Wednesday, December 2, 2015

REVIEW: 'Empire' - Hakeem Makes a Crucial Decision that Could Rip the Family Apart in 'Et Tu, Brute?'

FOX's Empire - Episode 2.10 "Et Tu, Brute?"

Lucious makes a reckless play for the streaming service that he believes will make him the most powerful man in music, only to learn that the entire business strategy was part of a scheme that might jeopardize everything for which he was worked so hard. Cookie decides to plan a concert at the prison where she spent 17 years locked away.

The second season of Empire has had its fair share of problems - including a lack of consistent focus and an overabundance of guest stars. The show lost the thread a couple of times as the season dragged along. "Et Tu, Brute?" is the final episode of the show for 2015. After this, it's on hiatus until the end of March. The show goes out by fully embracing its soap opera antics. That leads to some completely over-the-top and ridiculous moments. But there are also a couple of key scenes that really work well. Those moments show just how great this show is still capable of being. Now, the show just needs to find a way to cut through all the clutter and return to telling stories about these characters that are actually important and interesting.

The episode's chief soap opera moment comes when Rhonda is pushed down the staircase in her new home. It's a very familiar trope on these types of shows. One that always carries a ton of consequences. The story was obviously building to that moment with the foreshadowing shot of her walking down the staircase early in the episode. But the weight of watching her falling down the stairs isn't that compelling. Rhonda is a character the show hasn't known what to do with all season long. She changed as a character this season. Part of that came from her pregnancy. Another part came from the conniving wife archetype not really working or being multi-dimensional in the first season. And yet, she didn't really do anything this year except bury a body and then dig it back up. That's the only crucial thing she did. That entire story was being told from Andre's perspective too. So, she has essentially lost all value on this show. So, a character with no purpose doesn't make this major character twist work. It's surprising because it's a horrifying and shocking twist. But the twist is the focus not the character. Even the mystery of who pushing her is more important than whatever her fate is over the hiatus. She could easily die and the show really wouldn't change that much.

Jamal's story over the last few episodes has been incredibly silly as well. The Pepsi commercial has very much felt like product integration and nothing more. A cost of the show being so successful. Even seeing the final product isn't even that exciting because the audience is aware of how much that kept the character from doing interesting things. Furthermore, Jamal's kiss and actual hook up with Skye Summers is so ridiculously stupid. When it happened last week, the fallout would determine whether or not it was a compelling or even necessary twist. This episode proves that it was just dumb. It's simply the show trying to say that there is more to sexual identity than simple labels. But it's a horrible point that needs to be driven home in poorly written dialogue. It's awkward when Jamal and Skye's performance is followed up by accusations thrown at Skye about choosing to be black now. It's even more nonsensical when Lucious lets it slip to Jamal's new benefactor that Skye is his girlfriend. None of it led up to anything substantial. It just gave Jamal something to do in this episode. It was just a bad decision that failed in execution.

Moving onto the actually good moments in this midseason finale. Lucious has lost control of Empire. That's a huge development. It was clear over the last few weeks that something shifty was going on with Mimi. And now, it's revealed that she has been working with Camilla to get Lucious ousted as head of the company. It's rather easy for her to convince the board that he's a horrible person too. She didn't have to try hard at all to gather the evidence. The twist of Camilla being Mimi's wife worked even though that character never had much purpose in the first season. This sets her up as being much more important this season. Sure, her dynamic with Hakeem is still very awkwardly handled. But it is a nice twist. Though this story is much more about Hakeem's betrayal to the family. He chooses to side with Mimi in this vote. That's huge. It's not because he is working with Camilla again. It's because he hates his father and doesn't want to see him continue to get rewarded for his bad behavior. That's a compelling twist that happens because the show put in the work with the character this season. Lucious has done so many horrible things to Hakeem. Everyone expects the family to be united against this outside threat. But Lucious can only push things so far before Hakeem pushes back in a way that is debilitating to Lucious. It seems that has now happened.

So now, Lucious is defeated. This betrayal cuts deep. He has spent his lifetime building up this company. He and Cookie have sacrificed so much to make this company into what it is today. Without it, Lucious feels at a loss. He is angry at Hakeem - to the point where he actually wants to kill his son. That's a bit melodramatic. But the moment where Cookie has to talk Lucious down is the best scene between those two characters all season long. It's especially poignant considering Cookie spent the entire day at the prison she spent 17 years in. She mustered up the courage to face that place again. She did so in order to connect with her past. It was challenging but she braved through it and had a lot of fun when Hakeem and Laura performed. Losing his company is going to be very challenging for Lucious. But he is still an Empire artist. This loss could produce some great music.

But the competitive angle from this season is going to continue in the future as well. A running story in this episode is the announcement of nominations for the American Sound Awards - a made up awards organization that is given so much importance by the main characters. It's a big day for Jamal as he gets a nomination in basically every category. That's great considering nearly every episode this season featured a new Jamal song. "Heavy" is a good song though it's not my personal favorite of his from this season. But this whole awards nomination story is also silly. Hakeem doesn't get anything except Best Video - alongside Jamal. First of all, the theme for that video was too confusing and it never felt like the brothers got along long enough to actually finish it. Plus, it's laughable that Freda gets in the Best Rap Artist over Hakeem - largely because she is still so new to the music business. But all of this is only important because it sets up a big battle between father and son as both Lucious and Jamal are nominated for Song of the Year. That could be an interesting prospect for the future. It could give the show a direction to go in. But again, the follow through is so important. The show needs to make this tease worth it in the end.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Et Tu, Brute?" was written by Radha Blank and directed by Sanaa Hamri.
  • That new Tiana song is horrible. The performance and other characters needing to interrupt to deliver important dialogue couldn't distract from how bad it was. Tiana is another character who has had zero purpose this season.
  • Just because Hakeem votes against Lucious doesn't mean he should get back in bed with Camilla. He has a good thing going with Laura. Why would he want to mess that up for a woman who still technically left the country because Lucious told her to?
  • Is it too easy to assume that Anika was the one to push Rhonda down the stairs? That's the only explanation that makes sense right now. The show would have to bend over backwards to make another explanation work.
  • Skye was a poorly executed character in this episode. She worked last week as she got close to Jamal over needing to be taken more seriously as an artist. But this week she was very one-dimensional in her little crush on Jamal.
  • Why in the world would an award nominations announcement be an all day thing? That was just stupid and so disconnected from reality.
  • The show returns for the second half of its second season on March 30. It will be here before you know it!