Thursday, September 24, 2015

Empire 2x01 "The Devils Are Here" (Actions and Reactions) [Contributor: Rae Nudson]

"The Devils Are Here"
Original air date: Sept. 23, 2015

The best part of Empire's season two premiere is tied between Mimi Whiteman sitting backwards in a meeting until the exact right time she could twirl around in her chair to surprise Cookie, and Cookie admonishing Anika for not doing a good enough job sleeping with Mimi to secure their hostile takeover. But the second-best part is that crazy events from season one are finally catching up to the Lyon family.

Empire is a blast to watch, but the speed at which it burns through stories can quickly lead to a burn out if the writers aren’t careful. Last season, part of the fun was that storylines were picked up and dropped so fast you could miss life-shattering events if you so much as looked down to tweet. One of the storylines that looked like it was going to shake things up before it disappeared completely was Cookie sending a hitman after some men working for an old rival drug dealer who she thought was threatening her. She was wrong -- the drug dealer wasn't coming after her -- but it was too late to stop the hit. And then... that story was never mentioned again.

Until now. Now, that rival drug dealer is in jail, and Cookie is the one who put him there. Her testimony last season was not to snitch on Lucious; it was to snitch on Frank Gathers, played by Chris Rock. And the hitman Cookie hired is in jail with him.

Having the Lyons deal with the consequences of some of their earlier decisions is a smart way to go for the show. It makes the world in Empire more concrete for reasons that are two-fold: 1) their actions cause real consequences, and 2) this allows the writers to draw on material that's already been established, instead of creating more plot they'll just have to leave behind eventually when things get convoluted.

Jamal and Andre are also dealing with consequences of their actions from last season. Andre and Rhonda covered up the death of Vernon, whom Rhonda accidentally killed. Andre is already dealing with the ups and downs of bipolar disorder, and guilt over being a murderer probably isn't going to help him stay healthy as he prepares for fatherhood. (Vernon's death is going to have far-reaching consequences when it comes to Lucious as well -- Vernon, not Cookie, was the star witness for Lucious' prosecution and the reason he's in jail.)

Jamal is learning that running an empire doesn't leave much time for making music. Or your family, apparently. He's still holding onto anger from his brothers and mother trying to take away what Lucious had bestowed upon him. But if he could see clearly through his gold-plated glasses, he would see that grabbing control and not letting go, like Lucious did, will only end up strangling him in the end.

I read in some interviews that the writers this season wanted to take a little more time with their characters in game-changing moments, and that's already paying off as they pause on the pain on Jamal's face and the tender way Andre asks his pregnant wife how the baby is doing. But even with these moments, I don't think we have to worry about Empire getting too slow, or any less juicy.

Mimi, played by the great Marisa Tomei, is a great addition to Empire's boardroom. She's as devious as Lucious and is sure to take his place as head troublemaker in business affairs. Plus she's already bedded one of his wives. (That was a story beat that almost got no time; it was dropped into conversation after the fact.)

It doesn't matter to Lucious that neither Anika nor Cookie are technically married to him. They are both bound to him, in his view, and their betrayals hurt his pride as much as their love drove him crazy. Like everyone in Lucious' life, he sees these two brilliant, dynamic women as extensions of himself. He makes this clear when he tells Frank that to be at war with Cookie is to be at war with him. (RIP Frank, we hardly knew ye.)

The directing and visual choices of Empire contribute to its storytelling just as much as the crazy plot twists. Every scene in the prison was beautiful, and the final scene of Lucious and Cookie sitting across from each other head-on, with both at the center of the screen tied the two characters together as equals and opponents. Jamal is staying in Lucious' house, doing Lucious' job, and so scenes with Jamal at home are surrounded with hard, shiny, cold surfaces that reflect what he is turning into.

This episode shows that Empire is still just as unafraid to tell the stories it wants to tell, in the way it wants to tell them. The strong opening scene took place at a #freelucious concert that made direct reference to the #blacklivesmatter movement. Cameos abounded and surprising moments like Cookie descending onto the stage in a cage while wearing a gorilla costume means you still can't look away from Empire even for a minute. And with more surprises to come, more of Cookie's outfits to gawk at, and more of my favorite dysfunctional family facing their collective pasts, I can't wait for next week.

Cookie crumbs (aka other notes from the episode):
  • Whatever they are paying Becky, it’s not enough. She is not afraid to stand up to the Lyon men, she handles her business, and she makes them handle theirs.
  • Cookie's best outfit was that feather Gucci number in the opening scene. (From last season, as fashion icon AndrĂ© Leon Talley noted with disdain.)
  • The dialogue in the opener seemed a little forced (wouldn't Jamal and Hakeem have had these conversations about Lucious with Cookie already? It's been three months since he was arrested), but quickly snapped back to its usual sharp chatter.
  • Anika dancing was so cute I almost died. It was hilarious that she wore a demure-looking white dress with matching sweater, as if she was trying to hide from the debauchery of Mimi's party. Girl, please, you aren't fooling anyone.
  • Cookie's best line: "You know what it is, and it's not fit for print."


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