Sometimes, I wonder if Empire has a plan.
It’s only been on the air for eight weeks, but the show has already thrown a lot of things out there, seemingly waiting to see what lands and what doesn’t. Subplots (Lucious killing Bunkie, Cookie turning informant) and characters (so, are we gonna act like Tiana never happened?) get used and immediately tossed aside. While it’s apparent this show, like all network shows, is pulling out all the stops in order to get attention from viewers (and it’s working), often cranking up the drama to oh-no-they-didn’t levels, it also doesn’t seem to have to a fully realized sense of what it is and what it wants to accomplish. Almost every episode feels tonally, erratically different from the last. It doesn’t know whether to be an all-out trashfest or a family drama with soul, in every sense of the word.
“The Lyon’s Roar” is another prime example of how this show can go from intriguing to inept at a moment’s notice. Written and directed by series co-creator Danny Strong, the abysmally paced episode has both characters and story lines making crazy shifts in tone and attitude, almost on a whim. And no character personifies the show’s general unevenness more than its resident, manipulative king Lucious Lyon.
Much like the show itself, Lucious is oozing with contradictions, which would be fascinating if they didn’t seem so sporadic. He slams his oldest boy Andre for wanting to be accepted by mainstream white America, somehow forgetting that’s what he’s been trying to do with his company since the show began. (Not to mention he threw that “white party,” the kind of gaudy, pretentious shindig that Diddy usually throws in the Hamptons.) He reads the riot act to those he feels have been disloyal, but he has no problem bouncing back and forth between Cookie and Anika, promising each of them that he’s going to dump the other. He urges Jamal to be truthful in his music, but immediately starts frowning when Jamal performs a song that has him finally coming out to the public. And, of course, while Lucious constantly talks of leaving a legacy for his family, he’ll quickly wash his hands of them if he doesn’t get his way.
As despotic and megalomaniacal as Lucious is supposed to be, Strong and the writers treat him more like a sorry-ass sociopath who can’t seem to make up his mind. (It’s bad enough Terrence Howard still hasn’t got a bead on how to play him, acting like a smooth-ass pimp one minute and a menacing autocrat the next.) No matter how extreme Lucious’s character shifts can get, one thing about him still remains constant: The man’s a horrible father. With the exception of bratty boy Hakeem, the dude really has no love for his other kids. He dramatically refuses to vote for Andre as interim CEO at a board of directors meeting, mainly because he knows Andre and Vernon were campaigning behind his back and is now suspicious of them. (Even though Andre has been visibly getting his Iago on throughout the show, Lucious has some nerve questioning the loyalty of Andre and Vernon, since both men became accessories to murder in order to keep his ass out of jail for killing Bunkie.) But watching Lucious tear down Andre for going to school, opting to be a businessman, and marrying a white girl was almost painful to watch. For some reason, being a well-educated man who makes sure his father’s business stays successful is not enough to make the old man proud. This is no doubt gonna send Andre off the deep end, especially since we last see him playing Russian roulette with a Glock in the recording studio while the Platters’ “The Great Pretender” plays.
At least Andre didn’t publicly embarrass his dad like Jamal did — or at least that’s how Lucious likes to see it. After several weeks of uncharacteristic hiding in the closet, along with getting words of encouragement from a gay British filmmaker (and possible future love interest) hired to shoot documentary footage for Lucious, Jamal turns Lucious’s white party into his coming-out party. He does a remix of one of his dad’s songs that includes lyrics that imply, yes, he likes dudes. Even though, as Cookie later informs him, the world hasn’t stopped spinning now that Jamal has come out, it’s still humiliating for Lucious, who is still haunted by the memory of seeing his little boy in high heels.
Well, at least he has Hakeem — or does he? Most of this episode has him finally cozying up to Mama Cookie, as they manage to mend their relationship while she produces him in the studio. (As a person I follow on Twitter remarked, they cleared up a five-year problem in seven seconds.) Despite some brief bursts of snottiness, Hakeem shockingly shows some character in this episode, making up with Jamal at a church (and also laying heavy talk on him simultaneously, telling him to work things out with Lucious before it’s too late and he’s talking to a therapist about it for years to come) and eventually hugging his brother for coming out. He also proudly shows up at the white party with Camilla on his arm, of which Cookie immediately disapproves. Like the rest of us, Cookie immediately recognizes that Camilla is a Mommy stand-in, which leads to an entertaining shade-throwing session between Cookie and Camilla. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing these two go at it a lot more before the season’s up.
You can hardly blame Cookie for bringing out the claws for any woman who comes between her and her men. She thought she had Lucious back in her life after last week’s climactic roll in the hay, even sweetening the deal by telling him she wants to produce an album, concert, and documentary featuring Lucious, Hakeem, and Jamal. Unfortunately, Anika, who caught them mid-coitus, is not going out like that and promises to take down Lucious when she conveniently learns about the clean bill of health her dad gave him and forces him to move the wedding date up. When Cookie informs Anika (whom Cookie calls “fake-ass Halle Berry” and “fake-ass Lena Horne” in this ep) they had one more quickie in the recording studio, a fed-up Anika heads over to the home of Lucious’s nemesis Billy Baretti, looking to settle the score.
So, it looks like the family that was supposed to become a functional unit after its patriarch announced that he had ALS last week will go back to being dysfunctional as the show inches toward its season finale. This seems to be the last thing Cookie wants, as the episode ends with her flashing back to her prison days, singing to herself next to a picture of her family on the wall. For a minute there, I thought the show was pulling a St. Elsewhere and admitting this whole thing was entirely happening in her head. (It would explain how unbelievable this show can get.) But really, it reveals just what kept an incarcerated Cookie going for 17 years. Although Cookie originally talked a big game of getting out to take what’s hers, it seems what she really wants is not Empire but her family back together. It appears that while Lucious is always preaching about the importance of family, Cookie is the one who’s actually practicing it.
- No matter how many times that “You’re So Beautiful” song was performed during this episode, I just wasn’t feeling it.
- Rhonda can GTFO. Oh, sure, she doesn’t mind wife-swapping or doing chicks for her man, but the minute she might have to get close with an old man in a wheelchair (played by M. Emmet Walsh, one of our greatest character actors, by the way), she starts drinking heavily and vomiting in her entrée. Now, that’s just ageism and ableism. Old men need some lovin’, too. And what the hell was all that stuff about not watching The Theory of Everything because she doesn’t watch movies about “kids on the short bus”?
- I gotta admit, that scene with Jamal and Lola was sweet. But seriously, when are we gonna get a DNA test done on this kid? And where the hell did Raven-Symoné go? (Oh, there she is.)
- As funny as it was watching Lucious’s smile turn into a frown once Jamal started talking about loving a man onstage, that slow, morning-after walk through the lobby as news of Jamal’s coming out played on TV screens was even funnier.
Let’s get this over with.