Wednesday, September 30, 2015

REVIEW: 'Empire' - The Lyon Family Is Divided as Cookie Starts a New Business Venture in 'Without a Country'

FOX's Empire - Episode 2.02 "Without a Country"

Cookie and her cohorts decide to start their own small record label, but it's off to a bumpy start as everyone has different visions for it. Hakeem woos a hot Latina singer to prove that he can be more than just an artist. Lucious hires a new lawyer and records an epic track from inside jail. Jamal neglects his music and makes business moves that further his journey toward becoming every bit as ruthless as his father.

"Without a Country" firmly establishes the new direction for the season. Cookie, Andre, Hakeem and Anika failed at staging a hostile takeover of Empire from Lucious and Jamal. They've been exposed as traitors and kicked out of the company. Since they weren't successful at taking over the Empire, they figured they can just start their own version of it. Calling it Lyon Dynasty is a nice nod to series creator Lee Daniels envisioning the show as a a "black Dynasty." But it also establishes a fierce rivalry between the two companies - Empire is a massive corporation with its leader in jail while Lyon Dynasty is a new startup with lots of passion but not enough business smarts.

The lines have been drawn. The family is divided. Lucious and Jamal were betrayed by the rest of the family. They are willing to forgive some of them for what they did but not everyone. This episode explores whether or not Lyon Dynasty actually feels like it has a realistic shot of making it as a company. Lyon Dynasty is being run by Cookie and Hakeem. That doesn't instill a lot of confidence right away. They have dreams of making it big. Cookie has proven to be really smart about the music business. But she's also doing this new venture in order to create her own empire and stick in Lucious' face. She's doing it to prove to Lucious that this family doesn't need him in order to thrive in the music business. And yet, she doesn't have the business smarts to know how to run a company. That aspect is largely ignored in this episode. She has a dream and everyone around her is doing their best to make it happen. She finds a space that can be their base of operations that is much nicer than the place Empire was born. She figures she's already ahead of the game. She needs to be too if she's hoping to get this label launched before Lucious gets out of prison.

And then, Hakeem acts irrationally and without any concern about the potential consequences. He's excited by being the star at his own label. He also feels invigorated to prove to the world that he is more than just an artist. He wants to be taken seriously as a producer as well. And yet, how can he be seen as someone competent and capable when he just leaks his album online without a care in the world? He is so focused on his music that he doesn't know how bad his ideas sound. He is a talented musician. But he's still immature in a lot of ways. He thinks Tiana would love to be a part of his new girl group. He doesn't realize that she's established enough in her own career that she doesn't need to be a part of a group. And then, his idea to have the group be three girls of different ethnicities and call them "Rainbow Sensation" is naive. The idea is strong but the name feels juvenile. However, things may still work out for him. He finds three Latina singers he really likes and even Andre says it could work as a musical act. He refuses to come back to Empire no matter how much Jamal and Lucious beg him to. He's still trying to be seen as his own man who doesn't need others help in order to be himself. And yet, his own identity is one that could create a huge load of problems.

Meanwhile, Andre feels uncomfortable starting over at this time in his life. He is about to become a father. Plus, he's carrying around the secret that he and Rhonda killed Vernon. Empire is the company he helped build to what it is today. He wants to be the CEO of Empire more than anything in the world. That's why he supported the hostile takeover in the first place. That ambition can cost him though. Lucious adamantly refuses to forgive Andre. He is willing to embrace Jamal and Hakeem as artists for the company but he continues to push Andre away. Andre pleads to return. Even Rhonda visits Jamal to share the big baby news in order to get Andre back at Empire. None of it seems to work. If the desire and baby news isn't enough, what will be? Probably Andre telling the truth about Vernon to Lucious.

However, Lucious is becoming more despicable the longer he stays in prison. He can manipulate the system to his advantage. The people in charge do they best to make his life miserable. But he has people who can play just as dirty with no regard for the truth. Lucious knows that his fate won't be decided on whether or not a jury believes he did the crime. He sees the justice system as one where the most powerful comes out the winner. That mentality certainly holds true throughout this episode. Lucious is denied his medicine. But not only is he able to work around the prosector and guards, he is able to record a new song while in prison. That song is even able to be released on the radio shortly thereafter. This is man who doesn't have to deal with the consequences because he has money and power. He finds a new lawyer who embraces those same qualities. Lucious only gets released on bail because the lawyer has found compromising pictures of the judge. Those kinds of tactics will dictate the outcome of this case. But now, Lucious is out of jail and the rest of the family will have to deal with the repercussions. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Without a Country" was written by Carlito Rodriguez and directed by Dee Rees.
  • What kind of a name is "Spilling the Tea" for a sit-down music and interview show? That piece of publicity felt weird. It at least had a nice song and a great interruption from Cookie.
  • Gotta love Cookie breaking the news to Jamal that she, Andre and Hakeem are starting their own couple while the elevator doors are closing. She timed it perfectly so he couldn't have a reaction.
  • It's weird that everyone keeps bringing up the fact that Hakeem and Anika slept together. That never felt like something the audience should take seriously. But the show refuses to let it go.
  • Also, Hakeem has moved on to seducing the lead singer he wants for his all girl group. That was a weird story because it went from her auditioning for him and wanting to be a solo act to the two of them in a pool together kissing.
  • Why does V. Bozeman have such a strong connection with Anika and is willing to go with her wherever she goes? Anika has moved to three different labels over the course of the show. And yet, she is always able to bring V. along.
  • Chris "Ludacris" Bridges pops up as the correctional officer who stands opposed to Lucious. He supports everything the new prosecutor is doing and would be totally fine if Lucious were to die in his custody. Unfortunately, he's the one who gets beaten up in the end. That twist felt very similar to the way things ended with Lucious' story last week. So it's probably a good thing he's out in the world again.