‘Empire’ Review: ‘Be True’ Ends With the Wildest Cliffhanger Yet
Recap and review of Empire – Season 2 Episode 5 – Be True:
While family is one of the strong suits for Empire, the music industry politics provide narrative momentum, since the inter-family drama can’t be the entirety of what this show is without getting stuck in a rut. “Be True” is a fascinating, if over-the-top, representation of the militant tactics of a label war. Granted, I don’t really expect this to be anywhere near the reality of how the music industry operates, but I’d argue that there are few primetime dramas on TV that can get away with this level of bombast, so why not go for it?
When I would review a show like Nashville, I’d find myself irritated by the personal squabbles, on the reasoning that the music industry politics were far more interesting. And on that show, they were, because they felt a bit more realistic. On Empire, the music industry scheming is fascinating largely because it doesn’t feel realistic. It feels like an exaggeration of what might happen in this sort of situation. Here, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and the Lyon Dynasty label are targeted by a militant rival that wants to defend their ground, warning Cookie that she can’t muscle in on their territory without “paying taxes.” And so begins the war, with Cookie enlisting the help of Laz Delgado (Adam Rodriguez), a wealthy businessman who’s basically the only person taking Cookie’s calls, at the moment. Meanwhile, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) is still trying to get his girl group off the ground, courting Laura (Jamila Velazquez) and nearly blowing it by trying to turn it from a business courtship into a romantic one. Of course, while he’s able to smooth things over, showing a considerable amount of maturity when he’s playing the role of music mogul, he still winds up in peril by the end of the episode due to the Cookie storyline intersecting with his: Hakeem gets abducted by Cookie’s rivals, in a plot turn so ridiculous, it almost had to happen.
Hakeem’s abduction is, in a lot of ways, the cherry on top of the insanity sundae. Seriously, it’s the most wonderfully ludicrous twist in an episode full of them. Early in the episode, Tiana (Serayah McNeill) gets mugged by representatives from Cookie’s rivals, which is silly enough in its own right. This is the equivalent of Rihanna getting jacked while walking through New York City. Why on Earth would a star of that magnitude not have an entourage, especially when she’s one of the crown jewels of her label? By that same token, it strains credulity that Hakeem would just be out there on his own in the streets. Sure, he likely has the clout to make that call and send away his guards, but even then, how is he not getting hounded by fans and paparazzi? Maybe it’s just that TV shows have created an expectation of what celebrities have to go through as part of being famous, an expectation that the reality of it doesn’t bear out. Either way, it seems crazy that this war Cookie is embroiled in has already claimed one of the Lyon boys. Okay, “claimed” is probably too strong a word, since it’s not as though Hakeem is dead or anything. That said, I think turning this label war storyline into a hostage situation will detract from the intrigue somewhat by making it into the type of abduction thriller you’d see in those old Lifetime original movies.
And yet, I say all this, but I loved the storyline. Empire is the kind of show that can get away with pretty much anything, so if you’re going to have a label war between Cookie and a shadowy organization that tries to blame it all on Lucious (Terrence Howard), then why not go all the way with it? Few shows would commit to something this ridiculous with this amount of narrative cohesion. It’s as bombastic as the turmoil between Jamal (Jussie Smollet) and Michael (Rafael de La Fuente), who cheats on Jamal with that artist who did the Rolling Stone cover — despite Jamal having rejected the man earlier for trying to make a move. I loved this story less because it showed Jamal’s aggressive side, and more because it provided an opportunity for Ne-Yo (as himself) to serve as Jamal’s life coach. Hell, it was Ne-Yo who convinced Jamal, against Lucious’s wishes, to bring Michael on the road to keep him centered. And now it’s all backfired, in outrageous fashion. I never particularly liked Michael anyway, since he always seems to have a bad attitude about everything, but it’s hard not to still feel bad for Jamal, who’s one of the most downtrodden characters on the show (but also one of my favorites, personally). If nothing else, I get more out of his stories than anything having to do with Andre (Trai Byers).
It’s clear that Andre’s marriage is falling apart, as he rejects Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) when she tries to add some spontaneous lovemaking to their daily schedule, but I’ve never particularly cared about that marriage either, because Rhonda doesn’t feel like she’s all that important. To be fair, this is because the narrative never treats her as anything more than the put-upon wife of a guy who’s losing a grip on his sanity. If the show were to explore her issues more directly, I think that’d be fertile territory for a character study. But as it stands now, she’s hardly even a tertiary character in the story, as she’s mostly shunted to the side when Andre decides he wants to get baptized. This leads to some great quips from Cookie at the ceremony, in which she notes that the Devil himself has arrived just in time with the pastor mentioning his name. She also slides away from Lucious to avoid getting struck by lightning, in another funny moment. Yet it’s all window-dressing for the symbolism of Lucious facing his past again: seeing Andre get dunked into the water reminds him of how his mother (Kelly Rowland) would dunk him in the bathtub, over his own terrified objections. Lucious is clearly still dealing with a lot, but he’s also trying to make some form of amends with his sons. Despite telling Andre he needs to man up and stop expecting God to come save him, he still shows up at the church to support his boy. That would have been unthinkable for the Lucious of last season. Yet here, it doesn’t feel like an inauthentic character choice. And hey, Lucious even gets some plot advancement of his own.
In between working with Freda Gatz in the studio and getting his case officially dropped by the Feds, Lucious puts Andre in charge as the president of a revived, small-time hip hop label. He also deflects suspicion when Cookie accuses him of hiring gang members to steal the masters for Lyon Dynasty projects. It’s this latter point that’s of greatest interest, since Cookie and Delgado manage to catch the men at gunpoint and get them to give up Lucious as their boss. It’s such a transparent ploy that I’d be downright shocked if it weren’t Delgado behind all of this. But, as always, Empire is building intrigue by piling on outrageous plot developments. And I sure as hell ain’t complaining. “Be True” is as crazy as Empire gets, and that’s not a bad thing.
But what did you think of Empire, “Be True”? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Empire, check out our analysis of last week’s explosive episode, “Poor Yorick”!