‘Empire’ Review: Hakeem Loses His Mind In Dramatic ‘A High Hope for a Low Heaven’
Recap and review of Empire – Season 2 Episode 6 – A High Hope for a Low Heaven:
Empire has found an excellent rhythm for its storytelling, dividing the narrative pretty evenly between the conflicts in the Lyon family and the various challenges of running a label and growing as an artist in the music industry. Both aspects are fascinating, and when they come together, it makes for an episode that is both satisfying and thematically rewarding. “A High Hope for a Low Heaven” is just such an episode.
One of the more interesting decisions of the episode is to resolve the kidnapping of Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) within the first couple minutes of the episode, and spending the rest of the runtime dealing with the emotional fallout of his abduction. We don’t see much of what happens to Hakeem other than that he gets pistol-whipped and beaten, and not even severely enough to require a hospital visit. So the trauma, then, is of a psychological nature, and it’s reflected in how he basically falls apart mentally. In rehearsals for his guest spot on Mirage à Trois’s track, he ends up inadvertently shoving them out of the way and then kicking them out of rehearsal altogether, claiming they aren’t singing the song he wrote. He lashes out at Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and, particularly, Lucious (Terrence Howard), arguing that this never would have happened to him if he weren’t the son of Lucious Lyon. And perhaps he’s right. In fact, Cookie doesn’t exactly help matters when she listens to Laz (Adam Rodriguez) and hires the men who abducted Hakeem to serve as the boy’s security. It’s no wonder Hakeem is on-edge, and it’s no wonder that the first place he goes after being released by his kidnappers is straight to Anika (Grace Gealey) for more of the anger/comfort/revenge sex he got last season.
Ultimately, the emotional arc of the episode is in how people come together to help bring Hakeem back from the brink. At the start, Lucious and Cookie set aside their differences to make sure Hakeem gets released. Later, when Hakeem is struggling to overcome with PTSD from his experience, it’s Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Andre (Trai Byers) who give him the confidence to take the stage again, in one of the most genuinely touching moments in the history of the show. When Hakeem freezes onstage, it’s Laura (Jamila Velazquez) who snaps him back to reality. This latter moment is particularly exhilarating, since it’s framed as an ideological struggle between Lucious and Cookie: Lucious seems almost satisfied when he sees Hakeem freeze up onstage at the underground concert, believing this is validation for his belief that Hakeem isn’t cut out for the gritty side of this business; Cookie, meanwhile, is more concerned about Hakeem’s well-being as her son, rather than as her act. When Hakeem snaps back to life and takes over the mic, dropping one of his best verses yet, the reactions flip. Lucious’s smug look of satisfaction vanishes, while Cookie is rapturous at the sight of her son reclaiming his former swagger. It’s a great moment that illustrates the ways in which the musical moments on this show actually help the story. For instance, we later get a seen in which Lucious takes a track he wrote for Hakeem and gives it to Freda Gatz (Bre-Z) after he rejects it. Her freestyle in Lucious’s car tells us more about the hard-knock life this character has endured than her violent outburst at the concert, in which she kicks a heckler in the face. Even though I wouldn’t really classify Empire as a straight-up musical, its music offers more insight into its characters and their situations than many actual musicals. The effect of the music scenes here were a net positive, whether it was showing how music helped Hakeem remember himself, how a new beat gave Freda confidence to explore her own artistry, or to illustrate how torn up Jamal still is over Michael’s infidelity. It’s great stuff, and it helps set the show apart from similar series of its ilk.
I also thought the rest of the episode surrounding the Hakeem stuff was pretty engaging. I feel like Andre has found his niche as a character through his religious reinvention, and it’s made him more fascinating as a businessman too. He doesn’t have the intractable hard edges of his father, but that doesn’t mean he’s a pushover either. He refuses several acts for his label before settling on a promising young artist who just so happens to be dating Becky (Gabourey Sidibe). At Andre’s suggestion, the man, J-Poppa (Mo McRae), puts some Bible verses into his raps, with the belief being that he’ll “reach more people with The Word” than through gang verses. And he’s right. Maybe the peace that religion has given Andre has sharpened his instincts, or perhaps he’s always had this keenness hidden away somewhere, but he shows a tremendous business acumen, as well as a skill for nurturing talent. Couple this with his heartwarming moment with Jamal and Hakeem, with the three Lyon brothers hugging it out over their shared struggle as the children of Lucious and Cookie, and I’d argue this was one of Andre’s best episodes ever.
But Empire wouldn’t be Empire without a big twist to close the episode, and while this twist is probably the most predictable surprise Empire has ever offered, it’s still a hell of a stinger on which to close. On the one hand, did anyone NOT know instantly that Laz was behind the gang trying to extort Lyon Dynasty? It seemed obvious, since he introduced himself into Cookie’s life at the same time as the gang did, and then suggested the idea to hire the gang members who kidnapped Hakeem in the first place, which seems like a stupid idea. For someone who claims to be a former cop, it seems strange that Laz doesn’t recognize the precedent that hiring the gang members would set, since other gangs could just kidnap other artists and have a cushy job as their ransom. But even if we didn’t have Laz pushing the idea of using the gang members as a security force, we’d still have learned his culpability in Hakeem’s kidnapping: as the episode comes to an end, Laz and Cookie finally hook up, and — once his shirt is off — we see a brahma bull tattoo. The same tattoo that one of Hakeem’s captors had on his back. And so it is that Cookie is apparently falling for the man who’s terrorizing her family. Poor Cookie really can’t catch a break, can she?
Still, despite the twist being predictable as hell, it has interesting implications for the future, as Empire continues its strong second season by making “A High Hope for a Low Heaven” a turning point for the season. We’re made to question just what the goal is here. Just money? Power? Something more? What’s Laz’s endgame? By the same token, will Lucious ever stop trying to get Hakeem back on the Empire label? Will Jamal be able to move on from Michael and reinvent himself as an artist who just happens to be gay, rather than the “gay artist” label he’s fighting against? And will Andre remain on the straight-and-narrow path, or will his demons resurface? A lot of plates are spinning on Empire, and while that would be daunting for a lot of series, I think this show has an encouraging handle on its overall narrative.
But what did you think of Empire, “A High Hope for a Low Heaven”? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Empire, get a refresher on last week’s events with the chaotic “Be True”!