Snark Tank; Recap
Empire Season 2, Episode 1: The Devil You Know, Recap of “The Devils are Here”
Empire exploded onto the television landscape in the spring of 2015 with a riveting 11 episode run that broke television ratings records. It returned last night flexing all of the muscle of an undisputed heavyweight champion. The episode opened with Lucious behind bars watching his family strut their stuff in a televised concert devoted to breaking his dead ass out of prison. Cookie is lowered onto the concert stage wearing a gorilla suit while imprisoned in a cage. Then Cookie disses CNN’s Don Lemon for his lame race debates, spurns Al Sharpton, and is mocked by Andre Leon Talley for wearing that 2013 heaven’s bird Gucci dress. Marisa Tomei is introduced as a lesbian billionaire who wants to break off a piece of Cookie and take a big bite out of Empire. Meanwhile, there is music.
And that was just in the first five minutes.
Empire the show shares many of the traits of its main characters. It is entertaining, audacious and naked in its ambition to rule the world. Empire knows it is at the center of pop culture right now, and it uses the Lemon and Sharpton cameos to score a few political points about the precarious position of black men and women in America. This may not sit well with some viewers, but I love it. Here we have a show that actually acknowledges what has been going on in America all summer. The entire concert has just as much to do with announcing “we see you” to a new social movement as it does with advancing the plot. That the show dared to issue a wink-wink dismissal of Lemon, who has taken up Bill Cosby‘s schtick of lecturing guys about wearing slouchy pants, reveals that Empire knows it has more cultural cache than newspeople who spend most of their time dutifully discussing whatever Donald Trump wants them to talk about.
In other words, Empire sets its own agenda.
But of course Empire also knows that conflating Lucious’s plight with those of ordinary black men is something of a false narrative. Hakeem is the first to call Cookie on that blatant bit of political theater, reminding her that “dad did it.” The “it” being the murder of their cousin. The #FreeLucious movement is Cookie’s way of deflecting Lucious’s attention from her actual power play, which is to entice Tomei’s Mimi Whiteman to invest $250 million in a hostile takeover of empire.
I really did not know what to expect from Tomei’s character, but she showed up looking and acting as if she had just wandered over from the set of The L Word – and this is a good thing. Say what you want about Ilene Chaiken, her first show featured an impressive string of guest-stars (Rosanna Arquette, Marlee Matlin, Kelly Lynch, Holland Taylor) playing ambitious, complicated women rather than donning flannel and cracking U-Haul jokes like we find elsewhere on TV.
Lucious sees Mimi flirting with Cookie on live TV and of course he is incensed. Because gay! And because Cookie is mine! And Empire is mine! Now that Lucious has Bell’s Palsy or something rather than a life-threatening disease, he is not looking to hand over Empire Records to his sons. And what of the three young Lyons? Well Andre is waking up in a cold sweat after having a nightmare about burying Vernon (which Lucious doesn’t know about). Hakeem is filled with angst because his album keeps getting pushed back. And Jamal is running Empire and feting daddy in a reversal from his position in season 1, when he was the underdog.
Et, Tu, Jamal?
If Cookie and Lucious are the twin poles that balance the Empire universe, Jamal is firmly established as the show’s heart. As viewers we rooted for Jamal to come out of the closet and embrace his musical talent. But the Empire writers wisely decided to write Jamal like a person rather than a cultural signifier, recognizing that in real life a guy like Jamal wouldn’t necessarily spring from the closet ready to make an It Gets Better video and get married and story over. Jamal has family baggage to deal with and the show is mining it to create a rich character. You see, Lucious picked Jamal to take care of Empire Records because Jamal was the one who most craved Daddy’s approval and love. Giving Jamal daddy’s approval makes him uber-easy to manipulate. And he is using his power to be mean to Cookie? Betraying your mother?? What is this, Julius Ceasar?
Stepping into the role of chief executive is not natural for Jamal. He doesn’t have time to be in the studio. There’s a lot of pressure. The old boyfriend is back. Daddy wants him to spy on mom and make sure that everyone toes the line. Then there is the matter of Jamal’s own tendency toward self-hatred, which is evidenced in the scene where he experiences extreme discomfort about the overly gay meeting that has convened in the Empire boardroom.
Cookie, Hakeem and Anika have convened their own uber-gay party, this time to convince Whiteman to invest. Whiteman has appreciation for all of the hot models who are cavorting around the hot tub and successfully convinces Anika to twerk (poor Boo Boo Kitty!) The people at the New York Times felt that Whiteman was a stereotypical lesbian but we don’t know what shows Arts Beat has been watching. American TV has a pretty big double standard about gay men and women expressing affection, romance or lust. Trust me, if there’s a lesbian on TV, she’s going to be a well liked woman wearing flannel with no personal life who won’t be able to survive a season without getting killed.
It’s also worth a mentioning that when people want something from extremely rich and powerful men, all sorts of debauchery ensues. We’ve seen this on shows ranging from The Sopranos to Young & The Restless. It should be no different with a billion dollar lesbian.
Cookie and Hakeem think they’re going to get revenge on dear old dad when they storm the boardroom to announce their deal with Mimi. But surprise! Mimi is already there and she secretly made the deal with Lucious and Jamal. Checkmate! This boardroom scene reminded me of the 1,001 times someone has made a play for Jabot Cosmetics on The Young & The Restless.
This Week on OZ
There is an entire prison plot in this episode that seems like it could have gone on for about 8 episodes. But this is Peak TV, where plots unspool at a breakneck pace in order to get you to watch live. So to recap: Chris Rock plays Frank Gathers, a cannibal/drug dealer that Cookie and her family once worked for – and then snitched on – last season. Gathers is in prison with Lucious and they parry a bit for control of the prison. Lucious has this handled though, because as powerful as a drug dealer may be, he doesn’t have the cultural status of a Lucious Lyon. Lucious buys everybody off. He’s paying off mortgages and legal bills and winning over Gathers’ entire crew.
And then there’s the Sexy Black Prosecutor With Cleavage, who tells Lucious she’ll give him a deal. He calls her a female Clarence Thomas and disses her style. To which SBPWC replies “these shoes are Tom Ford.” As she leaves the prison, Lucious sees Gathers visiting with his teen daughter, who appears to be a rap star in the making. Lucious mentally files that under “revenge material.”
It’s My Head in a Box!
Frank Gathers sends a death threat Cookie’s way by murdering her cousin, painting him in whiteface and putting his head in a box. Who delivers severed heads? UPS? “It’s my head in a box….my head in a box girl.” The fact that this scene took place in Cookie’s wig room only reinforced the fact that this is the most entertaining show on TV. Cookie goes into mama grizzly mode and moves everyone into the mansion for safety purposes. Then she visits Lucious who reprimands her for not visiting for three months. Cookie is all, “nobody visited my ass for 17 years!” Let me tell you something readers, in my day job I know a lot of male prisoners who spend time berating their women for not visiting them every single day, so this bit of spoiled baby whining rang true.
Finally, we get a showdown between Jamal and Hakeem. Although last season was about them defeating their parents’ attempts to use them in a proxy war, this season they are confronting each other directly. Hakeem was raised to be the star, now big brother Jamal is telling him that there’s only room for one star at Empire Records.
The episode shows Jamal getting progressively darker, as he gives in to his impulses to be his father’s champion. The episode ends with him throwing the entire family out of the mansion. He even rejects his own mother, scoffing when she brings up that time Lucious through him in the trash because he put on mom’s high heels. Jamal thinks his mother is a backstabber, and it seems like a sense of abandonment by mom is another demon he is meant to confront.
So Lucious is once again ascendant, triumphing in jail. And just in case you forgot how diabolical Lucious Lyon can be, he tells Frank that he’s going to make his daughter a rap superstar and also have sex with her, because Lucious is a straight up devil.