If you watched last night's Empire, you got more than an excellent hour of the series — and a rebound from last week's misfire. And as a bonus, you also got pretty decent episodes of Better Call Saul and Hannibal in the bargain. The opening scene depicted Andre Lyon visiting his long-lost grandmother Leah, stashed away in a nursing home for decades by Lucious after she abused him; the setting, the old-folks humor, the off-kilter camera angles, and the telltale bingo game were all reminiscent of similar sequences in which Bob Odenkirk's shifty lawyer wooing elderly clients in the Breaking Bad prequel.
Meanwhile, the final minutes, featuring an awkward mother-and-child reunion in which the mentally ill old woman serves her frightened son dessert in the middle of the night (at knifepoint), had a febrile orchestral score and a tense dinner-table psychodrama vibe that evoked the tragically canceled saga of cannibalistic Dr. Lecter. Maybe co-creators/co-writers Lee Daniels & Danny Strong and director Millicent Shelton constructed these parallels deliberately; maybe they didn't. But the episode — "The Lyon Who Cried Wolf" — proved that this show can do all kinds of things very, very well, even stuff other shows have done well themselves.
Its success stemmed not just from these standout scenes, but from one of Empire's customary sources of strength: the music. Both "No Competition," a joint-effort banger by Hakeem and Jamal featuring vocals by Tiana, and "Chasing the Sky," a ballad about keeping the family together (performed with their dad and with mom doing the production duties), are among the soundtrack's best entries to date. The former track, intended to appear in a movie by red-hot Fruitvale Station/Creed/Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, serves as mood music for an intense sex scene between the Lyons' LGBT poster child and D Major, the gruff producer of the much-anticipated ASA Awards. Watching these dudes tear into each other while baby brother and the ex-girlfriend record together adds all kinds of kinda creepy, kinda funny, kinda kinky sexual crosscurrents to the moment.
But it's "Sky" that becomes a major plot point. During the writing and recording of the song, each family member battles for spotlight supremacy, to the point where Cookie orders them all to "put your big-girl drawers on." But it's not until the introduction of a melodic contribution from Leah, of all people, that it comes together; after that, the put-downs are playful rather than hurtful, like when Lucious tells Hakeem "this is where your okey-doke verse is gonna go." (Cue a smile on both their faces.) With nakedly confessional hip-hop and R&B so present in the soundtrack of our lives right now — see Beyoncé's epochal Lemonade and Drake's characteristically direct Views — the track has a ripped-from-the-headlines vibe that helps overcome its occasional treacly moments. Fine performances from Jussie Smollett, Bryshere Gray, Terrence Howard, and Taraji P. Henson don't hurt either; musically, the three men sell every word, while their interplay with their matriarch feels lived-in, laid-back, and natural, like the best scenes between the family tend to be.
The soapy skullduggery seems back on track as well. After dragging several episodes down, the pregnancy drama actually lifted this one up, as a series of flashbacks — including one triggered by Annika's telltale Louboutins — finally bring Rhonda's repressed memories of being pushed down the stairs back to the surface. Grittier still was the handling of Harper Scott, the journalist who tracked Lucious's mother down, by his ruthless right-hand man Thirsty Rawlings: Rather than kill her himself, he opens the door and lets a pair of goons in waiting do it for him. This gives a subsequent scene in which the dirty lawyer tries to snatch up Leah extra urgency. You almost have to wonder if he was involved in the staircase incident himself at this point, given how proficient he's proven himself at doing dirty deeds.
Regardless, moments like that serve as grim reminders that however much fun the in-fighting and music might be, the Lyon dynasty has been racking up the bodies since the pilot. A subplot in which Cookie's recovering-alcoholic sister Carol is unwittingly turned into a source by a friend turned fed may address that aspect of the Empire somewhat, though law-enforcement efforts to tame the Lyons never work for long. And as the show's second season nears its finale, downturns in its quality are proving equally short-lived.
Previously: When Life Gives You Lyons...