Wednesday, November 25, 2015

REVIEW: 'Empire' - Cookie Searches for Her Sister as Lucious Does Whatever It Takes to Secure His Legacy in 'Sinned Against'

FOX's Empire - Episode 2.09 "Sinned Against"

Cookie and Candace, team up with a former prison mate (Rosie O'Donnell) to rescue their sister, Carol. Jamal and Skye Summers (Alicia Keys) begin collaborating and soon share a deep connection. Laz has truly fallen for Cookie, but things get complicated when she finds out the truth about him.

"Sinned Against" is the penultimate episode of the year. It doesn't exactly go out with a big moment to build anticipation for next week's midseason finale. In fact, this episode is very scattered and a bit formulaic. It's hard to figure what the show is actually building to. There is Cookie's big cookout and Jamal's production integration with Pepsi. Lucious is also very focused on his legacy while Anika gets crazier by the second. And yet, all of those stories have some really troubling flaws to them. This episode also boasts some big guest stars in Alicia Keys, Vivica A. Fox, Rosie O'Donnell and series co-creator Lee Daniels. The show does lose itself in those moments as well. It leads to an episode that is a bit more problematic than the show would want to be right now.

Lucious is invested in protecting his legacy. He really isn't that great of a father. But he is at the age where he's becoming a grandfather and looking to make sure that his family is protected no matter what should happen. This has been a hard season for Lucious. He embraced his narcissistic and selfish qualities this season because he got a new lease on life and had to face the criminal justice system. He emerged victorious which alienated his family further. He has pushed them all away so now he needs new additions to give his love to. That's the only reason why he is so good and generous to Andre and Rhonda. Lucious views them as the parents of his grandchild and nothing more. But Lucious is still very capable of being that selfish man. He is demanding of Andre when he can't close this music streaming deal. But all it takes is to be reminded of the greatness of the music for Lucious to become reinvigorated with finishing this deal and cementing his legacy in the business for his family.

The show is setting Lucious up to go big should this deal go according to plan. He's selling off parts of Empire just to finance this deal. He is passionate after seeing Jamal performing his Pepsi song - despite his legacy idea quickly being shot down by the director, Lee Daniels. But that also creates a precarious situation for Lucious. He could lose just as much as he could potentially gain. There remains something shifty about this deal. That's entirely because Mimi is connected to it and she is keeping something from Lucious and the audience. Should it turn out that this is a disastrous deal for Lucious that could destroy his company, that could be a nice humbling experience for him. Or it could make him even more volatile. At least it could create a situation where Empire and Lyon Dynasty are on the same playing field. Lucious still has so much power that he can lord over his family with. That's made abundantly clear in many instances throughout this hour. How far is he willing to go to keep that power though should this not work out for him?

Everything that is happening with Lucious is just setting things up for the future. It's more expositional than anything else. It's not fun as an episodic story. It's just rising action so the show can pull some grand and elaborate twist on the audience next week. On the other hand, Jamal is in a very fun story in this episode. That is until the final twist turns it into a major disaster. Pairing Jamal with Alicia Key's Skye Summers was a smart idea. It's an episodic story that keeps the Jamal corner of the world interesting to watch. It doesn't really advance his story forward at all - again, until the very end. But it's a lot of fun because both singers want to work with each other because they are inspired by the other. It's the idealistic way to do this business. It's a story that eliminates all the distractions of the executive's voice. It's just Jamal and Skye sitting in a room and pulling a great song out that has a ton of meaning and will make an impact. It's also one of the better songs the show has produced this season. It's empowering to watch the two of them perform it during the episode's closing moments.

And yet, "Sinned Against" ends on the cliffhanger of Jamal being so happy with this performance that he kisses Skye. That's a story beat that can turn disastrous in an instant. When it happens, it was so irksome. Ever since the show began, Jamal has been defined by his sexuality. He is a gay artist but he doesn't want that label to define him to the rest of the world. It is still a major component of the character. This moment could bring nuance to that aspect of his life. Or it could just be the show's attempt at making a sensationalized moment to stir up the audience's emotions. The show was very deliberate with that kiss. It wasn't a moment that had to happen. So it better happen for a reason. And if that reason is lousy in the next episode, it will signal that the show truly has run off the tracks of its own fame.

The Jamal story is frustrating because of that final beat. Meanwhile, the Cookie story is problematic because it feels like it has a split personality. On one hand, there is Cookie trying to make this new business venture a success with her highly promoted cookout - which has just been expanded to two days. On the other, she and her older sister Candace are off on a journey to find the other sister, Carol, after she falls off the wagon. They are both stories that demand her time. She can't just avoid her family responsibilities because she is too caught up in work and a new romance. She needs to protect her sister after she has gone down this very dark path. And yet, that only rarely creates much interest. Rosie O'Donnell pops up as a fellow prison mate of Cookie's who is able to track Carol down for her. And yet, it's not a particularly necessary role. It just establishes that Cookie did have friends on the inside.

Additionally, the cookout story is still just a lot of rising action that is deeply connected to Cookie's relationship with Laz. His true self is finally revealed to Cookie. And yet, it's a disappointing reveal because Lucious is the one to break the truth to her. It makes it seem like Cookie still needs him in order to protect her. She is more than capable of handling things herself. Sure, it's foolish that she didn't check out Laz's past before getting in bed with him. But it's the reveal that the show set up nevertheless. And now, the show is trying to suggest that Cookie has changed Laz. He wants to be a better person because he actually found real love with her. That's only explained in the scene where he wants to get out of the scheme with the rest of his colleagues. And yet, it's not all that meaningful that he has these feelings for her. This relationship isn't all that vital to who Cookie is or what her business is becoming. Hakeem is putting a lot of trust in Laz to make this concert work. And now that he and Cookie know the truth, it might all fall apart. But the consequences of this reveal still have to play out in next week's finale.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Sinned Against" was written by Eric Haywood and directed by Paul McCrane.
  • Candace alludes that Carol did something to Cookie while she was in prison that Cookie doesn't know about yet. That's honestly a twist that is weird to bring up at this point in the season. And yet, so does the majority of this season.
  • Anika has taken the full turn into crazy - filled with a shrine to Hakeem and details on where she can find Laura. This is only going to end badly. It's hilarious to watch unfold even though it's a tad difficult to understand why she is doing all of this. Are the Lyons really that important to her? It's still fun though.
  • Anika also gets some crazy advice from Rhonda. This pregnancy arc has sidelined her a lot and she's only barely showing. This is going to be a long pregnancy of nothingness.
  • Hakeem and Laura are still a stable thing which is good, I suppose.
  • So was that Skye's mom or manager who was accompanying her around during her first few scenes? It was weird that she was just there with no big explanation as to who she was.
  • It seems very self-indulgent of the show to have co-creator Lee Daniels appear as himself for the big production integration story with Pepsi. They really are selling themselves because of the fame the show has achieved this year.