Wednesday, November 18, 2015

REVIEW: 'Empire' - Hakeem & Freda Face Off in an Epic Rap Battle While Jamal Woos Pepsi in 'My Bad Parts'

FOX's Empire - Episode 2.08 "My Bad Parts"

Lucious, eager to assert his power, releases a rap by Freda challenging Hakeem as his heir. Not to be outdone in Lucious' eyes, Hakeem fires back at Freda with a rap battle challenge that could put Lyon Dynasty's future in danger. Cookie gets a special visit from her spitfire sister, Candace (Vivica A. Fox). Jamal is working on landing a major sponsorship deal. Anika receives some life changing news.

It has become clear over the last few episodes of Empire's second season that it doesn't really have a strong purpose right now. The show broke out in such a huge way because it was big and it embraced the spectacle. This season has been all about the animosity between the characters. Empire Entertainment and Lyon Dynasty are at war with each other. They have gone back-and-forth. Each have gotten victories and defeats. And yet, it's a story that has grown incredibly stale. That has been the focus of the show this season. But none of the conflict or the resolution comes from a natural place. Yes, it's easy to understand why everyone hates Lucious - and why he still has so much influence over these people's lives. But the show's just having fun with the two warring companies and not making sure that the actual character beats track well and in a meaningful way.

The show has lost its grandiosity a little bit this season. That's surprising given the season opened with a massive Free Lucious concert that featured Cookie jumping around in a gorilla suit. That moment proved that the show was using its platform in order to talk about real issues. And now, "My Bad Parts" is largely just product integration with Pepsi. It's easy to see why that would happen. Empire is a humongous show. It's a breakout hit the broadcast networks haven't had in a long time. Of course, a company like Pepsi would want to be a part of that. But the show is too distracted by the appeal of that brand to really make sure it's telling an important story with the characters. It largely just boils down to more scenes of Lucious and Cookie fighting with one another. They hate each other. That's their one-note direction for the season. That has always been inherently in their dynamic. But it's no longer a rewarding thing to watch every single week. In fact, the show would be so much better if it rose above that conflict like Jamal does in his handling of the song submission.

"My Bad Parts" does build to one truly captivating set piece in Freda and Hakeem's rap battle. It puts the behind-the-scenes war between the two companies front and center. It feels tense - even though this is the first time the two characters have interacted this season. Lucious has put so much of his trust in Freda because he is able to connect with her much more than any of his sons. They speak each other's language. So the words that come out of Freda's mouth are essentially how Lucious sees Hakeem. He doesn't know the struggle of growing up on the streets. He always runs back to Cookie for her love and support. He is jealous by the success of his father and brother. And lastly, he's just pretending to be a mogul when he's absolutely nothing. Some of those accusations are true. They bruise Hakeem's ego enough to agree to this rap battle in the first place. But Hakeem has matured a little bit as a character this season. He is fighting for his own identity. Something that he actually takes as this episodes reaches it's most climatic moment.

Hakeem's personal growth this season came somewhat from him being kidnapped. That's a story that's still just simmering in the background. Hakeem doesn't have any psychological trauma from that event nor have Laz and his men done anything to Lyon Dynasty yet. But Hakeem has also proven himself as a producer. He was able to pull a star out of Laura. He gives Jamal the great suggestion of not asking for Lucious and Cookie's permission to fuse their two songs for his big Pepsi presentation. Hakeem does have smart ideas. He is risking everything in this battle. It's a place where he is truly able to shine. Freda is talented but Hakeem embraces his inner showmanship. Him playing to the crowd is what leads to his win. This whole strategy backfired on Lucious. Hakeem proved himself. And yet, that still didn't do anything to change Lucious' opinion of him. Sure, he can now relate to the need to change one's name in order to survive. But that moment truly belonged to Hakeem. He was the one making the statement. The show's need to complicate that by fitting the rest of the characters into that moment lessened its effect.

In fact, this overall episode is muddled with a lot of stories that just don't seem to be going anywhere. The whole streaming deal at Empire seems like a waste of a lot of wonderful talent. It's clear that Mimi is doing something against Lucious. But she's not much of a character to actually make me interested in what she has going on. The conflict between Hakeem and Laz is only escalating - which leads to Cookie slapping her lover because he put his hands on her son. Hakeem is falling in love with Laura but there's not really any explanation for why she would be so special to him when he has always been depicted as a player. And lastly, Cookie's older sister, Candace, shows up to complain about the other sister, Carol. Candace only pops right away because she's played by Vivica A. Fox. Other than that, it's just more story to keep the characters complicated.

But then, there is also the big reveal that Anika is pregnant with Hakeem's baby. That is the only thing that could have justified him going to her after being kidnapped. The show needed to produce that moment in order to tell this story. Anika has been a character without purpose all season long. She bounced back and forth between the companies before just disappearing. No one wanted her. And then, she popped up out of the blue to have sex with Hakeem. That connection was never real. But now, it's the only thing of value to that character. Sure, the show is committed to this as direction and purpose for Anika. She's taking a turn for the full-on crazy in the end by stalking Hakeem's new lady. But it's also a story that better be important later on. Otherwise it will just be a waste of time - like so much else that is currently happening on the show.

Some more thoughts:
  • "My Bad Parts" was written by Malcolm Spellman and directed by Sanaa Hamri.
  • Since when does Becky care about Hakeem? She appears as Lucious is setting the stage for the rap battle telling him that this could be very cruel to Hakeem. He doesn't listen. But why does she care? Jamal is the only Lyon brother she actually has a friendship with.
  • It was great that Cookie had to hide in Jamal's closet when Lucious crashed their music session. Plus, Jamal's explanation for why her jacket was there was priceless.
  • Laura is a virgin. That's an issue that this show has no interest in giving any kind of respect too. She's in love with Hakeem. So why shouldn't she want to have sex? That's what the show wants you to believe.
  • Andre and Rhonda have nothing going on now that he is officially back at Empire and she is doing nothing all day long. Even Andre's conflicts with his father seem to be going around in circles.
  • Lucious and Cookie working out their differences in order to produce Jamal's album feels like just the kind of resolution to this story that has been a long time coming. Please let this animosity fade so the characters can have complexity with each other again!