Empire, Season 2 Episode 1: “The Devils Are Here”

I saw an ad for The Blacklist today, which claimed it was America’s or the world’s biggest drama. No way, not when Empire is around. The fact that it’s been relegated to a secondary channel seems bizarre to me, but given that Network Ten has had very little success with scripted programming over the past few years (I really liked Party Tricks, but they won’t bring that back), it makes sense that they’re sticking to reality competition shows on their primary channel and moving imported dramas to Eleven. I don’t necessarily like it, but at least we’re getting Empire and Scream Queens within a week of their US broadcast. The season two premiere of Empire is all over the place tonally, and aside from the pilot, it’s the only episode I’ve watched outside of a binge.

As a white person living outside of the United States, I have absolutely zero authority when it comes to racial issues over there, but Empire gives me a glimpse into that world. Police brutality and Black Lives Matter are all over social media and the news here in Australia, but Empire shows us that not even the most privileged of black people (and that’s a loaded phrase, I know) can go even a day without necessarily fearing for their lives. Unbeknownst to Jamal, his family is using the concert for Lucious as a cover for the orchestration of their hostile takeover of the company, but it’s on TV in prison, so Lucious sees something he immediately knows is suspicious. I have a lot of issues with Lucious as a character, but he’s really in his element in prison, and I love it.

The episode picks up three months after Lucious’ arrest, and he seems to have made himself comfortable in prison. Jamal is visiting him for advice on running the company, but Cookie hasn’t, which is fair enough because he didn’t visit her once in seventeen years. In taking over the company, Jamal has less time to focus on his music, and after the failed hostile takeover, he’s showing that he’s just as ruthless as his father.

I still have issues with the timespan over which Jamal went from cutting himself off from his father to being the favourite son; had it played out over more episodes, I might have found it more believable, then again the bingewatch wasn’t my friend. On the other hand, it’s an interesting character piece. How did Jamal go from bowing to his father’s wishes and cutting himself off, to publicly coming out in part to annoy Lucious, to the cutthroat head of Empire? It seems that one songwriting session and his need for his father’s attention and holding a man over a balcony was all that was needed to flip him. Also there was the moment that Cookie tried to smother Lucious with a pillow because she found out he killed her cousin, and sure that looked bad, but Cookie had always been the one who accepted him. After the attempted takeover, Jamal’s actions make much more sense, because even though the takeover was about wrestling Empire from Lucious, by extension it seemed that Cookie, Annika and Hakeem didn’t want him at the head. I left Andre and Rhonda out because they’ve always known what they wanted, whereas the other three were solely targeting Lucious. It might have been a bit easier if Vernon was still alive, so there’s that. The first season of Empire became the Cookie Lyon show, but the core relationship – the one I could count on – was Cookie and Jamal, and switching that up this season is a bold move.

Let’s talk about Lucious Lyon, a character whose presence has at time seemed a barrier to anything fun happening on this show, but seeing him in prison is something else. He’s obviously paid off quite a few of the guards, because he can Skype into shareholder meetings from his cell, and he knows how to get the other inmates to follow him as well. Sure, Frank is a mean son of a bitch, but Lucious knows that loyalty can be bought. After all, that’s basically what he did with Jamal. And despite everything he’s done to her, I do believe that Lucious loves Cookie, or at least thinks he does. I don’t know if Lucious has the same understanding of love as people who don’t rule the world. And Cookie has faith in Lucious – she knows he’ll do what needs to be done, because they have that history. Their sons have grown up with money, but they had nothing. No one but Cookie, Lucious and probably Carol know that it was Cookie’s drug money that started Empire, but Carol and Cookie are being pretty frank about the fact that they sold drugs to make a living when they were younger. Jamal might think he’s a tough guy, and Cookie says he’s turning into his father, but Jamal would wince at what his father did. He’s not there yet.

Other thoughts:

  • Why was there no performance of “Drip Drop” at the concert?
  • I’m coming back to edit this just so I can link to Joshua Alston’s review over at The A.V. Club, which is fantastic.

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