Wednesday, April 6, 2016

REVIEW: 'Empire' - Jamal and Hakeem Write a Song to Help Andre with His Grief in 'A Rose By Any Other Name'

FOX's Empire - Episode 2.12 "A Rose By Any Other Name"

With Hakeem acting as Empire's CEO, Camilla sinks her claws further into him. The rest of the Lyon family tries to get him to rejoin their side, but Hakeem has his own plan. Jamal receives backlash from his fans. Andre and Rhonda's marriage is tested.

Empire has had a very problematic second season. Throughout its run last fall, the creative team kept getting distracted by new and exciting ideas for the characters. It was hard to find any sense of consistency. All of this experimentation didn't really lead to a whole lot of interesting material for the characters either. They were largely trapped in formulaic storytelling beats that didn't do anything to push the narrative forward in exciting ways. The episodes were building to big moments but didn't make sure the character journeys getting there were engaging and made the twists compelling for the audience. After the hiatus, it seems the show has taken the time to refocus. It's still rushing through story developments. Mimi and Camilla took over Empire only two episodes ago. And now, both of them are dead and the Lyon family is back in control. But at least the show seems to have more of an awareness of what's going on and is making sure it's of genuine concern to all of the characters. That's a step in the right direction.

Lucious gave Cookie two days to get Empire back in line and Camilla out of the company. That deadline is incredibly irrelevant throughout this hour. Lucious is largely worrying about himself and his new video shoot while Cookie, Hakeem, Jamal and Andre are plotting on exposing Camilla for the fraud she really is. Over these last two episodes, Lucious' story has become interestingly less important to the narrative. It should be invigorating seeing him lose everything he has worked so hard for. And yet, the show already somewhat did that at the start of the season with his prison stint. But again, it hasn't been that big of a fall because he's still a part of the company and the family is fighting to take back control. He just has very little to do with that. He's instead worrying about himself. This change makes him so angry at Hakeem for betraying him. And yet, this situation right now is forcing more creative restrictions on him which is actually being more beneficial to his music than his most recent work. That's an exciting story prospect.

Meanwhile, Hakeem wants to prove to the rest of the family that him voting Lucious out wasn't an act of war against the entire family. He simply wanted to prove his own worth while hurting the man who has caused him so much pain over the years. It was an act of vengeance and retribution against Lucious. That was it. He agrees to work with Cookie to get Camilla out because he wants to protect his love with Laura. Camilla has given him control of the company. Control which has quickly gone to his head. He's making a lot more changes than Jamal ever did in the position. He has the freedom to do so because of Camilla's backing with the board. He could lose everything if he removes Camilla from the picture. But he wants to prove to his family that he still wants to be with them. Mimi dropping all of her stocks in Empire causes a power vacuum that may as well remove Hakeem from the CEO position. He could los everything because the rest of the family is fighting for Lucious. That's never a real big pressing concern though. He gets rid of Mimi and Camilla for the family - by making a sex tape with Camilla - which makes everyone happy.

Of course, the show then takes a rather dark twist in the end by killing both Mimi and Camilla. It's a laughable and formulaic moment because clearly the show couldn't get Marisa Tomei back for another episode. But it also plays into the darker hand that the show has occasionally shown and has never really handled all that well. Hakeem broke apart this marriage in order to secure the future of Empire for his family. And yet, the consequences of that action are huge. Mimi is willing to leave Camilla after Hakeem sends her the sex tape. In response, Camilla kills Mimi in order to keep everything she would have inherited. But then, Lucious just waltzes in to reveal that Hakeem sent the sex tape to Mimi and no longer wants anything to do with this relationship. It's weird that Lucious knows all of that considering he's not on good terms with either Jamal or Hakeem at the moment. Cookie handled this problem for him but he still goes over there to finish the job. It's an awkward moment. But it ensures that neither Mimi nor Camilla will be complicating the narrative any further moving forward.

That likely means the show will focus more on the ASA awards and how Lucious and Jamal are facing off in the same category. The show has hardly given the audience a reason to care about these awards. But they are incredibly important to the characters for some reason. Award campaigning is a real thing that can be very manipulative and have career consequences. But the way it's being dramatized here is a little too wonky. Most of that comes out of the continuing conversation about Jamal's sexuality. His fans have apparently turned against him because he no longer wants to be viewed as gay. All of it plays as over-the-top antics in order to force a reaction out of Jamal. It puts a divide between father and son again. That's honestly a good thing because Jamal works better as a character when he's not aligned with his father. Plus, it puts Lucious on a path where he can become a more genuine character who embraces his past for what it really was.

And lastly, Andre is continuing to struggle in the aftermath of his son's death. It's great that the show isn't completely ignoring the consequences of Rhonda falling down the stairs. It's still preposterous that she is magically healed and back at work already. But it's intriguing to see how this emotional issue is affecting Andre's mental health and his marriage. All of this stress is putting more pressure on his body and his disease is starting to rear its ugly head again. It's great that the show remembers that Andre has a mental disease. That puts stress on all of the family right now. It's not always handled well throughout this episode. That marriage counseling scene is horrendous because the pastor is such a one-note caricature who only wants to take about religion. It's just laughable that the scene features him saying that God and faith will heal Andre more than any kind of modern medicine. But the story quickly bounces back from that moment with Jamal and Hakeem performing a song for Andre to help him through this difficult time. The music this year hasn't been as meaningful or important to the narrative as it was in the first season. But this moment with the family together really lands well and is very emotional for everyone involved. That's a nice sign that things are starting to look up on this show.

Some more thoughts:
  • "A Rose By Any Other Name" was written by Ilene Chaiken and directed by Michael Engler.
  • Tiana only pops up every third episode to sing a generic sounding, over-produced pop song and shake her body while the camera ogles over her moves. She has no other defining character traits than that. Seriously, where did that little outburst about Menage a Trois come from?
  • Apparently, Menage a Trois is still a thing too. That's surprising. Last week had the two other girls seemingly calling it quits followed by Laura performing solo at Empire. But now, they're back together again which is so disappointing.
  • It's not abundantly clear whether or not Laura is aware of the history Hakeem and Camilla have. Also, the tension present when Cookie proposes sending Menage a Trois on tour with Tiana is so manufactured and doesn't really mean anything.
  • Last week, it seemed likely that Rhonda was remembering that someone pushed her down the staircase which led to the death of the baby. But now, not only is that not happening but Andre is allegedly seeing visions of someone pushing her. It's again pushing the religion topic in a very blunt way. It's probably building to a moment where Rhonda remembers what happened which then proves that Andre was right and leads to her accepting religion into her life.
  • Isn't it great that Rhonda actually feels like a part of the family in this episode? Too often, she is kept out of the main dynamics which hasn't been good for character development. But here, she's interacting with Cookie, Jamal and Hakeem and actually feels like she belongs in this dynamic.
  • An attractive reporter is interviewing Lucious for an exclusive story about his past. Please, don't let her be the latest reporter character to sleep with her subject! That is such a horrible cliche. And yet, it's hinted at here.
  • Lucious' creative vision for his work really needs to be dialed back a lot. That has always been apparent and a problem. He goes for these big ideas in the bluntest way possible. Remember the idea he had for Jamal and Hakeem's music video last fall? It was all over-the-map just like the concept initially seems for his new video with Freda.