'Empire' Recap: Jailhouse Rock

Lucious drops 16 bars — while still behind bars! — in this special diss-track episode

Terrence Howard gets ready to rhyme in Fox's hit series 'Empire.' Credit: Chuck Hodes/Fox

How fast does Empire move? So fast that it has to cleave the screen in half just to keep up. After a season premiere that proved the show hadn't missed a step, Fox's raucous ratings juggernaut maintained the pace, opening with a split-screen montage of the ousted members of the Lyon clan — Cookie, Hakeem, Andre, Rhonda, and sometimes Anika — making plans for a rival label on their phones without breaking stride. Part Pillow Talk, part Brian De Palma potboiler and all batshit crazy, it was visually audacious, narratively appropriate, and fun as all hell.

That's actually a pretty apt description of the entirety of this season's second installment, "Without a Country." (This show's episode titles are always over the top and totally on point.) Much of the credit goes to its primary plotline: Lucious Lyon's tumultuous final days in jail before being released on bail. From Orange Is the New Black to Oz, prison has been well-traveled territory for a variety of strong series, and the risk of eschewing the novelty of this show's normal music-industry setting for cellblocks was relatively high. But in true Empire form, the episode pulled it off with a pair of killer cameos. Stepping into the villain-of-the-week slot vacated by Chris Rock's late Frank Weathers last time out is Officer McKnight, a sadistic C.O. played by Ludacris; meanwhile, Andre Royo fills Marisa Tomei's designer shoes as Lucious' latest unlikely ally, jailhouse attorney Thirsty Rawlings.

Both actors are smartly used. Luda has long been one of the most engaging rappers-turned-actors, a lively screen presence who gives all too realistic threats to kill prisoners. The Wire veteran Royo, whose lovable-loser junkie Bubbles remains a top-five all-time work of character creation on television, is deftly played against type — the kind of person Jesse Pinkman was referring to when he told Walter White, "You don't want a criminal lawyer, alright? You want a criminal lawyer." Seeing the character actor run roughshod over crooked cops and dictatorial district attorneys after getting his ass handed to him by the system courtesy of David Simon was worth the price of admission alone.

There's more to the show than the guest stars, of course, or than Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard, its attention-grabbing (albeit for very different reasons) leads. The skill with which Jussie Smollet and Bryshere Y. Gray play their respective young up-and-comers remains impressive, given how rarely they're given the fireworks displays provided their parents. Smollet's seemingly improvised dialogue during Jamal's big TV interview is uncannily accurate to how celebrities switch from joking small talk to serious-face soundbites — a terrific depiction of the way the character is tamping down his artistic temperament to suit his uncomfortable new-power position. Gray, meanwhile, isn't afraid to make Hakeem look and sound, well, kinda adorable when he plows ahead with his idea to create a multiethnic girl group called Rainbow Sensation. The goofball name, the Svengali posturing, the more or less open use of the project to meet cute girls: It's exactly how a talented young star might want to spend (or, less charitably, waste) his time.

And let's not forget that Empire is, at its foundation, a Willy Wonka–level ear and eye candy factory. Gray seems to have written a shirtlessness clause into his contract; this dude's top comes off more often than a can of Pringles. (Once you pop, you can't stop.) Becky G, the IRL pop singer behind last year's earworm "Shower," gets equally near-nude as Hakeem's new discovery/love interest Valentina, though her laugh-out-loud no-fucks-given attitude — "Let me just translate a bitch" she says in the middle of insulting him bilingually — leaves as much of an impression as her time in the Lyon cub's hot tub. And if the nude bodysuit sported by Serayah McNeill's young superstar Tiana during dance practice doesn't get nominated for a Best Supporting Garment Emmy, the awards will be meaningless.

And in the aural arena, the songs are as strong as ever. What the show does in having its characters write, sing, and rhyme almost exclusively about their current experiences is no different than what operas and musicals have done for centuries; the mixture of clever and direct with which the show pulls it off is really something to behold. Lucious's sonic fuck-you to Cookie, recorded in a jailhouse supply closet with his surprisingly talented clique of prison pals, easily ranks one of the series' best musical moments to date. "Snitch bitch, snitchin' ass bitch" goes the chorus — Cole Porter it ain't, but a nod to Terrence Howard's Hustle & Flow soundtrack standout "Whoop That Trick" it almost certainly is. When it builds to its hilariously blunt climax — "You know it, and I know it, and you know I know it" — it's funny enough to earn Lucious early release. Fortunately, Empire and its viewers and listeners have months more time to spend together. You are hereby sentenced to a goddamn delightful show.

Previously: The Lyon in Winter