Wednesday, November 4, 2015

REVIEW: 'Empire' - Lucious and Cookie Unite in Order to Rescue Hakeem in 'A High Hope for a Low Heaven'

FOX's Empire - Episode 2.06 "A High Hope for a Low Heaven"

Lucious and Cookie must put aside their differences to protect their family and keep them out of danger. Jamal does his best to get back in the studio and break away from being defined solely as a gay artist. Hakeem struggles with how to feel and act like a man. Andre works to shut down a division at Empire, until he discovers a disciple in the midst of Lucious' Gutter Life records.

The story on Empire has always moved at a very fast pace. But that becomes such a strong disservice to the characters and overall narrative in this episode. Hakeem has a very traumatic experience, deals with PTSD and then overcomes those issues in order to give a rousing performance in the span of one hour. The speed with which this story is being told doesn't allow for any of it to come across as meaningful to the character or the show. It is simply an experience he dealt with for a week. It may make him even more self-destructive in the future. But that's not so much the point here. The show did this story in order to create suspense with an over-the-top stunt. It didn't want it to impact the story too much though so it's confined largely to just one hour. That's no way to properly tell a story about psychological trauma. But it's what Empire is doing nevertheless.

Hakeem being taken while out on a run wasn't a moment the show really earned in the previous episode. It was something that happened in order to build the excitement and suspense for "A High Hope for a Low Heaven." Cookie doesn't even realize he is gone for awhile. This story could have had value if it actually expanded its focus around the characters. Showcase what this means not only for the main family but for the people who took Hakeem. Right now, it's just one big mystery because they all share the same tattoo on their back. That tattoo comes into play later on as well when Cookie's new man is also sporting it on his back. But it's hard to care about why this is happening because it's a plot that's hitting the necessary beats but with no personality at all. It's hard to take this experience seriously because so much of the purpose and trauma happens offscreen.

This experience has an impact on Hakeem. It makes him more insufferable than before. Him hooking up with Anika in the first season was a joke. It was a way for them to hurt Lucious. But he couldn't care less. That's why they parted ways never to mention it again. But now, they are becoming this big love story. It's the only thing that gives Anika purpose at the moment. It's such a horrible character beat too. It makes absolutely zero sense why Hakeem goes to Anika instead of his family after this whole experience. His entire psychological reaction to all of this is quite a mess. It's externalized for the audience in a very weird way - mostly through cutaways to his face and tricks with sound effects. It shows that Hakeem is becoming more volatile. But that only makes him more irrational. That's the opposite direction the show should be taking the character in. Now everyone is just doing their best to help him through this troubled time instead of him maturing on his own. Now he will be allowed to make mistakes and have an excuse to get away with all of it. No matter how great that final performance is in showing that his mental state is getting better, it's just not a great story at all.

In fact, the only good moment in this entire episode is when the three brothers push their parents away so that they can actually help Hakeem in the way that he needs. Lucious and Cookie force their opinions and agendas on him. That only pushes Hakeem away more. Jamal and Andre don't know what it's like to be taken and held for ransom but they do understand what it's like to be the sons of Lucious and Cookie. Their united front is really a compelling moment for all three characters. None of them are in great stories at the moment. But being able to come together like this while Cookie and Lucious only make things more outrageous is a good place for the show to start rebuilding.

And yet, the show really loves the theatrical antics of Lucious and Cookie. They are the breakout characters of the show simply because of how ridiculous and over-the-top they are. That's what made the show a breakout success. So the show shouldn't move past that just because it has grown stale. It just needs to find a new way to make all of these characters interesting and fun again. Right now, the show is in such a strange rut. The characters are only being defined by one broad thing. Andre is religious. Jamal wants to become a bigger artist. Hakeem feels entitled but hasn't earned it. Cookie is vengeful of Lucious. And lastly, Lucious continues to do nothing but harm the rest of his family. At the moment, he only seems to connect to Freida. They understand the same things musically. That's what makes him so willing to look past all of her disastrous actions as of late. His faith in her could ruin the company's image as Andre points out. But Lucious only really cares about himself. He's a toxic character. Everyone knows that. But he's still there and giving horrible advice to his kids. It's just not connected to the other characters' ongoing storylines in a way that feels emotionally resonant and, quite frankly, worth it. The show has become a lot of flash but not a whole lot of meaningful substance.

Some more thoughts:
  • "A High Hope for a Low Heaven" was written by Robert Munic and directed by Mario Van Peebles.
  • It's clear that Adam Rodriguez's character is playing some kind of long con on Cookie. He seduces her - which she acts on because they do have great chemistry. But he was also the person to suggest hiring the people who took Hakeem as Lyon Dynasty's new security team. That just seems like a horrible idea. Cookie, where did your street smarts go?
  • Cookie's reactions to learning that Hakeem is a part of a snatch and grab were pretty great though. She does not understand what proof of life is and why it's necessary in this situation.
  • That song Jamal was singing in the studio was really beautiful. But I still don't care about Michael cheating on him. Jamal constantly talking about this being a great relationship doesn't make it a great relationship that the audience should be invested in. Just because Michael has been here since the beginning doesn't make him a compelling or necessary presence.
  • Andre's religious beliefs are now impacting how he runs the business. That can only bring trouble to him. But in his defense, all of those artists on his new label were horrible. Yes, they can rap about the struggle of being on the streets. But they also need some manners in order to make it in this business and be taken seriously.
  • Becky is given a sliver of a story for a brief moment. She has a new boyfriend who happens to be the one artist on Andre's new label that he actually likes. Andre convinces him to incorporate scripture into his music which may not be okay with Becky.
  • Please don't let there be some grand love triangle between Hakeem, Anika and Laura. Anika and Laura have had strong character moments in the past. But in this episode, they are reduced completely down to being a sexual object for Hakeem.
  • Is the show really trying to suggest that Jamal is already big enough of an artist to try to perform at the Staples Center? Him being rejected wasn't all that surprising but Jamal sees it as judgment of him only being a gay artist. It wasn't but that's what the story is interested in doing right now.