Wednesday, May 18, 2016

REVIEW: 'Empire' - Hakeem and Laura's Wedding Brings Out the Family's Destructive Ways in 'Past Is Prologue'

FOX's Empire - Episode 2.18 "Past Is Prologue"

After a life-changing experience, Jamal refuses to make music until his family ends its seemingly endless cycle of violence and fighting. The Feds are tailing Anika because they want to force her to testify against Lucious. In order to protect her family, Cookie organizes a meeting at Hakeem and Laura's wedding with various people from her and Lucious' past.

Well, "Past Is Prologue" was a preposterous dumpster fire that basically destroyed whatever good will the show still had left at this point in its run. It's astonishing to see just how quickly Empire has lost sight of its characters and storytelling. Back when the show first began, it was a story about a woman freshly released from prison trying to take back what she felt was rightfully hers while also earning the love and respect of her three adult sons. Empire is Cookie's story. But the show has just tossed that aside just to prop up theatrics that don't make sense from episode to episode - or scene to scene really. It is just so difficult to identify any part of the show that is still enjoyable to watch. Why should the audience care about any of these characters except for the fact that we've watched them for 30 episodes? The writing has just gotten so egregious and erratic this year. It's playing into the cliches of the genre instead of being a pleasurable deconstruction of those familiar storytelling beats. Nothing makes sense any more. "Past Is Prologue" isn't an insightful, compelling or engaging conclusion to a season of television. So much of the plot is completely fabricated within this episode itself. It's not rewarding to anything that has happened before it. It's just plot events that happen in order to shock the audience. That's never a strong way to tell stories.

Nothing in this finale works. It just goes to show that the drama knows how to do penultimate episodes well but absolutely sucks with finales. It's as if the pressure really gets to the writers and they absolutely choke on the anticipation. They need to deliver on all the big plot threads of the season while delivering outlandish and soapy twists bigger than anything they've previously done. That's what they think they need to do in the finale. But it doesn't work at all. "Past Is Prologue" is very different than the finale of the first season. But its issues are very similar. It tosses aside any significant character arcs in order to do a surprising turn of events during the last act that will absolutely devastate the family. Across two seasons though, the Lyon family has been on such a roller coaster ride with each other. It's hard to care about any twist that happens to them because there's the guarantee that it will all completely turn around by the next episode. So, the story beats no longer resonate with emotion and importance. And that's all the characters seem to care about. So, they are no longer the amusing or entertaining people that they once were. It's such a shame to see this show fall off a cliff like it has so clearly done here.

Last week's episode ended on the very effective note of Jamal jumping in front of a bullet for Lucious. Yes, it was a completely ridiculous moment. He hates his father but doesn't want to see him get shot because of his manipulative and nefarious ways. But that brought out a lot of interesting emotions within the rest of the family. There was no doubt that Jamal would survive this ordeal. The show tried to prop it up as a cliffhanger. But even it isn't really interested in making the story that big of a deal. It's so surprising to see this finale just completely shortchange all the valid emotions from the previous episode. It decides to jump ahead three weeks and just skip past all the important aftermath of that shocking moment. That's such a disservice to the characters and the audience. It treats the shooting like it wasn't that big of a deal. But it totally was! Jamal got shot! That was so important last week. And here, it means absolutely nothing. Apparently three weeks and no physical therapy is all it takes to completely recover from a gunshot wound. That's such a farce. The show plays it as the music passionately lighting the spark in Jamal once more. But it's such a total misfire that the only appropriate reaction is to laugh.

In fact, laughter is the only way to react to a whole lot of stuff that happens in this finale. Everyone should be so upset with Lucious right now. He's the reason why Freda pulled that trigger that forced Jamal into the hospital. Last week, the family didn't want anything to do with him. The show just can't seem to fully commit to him being a monster. There always has to be someone who enjoys being with him. But that is romanticized in a really weird way that undercuts so much of what Cookie stands for as a character. Why is Lucious the only person to go see Freda in prison? Jamal has a valid point in saying she's as much a victim of this situation as he is. Cookie knows that too. She knows all the dirty details of what Lucious has done. So why is the show trying to sell us a version of events where Cookie completely forgets everything she knows just so she can be in love with Lucious again? It makes no sense! Jamal wants to end this family's cycle of pain and violence. But then, he does absolutely nothing to change the status quo. Lucious shows up, gives him a song and everything is suddenly all sunshine and rainbows again. In what universe does that seem like something that would realistically happen?

The finale completely jumps past these complicated emotional issues in order to get to the celebration of Hakeem and Laura's wedding. It would seem so odd to have those messy issues bubbling under the surface during what's suppose to be the happiest day of Hakeem's life. He is totally committed to being with Laura. And yet, circumstances are thrusted onto the situation that force Laura to leave him before the ceremony. That would be meaningful if those circumstances came from a story that had importance throughout the season. But they don't. The finale completely makes up a new story just so it can get in the way of Hakeem and Laura's happiness. It does so with no reason whatsoever. It continues to be all Lucious' fault. But the show wants to blame everything on Lucious inheriting his selfish and nefarious nature from his father. The show says a family's bonds can't be broken and these people are always destined to fall into the same pattern over and over again. If that's true, things are going to get really boring and repetitive moving forward. That hardly seems like a good use of time. It also says that no matter what, this family is destined to do horrible things because Lucious' father was a bad man. It's placing all the blame on a character who didn't even exist until this episode!

Lucious' past really is the story that is destroying the show. Yes, it's meaningful that he and Cookie grew up on the streets and had to fight their way towards the lives they have today. But why does the show need to keep going back to that story engine over and over again? The gangster stuff has never worked. But the show keeps doubling down on it. So now, the FBI is coming after Lucious again because of something that happened a long time again when he was living on the streets. It's so hard to care about this story though. The finale is just throwing so much new information at the audience. And yet, all of it is completely meaningless. Why should the audience be invested in anything that is happening? The season told us that Hakeem and Laura's relationship is important. But now, it's saying that's not true at all because Lucious is a horrible person who did shady stuff in the past. Him needing to cover up his tracks takes away precious time for other stories to develop. The tradeoff is immensely impractical. So, Laura leaves Hakeem because one of Lucious' horrible old friends causes a scene at the wedding. Hakeem had nothing to do with that. But it's a moment that happens solely to continue showcasing that a family's pattern is so difficult to break. Jamal and Hakeem want to do it but they are never given the time to actually make a difference because the plot is more important than the characters.

And then, there's the awfulness of the big soapy cliffhanger. Anika has been a character the show has struggled with this season. It's as if they didn't know how to incorporate her since none of the other characters really liked her. She's pregnant and that's really the only important thing about her. So what? She went crazy for a little bit but that was pointless. Now, she is being shoehorned into the FBI plot. But that only happens so the show can pull off a surprise wedding of Lucious marrying Anika so she can't testify against him. That really doesn't seem like a strategy that will work. But it's also an incredibly forced and rushed development. The show doesn't have the time to amply explore what such a marriage would mean to any of the characters. But that then becomes irrelevant moments later when the show realizes it needs to provide some kind of resolution to the big Rhonda mystery from earlier in this season. Now, she's the one who has gone crazy. She's convinced that Anika was the one who pushed her down the staircase. It's been the inevitable conclusion since the moment it happened. And yet, the show dragged out the mystery for no reason whatsoever. Seriously, it's hardly a successful mystery when the answer everyone knew half a season ago is finally confirmed to be true now. It was only dragged out so it could create another cliffhanger for the end of the season. But it's another moment that feels like it will have an inevitable resolution. Rhonda and Anika get into a fight on a balcony. The finale closes with what sounds like one of them going over the edge. That someone very clearly has to be Rhonda. If it's not, then it would have been even more ridiculous and pointless to waste so much time on Anika in this finale. If she dies, that means so much of the plots the audiences were told to invest in this season would have been for absolutely nothing. Seriously, the show hasn't delivered anything for the audience's enjoyment in a long time. And now, it has just gotten too exhausting to take anything seriously anymore.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Past Is Prologue" was written by Lee Daniels & Ilene Chaiken and directed by Sanaa Hamri.
  • The show wants to play it as forward thinking that they name dropped all of these new gang characters way back in the pilot. But it plays more like the show forgot that it did that and felt it needed to deliver something right now - despite it being a very inappropriate time.
  • Apparently, Tariq is Lucious' half brother or something. That's another twist that is pointless and meaningless because Tariq is a construct and not a character. He exists solely as the new face of the FBI trying to take down Lucious. But that doesn't mean anything because this threat has been so vague and nonexistent.
  • The big twist with Lucious' mother at the end of the previous episode is also quickly undone. It was huge that she wanted to expose him for the fraud he really was. But now, she just seems like the grandmother who will play along with whatever story her son wants to tell. That's weird and a disservice to the character work previously done.
  • The big incident at the wedding has nothing to do with Hakeem. And yet, Laura's parents turn her against him because they just want to look at him through the people he has in his life. That makes no sense because they've gotten to know who he is as a person. Couldn't they see this was his family making a mess and not him? He may have been good for Laura. But the show got this idea and bent over backwards to make it happen.
  • Rhonda has gotten no further confirmation that it was Anika who pushed her down the stairs from last week to the finale. And yet, she gets very crazy and physical solely because she recognizes it's the finale and a confrontation needs to happen.
  • Cookie says she is done with Lucious because he is willing to throw away their love in order to marry Anika. But it hardly seems like that will last because the show just loves romanticizing their dynamic even though they should not be together.
  • This season has been such a mess. The ratings are still strong. So the show will continue to have a healthy life on the network. But I'm really looking forward to this hiatus. These episodes have been so frustrating that it will be good not to see any new ones for awhile. That's basically the worst reaction any show could have.