This week’s episode felt like Empire’s version of the final hour of Mad Men’s third season—the moment when Draper and the crew decided to secretly start their own advertising agency and spent time after hours poaching clients and accounts. Once Cookie helped reveal Anika’s plan to tear apart the company from within for the benefit of Beretti, it was all hands on deck, with the entire Lyon family scrambling to close new artist signings and convince the talent already on the label to stick with Empire.
In the world of Empire, though, the effect was less bank heist than it was trench warfare. The entire team worried over data and screens, checking their balance sheet against their competitors, analyzing enemy battle plans, and causing the veins in everyone’s necks and heads to start throbbing with adrenaline. For a show that thrives on soap opera-esque dramatics, it was quite something for them to put that aspect aside in place of gamesmanship and Mexican standoffs and Cookie, drunk on purple drank, begging Derek Luke’s character to “take a bite.”
What little bit of Dallas-like histrionics they allowed into the show came courtesy of Andre. Off his meds and losing his mind, he damn near tore apart the Empire conference room while almost outing his father as a murderer. It was a pretty terrifying scene, as were all of his sweaty freak outs leading up to it, and Trai Byers deserves all the accolades he is likely going to get showered with for his portrayal of Andre’s breakdown. Lucky for Taraji P. Henson, the only acting competition she’s had in the show thus far just saw his character get committed.
It’s interesting how much I find myself rooting for the characters in this show, even while knowing what awful people they can be. Outside of maybe Jamal, the rest of the Lyon crew have spent so long lying and conniving and backstabbing and killing their way to the top of the hip-hop food chain. Yet, I put all that aside tonight to thrill at their little victories—signing a new diva, reassuring the ones already on the roster, winning a drinking contest to keep a rapper in the fold—and smile at their triumphal singalong that closed out the episode. The feeling isn’t as troublesome as it is with Don Draper or Walter White or The Underwoods. At least not yet. This is still just the first season, and I’m still charmed and frustrated by this upstart series as it finds its feet. There’s plenty of time for me to feel really conflicted by the actions of the Lyon family.
The feeling that Empire has done a great job of driving home from the start, though, is that particularly complicated sensation that allows us to still receive so much joy from a piece of art, even when we know of the awful deeds done by the artists. That’s what has kept Chris Brown and Dr. Dre and R. Kelly still working and still making millions of dollars. Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we all put those blinders on for one person or another. You can call it forgiveness or willful ignorance, but it is there. That is, surely, an unintended theme brought out by the show’s writers—though they would do well to explore in the next season and beyond—but it is a very important one.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.