'Empire' Recap: The Art of War

As the Feds move in, the show proves politics, pulp and popcorn aren't incompatible

Terrence Howard, left, and Trai Byers in Fox's hit hip-hop soap opera 'Empire.' Credit: Chuck Hodes/Fox

When will Empire screw up? Seriously, a soap opera with no obvious flaws? That's some uncanny-valley shit. But it's true: Fox's mega-hit series is neither pretentious nor stupid; neither self-serious nor snidely campy; neither a straight-up guilty pleasure nor an attempt to make you feel like you're secretly eating your vegetables. It's just, like, exactly right. Which, for a primetime show that's this across-the-board popular, is a hard thing to wrap your mind around.

In tonight's episode — "Poor Yorick" — the show played this game on Expert mode and still managed a perfect score. On race, policing, incarceration, and the way art and entertainment occasionally intersects with all of these things, it went to places where prestige dramas fear to tread. Yet the soap remained self-aware enough to acknowledge the agit-prop limitations of a show about rich people fucking each other, and fucking each other over. Plus, as a bonus, it ended with a jump-scare that beat anything on The Walking Dead.

We begin with a raid on the Empire offices by the FBI, who charge in with machine guns at the ready and confiscate iPhones used to record them with impunity. It's such overkill — all this for a record label? — that you have to laugh. Until, that is, you reflect on the far more ridiculous, but all too real and often lethal, things we've seen law enforcement officials do to black people on a daily basis. When you've seen sniper rifles trained on protestors in broad daylight and in full view of news cameras, the idea of the Feds treating the fictional equivalent of Def Jam Records like Osama Bin Laden's compound feels a whole lot less crazy.

We soon learn that the move was part of a full-court press on Lucious Lyon — now out on bail — by Roxanne Ford, the preposterously be-cleavaged prosecutor played with villainous gusto by Tyra Ferrell. For a moment it seems like the breakaway label founded by the Lyon king's spurned family might catch a break. But Ford outflanks the whole clan, arresting Cookie on a bogus parole violation. (Her assistant, Porsha, used her name when she got pinched for turnstile jumping — that's so Porsha!)

Taraji P. Henson is too good an actor, and Cookie too funny a character, to play the ensuing sequence of events entirely straight. She cracks jokes about Ford's weave, shrewdly offers false intel on Lucious in order to stop the radio-network deal he was using to shut her artists out, and (in the episode's single funniest moment) responds to the arresting officers' "Cookie Lyon?" not with "Yes" but with an indignant "So?!"

But at the same time, she shouts "If I die in police custody, I did not commit suicide" as she's put in the squad car — a phrase activists and average people alike have been tweeting to followers/telling their family as a precautionary measure in real life. She's forced to cope with the blithely corrupt lawyer, who purrs "Honey, I will hurt your kids real bad" and jokes about Andre's potentially fragile mental state: "Ooh, child, I sure hope he don't kill himself!" And has any show since Oz, now nearly 20 years in the rear-view mirror, portrayed the torture of solitary confinement as unflinchingly as Cookie's jailhouse flashback — showing the mighty matriarch alone in her cell, sobbing and begging for death? This is extraordinary stuff. Given that the storyline began with Ford showing up at Lucious' house, only to have her plunging neckline completely outdone by the mogul greeting her while bare-ass naked, it's even more remarkable how dark and deep the show is willing to go.

But Empire is also too smart, too cognizant of its nature as rollercoaster entertainment first and foremost, to pat itself on the back for its politics. Throughout the episode, written and directed by series co-creator Danny Strong, characters make reference to the half-assed, ham-fisted ways in which their own work plays and profits off the struggle.

Take the clip made for Hakeem and Jamal's latest collaboration, a joint effort meant to portray the Lyons as a united front against the Feds. It's a cheeseball post-apocalyptic pastiche of the Black Panthers that looks like time travelers kidnapped Bobby Seale and the Fly Girls, then dropped them into the middle of 2Pac & Dr. Dre's "California Love" video. "This is real subtle, Lucious," Cookie justifiably sneers, before being condescendingly, if half-convincingly, told that the purpose of the promo is to demonstrate that they "will not tolerate police harassment of people of color." This isn't Empire trying to have its conscious cake and eat it too — it's a complex take on how capitalism absorbs and exploits revolutionary ideas. That the idea offers no easy answer on how to tell one from the other isn't surprising...because guess what? There really isn't one.

Later, Hakeem childishly stabs a portrait of Jamal intended to serve as his Rolling Stone cover — "It's the most ugliest painting I ever seen in my life!" he shouts, sounding every bit like the petulant kid brother he is. Unfazed, the hipster-doofus painter proclaims that the partially destroyed art now "represents the anger and the violence of a racist and homophobic society." "Yeah," snorts Jamal's boyfriend Michael. "Really powerful."

We live in an era of all-or-nothing politicization of fandom: Every show and every star is treated as either ideologically flawless or irredeemably evil. Empire knows it's not that simple. It speaks to the issues, knowing that's the duty of all art. But it also sees how easy it is to pass off schlock and kitsch as grand statements, and holds itself to a higher standard in that regard than any fan or critic ever could. All that and Andre "Bubbles" Royo's sleazy lawyer character Thirsty Rawlings using a corpse detector used to dump a dead witness's decayed body in a Federal prosecutor's car?

Hail to the Empire indeed.

Previously: God, Damned