All the great shows ask big questions. Mad Men made us think "Can people really change?" The Wire wondered "Can the system be saved?" And tonight, Empire asked "Is Alicia Keys talented and gorgeous enough to convert a gay dude?" According to Fox's smash-hit soap, the answer is yes! The series has already had a wild second season, but this week's installment — "Sinned Against" — was the daffiest hour to date...and it was sealed with a kiss.
It's not that there was anything especially outrageous about Jamal Lyon's episode-ending lip-lock with Skye Summer, the character played by real-life recording superstar Keys (who, virtually alone out of all of the music-industry guest stars to date, wasn't playing herself). The hour painstakingly detailed the heir to the Empire's fanboy feelings for his collaborator, as well as her gratitude to him for pushing her outside her artistic comfort zone — what his dad referred to as "girl-power pop." The song that resulted was a barn-burner that could quite easily be mashed up with Adele's "Hello." Their artistic chemistry was real, or at the very least a lot more convincing than Lucious Lyon and Freeda Gatz's was.
But even so, the kiss was some crazy shit. Stunt casting? Check. Plot twist? Check. Sexuality questioning? Big check. Cliffhanger ending? Check, and roll credits. It's a moment designed to drop a million jaws and launch a million tweets — the stuff Empire has been built from.
And Keys was far from the night's only crazy cameo. Rosie O'Donnell guested as Pepper O'Leary, one of Cookie’s jailhouse pals, now a chef of pastries (and other things) in Philadelphia who helps track down her wayward sister Carol. Folks, you haven't lived until you’ve seen Taraji P. Henson and the woman who gave Tickle Me Elmo to the world talk about how they're the baddest bitches on the block. O’Donnell's interplay with Vivica A. Fox’s "bougie-ass" Candace, the Lyonness' other sister, was pretty rich as well: "She vomited on me!" the rich suburbanite says of her cracked-out sibling. "Yeah, I saw that," Pepper deadpans.
Elsewhere, series co-creator Lee Daniels appeared as himself, directing Jamal's Pepsi commercial, which in real life is a Pepsi commerical for actor Jussie Smollett. Did you catch all that? Kudos to the show for taking product placement to Inception levels of complexity. For his part, Daniels hams it up like few behind-the-scenes talents have onscreen since the pun-laden intros to Alfred Hitchcock Presents back in the day. At any rate, his presence inspires Lucious to sell off huge chunks of his company to finance the merger with SwiftStream, so it does serve a narrative function as well as an advertising one.
At least one non-celebrity-guest moment stands out as well. For several episodes now, we’ve been wondering if Laz Delgado, the double-agent security consultant/gangster played by Adam Rodriguez, was stringing Cookie along or truly falling for her. This week, we got our answer: He's on the up-and-up, willing to pull a gun on his co-conspirators rather than continue their plot to loot the Lyon fortune. But from the moment Lucious meets the guy, he smells a rat — or a bull, the emblem of his gang. He outs Delgado as a traitor to Cookie and Hakeem in the episode's most satisfying scene, confirming the son's suspicions while breaking the mother's heart. The fate that awaits the guy is unclear, but the presence of Lyon's goons indicates it's probably unpleasant.
Unfortunately, so is the current trajectory of Anika, Lucious and Hakeem’s estranged ex. Her downward spiral into depression appears to have become full-blown psychosis, complete with incoherent notes scribbled on photos and newspaper clippings. (Note to Hollywood art directors: Please come up with a new way to decorate the rooms of stalkers and schizophrenics.) Watching her insist that the young Lyon loves her with no basis in fact whatsoever, or clumsily confront his current girlfriend at a party, the show feels soapy in a bad way. However gonzo it's gotten in the past, it always seemed to have a grip on the characters, larger than life though some of them are. Their hopes, fears, mistakes, and successes all felt rooted and true to their personalities.
This, on the other hand, is like watching a daytime drama during sweeps month — a radical left turn for no reason other than that the writers wanted something nuts to happen with the character. Unless they reveal a Charles Whitman–style brain tumor that triggered her transformation from "fake-ass Lena Horne" to Fatal Attraction, Empire may have thrown up its first bona fide brick.
Previously: Fortunate Son