Wednesday, November 11, 2015

REVIEW: 'Empire' - Lucious Gets Personal with His Music While Cookie Enjoys Her New Relationship in 'True Love Never'

FOX's Empire - Episode 2.07 "True Love Never"

Lucious strategizes the ascension of Empire from record label into global music monolith, so he looks into starting a partnership with Jago, the founder of a music streaming company. Andre has to twist his newfound values to achieve a delicate balance between his faith and his career. Hakeem works with Laura to turn her into a star. Cookie sets her sights on having Lyon Dynasty be a part of an epic televised charity music event.

"True Love Never" isn't as aggravating as the last few episodes of Empire's second season have been. It still features some pretty annoying and wonky storytelling beats. There's a three way that goes nowhere and isn't all that fun or sexy. Plus, the songs themselves leave much to be desired - especially from Lucious and the girl trio. And yet, this episode is a step up from what has been happening this season recently. The hour introduces one too many ideas that don't completely track with the season that has come before it. But it's enjoyable nonetheless.

The episode features the surprising introduction of a portion of Lucious' fans who believe his songs have sick beats but shallow lyrics. It's hard to imagine a man of his stature in the music business could have such criticism attached to his music. This is something he takes very personal. He has put his heart and soul into this music. It angers him when he hears people talking about him not going deep enough to leave a true message with his lyrics. That does make some sense given that Terrence Howard isn't the best musical performer on the show. But it's still weird for Lucious to have the fame that he does that has lasted as long as it has without him going deep with his own tragic past. He manipulates other people's tragedies in order to create great music. How hasn't he done that with himself yet? His history with his mentally ill mother has been proudly on display throughout this season. It seemingly comes to an end here when the audience sees young Dwight's mother committing suicide right in front of him. That's a pain that can easily traumatize someone for decades.

And yet, Lucious is dealing with these personal emotions of his life through his work with Freda. At one time this season, he put all his energy into helping Jamal become a superstar. And now, he is convinced that Freda is the new talent who he should be mentoring. He is able to connect with her because they both come from the streets and understand that struggle. He tries to mean well with his sons but he always comes across as forcing them down the rabbit hole of destruction and pain. But he is also putting so much into Freda right now because he sees her as the way to achieve what he has never achieved before. Neither Jamal nor Hakeem can unlock this personal pain and get it into a song with him. Both are achieving so much critical success right now. But Lucious can't enjoy it because he's too caught up in his own emotions. That mean create a good song through his collaboration with Freda. But it could just as easily put some distance between him and Jamal, Hakeem and Andre.

That creates an opening to restore the bond between Jamal and Cookie. Jamal's need to get an objective opinion on his latest song is what leads to him reaching out to Cookie. He needs her now because she understands his sound. The appeal of Lucious producing Jamal's next album is gone. Now, Lucious just sticks his head in for a moment and then leaves. With Cookie, she's supportive of change and has many suggestions on how to make the song better. It's a much more collaborative process. She's not the reason why Jamal gets to perform in front of a room full of esteemed colleagues. But she is the reason why the song is so good. It's great that the two of them are back in this place in their relationship again. She may be in danger when it comes to her new romance with Laz. But she will always have the support of her children to rely on when the going gets tough.

And then, there is Hakeem who is doing his part to be seen as a more mature partner at Lyon Dynasty. Cookie is a tad distracted right now due to her three days of passion with Laz and helping Jamal finish his new song. She wants to bump Laura from being the lead of the trio. Hakeem sees something in her though. Something that he just needs to pull out. As soon as he does, she will be a star. It's a tad frustrating that the show is pushing so hard for this girl group when Laura shines so much better when she performs alone. When the show doesn't overproduce, she's a phenomenal talent. When she is performing on the street, it's a fantastic moment. When she's dancing with the two other girls, it's a chaotic mess that doesn't sound natural nor are the lyrics all that original or catchy. Lyon Dynasty has a talent here. She could be a strong solo act. It's not as if the other two girls in the group have personalities at all. They are only important when the story needs them to be - and that's all too briefly and largely when they perform. Hakeem has to give Laura this confidence boost because another girl kept bumping her in order to get into the spotlight. Sure, that mentorship then took a turn to romance. Not every girl Hakeem comes into contact with has to be interested in him that way. But the show is doing something with Hakeem right now. It completely disregards what happened to him last week when he was kidnapped and dealing with that psychological trouble. But he's not being overly confident and cocky anymore. He's simply doing the work and that is slowly building up respect. That character progression is strong in an episode that is slightly scattered.

Some more thoughts:
  • "True Love Never" was written by Ingrid Escajeda and directed by Sylvain White.
  • Andre is making smarter business decisions this week. He's not letting his new faith dictate his every action to the detriment of the business. But Lucious is also trying to corrupt his soul - something that is painfully articulated to the audience in Andre and his pastor talking in the studio.
  • The show just really doesn't know what to do with Rhonda or Anika right now. Anika doesn't appear at all while Rhonda is just working out. Does the show even remember that she is pregnant? Also, Tiana is just reduced down to showing Laura how to walk like a superstar.
  • Lucious and Mimi make an effective team because they both share the same mindset when it comes to getting what they want. In this case, that's a streaming platform for Empire music. Their strategy is complicated when Lucious sends the prospective partner to the hospital. But Mimi is able to get him to comply simply by making sure he's high on his pain medications when they tell him what they are going to do.
  • How can Cookie afford two bottles of the most expensive wine on the menu? Is Lyon Dynasty really that successful already? That was fast. But it doesn't really matter because it led to the wonderful scene of Cookie and Jamal having to sneakily record his song and then make sure Hakeem didn't see them.
  • It's really hard to care about whatever Laz has planned for Cookie and Lyon Dynasty. He and his crew are just trying their best to get a lot of money from them. But the story would have been much better if Laz had just been a love interest for Cookie.
  • That opening sequence with Cookie and Laz in bed was hot - something that the show couldn't keep up later even though it had a three way between Lucious, Mimi and a random girl.