Empire, "The Devils Are Here" (Season 2, Episode 1): Barrelhouse Television Workshop

Today's panel

Nandini Balial is the film/TV editor at Queen Mob’s Tea House. Currently she works as a post-production drone in Los Angeles. Please do not interrupt her quest for food or sleep. She will fight you. Over on the Twitter dot com Nandini hangs from @nandelabra.

Tabitha Blankenbiller’s essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart, Brevity and Passages North, among other journals. She reviews books for Bustle and is currently working on a novel. Follow her on Twitter at @tabithablanken for important writerly introspection and cat pictures.

Erin Fitzgerald is Online Editor at Barrelhouse, and @gnomeloaf on Twitter. Her short novel about telling lies on the Internet, Valletta78, comes out in November.

Tim Jones-Yelvington is a Chicago-based writer, multimedia performance artist, and nightlife personality. He is the author of two collections of short fiction—"Evan's House and the Other Boys Who Live There" (in "They Could No Longer Contain Themselves," Rose Metal Press) and "This is a Dance Movie!" (forthcoming, Tiny Hardcore Press). His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Puerto Del Sol, Harpur Palate, and others. From 2010-12, he guest edited [PANK]'s annual queer issue.

Rion Amilcar Scott has contributed to The Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, PANK, The Rumpus, and Confrontation among others. His linked story collection, Wolf Tickets, is forthcoming from Tiny Hardcore Press. Find him on Twitter @reeamilcarscott and elsewhere online at www.rionamilcarscott.com.


“After the events of season one....”

Erin Fitzgerald (EF): I’ll be honest -- I didn’t bother to remind myself of what happened at the end of season 1. Andre’s wife, whose name I never remember, is pregnant? We’re never going to hear about Lucious’ life-threatening illness again? Whose head is that in the box? I just ride along most of the time. But with other shows, I’m a continuity/truthiness zealot. There are some real lessons in Empire for writers who take a watchmaker approach to the craft. I enjoy it for the same reasons everyone else does. But I also enjoy it because I like being challenged...and Empire tells its minions to kill me loudly.

Tabitha Blankenbiller (TB): I spent the first ten minutes thoroughly confused, and cursing myself for devoting my Hulu gym hours to watching the last season of Once Upon a Time instead of an Empire refresh. So wait, didn’t the family want Lucious to pay for killing Cookie’s cousin or whoever? Weren’t they certain that they could run Empire just fine without him? Was that Al Sharpton? Why am I not downloading this new song? Cookie is in a Gorilla suit and why didn’t they just release this scene as a straight GIF to all of our phones with the new iOS update? I don’t think a rewatch would have mattered; I couldn’t tell if we’d jumped a week or a year in time. It just started happening.

Nandini Balial (NB): Tabitha, you and I have the inverse problem. Starting last Monday I watched S1 back-to-back and by Ep 9 was just damn grateful that it was a half order, and not because the show is tiresome. ‘Empire’ is the first network drama in I don’t know how many years that makes me grateful for television. Seeing people of color on primetime TV is a thrill for me; take that, Hollywood! ‘Empire’ is brash, loud, and it owns its telenovela flourishes. And it’s run by a skilled director who loves his Steadicam shots. I love Steadicam shots. One of my favorite bits of dialogue from the pilot: “So what, we King Lear now?” “Call it what you want.” BOOM. Daniels doesn’t care for labels. He’s just telling a story, and the story kicks ass. Fast-forward to S2.

Rion Amilcar Scott (RAS): It was amusing to me last season how quickly the show picked up explosive plot threads and simply dropped them in favor of yet another even more explosive plot thread. When a few of them were not resolved by season’s end, I smiled. The show’s sloppiness is part of its charm. It’s interesting that the first episode of season 2 revolved around a loose plot thread from early in the first season (Cookie ordering the death of someone for some reason or another--doesn’t really matter), essentially pretending as if they hadn’t forgotten it all along.

TB: I just finished my second viewing this morning, which made much more sense than the first time. I was thrilled to have ‘Empire’ back in my life, but I forgot how much sensory overload the show can have. The pacing can be disorienting. I wasn’t quite prepared for the #FreeLucious concert extravaganza of gorilla costumes, Gucci dresses, guest star insertions and hostile takeover logistics. Everything gelled much stronger for me the second time around.   

Tim Jones-Yelvington (TJY): I too had forgotten most everything that happened at the end of the first season—including Lucious’s arrest, the hostile takeover plan, Jamal’s exclusion from said plan, Andre killing Vernon… but it didn’t take me long to remember well enough to follow the episode. Plotting on this show can be convoluted, but I think ultimately is just a mechanism for delivering spectacle—so I vividly remembered Cookie and Annika going full-on Alexis and Krystle in the season finale, but not the reason they were in the room together. Likewise, I think what I will remember most about this episode is Cookie in a gorilla suit, and a bunch of kids playing with her wigs (the wigs were my favorite part of the episode). I said “Are you serious” out loud three times within the first three minutes—first when I realized that they were tying a Lucious protest concert into recent anti-white supremacy/anti-police violence/anti-NPIC movements. Second, when Jamal and Cookie had their exchange regarding the Clintons. Third when a gorilla descended in a cage. And that was all before Andre Leon Talley, Al Sharpton, and predatory lesbian Marisa Tomei.

Back to Your Regularly Scheduled Programming

NB: I’m delighted as ever to see Cookie firing zingers at everyone in her path. S2 opener is a paint-by-numbers episode, executed by the Exposition Fairy. She’s flitting about, reminding us of every misdeed and sin: Andre and his pregnant wife (Erin, I don’t remember her name either, ever) had to bury Vernon so that’s giving him the night sweats. Hey, you guys see Jamal turning into his father? He’s using power and money to assert control in his relationship with his ex. And he’s not recording as much. When you run Empire you forget things like writing new songs and that a guy who maybe wants your mom dead sent her a human head in a pretty box. To paraphrase Brad Pitt, whose head is that in the box?

EF: You’re right about the Exposition Fairy. Even though we got a severed head and a murder and prison visits and new songs and ANDRE LEON TALLEY WHO IS AWESOME, this was definitely a maintenance episode. Nothing genuinely new. That’s the level of expectation to which I've been set.

TJY: I thought there was enough insanity in the episode’s opening to announce clearly: We are back with a bang, this shit’s still cray. But I agree things felt a bit rote after that, especially the exposition surrounding Frank Gathers coming after Cookie. The Jamal drama near the episode’s conclusion felt like it was hitting on all cylinders, though. The dynamics of core families are what anchors soaps’ absurdity. (Regarding Andre’s wife—I think part of the reason we don’t remember her name is because the family deliberately never addresses her directly unless they have no other choice).

Chris Rock and Other Cameos

NB: I loved Chris Rock as Frank Gethers and am disappointed the show couldn’t sustain the weird tension he brought to the screen. He walked off that bus with a calm and grim assurance. His nostrils didn’t flare; he just looked at people quizzically, his level of ferocity at a simmer. I burst out laughing when Gethers is sitting next to S1’s flower deliveryman. They’ve had a terse exchange about the murder. Pause. “I’m hungry.” Frankie is not in a hurry. And that’s too bad for him, since Lucious made the speedy moves needed to buy Frank’s men. Frank might have a legitimate beef with Cookie, but Lucious has money and “this world that I run.” Goodbye, Frank. We hardly knew ye.

EF: I’m fascinated by cameos because fiction writers deal with similar issues. Include the well-known person, or create an alternate universe substitute? Or wander into the murky middle ground, where everyone watching knows it’s Courtney Love or Naomi Campbell, but is supposed to see someone else? The show Veep has a no-cameos policy, despite plenty of interest. I’m not at all surprised that Empire has decided to go full speed ahead on all fronts, cameo-wise. That’s what they do with most things.

While I can see Chris Rock as an interesting cast for Frank on paper, I’m not sure he pulled it off...and I think that has more to do with how Empire set up Frank than it does with Rock himself. We heard a fair amount about him last season. We know that Cookie is afraid of him, and Cookie can probably count the number of people she’s genuinely afraid of on half a hand. But when it comes to villains, there’s always a danger with slow reveals. Whatever has been gradually conjured in your head is likely to be much more terrifying than what you get. Empire is generally pretty good at throwing cameo actors into the mix and just letting them do their thing -- Marisa Tomei is clearly having a blast. But the chemistry wasn’t quite right for Rock in that role, at least for me.

RAS: OK. I have to note here that CHRIS ROCK’S CHARACTER WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A CANNIBAL! According to Variety, Lee Daniels conceived Rock’s Frank Gethers as a cannibal and that was too much for Fox so they nixed that aspect of the character. Still, we see Gethers eating mystery meat with blood splatters on his bib. Empire is a show that loves spectacle and ratcheting up spectacle after spectacle. Empire is extra—Cookie dressed as a gorilla in a cage, a raunchy lesbian party (complete with stiff Boo Boo Kitty twerking), a head in a box (!). And all of that is just one episode. I don’t blame Fox for cutting that particular character detail. What spectacle can top the spectacle of humanity’s greatest taboo?

As for Rock’s performance, I joked on Twitter that nobody believed the funnyman as a gangsta, but I actually appreciated the casting against type. People forget that Rock’s first major movie role was as a drug addict in ‘New Jack City’. While his performance there wasn’t a “sensitive triumph of the human spirit,” it wasn’t horrible either so there is some precedent to Rock taking on serious roles. On this episode, I appreciate that Rock stretched himself. Normally he delivers his lines as if he’s on stage performing stand up. This is grating in Top 5 and I Think I Love my Wife, and worked pretty well actually in Louie, partially because his screen time was limited. But here he tried acting and he manages to hold his own in scenes with Terrence Howard.

The line of cameos early in the episode felt like Love Boat or Fantasy Island, something that will play like extra camp heaped upon an already campy show when future generations watch Empire in syndication. Don Lemon’s appearance does nothing to repair his complete lack of credibility as a serious journalist. Upon seeing Al Sharpton I couldn’t help wonder how many takes it took him to pronounce his words correctly.

TB: I’m kind of in the middle “meh” about Chris Rock’s appearance. I wish they’d have kept the cannibal plotline intact, not only because it would have brought the strange “I’m hungry… are you hungry?” exchange into relevance, but the delicious (no pun intended) camp factor that Rion brings up would have been amped to Level American Horror Story. I felt a bit awkward when he was on screen, pulled out and wondering “did anyone else try out?” but not nearly as awkward as I did watching Courtney Love last season. I had much more fun watching Marisa Tomei, mostly because she seemed to be having the time of her life. That board room surprise chair spin was Dynasty perfection--and her glee was contagious.

NB: Rion, uh, holy shit. I thought for a moment that Gethers eating that gristle was some kind of code but whoa, now his “I’m hungry” comment makes WAY more sense. And Tabitha - YES! Tomei was on fire. I would love for her to be a rival worthy of Cookie.

#FreeLucious

NB: I’m pleased the show got political. But ‘Empire’ twists this debate’s arm: Lucious, who is being held without bail, is, unlike many black men in jail, guilty. Hakeem points this out, and Cookie McPragmatist snaps, “Don’t you think I know that? That’s not what this is about.” Al Sharpton doesn’t want in, and Cookie mutters about Lemon’s fuck-up with the N-word as she pushes him to the side. The corrupt American prison system is not immune to reverse-engineered corruption. Yes, imprisoning black men is bad, but if you can talk about that while also maintaining the guilt of one Lucious Lyon - well, that’s a show I want to watch.

RAS: I saw activists on Twitter applauding the creators of Empire for tackling the issue of mass incarceration, but subtextually--intentionally or not--the way it is handled within the episode calls activism surrounding this issue (and I suppose other issues of black life) into question. Lucious, we know, is guilty as hell. When Cookie, dancing around in a gorilla suit (!), brings the issue to the fore, she’s not doing so out of righteous anger against the prison industrial complex, she’s doing it as a cynical ploy to further her business interests. The thousands of fans bopping to Hakeem’s lame rapping don’t know, as he does, that Lucious is guilty. The fans see Lucious as a black man railroaded and warehoused by the system. There’s an argument to made that regardless of the relative guilt or innocence of individuals currently warehoused in American prison camps, mass incarceration is a far greater societal evil that works to create a permanent black underclass and therefore needs to be drastically reformed or even abolished. That’s not the argument that Gorilla Grodd...er...Cookie is making and it’s unclear if that’s the argument the show is making. Cookie’s speech is fiery, but it’s also insincere. It’s designed to manipulate the ignorant masses and maintain her wealth. What does that say about our real life activists stirring the pot around issues of black resistance and survival? The show seems to want to have it both ways, an incendiary critique for those of us outraged by mass incarceration and a vicious implicit condemnation of said critique for viewers who are put off by calls for black resistance.

I also want to note here the best worst line of the episode, courtesy of Hakeem: “Mom, you got us out here doing a Free Lucious concert when we should be performing for the brothers and sisters that are innocent.”    

TB: I’ve been wrestling with this issue as well, between the excitement of seeing Black Lives Matter brought immediately into the foreground and the cynical way the movement is co-opted to further the Lyon family fortunes. From this single episode, I’m not convinced that the show is self-aware of the implication it’s creating. There is so much at stake in our country for this movement, that using it as a set piece to fight for a very guilty character’s freedom (for the betterment of capitalism) feels like a significant undercut to victims and demonstrators. However, we’re only 60 minutes into the season. I’m giving this smart show the benefit of the doubt and hoping that there will be consequences for the family’s disingenuous use of a vitally important political movement.

EF: There’s a rich history of soap operas taking on social issues. (One 40+ year old example that's still relevant today.) I’d like to believe the concert was intended to be a substitute for the relative lack of forward motion in plot in this episode. Also, if one assumes Empire to have a traditional dramatic structure, the concert is entirely within the “exposition” phase. The exposition I took away was “You’ve been away for a while, so here’s a reminder: The Lyons are your protagonists, but they’re also just about everything except heroes.”

TJY: I’ve been waiting to take my cues from social movement actors on how to respond to the inclusion of BLM in this episode. It can definitely, potentially be read as making a mockery of important grassroots liberation movements. At the same time, I strongly feel that we should not be relying on the construction of “innocence” to prop up movements to transform the system of mass incarceration—the point is that the system is white supremacist and fucked regardless. Also, in my queer activism, I’m very drawn to what Michael Warner, after Erving Goffman, calls “stigmaphile” politics, i.e. the radical potential of willfully embodying some of the most stigmatized representations of your group. I feel like Lee Daniels has a bit of that impulse—the gorilla in a cage bit definitely felt like it was weaponizing violently racist imagery within the context of resistance. As a soap fan, I am also a firm believer that the rejection of “quality” through melodrama can enable forms of political subversiveness that are not possible on “prestige” shows.

The Lyon in the Middle

EF: I’m worried about Jamal. So I’m thinking about how that worry was put into place. Two big worry-baits: How he treated the returning boyfriend, whose name I also don’t remember, and his ambivalence at the LGBT event...and being called out for that ambivalence. I am still thinking about those things. And that they would be quite ordinary in other shows.

TB: I’m also concerned at the speed with which he’s changed. Even if it’s been a few months since we left off, how did he flip from a sensitive and progressive voice of reason to a classic patriarchal dickweasel? Did we collectively miss something in the first season? I hope that the path to Jamal’s turn to the “dark side” is part of the narrative this season, and delves deeper than “he’s just a mini-Lucious.”

TJY: The intensity of Jamal’s turnabout is over the top and barely credible, and his daddy/internalized homophobia issues are comically transparent, but on this show, I would expect nothing less. Broad strokes are exactly what this show is supposed to paint with, so that the surprises can come elsewhere. I’m 100 % certain that within a few episodes, he’ll have a major comeuppance/come to Jesus moment, and will be be back on Team Cookie by midseason, if not sooner.

Wardrobe

NB: There are a few shows which prioritize costume/makeup on par with dialogue and plot. ‘Mad Men’, ‘Sherlock’, ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Empire’ are in this category. Erin brought up Andre Leon Talley’s cameo, who is indeed awesome. But I’m captivated by main character attire. Jamal seems to have retained his minimalist style, but Hakeem has downsized entirely. No more heavy gold necklaces, no more wife-beaters. Andre, sadly, is back in a suit. Lucious of course is limited to prison orange but he finally seems to be at ease, and in control, when he isn’t constantly changing suits. Anika, you disappoint me. For someone with impeccable style during S1 (lingerie, bright dresses - tangerine, chartreuse - even some denim and chambray, those doomed pearls), but that white sweater dress/twin set was completely unacceptable. Cookie really did look like Mr. T, and maybe she’ll become more refined as the season goes on.

RAS: Should we say something about Cookie’s gorilla suit here?

I initially mentioned the gorilla suit as a sort of joke, but let me go ahead and say something about Cookie’s gorilla suit here. As I mentioned under the #FreeLucious section, the political point of view of the rally to Free Lucious scene is muddled. And since this is Empire, every set piece has to have some sort of spectacle. The spectacle here is Cookie dressed as a racially charged image from every white daydream/black nightmare. Tim suggests the intent of the wardrobe (the gorilla suit, the cage) is “weaponizing violently racist imagery within the context of resistance.” Perhaps. It’s an approach I love and often do in my own work, but that sort material is a dangerous knife that continues to cut marginalized people in some pretty damaging ways when wielded maliciously or carelessly. Therefore all stereotypes and racist imagery must be handled carefully and thoughtfully to avoid reinforcing the hatefulness of their origins. Dave Chapelle famously walked away from millions because he didn’t feel he could continue in his attempts to subvert racist imagery without debasing himself and his community. The gorilla suit (and the hooting and the cage and the animal movements) combined with the scene’s confused political subtext show very little evidence of handling potentially harmful imagery with care. It makes me wonder how much of the white audience nodded and said, “yes, mass incarceration is dehumanizing” and how much of the white audience simply laughed because they thought a black woman dressed as a gorilla is a funny image.

TJY: Too much refinement would ruin Cookie for me. Her look is and should be high drag, fashion forward hood couture, always with some element of surprise.

TB: Mimi Whiteman’s “drag,” which is actually screaming “Cookie and Mimi #TrueDetectiveSeason3.”

Next, on Empire...

EF: This isn’t always an okay question to ask in a writing workshop, but I’m going to ask it here. We’ve got a full season 2 ahead of us. What would you like to see?

NB: I’d be abidingly grateful for anything that helps us remember Andre’s wife’s name. During S1 he didn’t just allow her husband to use sex as leverage at City Hall - she got off on it. Her character has backbone, but she’s been shunted aside thanks to the hullabaloo created by her mother- and brothers-in-law.

TJY: I thought Raven Symone was one of the biggest wastes of S1. She was completely squandered. It’s probably too late to bring her back in any way that would make sense, but thinking about soap tropes, I feel like the show could use a shit-stirring ingenue. Who will be its Fallon? The King Lear setup means everybody’s a boy. Maybe Lucious needs a long-lost secret daughter. Also—I’m hoping that Marisa Tomei’s position on the board means she’ll be around periodically throughout the season. Cookie needs a formidable female foil. Anika can hold her own, and is a perfectly acceptable Kystle, but I’m ready for a Dominique Devereaux, a power female who can go toe-to-toe with Cookie. I would also kind of like Courtney Love to return for some kind of resolution to that Elle Dallas storyline. They kind of left her hanging.

Other Empires

EF: What stories and books would you recommend to someone who loves the show? What choices are there besides King Lear and The Lion in Winter?

TJY: If glamour and/or camp are part of the show’s attraction/appeal to you, I recommend some of the folks in my personal camp lit canon: James McCourt, Derek McCormack, Manuel Puig, and the poetry of David Trinidad (his book of Peyton Place haikus might be most apropos here).