Empire's Gay Son Is the Show's Greatest Asset

Audiences were promised King Lear and Def Jam, not Suge Knight's Mystic River. So why are we getting more of the latter?


Joe Reid and Kevin O'Keeffe discuss the third episode of Fox's musical drama series Empire and ponder whether making younger men call her mama is all Naomi Campbell is here for.

Reid: Last night's Empire was probably the least I've enjoyed Cookie all season. And I think that's ultimately better for the long-term health of the show. That's not to say that Taraji P. Henson didn't throw it down—she did, even if her crying over Bunkie's casket felt a little less than authentic. In fact, Henson's undercurrent of mirth as she sparred with Anika (Grace Gealey) was pretty delightful.

But Cookie taking a back seat allowed some character development to trickle down to one of her sons. Jamal (Jussie Smollet) has been my favorite of Empire's Lear-ish trio of children, but this was the first episode where I felt like I really understood his motivations. Rather than just flailing against his father's homophobia and retreating to the comfort of his keyboard, Jamal summoned his anger into a mission statement: He pledged to take over his father's company. Up until now, the problem with the machinations of Lucious (Terrence Howard) and Cookie and even Andre (Trai Byers) is that Jamal and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) were wise to their plan. The brothers knew from the break that they were being manipulated; any further development along those lines would either make them look unrealistically blind or remarkably stupid. But now, after yet another tense confrontation with Lucious had him cutting ties with his dad, Jamal just might hate his dad more than he loves his brother. That's the kind of moral quandary I can get behind.

It's a good thing I had Jamal, too, because this week Hakeem remained merely the show's conduit to romantic storylines, and Andre ... well, the less said about his over-the-top sneering villain routine, the better. Kevin, did the clarifying of Jamal's story outweigh Cookie's hamfisted FBI storyline?
O'Keeffe: Joe, I have disliked most everything about Empire that isn't the music or Taraji P. Henson chewing up and spitting out the scenery at every turn. I think Hakeem is dull no matter what flawless supermodel they want to throw in bed with him (though a hearty welcome to Naomi Campbell, who I hope gets more to do soon). Andre has been extraneous and kinda gross: Both his sex scenes managed to be weird and awful this episode! And you know how I've felt about Lucious, who I will admit I've been enjoying more each episode but remained unappealing in characterization last night.
But I loved Jamal in this week's episode. First, and I fear we've undersold this in our last two recaps, how spectacular is it that a network TV show depicts not only a gay man of color, but a gay man of color in the hetero-dominated world of hip-hop? That's an incredibly important, complex story, and I'm thrilled they're doing so many intriguing things with it. Hearing him assert his masculinity to his father—"I'm a man! I'm a man," ever so slightly softer on the echo—was an affecting moment, as was his impressive boast at his father's house after he performed and was rebuffed. We talked a little bit last week about masculinity and how the show is depicting gender roles, but this pair of scenes was my favorite thing they've done within that realm so far. Lee Daniels and his team may have underlined Lucious's homophobia too hard so far, having him consistently refer to Jamal as female and insist homosexuality is a choice egregiously bluntly, but it's probably (and sadly) realistic—and makes Jamal's assertion that he is a gay man, emphasis on both of those descriptors, all the more valuable.
I also really enjoyed the interplay between Cookie and Anika this episode! Their interactions in the past have been a little too obviously "our two female characters must be antagonistic," but there was a new dimension this week. Cookie saying she got turned on by Anika's threat was playful and funny, but I still get their hate for one another. See? Camp! It can be fun! We can all have fun! We don't have to be working with the feds and killing associates or any of that. Which, yes, to answer your question: That was my least favorite part of the episode. Do you think this show would work without Lucious's violence or the FBI plot? Because I certainly do.
Reid: That's the most frustrating thing: Empire would be so much stronger without Cookie's FBI plot or the investigation into Bunkie's murder. That latter plot sure delivered a doozy this week, didn't it? Brogue-voiced, Bible-verse-spouting homeless witness delivers elliptical clues to the police about the killing. I understand we're working within the Shakespearian rubric, and "the fool" presents himself in many guises in these modern days, but those scenes murdered (no pun intended) any kind of story momentum. As much as I cringed at all of Andre's scenes (and I do, one gobbled earlobe at a time), those were at least attempting to be soapy in a good way, and they were pertinent to the story that we all signed up to watch. King Lear at Def Jam was the promise, and King Lear at Def Jam is what we all want to see. Suge Knight's Mystic River, however? I'm not at all here for that.
I know you're sick to death about Hakeem and his youthful sexploitations, but can we talk about Naomi Campbell as his sugar mama? It's such a cliché, and Campbell has never been the most dynamic presence. So here's my question: Who could they have cast in Campbell's role to make that story capture your imagination?
And finally: Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr. as Puma, songwriter extraordinaire! I'm kind of not mad at the idea of him as a love interest for Cookie. Plus I'm interested to see how many Academy-honored actors we can fit into one episode. Standing on four, I think we can do even better.
O'Keeffe: To be fair, I'm not sure anyone could have done something with Campbell's role this week. Basically all she was asked to do this episode was come into a nightclub, sit down, then demand he call her mama as they had sex on a pool table. That's underwhelming, and I want to see Campbell pushed a bit more in future episodes. Lee Daniels is the man who got a good performance out of Mariah Carey in Precious—Mariah Carey!—and directed Mo'Nique to a goddamn Oscar. He can get great work out of the least expected vessels.
Speaking of: How fun would it be to have Daniels drag Mo'Nique into this world? You and I share a special love of her time as the host of Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School, where she delivered such bon mots as "The whore jumped out, and then it jumped back in" and "I am standing in front of a woman, who is so strong and so brave," the latter of which actually makes me tear up every time. (The former does, too, but for very different reasons.) I think, as a member of the Lyon family, she could be the deliciously over-the-top earthquake that this show needs to have a bit more fun—maybe they could bring her in during the recently announced second season. What do you think?
Reid: Lucious' big sister? Jamal's godmother? Now you've got me fantasy casting—I could go on for a while. For all its faults, at least we can say that Empire is a show that invites such flights of fancy. It's rickety as heck in its storytelling, and thus far it's only produced two characters worth caring about, but every week they've managed to one-up my expectations for jaw-dropping spectacle, whether that comes from a cat-fight or a funeral hat. That's something, at least.