Empire Continues to Grow (as Its Sexual Politics Remain Muddy)

Taraji P. Henson is giving one of TV's elite performances, transforming caricature into a genuine, warts-and-all character.


Joe Reid and Kevin O'Keeffe discuss the fifth episode of the musical drama series Empire and whether they'd drop real-world dollars on Hakeem and Tiana's fictional smash hit, "Drip Drop."

Reid: I'll say this about Empire: For an episode that dropped a girl-on-girl revelation before the opening credits, a drive-by execution before the closing credits, and in between just may have featured the network TV debut of the word "thot," I found myself genuinely moved more than once. Yes, I'm going to lead off our discussion with Taraji P. Henson, and I'm not going to apologize for it. I don't think it's overstating things to say we're looking at one of the elite performances on all of television right now.

Look at what Taraji is doing with that absolute dog of an FBI plot line. Nobody likes it; it may well end up dragging this show down into a morass that it'll have trouble crawling out of. But I'm invested, because it's Cookie, and I want her to come out on top, even if it means testifying to the grand jury about a master criminal and misinterpreting sweet gestures from Lucious as a threat upon her life. Henson still managed to save her best for the storylines that deserved it, though. When she finally made it back to Jamal's studio session, after traipsing all over New York City in her skittish high heels, she made a few keen-eared suggestions (well, as much as Cookie ever suggests anything) to the producer, and the crazy thing was: They were good. And smart. And respected by the producer and appreciated by Jamal. Do you realize how easy it would have been to make Cookie a fool here? The meddling mom-ager, unsuccessful multi-tasker, comic-relief dummy? Or at least the Lil' Kim cautionary tale? I can't deny that my heart swelled watching Jamal put the IRL praise-hands emoji (also known simply as "hands") up to his mom as they both basked in what's sounding more and more like Jamal's monster hit in the making.
Kevin, were you on the same emotional high at that moment? And how unexpectedly great were both Jamal and Hakeem's songs in this episode? Was I the only one really prepared to hate Hakeem's "Drip Drop" only to have it burrow its way into my good graces?
O'Keeffe: Joe, I worry about how easy it is to undersell Henson's performance, because there's so much more than just the furs and the wigs and the one-liners. All of that is delicious, but it also would do nothing but build a caricature on its own. Where Henson's best work comes is in fleshing out Cookie and making her a true character, in every sense of the word. She's fun and colorful, but also seems like a real person—and in a Lee Daniels property, that's no small feat.
Thanks to her efforts, I actually enjoyed parts of the FBI storyline more here than ever before. Watching the flashes between a younger, blonde-wigged Cookie fearful as she made a deal, and the new Cookie, testifying and still terrified for her life, it was easy to see how much Henson put into this. The differences in levels of terror were subtle, but powerful. I found myself believing Cookie was in danger, even though I knew there was no way the show would kill off one of its Oscar-nominee leads. That's good, too: I need more scenes like the one you described with Jamal. I'm not sure there's any other show on TV that would not only give me a mother and her gay son working together on a project against her ex-husband and other son, but give the entire battle weight. (I didn't know which side to root for this week.) More than that, Empire is lacing the two sides together to make it more and more difficult to divide into "teams," even as the sons' relationship strains. Some of that is clunky—I didn't quite get the point of the robbery, other than to show that Andre is evil—but some of it was great, like connecting Cookie and Tiana so intimately. It'd be easy for a show like this to favor a hashtag-driven "whose side are you on" approach, so to never let us forget that this is one family (one "empire," you could say) that's affected as a unit by the actions of its individuals is impressive.
In keeping with not taking sides, I couldn't tell you which one of the songs this week I preferred, because they were both great. All hail Timbaland; this man is fulfilling T. Bone Burnett's season-one-of-Nashville shoes well as a show's signature producer. I loved that we got to see the process and difficulties in depth, both in Hakeem producing his video (sometimes you run out of budget and need to get creative; enter Tiana), and Jamal actually producing his song (with Cookie even throwing out notes just from hearing a few seconds on the phone). I felt invested in the development, which made it all the more fulfilling to hear the fantastic final products. I want to download both immediately.
In short: Everything at the core of Empire that isn't the FBI plot is working perfectly for me right now. But the periphery ... well, let's just say I still have my concerns about the show's sexual politics. How'd you feel about hearing Lucious say the word "thot" (an acronym for "that ho over there") on network TV?
Reid: I was kind of impressed that Lucious is keeping up with what the kids are saying, tbh (that's "to be honest," as Lucious would surely be able to tell you). If he starts calling Hakeem's gold chains "on fleek" next week, don't be surprised. But you make a good point about the sexual politics of the show. Andre's wife is fitting in a bit too snugly into Lady Macbeth-ian preconceptions. But this week's storyline with Tiana and her secret girlfriend unfolded better than my (admittedly low) expectations. The scenes between Tiana and her ladyfriend were no more or less exploitive than the scenes we've seen with Jamal and his boyfriend, and while I braced myself when Lucious decided to involve himself, neither Tiana nor her girl was shamed. One of Empire's strengths remains its ability to swirl the personal and the shrewdly tactical together.
As for the studio robbery, while I agree with you that it seemed like a pretty blunt way to show that Andre is a bad dude, I was more impressed by its function as a far more organic way to put Jamal and Hakeem at odds. Up until this week, one of my nagging beefs with this show was that the strings being pulled on Jamal and Hakeem were far too visible, and it made both of them look foolish as they allowed themselves to be so obviously pitted against each other. The machinations are still clearly visible to us, but now Jamal's paranoia towards his brother feels rooted in something tangible. He's still wildly off-base, and the stage is being set for a Shakespearian escalation of misunderstandings, but it makes more sense now. And suddenly I'm very much looking forward to Andre's treachery being exposed.
O'Keeffe: One last thought on that: We talked last week about who we would pick to run Empire now, and we both said Andre. I'm going to change my answer to Jamal. Seeing him work with those other musicians was a nice way to show us his expertise beyond his music; he's a manager, too. Homosexuality in hip-hop is, of course, still sensitive, but if he can show the skills to survive in the boardroom—and if Hakeem remains as self-destructive as he's shown himself to be—I don't think the board will care about what Jamal does in the bedroom.
Of course, that's still quite a ways away. Next week: Courtney Love and Raven-Symoné, as we grow ever closer to Lee Daniels Casting Nirvana.