‘Empire’ Season 2 Episode 17 Review: Epic ‘Rise By Sin’ Ends In Tragic Shooting
Recap and review of Empire – Season 2 Episode 17 – Rise By Sin:
Few dramas do big moments like Empire, and “Rise By Sin” features one of the biggest of all. At the ASAs, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is shot while taking a bullet for Lucious (Terrence Howard), after Freda Gatz (Bre-Z) comes to the realization that the Empire co-CEO had her father killed. The moment itself is like a horrific flash, just as it should have been. The potential loss of Jamal would be a huge blow to Empire, one from which I’m not entirely certain the show could recover.
Of course, all this would depend on Jamal actually dying, which I find to be such a ludicrous notion that I can hardly entertain it. Sure, Lucious and Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) are the leads, but Jamal is arguably every bit as much of a lead, particularly considering that much of the show’s big music moments center around him. Remove Jamal, and there’s a void in the show. We lose a significant window into the inner-workings of the music industry, and how artists develop their sound. We lose one of the show’s better performers. And we lose one of the emotional through-lines of the series, that of the feud between Lucious and Jamal. Granted, you could argue that this shooting somewhat resolves the Lucious and Jamal story. About midway through the episode, Lucious flips out on Jamal for having an intimate moment with D-Major (Tobias Truvillion) in his studio. In an outstanding moment for both Howard and Smollett, Lucious tells Jamal how hard he’s tried to accept his son’s lifestyle, only for Jamal to fire back that Lucious should practice what he preaches and put all his anger and pain into his music. I can’t really do the scene justice here, but needless to say, it ends with Lucious proudly (and disgustingly) declaring that the day Jamal dies of AIDS, he’s going to celebrate. It’s the kind of declaration that’s hard to imagine Lucious ever coming back from, and Jamal is clearly pained by the words, even though he’s not exactly surprised that Lucious would say them.
In a sense, that’s one of the advantages Jamal has always had over his father — the fact that there’s very little Lucious can do or say that would really shock him. Lucious, however, wasn’t expecting his son to call him out for crying about his mama issues forty years on. More than a show about Lucious and Cookie, or a show about a family doing its damndest to maintain its legacy, Empire has always felt like a show between a father and his son. At least to me. So while you could argue that Jamal taking a bullet for his father, and potentially dying from it, satisfies their series-long conflict, I’m not sure I agree. Sure, it’d illustrate that, deep down, blood is thicker than water, and that Jamal still loves his father even after everything that was said between them. But it’s not the most satisfying conclusion the show could come up with, in my opinion. So I’m convinced, particularly after the episode ends without telling us anything about Jamal’s condition, that Jamal is pulling through. The question is how his relationship with Lucious will be changed by this incident. If anything, the relationship between Lucious and the rest of his family seems poised to change: not only does Cookie blame him for the shooting, Leah decides she’s going to tell the press the truth about her identity as Lucious’s mother. She walks out to meet the press, and…well, we don’t know what, if anything, she tells them. But it’s clear that the Lyon dynasty is in greater peril than it’s ever been. And it makes for some genuinely riveting television.
With that said, I was far less into the ongoing story of Cookie’s ex trying to build a case against the Lyon family by manipulating Carol (Tasha Smith). But it did give us a great scene in which Cookie kicks Carol out of her life completely for daring to question if her sister ever really cared about her at all. It’s a powerful moment for Henson, who shows us how important family is to Cookie. In fact, between this scene and Cookie’s pained reaction to Jamal’s condition, this episode had a lot of big scenes for Henson to deliver. And she delivered in every instance. Even the subtler scenes had beautiful moments, such as when Cookie sees the announcement of the ASAs in a press conference (since the show has been canceled following the shooting), and she discovers that neither Jamal nor Lucious won Song of the Year. As Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) points out, Lucious and Jamal spent all that time warring with one another for nothing. It’s like the final kick in the face for a family that’s been in a downward spiral. The pain is all the more deeply felt because we’re shown what Lucious and Cookie can be like when they’re on the same page. In one of the more poignant scenes of the episode, Lucious and Cookie reminisce about their dreams of red carpet superstardom, complete with flashbacks, and it gives a feeling of emotional depth to their relationship. There’s a sense of history between Lucious and Cookie, because there’s a history between the actors who play them, considering Henson and Howard have worked together before — and in a story that could almost be read as an alternate universe prequel to Empire, the 2005 gem Hustle & Flow. Naturally, I’m probably the nine millionth person to make that comparison, but I think their proven onscreen chemistry is part of why the scenes between Howard and Henson carry emotional weight. Their dynamic simply feels more real than any other in the show. So even while I feel Jamal vs. Lucious is the show’s most important underlying conflict, I can’t help but feel most intrigued by how the Lucious/Cookie side of things plays out. I feel like Empire is pulling me in a million different direction, and I kind of love it. Bring on the season finale.
But what did you think of Empire Season 2 Episode 17, “Rise By Sin”? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Empire, read our review and analysis of last week’s terrific “The Lyon Who Cried Wolf”!