I fear I’m going to start sounding like Stefon from SNL with each review of the new season if it keeps up like it has so far. Because this episode has everything: Kelly Rowland as Lucious’s mom, Bubbles from The Wire as a shady lawyer, the guy from Hotel Babylon helping Lucious make music in prison, subtle J. Lo. disses, lots of Cookie vs. Boo Boo Kitty action, Ludacris as a crooked prison guard, and much more gamesmanship between Empire and Dynasty, the new company Cookie and Hakeem are looking to set up.
Above all of this, what this episode has was the pulse that was somehow missing from the season premiere. Credit director Dee Rees, the filmmaker behind the brilliant coming-of-age film Pariah and the Queen Latifah-starring Bessie Smith HBO biopic. In her hands, the show comes alive, particularly in the opening sequence, where Cookie, Hakeem, and Andre trade phone calls about the future of their new venture. The camera and editing play it out like the beginning of a heist film, with the gang making plans for how they’re going to crack the safe.
Rees also raises the heat during the hour whenever there’s music being performed on screen. And this brings us to another stakes-raising element of this episode. If you weren’t aware, Ne-Yo was brought on board to help write music for Empire and to work alongside music supervisor Timbaland. The choice proved to be a huge boom for the show. The songs, particularly the uptempo ode to his boyfriend that Jamal sings early on, is miles beyond anything Empire has dropped on us yet. For all its peppiness and joy, there’s an underlying worry in the lyrics and melody. You can hear Jamal taking those tentative steps towards Michael, and toward being in charge of this huge corporation, fearing that the ground is going to collapse beneath him at any moment. ?
The music only gets better from there: there’s a raging little number by Tiana that convinces Hakeem that his ex should be part of the girl group he’s trying to put together, and Vee, the singer who appeared in the pilot episode, is given another skyscraping ballad to wail through. It’s masterful work that I hope we hear more of.
Both the sounds and the sights of the episode are necessary because the drama in it feels, right now, like the show is both dragging its feet and hurrying some plot elements along. Lucious does finally get out of prison on bail (after a little sneaky blackmail from Bubbles… I mean, Thirsty Rawlings, the lawyer), but I gotta say, it was fun watching him still pull the strings on Empire and run things while locked up. There’s enough episodes in this season that they could have easily left him in there for a while to hold court.
At the same time, the wheeling and dealing going on between Empire and Dynasty got to be a little much after a while. The writers spent nearly the entire hour distracting us with Latina wannabe pop stars in skin tight outfits (or in a bubble bath with Hakeem) and some choice bon mots from Cookie before landing on the exact spot that we saw coming: a split among the family. Hakeem and his mom are off to try and threaten Empire’s market dominance, and Andre is going crawling back to Jamal and Lucious, because he has put so much of his blood, sweat, and tears into that company.
None of that was as exciting or titillating as I think the show wants it all to be. It’s moving in some exciting directions. They’ve just yet to find the right pace and balance to be a truly great drama. Empire is a flawed, yet intoxicating enterprise, and I’m going to stick with it to the bitter end, but I really want everyone to step up their game.
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.