'Empire' Recap: Jokers Wild

It's musical, pulpy and political — but the hit hip-hop soap opera is best when it brings the funny

Taraji P. Henson in 'Empire.' Credit: Chuck Hodes/FOX

It's musical, it's political, it's packed with enough soap-opera outrageousness to make The Young and the Restless look like a work of gritty realism — all of this is true about Empire. But don't overlook the secret weapon in its entertainment arsenal: It's funny as hell. Tonight's episode — “A Rose by Any Other Name" — may be named after a line from one of Shakespeare's sonnets, but it's more concerned with comedy than poetry, and all the better for it.

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And as always, Cookie Lyon is the Empire's First Lady of Shade, and this episode contains two of her Best. Insults. Ever. She calls her rival for the throne, Naomi Campbell's scheming Camilla Marks-Whiteman, "Ol' Resting Bitchface" — far be it from us to resting-bitchface-shame, but that's pretty good. Later, when Jamal complains that estranged patriarch Lucious is spreading the word that he'd slept with a woman, costing him the support of the LGBTQ community, the Lyon Queen says "We all know your father is a tampon." Problematic? Yeah. Hilarious? You bet your ass. When she tells lawyer Thirsty Rawlings, "Stop wearing your granddaddy's suits," he gets off relatively easy.

Then, when Hakeem announces his emergence as Empire's new CEO, he unveils a matching logo to go with it, replacing his father's head with his own — then posing heroically for maximum effect. It's a laugh-out-loud moment that the show takes even further by adding the new image to its own opening-title screen. You've got to love a show that's not afraid to get meta in its quest to get the audience to spit out their drinks and go "Oh, shit!"

Even the family's straight man, Andre, gets in on the act. When he walks in on the meeting between Jamal and Cookie in which his mom promises to make the label's PR team "come up with a clever way to get the gays back on your side," he's got a better idea: "Shouldn't take a PR team — just drop your drawers, brother!" The younger Lyon grimaces; his big bro's grin and his own forgiving pat on the shoulder as he leaves show it wasn't intended to be an insult. Hell, look at Teyana, whose stage act involves writhing around in a sparkle-encrusted nude bodysuit while repeating "Look at my body, don't I look sexy" — (hot) sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, no?

It'd certainly be less humiliating than enduring another dance-number-as-protest from his detractors. As Jamal exited the building earlier in the episode, he found himself surrounded by angry gay men singing a protest-parody version of his brother Hakeem's hit "Drip Drop," brandishing multicolored flip-flops the whole time. If you're gonna insist that a musician's private relationship would be enough to encourage an angry homosexual mob to accost him, it's probably wise to make the confrontation as unrealistic and ridiculous as possible. And you also might as well give Gabourey Sidibe, who's had precious little to do this season (no pun intended), a pretty funny comeback: "That's not even his song, stupid!"

None of this is to say that Empire is just doing it for the lulz. As always, the show is insightful where and when you least expect it — in this case, the continuing fallout from Rhonda's pregancy-ending fall down the stairs. Her newfound atheism is a source of conflict in her marriage, but not of melodrama: Andre appears to respect her conviction, though his faith is important enough to him to encourage her to see a pastor for couples' counseling rather than a therapist. At the same time, her disbelief in a Christian deity isn't used to make her a monster or a shrew. She goes to the pastor, deeming the sacrifice worth it.

Related: 'Empire' Season Premiere Recap: The Lyon in Winter

What follows is a sharp take on the frustrations inherent in getting mental treatment for someone who doesn't want it. Rhonda tells the pastor that Andre's growing paranoid and is heading for a bipolar break, citing as proof his "vision from God" that she was pushed down the stairs (she was) and his suspicion that she's having an affair (she isn't). But the pastor blows off her insistence that her husband needs a doctor to readjust his meds: "He's also in God's care, which is far more powerful than any doctor's medicine." If you've ever watched someone you care about shop around until they found a counselor willing to co-sign their illness, or seen a person you love cling to a faith that can help but not heal, this is painfully familiar to endure.

The final sequence is where the show really goes for the gusto. Unable to get Camilla to say anything incriminating on the camera he's planted in their bedroom, Hakeem calls an audible: He sends their sex tape, full of insulting pillow talk about her semi-estranged wife Mimi Whiteman, to said spouse. She immediately pulls her money from Empire and paves the way for the Lyons to take back what was theirs. You'd think that's enough for the climax, and for any show but this one it might have been. Instead, Lucious shows up at the deposed billionaire's apartment and discovers she's killed her wife in retaliation; he relentlessly hounds her into taking an overdose herself. "Rot in hell," he says as he walks away, moments after she swallows a handful of pills (in a silk robe and lingerie, no less). For Empire, a spoonful of laughter helps the murder-suicide go down.

Previously: Back From the Dead