‘Empire’ Review: ‘True Love Never’ Is Pure Soap Opera, and It’s Glorious
Recap and review of Empire – Season 2 Episode 7 – True Love Never:
Empire is reaching the glorious soap opera heights of Dallas, Dynasty, and countless other tawdry dramas that have come before. But what puts “True Love Never” into rarefied air is the substance underneath it all. The story can get a bit overcrowded at times, with too many subplots taking up screen time, but this show has a strong sense of identity, and a direction that seems as clear and as firm as its songs are distinct.
The plot this week focuses on the various romantic entanglements of the Lyon family, although there were darker undercurrents running through each storyline, as the episode really zeroed in on what’s eating at each of these characters. Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) is head over heels for Laz (Adam Rodriguez), but she still doesn’t know he’s the one behind the kidnapping of Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray). And Laz proves himself to be even more of a scumbag when he meets with his partner, Big Heavy (Victor Almanzar), to discuss the plan to scam Cookie for all she’s worth. And it works, at least up to this point. Cookie comes to Laz with help booking the venue for her big Lyon Dynasty show, which will net him a ton of money on its own. However, she also keeps Laz on as an advisor to negotiate the protection deal with Big Heavy’s gang, which nets the crew even more money. It’s a fairly bold storyline, in a lot of ways, because it relies heavily on Cookie being too blind to realize what’s happening. Cookie has often been shown to be one of the most street smart characters on the show, and I can’t decide whether the series is depicting her desire to be loved as a weakness or if this is just a temporary slip-up. I can understand if Cookie is blinded by passion, but it doesn’t make much sense why, as a businesswoman, she wouldn’t at least find Laz suspicious, considering how hard he pushed the notion of hiring Big Heavy and his crew. Cookie is being taken for a ride, and the longer she goes without noticing it, the more it harms her cred as a streetwise businesswoman. That said, I still think this was compelling TV, largely due to Henson’s performance. Seriously, I can’t imagine ever getting tired of Cookie’s snarkiness. In fact, she was hitting some homers this week in the subplot where she helps Jamal (Jussie Smollet) write a song. Together, mother and son get wasted and lay down some vocals at the Lyon Dynasty studio, well into the morning hours. It’s a wonderful character story that illustrates the bond Cookie and Jamal could have if business weren’t a factor. And Henson and Smollet have a terrific on-screen rapport, to where I found myself enjoying just watching them interact with each other.
Of course, Cookie wasn’t the only person in dire straits. The episode finds Lucious (Terrence Howard) struggling to “dig deeper” in his songwriting, since he plans to turn “Boom Boom Boom” into a duet with Freda Gatz (Bre-Z). The advice to reach into his own past comes from a legendary producer by the name of Huey Jarvis, whose infamous living room recording sessions have resulted in many of his artists receiving award nominations and wins. This story, perhaps more than any other in Empire‘s run, chooses to put the spotlight on Lucious’s own artistry as a musician. Sure, we’ve gotten bits and pieces of it in the past, particularly with Lucious repeatedly trying to offer Hakeem free beats, or (last season) playing some of his old classics. But we never get into his process like we do here. In digging deeper to free the beast and bond with his pain, we see flashbacks to his childhood, in which he buries some bullets in his yard to keep his mother (Kelly Rowland) from finding them and using them to play Russian Roulette. She inevitably finds a single bullet, places it in the gun, and her exclamations of “Boom…boom…boom” for each empty chamber serves as the foundation for the song he’s writing in the present day. It’s a great narrative technique, informing Lucious’s present by placing it in relation to his past. It contextualizes Lucious’s hard-nosed demeanor, and lets us see how therapeutic music can be for him. By incorporating an empty gun into the audio track for “Boom, Boom, Boom”, he discovers what the song was missing. The resulting studio session with Freda is pure magic, and the best scene of the episode, as Howard just lets the raw emotion of his character take over and guide the scene. It’s one of my favorite music sequences so far this season.
In fact, I loved the Lucious/Freda bits way more than any of the over-the-top nonsense Lucious was involved with this week, particularly an aborted threesome with Mimi (Marisa Tomei) and some random girl they pick up at the club. That said, I AM intrigued by the phone call Mimi receives, which she claims is from an ex-lover. Lucious sees Mimi in tears, rips the phone from her hand, and begins shouting at the caller on the other end for failing to respect Mimi like she should be respected. Lucious never hears the voice on the other end, and neither do we, lending this story a sudden air of mystery. Who was on the other end? Has Lucious put himself in the line of fire for Mimi? If so, will it even be worth the trouble? At some level, I think Lucious recognizes that getting involved with Mimi would be a bad idea, considering their business partnership. Here, Mimi comes up with the idea to partner Empire with a streaming service, and although Lucious ends up losing his cool with the app’s obnoxious CEO (knocking him out in a “friendly” boxing exhibition), the deal does go through. So Mimi is clearly an asset to Empire, perhaps enough of an asset for Lucious to separate his feelings (physical or otherwise) from business. I would certainly hope so, at least. I can take Cookie or Lucious letting romantic attachments dull their common sense, but not BOTH of them.
Actually, the only people who don’t seem to be blinded by feelings are Hakeem and Andre (Trai Byers). When Cookie wants to demote Laura (Jamila Velazquez) from lead singer to background for Mirage a Trois, Hakeem does his best to bring her up to speed on how a star should carry herself, enlisting the help of Tiana (Serayah McNeill). It’s a straightforward story, but it works because it illustrates both Laura’s growth as an artist and Hakeem’s growth as a more selfless person. Only when he shows faith in Laura and stops viewing her as a potential romantic interest does she finally respond, kissing him after he encourages her to deliver a Spanish version of “I Will Survive” on a busy sidewalk, in order to boost her confidence and stage presence. It’s another great music scene, and probably would have been my favorite of the night, if not for Lucious’s show-stealing closer. I’m actually stoked to see where this Hakeem/Laura relationship goes. By the same token, I’m surprisingly elated that Andre is sticking to his principles and not reverting back to the rudderless character he was in Season 1. Basically, when Lucious orders him to get Freda’s gang injunction dismissed by talking to the deputy mayor, with whom he’d once had an affair, Andre is faced with the possibility of wronging Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) all over again. But he refuses this time and, with the encouragement of his pastor, accomplishes his goals another way. Granted, I doubt his pastor meant for Andre to blackmail the deputy mayor to get the injunction dropped, but hey, whatever a man’s gotta do to stay faithful to his wife, I guess. And Andre discovers a renewed passion for Rhonda in the process, as they have sex for the first time in forever. I’d actually be shocked if this didn’t lead to a baby, honestly. It just seems like the type of soapy, dramatic thing Empire would do. If nothing else, it would further solidify Andre’s character change from wayward soul to someone who, for the most part, has taken the straight and narrow path, as of late.
All in all, I thought “True Love Never” was a genuinely compelling episode of Empire. The music is arguably as good as it’s ever been, even though the show hasn’t created another pop culture earworm like “You’re So Beautiful” yet this season. But there’s still plenty of time. And, hopefully, we’ll continue to get solid stories with even better performances in the interim.
But what did you think of Empire, “True Love Never”? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Empire, read our review of last week’s insane episode, “A High Hope for a Low Heaven”!