To round out the first half of Empire’s second season, we were treated to the show’s best and worst sides. In the latter category, an unfortunate insistence on trying to squeeze a social conscience into a TV series that delights in dead bodies, naked bodies, and greed. But in the former, the show was back to doing what it does best: throwing soap opera-like curveballs that will have you either gasping, or shaking your head at the sheer excess of it all.
Golly, did the last half of this episode just keep giving and giving. The return of Camilla, now married to Mimi Whiteman, and using her wife’s abilities as a corporate shark to exact revenge on Lucious? That is Michael-Jackson-eating-popcorn.gif levels of wonderful. And it’s just the injection of sassy, sexy energy that this show has been missing these past 10 weeks. I can already tell that she’s going to make the second half of this season (which doesn’t kick off until March…) a lot of fun.
If that weren’t enough, they pull a page right from the Falcon Crest playbook with some shadowy figure shoving Rhonda down the stairs. The implication is that it was a plot by Anika to ensure that her demon spawn become the heir to the Lyon throne. That family has so many enemies at this point, it could be one of a few dozen folks out to cause some chaos in the happy household.
There also promises to be a lot of juicy father vs. son dramatics come March, with major Lucious/Hakeem issues after the younger Lyon deposed his father as CEO of Empire, with a little dash of Lucious/Jamal craziness, as those two face off in the big American Song Awards event. The writers need to keep those fires burning a lot longer, because this show shines when it’s getting into that nasty business.
We should also be glad that they sidestepped the issue of Jamal and Summer hooking up after their inspirational songwriting session. There wasn’t any need to drag that out and give Lucious more time to talk proudly of his son being “fixed.” Nor is there any need to drag poor Alicia Keys back into the show with an unplanned pregnancy and more baby mama drama. But now that I write those words, I’m sure that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Don’t get too predictable on me, Empire.
From the season premiere that boasted Cookie in a monkey suit and a cameo by Rev. Al Sharpton, to a half-season stopping point complete with some of the most awkward ad integration, this has been a wooly and weird 10 weeks for the show. It’s also been a stretch that has seen Empire’s ratings drip-drippity-drop to the same spot they were in when the series began. That’s something that not even Terrence Howard chewing up and shooting up the scenery might be able to fix. Certainly breaking up the season into two parts like this isn’t doing the show any favors. I’m not sure how many viewers are going to want to swing back into this world once the weather starts warming up in March. Still, this show has defied expectations already and could rebound in a big way leading up to a final run of episodes that will include an Oprah cameo, and maybe even a little help from Mariah Carey. They would certainly do the series a lot more favors than Nicole Richie and Joel Madden did tonight.
Empire could stand to get even further back to its roots, and cut out all the celebrity cameo, high-profile stuff that only serves to distract from the soapy family drama at its core. Sadly, that train left the station long ago, leading this drama closer and closer to pure variety show silliness (“Well, look who just moved in next door… it’s Grammy-award winning artist John Legend!”). It’s all about balance. And for as much fun as can be derived from watching the scales tip up and down, a few weeks of keeping them on an even keel could yield a nice uptick in the Nielsen numbers, and a lot less eye rolling from the viewers.
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.