Empire: Dangerous Bonds

Posted on February 05, 2015


Ta’Rhonda Jones in FOX’s “Empire.”


Look, we hate getting into music discussions. It’s one of the few areas of entertainment we hesitate to give our opinion on because people hold on to their music preferences like they were religions, and will defend them or attack any apostates at the drop of a mic. But “Drip Drop” is an awful song, right? The only reason they kept playing it over and over and over again is because they were hammering home that point, right?

No? Jamal’s song was a little better, but we confess, we’d heard the same refrain so many times that we couldn’t tell if we liked it or not by the end of the episode. We assume by all the nodding heads and the hilariously awkward “Hey, you may be a homo, but …” moment at the end that we were supposed to take it as an artistic triumph. This is always the problem when someone tries to dramatize the artistic process. It’s not necessarily unfilmable, but because it’s such an internal process, and in the case of performing arts, such a repetitive one, it’s very difficult to convey in a clear manner that keeps the audience on board. Not that we didn’t appreciate these scenes; just that we noted how hard it is to produce them in a meaninful way.

This episode was the first time we really felt like we were watching a soap opera. That may sound like a put-down, but it’s not. Who doesn’t love a good, soapy story?  We’ve certainly ass-planted for countless hours of silly, melodramatic fun. But when we say this episode finally felt like a soap opera, we mean that both the plot and the character motivations blossomed into something else, slipping the surly bonds of earth and taking flight, as it were. In other words, shit got super crazy all of a sudden. This is no longer the Lear-like story of a mogul deciding upon an heir any more than Dallas was the story of two brothers fighting for a father’s love (a hook that show all but abandoned after the first season). It’s gone beyond that and has become a story where literally every character has some secret agenda or vendetta or huge pile of problems hanging over their heads. And you can’t tell a story like that without going broad.

When Lucious killed someone in the first episode, it was a grand dramatic statement about who he is. When Cookie had someone killed this episode, it was more along the lines of a popcorn-munching “Oooooh, girl. You FUCKED UP” moment. When Lucious discovered his son’s homosexuality, he stuffed him in a trashcan, in a moment meant to invoke horror and disgust in the audience. When Lucious discovered his son’s girlfriend’s bisexuality, he made eyebrow-wiggling jokes about having two women at his apparent disposal. Any genre has certain aspects to it that you just have to accept as an audience member and we’ve never seen a night time soap opera that didn’t go broader and more farcical over time. The only question we have is this: Is it a good thing that the show is doing this now, so early in its run? Does it mean it’s knowingly and wholeheartedly embracing the conventions of the soap genre or does it mean it’s lapsing into cliche too early?

In other news, Andre finally comes into his own as the manipulative and villainous character he’s supposed to be. That is, if you’ve seen The Lion in Winter, the film that inspired this series (it’s on Turner Classic Movies this month and we can’t recommend it enough. Eleanor of Aquitaine IS Cookie Lyon.). They’ve switched the birth order around, but Andre’s based on the sly, forgotten middle son of Henry II, Geoffrey. And his actions this episode, setting brother against brother and succeeding in a way neither of his parents could on that same goal, tend to make the comparisons to that film all the tighter now. When he was presented merely as a bipolar square with a controlling wife, he came off like a weak spot in the story, but he stepped into the spotlight nicely this time around, even if he does still rely on his bib-wearing wife.

And after complaining last week that Cookie’s character is somewhat contradictory and vague, we got to see her in true action this week, juggling a dozen different problems, some of them life-threatening (or thought to be, anyway) and GETTING SHIT DONE. “The name’s Cookie. Ask about me.” Alexis Carrington couldn’t have come up with a better exit line than that. Of course, while she was getting said shit done, she was also, as we indicated earlier, fucking things up, big time. So we think our point last week has been addressed, in a way. Cookie is both very smart and at the same time very prone to these kinds of over-reactions and mistakes. We actually like that about her.  First, it makes her more believable in a way, and second, it adds some tension to her ongoing struggle with her ex-husband. She can’t be right all the time or it’ll get boring. And besides, now she’s got a deliciously epic metric fuck tonne of problems sitting over her head.

Anyway, in this case, calling this show a soap opera is to compare it to the best of the genre and to note with appreciation that they’re doing it exactly right, in the most entertaining way, and with a seemingly deep understanding of the genre’s conventions and history.

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