In a recent interview, Empire co-creator Lee Daniels, talking about the abundance of guest stars that have been popping up through the first five episodes of the series, said, “The minute you start worrying about guest stars, you’ve got your eye off the ball. The ball is the family, and Empire.” But after watching this week’s episode, I’m starting to think the show is losing sight of what made it so great in the first place.
The most important dynamic within the show is the infighting and backstabbing that the members of the Lyon family have been doing to each other since the pilot episode. All in the name of worldwide success and, supposedly, making art that matters. If that is the sphere Daniels and his writers need to keep an eye on, why are they bugging us with trifling concerns this week? Were they so desperate to throw a little added drama in the mix that they had to bring in some gangster trying to extort money from Lyon Dynasty by robbing Tiana and then abducting Hakeem?
Nearly the entire hour felt uncertain, like the writers were testing out a bunch of possible paths that were half-conceived and led to dead ends. Our interest isn’t really whether Hakeem gets this Latina girl group off the ground, especially when we haven’t heard a lick of music from them. Nor is it the scruffy artist who tries to blow Jamal at a nightclub, and then succeeds in blowing Michael. Even the push-and-pull of whether Jamal should bring his boyfriend on tour with him was the kind of dull dramatics that should have been axed after the first draft of the script.
The only plotline that mattered in this episode was Andre’s return to Empire, and how that inspired him to get baptized. And with that decision, his work to clear his conscience of all his dirty dealings (outside of admitting that he was around when Vernon was killed). The fire in the show got stoked as he opened up about setting up the robbery at Ghetto Ass Studios that almost got Jamal shot, and confessing to Lucious that he was conspiring to shove the old man aside after Cookie was released from jail. That’s the kind of stuff that is going to come back to bite him in the ass. You know, after the World Series is over.
Things only got better when the entire family showed up to watch Andre’s baptism. Director Kevin Bray shot Lucious’s entrance like it was a horror film, with Satan showing up at a church to raise some literal hell. I expected a murder of crows to come pouring in behind him as he walked to the front of the sanctuary. Instead, he just bantered harshly with Cookie about his war against Lyon Dynasty. Then came another tiresome flashback with Kelly Rowland “baptizing” young Lucious in the family bathtub. They may be working to provide some psychological motivation for the guy being an unholy prick, but it feels like amateurish Freudian babbling every time they kick us back to the olden days. Daniels and his team finally had their eyes on the ball, and then fumbled it right at the goal line.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste, and the author of Empire: The Unauthorized Untold Story, available in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter.