the executive search is over, thanks to a tracking bug placed on Andre’s car and Thirsty’s skill with a corpse detecting device. Vernon’s unrecognizable body is propped in Ford’s car, and yet another truce has been reached in the vicious war between Empire and Dynasty. It says something about Empire when the image of a man, his crooked lawyer, his son, and his pregnant daughter-in-law digging up a corpse in a montage set to a ranchera ballad is the second most befuddling thing to happen in a episode.
The title of Most Befuddling Thing goes to the Hakeem and Jamal video, which… just… wow. I feel like I finally know how Adam Richman must have felt whenever they plopped an obscene mountain of nachos in front of him on Man Vs. Food. Like Richman, I have no idea where to start in on this gross, unhealthy pile of shit, but I just have to jump in somewhere and do my best. Apparently once wasn’t enough to float the patently offensive idea that Lucious’ plight relates somehow to the injustices suffered by African-Americans in the criminal justice system. Nope, that hit has to have a B-side, and it comes in the form of Empire’s latest bank-breaking music video, which is based on Lucious’ concept of “a post-apocalyptic Black Panther theme with the brothas fighting police oppression.” Is this the genius of Lucious Lyon? Is this the singular talent without which the label would collapse? The concept is stupid and ill-advised, but at least we now understand why Lucious fell in love with Cookie, who likely still has strands of faux-gorilla hair somewhere on her person.
Another week of Empire, another random allusion to black history and culture made in the crassest way imaginable, suggesting an outright refusal to engage with it in a real way. In season one, there was the completely out-of-left-field reference from Cookie about how the Nation Of Islam killed Lucious’ father, which was forgotten just as quickly as it was brought up. Then there was Cookie’s unfortunate gorilla bit. And now, a vision of the Black Panthers in which boyshort-clad Angela Davises and Assata Shakurs twerk by the light of the trashcan fires while Hakeem raps about “Girls kissing on the couch, women in the shower.” I guess in one sense, it’s a tribute to the staying power of the Black Panthers, the kind of organization one would expect to disband in favor of more immediate pursuits following an apocalyptic event. Beyond that, holy hell, that’s so repugnant. Russell Simmons was deservedly chased out of town with pitchforks after his “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” bit, but millions of people will watch female Black Panthers reduced to video shake-it girls without batting an eyelash, which is a testament to how random and arbitrary social media outrage can be.
Despite the wobbly premiere, I was ready to believe in Empire again after finding out that Lee Daniels was behind the show’s worst impulses. But Strong, who originally came up with the concept, wrote and directed this one, so there goes that theory. Maybe Empire will just never be the show it could be. Maybe, after all, it’s just hip hop Glee.
- The Apex deal is off, because you can violate the core tenets of antitrust law with impunity, but you’re screwed if someone connects you to a murder using evidence which, even if it was obtained legally, would still be like 11 different kinds of inadmissible. Sigh.
- Here’s the other thing: Why wouldn’t Cookie just say Lucious confessed to her? If the idea is that Cookie’s no snitch, as has been mentioned one or 10,000 times, why give Ford anything at all that connects Lucious to Bunkie’s murder, even if it’s a flimsy, dishonest connection? The realest moments of the episodes were the flashbacks to Cookie breaking down in prison, but then the story comes together wrong. It doesn’t tell the story of how Cookie’s prison trauma led her to snitch on Lucious, it tells the story of how even in a discussion about how her ex-husband murdered her cousin, Cookie’s most invested in reclaiming access to the airwaves. Mmkay.
- Again, Anika…why? Anika is, according to Andre, one of the best A&Rs in the business, and she speaks Swedish for God’s sake. Why can’t she just find another job? Why is she reduced to begging to work with Cookie out of a startup label in a warehouse? Does Anika have income of any kind? Is Creedmore still a going concern? Is Billy Baretti still a character?
- I fully don’t understand the deal with the photographer, who I guess takes pictures so he can turn them into oil paintings, even though this one is destined for the cover of Rolling Stone, so what even? But I also don’t get the story they’re trying to tell with Michael. Is his anxiety about Jamal’s swelling ego or because he sees Chase One as a legitimate romantic rival? One of those makes sense, the other does not.
- Cookie to Mimi: “White bitch, you gotta go.” Mimi: “It’s actually Whiteman, which is Russian for ‘She who owns 20 percent of Empire.’” It’s too cute by half, but I laughed.
- Sometimes I like to pretend Tyra Ferrell isn’t playing Roxanne Ford, but rather an older version of Ricky’s mama from Boyz N Tha Hood after she turned her grief over her son’s gang-related death into a law degree. You should try it, it’s fun.
- But man, that scream in the car was epic. In an alternate universe, Ferrell is Jamie Lee Curtis.