‘Empire’ Season Premiere Review: TV’s Hottest Show Is Back and Bigger Than Ever
Recap and review of Empire – Season 2 Premiere – The Devils Are Here:
Empire is back, and it really isn’t too big of an exaggeration to say it’s bigger than ever. Although it initially received criticisms for its outlandish, soap opera nature, there was no doubting that it was a cultural phenomenon. And, frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Season 2 carried on in that grand tradition of success. “The Devils Are Here” is practically a one-hour movie about the responsibilities of power, and the fitness of those who wield it.
So Lucious (Terrence Howard) is still in prison, although he’s been held for three months without bail, which has prompted Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) to organize a #FreeLucious rally, complete with performances from Swizz Beatz, Sean Cross, and — of course — Jamal (Jussie Smollet) and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray). But the coup de grace for the entire spectacle is an outrageous moment in which Cookie descends from a helicopter in a cage while dressed as a gorilla to make a point about how black people are treated like animals by the system. It’s a testament to Henson’s talent that this doesn’t come across any more ridiculously than it’s intended to, as Cookie’s speech is one of the more passionate moments of the episode, and all the more compelling because it’s just for show: she knows Lucious is guilty of Bunky’s murder, and so does everyone else in the Lyon family. But by making him a tweet-worthy cause, they’re essentially keeping the Empire brand alive and well, despite the negative attention Lucious (and the company) might be getting from the media. And keeping the company in good stead with the public is just one facet of a larger power play for the company, as Cookie is working with Andre (Trai Byers) to organize a hostile takeover. And she’s looking to secure the financing of a potential backer, in the form of Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei), a gay businesswoman who takes a strong liking to Anika (Grace Gealey). Oh, and did I mention Lucious is now stuck behind bars with Frank Gathers (Chris Rock), the man on whom Cookie snitched in order to make right with the Feds?
Needless to say, this is a fairly complex premiere, but it’s handled with a level of depth and nuance that keeps Empire from coming across as just another primetime soap. For instance, although Jamal has been given the Empire, there’s still a very real power struggle at the heart of it all. Andre seems like he’s eager to see Jamal fail, looking smug when Jamal appears to be overwhelmed by all the meetings he has to attend. Meanwhile, Hakeem refuses to listen to anything his older brother (and now boss) says, throwing a fit over Jamal rejecting the design of his album cover, in one example. The pressure is clearly getting to Jamal, since he was never really groomed for the power he’s received. Even in the first season, Jamal was more of an artist than a businessman, but because Lucious started out the same way, he assumes Jamal will be able to make the transition as well, even though Jamal more or less states outright in this premiere that he’d rather be in the studio than in some meeting. Watching Jamal’s development as the sort of Michael Corleone of Empire has been fascinating largely because we’re seeing the change through unspoken cues in Jussie Smollet’s performance. For one, he looks different and carries himself differently. His shoulders seem sunken a bit, and he’s got a five o’clock shadow, to say nothing of how tired and weary he looks. It’s as if he’s over all of this, and just wants to go back to the way things were. Yet he knows he can’t, because of the weight of his father’s expectations. Jamal may not have been groomed to accept power, but he knows he has to grow into it, and sooner rather than later.
Ironically enough, it’s the attempted hostile takeover that prompts Jamal’s transformation into truly becoming his father’s son: when he discovers that Cookie and his brothers have betrayed Lucious, he orders them all out of Lucious’s house, where they had gathered together. He essentially puts himself in his father’s corner, saying that he and Lucious don’t need any of them, and going as far as to disown Cookie. For her part, Cookie tries to (literally) slap some sense into Jamal, but he’s shockingly cold and emotionless when he tells her to get the hell out, calling her “lady” rather than by her name. These are the moments where Empire is at its most interesting, as the Lyon family connections are what drive the narrative forward. We can see a change come over Jamal, just as we could see the change in Andre, who is still haunted by the murder he and his wife committed last season. Even Hakeem feels like he’s matured a bit. This is the kid who whizzed on the floor while talking smack about President Obama last season. But here, he’s objecting to performing a concert for Lucious because he feels their time could be better spent performing in honor of the people who are actually in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. There’s a fundamental change running through the Lyon family, and the cast is really stepping up to meet that challenge.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the best part of the premiere (at least in my opinion). While I thought Chris Rock was miscast as Frank Gathers, I thought his closing scene with Terrence Howard was outstanding. In short, Frank tells Lucious he’s going to have Cookie killed for snitching on him, and he wants to know if Lucious is going to interfere. To his credit, Lucious says he can’t allow Frank to kill the woman he loves, so Frank nonchalantly tells his prison henchmen to kill Lucious. However, the men refuse to lift a finger, and it’s here that Lucious explains the difference in philosophy between he and Frank. Basically, Frank wanted to rule the streets, but Lucious wanted to rule the world. And now that he’s accomplished that, Frank has no power any longer, as Lucious has paid off each of Frank’s men: he’s taking care of the mortgage for one prisoner’s mother, he’s helping out another who’s a musician, and he’s paying all the medical bills for the sick daughter of a third prisoner. Lucious has bought their loyalty, because power and money go hand-in-hand, and when you have both, loyalty often follows. This is never more evident than when Mimi Whiteman betrays Cookie when Lucious makes her a more lucrative offer, killing the hostile takeover dead. Of course, what happens to Frank is a far more literal killing, as Lucious orders his new henchmen to take Frank apart, but not before he leaves Frank with the parting promise that he’s going to sign his emcee daughter and give her the “bone”. It’s a cold-blooded speech, and a real testament to just how good Terrence Howard is. It also speaks volumes of the script as well, considering the juxtaposition with Jamal’s storyline. In one, we see a young man learning the real meaning of power, and the responsibilities that are carried with it. In the other, we see a man who, even when incarcerated, wields tremendous power, because — unlike his son — he knows exactly how to use it.
Ultimately, I thought “The Devils Are Here” was terrific, and a good omen for what’s to come in Empire season two. The music is as good as ever, and the performances look like they’re going to be even stronger. Maybe it’s just my fandom coming through, but this was one season premiere I didn’t want to end.
But what did you think of the Empire season premiere, “The Devils Are Here”? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Empire, watch the hilarious Tonight Show parody from Jimmy Fallon and The Roots, “Jimpire”!