Let me clarify: I do like Empire. Recapping a show like this is a blast. It’s a black show about black music starring black people. And, as a black man (in case that hasn't been made apparent yet), I enjoy writing about it — even in the wake of a bad episode — mainly because you rarely ever see a drama like this on television. (It has happened once, but the show vanished as quickly as it appeared.)
One thing I’m finding fascinating is how strongly fans of the show feel whenever I make the slightest critical comment about any aspect of the show (see: comments on any one of these recaps). It’s only been on the air for a few weeks, but folks are already defending it as untouchable gospel, to the point where any recapper disagreement evokes some extreme reactions (in just four weeks, I've been called humorless, racist, misanthropic, sexist, and homophobic).
Empire is certainly not a perfect show. No TV show is (although this one came pretty damn close). Each one faces a few hiccups and missteps on its journey toward finding its definitive tone and style, and these past few weeks have shown that Empire is still trying to find that groove, which has churned out some clunkier episodes here and there.
Still, it’s a hit drama with a predominantly black cast — practically an oddity in the annals of television history. Since it seems that the whole world is watching now, I want this show to be and do better all the more. It appears a lot of you fans and readers want to see it succeed as well, hopefully for the same reasons I have (or else you wouldn’t be demanding my dismissal every time I neg it). However, if Empire really wants to be a major force in this golden age of ambitious, ass-kicking, 21st-century TV dramas, it needs to step up its game, no question.
“Dangerous Bonds” points the show in the right direction. A strong follow-up to last week’s also surprisingly good episode, “Bonds,” written by Malcolm Spellman and directed by black-cinema vet John Singleton (Boyz 'n the Hood), shows each member of the Lyon family following separate paths. While they all feel theirs will lead to success, all of those paths ultimately might lead to self-destruction.
Let’s start, as always, with Lucious. He proposes to Anika at his home (with Anthony Hamilton on the piano, singing “The Point of It All,” no less). I guess after confiding in Anika about having ALS last week, he might as well put a ring on it. However, as the episode progresses, we find out that the always-scheming Lucious has an ulterior motive: In order for his company to go public, he needs a clean bill of health from a doctor. And you know who has a doctor for a dad? Why, it’s Anika! Lucious makes the old man his second proposal of the evening when he and Anika appear at their parents’ house to announce their engagement. At first, Anika’s father declines, saying that he could lose his license for committing such a fraud. But he inevitably comes around when Lucious, always laying that sweet-talk on thick, informs him that with his help, his daughter will be a billionaire when he dies.
Lucious’s pimpishness once again saves the day on the video shoot for Hakeem’s new single “Drip Drop.” At first, Hakeem is psyched as hell to shoot the video, ready to show the world he’s more than just Lucious Lyon’s kid. Unfortunately, then he learns that Tiana, who's also in the video and whom he’s starting to get sweet on, has been creeping around on him — with another woman! Even though Hakeem has a middle-age side-chick of his own, he refuses to work with Tiana and shuts down the shoot. You’d think with this guy's wild-and-loose ass, Hakeem would love the fact that his girl goes both ways. Of course, it’s his dad who reminds him: Hey, stupid, YOUR GIRL GOT A GIRLFRIEND! Using some smooth, mathematical mumbo-jumbo, Lucious tells Hakeem to finish the video so he can start on those two. (Lucious also calls Tiana a “thot,” which made me laugh out loud.)
You can thank Andre and Rhonda, who caught Tiana and her girl canoodling at a photo shoot, for leaking the incriminating evidence to Perez Hilton (Really? She didn’t have TMZ’s contact info?) and almost derailing the video. Andre, still kind of bitter after his dad coldly tells him he’s useless if he doesn’t come up with the money for Hakeem’s overbudget video, also goes to work trying to sabotage Jamal’s production, which he's conducting in a bullet-ridden studio somewhere. Andre makes sure some suspicious goons hanging around Hakeem’s shoot overhear him talking on his phone about Jamal and his expensive jewelry, making certain they'll head over there and stop Jamal’s session by jacking his stuff.
Fortunately, a defiant Jamal (along with a shotgun-wielding studio engineer) promptly runs these idiots out of the building, but not before shooting one of them first. This temporarily pauses Jamal's progress on that money song he was working on last week, running off various musicians that were around for his one day of recording. However, Jamal finally scrounges up some young cats with instruments to finish the song. While Andre’s shadiness doesn’t disrupt his little bro's projects much, it's created some tension between the two. Jamal, who thinks Hakeem set up the robbery, shows up at Hakeem’s place to punch him in the stomach and tell him not to underestimate him. Instead of trying to convince Jamal he didn’t have anything to do with the robbery, Hakeem plays it smart: He calls up Andre afterwards and demands more money so he can launch this song right — and crush Jamal in the process.
Which leads us to Cookie, who enjoys the most drama of any Lyon family member this week. While she wants to be there for Jamal, she also has to testify in front of a grand jury that she saw Frank Gathers gun down a drug dealer, who turned out to be an undercover Fed. This bit of news comes as a surprise to Cookie, who is scared Gathers’s crew may come after her now that she's snitched on him. Her suspicions seem to be confirmed when she finds a rose outside her apartment. (Roses, which are Gathers's trademark, are stamped on his crew's cocaine bags.)
That’s when Cookie becomes a pistol-packing mama and heads to Philly to confer with her sister. Cookie hires a cousin (played by comedian DeRay Davis) to “take care” of the Gathers henchman who’s possibly behind the rose drop-off. In the episode’s closing minutes, Cookie finds out that Lucious left the rose, a callback to their first anniversary, which she's been a bit too occupied to celebrate. This immediately sends Cookie to the phone to tell her sister to call the whole thing off — but it's too late.
Judging by the stunned, frightened look on Cookie’s face at the end of the episode, we can only assume things are going to get more complicated and intense for the Lyons in upcoming episodes. And that’s a good thing, since it will also make these showrunners work to make Empire the outstanding show its fans already believe it is. It’s not there yet, but it can be.
Some stray thoughts:
- Even though Cookie had a lot of things to deal with in this episode, she's proving herself a master multitasker. The scene in the cab where she’s handling both Jamal and Tiana (“I don’t judge, but you a freak!”) on the phone once again shows how immensely compelling a character Cookie is.
- Also, the Cookie line of the night: “What you mean, ‘you people’? You black like me!” she says to that bigoted cab driver.
- I personally loved how this episode goes back and forth in showing the resources Hakeem and Jamal have at their disposal for their projects. While Hakeem’s video shoot was basically a money pit, Jamal’s recording is ghetto D.I.Y. It kind of reminded me of the end of that Rhymefest/Kanye video for "Brand New."
- ... Why is there a basketball hoop in the Empire Entertainment conference room?
- My hatred for Anika is once again dissipating slowly, especially now that we’ve been introduced to her disapproving, judgmental mom. I guess if you had her for a mom, you’d grow up smug, thirsty, and desperate for attention, too.
- No Becky this week — I guess the Titan-shadowing has begun.
- We did get a lot of Porsha, who keeps tabs on both Tiana and Jamal while snacking on craft services. While Porsha (and TaRhonda Jones, who plays her) is beginning to grow on me, I can't help thinking it’s too bad Leslie Jones is too busy killing it on Saturday Night Live — she would’ve slayed in this role.
- Is it just me, or does Andre’s strategy for destroying his brothers seem half-assed? As Machiavellian as he tries to be, his attacks appear not only to be poorly executed, but also poorly thought-out. (Jamal could’ve been shot during that robbery, asshole!)
- By the way, I know you all hate that I constantly bring this up, but Andre’s bipolar disorder briefly but finally gets a mention this week, when we see him holding a prescription bottle while on the phone with his wife.
- Hakeem posts a video missive in which he brags that his music is going to have Drake, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar ducking and running for cover. First off, I don’t think “Drip Drop” — which, at best, is some catchy pop-rap — is going to have these brothas shaking in their Js. Second, it’s nice for the show to finally admit the existence of IRL young rappers. I was beginning to think the show lived in its own parallel universe.
- Also, I finally realized who Hakeem looks like when he puts on those sunglasses.