Well, that was a surprisingly good episode.
Empire resiliently bounced back after last week’s dismal installment (which many of you gave me a lot of flak for criticizing) with “False Imposition,” an episode that certainly gave us a better understanding of these characters and their motives than have previous episodes. And all it took was Empire Entertainment snapping up “the most authentic rapper since 2Pac.”
Those are the words Lucious says (with a straight face) about Titan, a scowling rapper who’s apparently bigger than Jay Z, Kanye, et cetera. (I’ve forgotten if these rappers have been mentioned in previous episodes. Do these and other popular rappers actually exist in this show’s universe?) He’s also being held in Brooklyn Correctional for shooting a “Cashville” (do they live in Nashville?) gangster after one of his performances. Of course Lucious wants him as part of the Empire empire, especially since he’s signed with Billy Baretti, a.k.a. the “hairy dingleberry” who signed Kidd Fo-Fo after Lucious dropped him.
Baretti pops up in this episode, played by Judd Nelson, rocking thinning hair, a bulky build, and a goatee that says, “Yeah, I’m sinister!” He and Lucious have a showdown at Leviticus, where it’s revealed the two have a broken past. It turns out Lucious was once signed to Baretti’s label but broke out when Baretti started slapping his own name on the song credits and bilking Lucious out of millions. Baretti doesn’t show up at the club to tell Lucious to back off Titan. He’s there to blackmail Lucious into stopping Empire's IPO by threatening to divulge all of Lucious's dirty little secrets about how he built his business. (He apparently knows how integral Cookie is to Lucious’s fortune, since he threatens to take over Leviticus and call it Cookie’s.)
This makes Lucious definitely want to sign Titan, even after he and Anika are nearly mowed down by drive-by gunfire after having a sit-down with Titan’s manager/cousin. Cookie informs him of a meeting she had with Titan’s Nation of Islam–supporting mother, where she learns he’s part of the Fruit of Islam. (Henson is priceless in this scene, as Cookie puts her ghettoness on pause and dons a hijab and her "white" voice in order to speak woman-to-woman with Titan’s mother.)
The Nation of Islam is a sore spot for Lucious, as we find out (out of nowhere from Cookie) that Lucious’s father was killed by the Nation. Nevertheless, Lucious meets with Titan in jail, who informs him that there’s $1.7 million (to rebuild the community center where Titan first recorded his demos, which the gangster admitted he burned down after Titan’s show) and a signing bonus waiting for him if he starts recording for Empire, which Titan eventually accepts.
For a minute there, I thought the characters on this show had no idea how to run a record label. With the exception of Jamal and Vernon, who have a lot more lines this week than last week, the past three episodes showed how many Empire staffers were too self-involved, focusing more on trying to further themselves for their own selfish gain than for the good of the company. However, the Titan caper shows that even when they’re scheming and nearly at each other’s throats, their eyes are still on the same prize.
It also showed that no matter how dickish and malevolent a king Lucious can be, his people all want to do right by the man. Anika, finally informed by Lucious that he has ALS (she certainly picks up some audience-sympathy points when she begins shaving Lucious as he starts shaking), wants to prove to Lucious she can hang with the thugs by arranging that ill-fated meeting with Titan’s manager. Cookie takes the safer, smarter route, hanging with Titan’s mom to get some info for Lucious. Cookie also advises her new client Tiana to duet with Hakeem on one of her songs, eventually performing it for a TV special and bringing a smile to Lucious’s face. Andre even becomes an accomplice to his dad’s murder of Bunkie by lying to Detective Walker, who showed up to ask Andre's old man some questions, vouching for him as he flashed back to when he stashed a gun for his dad in his Lego suitcase.
Andre, whose bipolar disorder was again nowhere to be found this week, appears to be the only offspring looking to impress Daddy. Hakeem continues to be an insufferable little asshole, flaking on recording music for Lucious (and getting jealous when he starts going after Titan), cheating on Tiana with that cougar Camilla, and once again dissing his mom, informing her that it’s too late to bond with him now. (How old does the boy think he is? Fifty? She’s been in jail, dumbass! Have some sympathy!) And Jamal, who is now hanging with the roaches and the humping neighbors of Bushwick (the only part of Brooklyn that isn’t gentrified, or so the show would have us believe), is desperate to prove to his old man that he doesn’t need his money, even returning the money he earned for helping out Jamal at Leviticus a couple of episodes back.
Even though this episode contains way too many shots featuring people stopping at the door to turn around and give one more dramatic line to Lucious before exiting, I liked how this episode (written by Wendy Calhoun and directed by Rosemary Rodriguez, both TV-drama vets) puts the tawdry, trashy stuff on hold to give us a story where these people are doing their jobs, revealing a bit more about themselves in the process. There’s nothing wrong with Empire being a soapy good time. But can we at least get more episodes like this, ones that show that they’re not all complete idiots?
- We are now four episodes in, and I still don’t know if Lucious got famous as a singer or a rapper. I haven’t heard the dude rap once, but I’ve seen him on the guitar or synthesizer just riffing away. Was he both, like Drake? Does Drake exist in this show’s universe?
- No Rhonda this episode. I guess she was too busy cleaning her bibs.
- While Anika doesn’t want Lucious to treat her like a baby (if she really wants that, she should stop giggling obnoxiously whenever someone says something she finds ridiculous), both Vernon and Titan’s manager called her “baby girl.” Is it because she’s light-skinned?
- Cookie reading a newspaper in Lucious’s office is further proof she’s still behind on the times. (Has no one hipped her to HuffPost yet?)
- If Gabourey Sidibe is going to stick around as Becky (and it appears she will, now that she's asked Lucious if she can shadow Titan while he’s recording), can the show’s wardrobe department put her in more flattering, comfortable clothing? Jesus, that last outfit she had on looked like it was smothering her!
- I’m assuming wardrobe has been concentrating mostly on Cookie’s clothing, for which they should get an Emmy immediately. As a rule, I don’t check out ladies’ ensembles, but that purple, fur-collared number she had on for most of the episode was all-the-way fierce!
- Now that Camilla is letting Hakeem borrow Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, a book that's considered an essential text for a lot of rappers (50 Cent collaborated with Greene on a follow-up called by The 50th Law), I hope the boy will read a few chapters and get inspired to write some better rhymes. And Camilla was right about Hakeem giving a key to Tiana, about whom he’s obviously not that serious, when he's got a 44-year-old side-chick. The boy is really an amateur.
- Judging by how Lucious tells his white lawyer to check his tone when he’s in his office, I’m assuming ol’ boy doesn’t like lawyers or white people, or both.
- Cookie chiding Jamal for being lazy and having “some mental, artsy, brain-block fart.” Cookie, you stupid!
- Lucious and Cookie talking about the Nation of Islam. Lucious: “So many racist views.” Cookie: “And? So is America.” Once again, Cookie for the win!