O'Keeffe: Joe, this was by far the worst installment of Empire since its second, and yet I can't bring myself to worry about its future. Maybe it's because the episode still had good moments (its first scenes at Lucious and Anika's engagement dinner were particular highlights). Maybe it's because it would take a wild derailment of character for me to not love everything about Cookie. And maybe it's because it feels like a place-setting episode for future plots.
Lucious got off the hook for Bunkie's murder, Jamal's song came out (and it's a hit) even if he didn't, and Raven-Symoné has arrived—as a character named Olivia, making me hope and pray she's playing the same character as she did on The Cosby Show—with Jamal's son! Soap opera twist! The best thing I can say for this episode is that I'm eager to see what happens next week. But the worst I can say is that it was a bit of a mess with no clear sense of plotting or arc. It was just odds and ends stitched together with a underserved Courtney Love guest appearance. What'd you think of the hilariously titled "Out, Damned Spot"?
Reid: Yeah, I'm not sure I would even be as down on this episode if the previous two hadn't been so delightfully, improbably wonderful. But "Out, Damned Spot" was undeniably a step down in quality, no matter how delicious that Lady Macbeth reference might be. The encouraging thing is that the shortcomings appear to be short-term rather than long-term. Structurally, things didn't have a great flow, starting with the decision to kick things off with a tag about Cookie misinterpreting the rose from Lucious as an invitation for sex. True, it led to some classic Empire over-the-top antics from Cookie at the engagement dinner, but it did nothing for the episode that followed.
Storylines that had been red hot up to this point were back-burnered this week, for the most part. Jamal's career trajectory stayed in the foreground, sure, and I enjoyed the complicating factor of his boyfriend. It gave Cookie yet another opportunity to show herself to be a fabulous manipulator with both skewed priorities and the best interests of her son at heart. I continue to love this show's steadfast refusal to flatten her out. She's a bitch and a half when she tells Michael that Jamal's going to have less and less need for him as he becomes more successful (though I howled at the line about how Jamal is "becoming a top, because that's what you gotta be to get on top in this business"), but when she tells Jamal all she wants for him is to be with someone who's on his level, you kind of understand her logic, warped and unromantic as it is.
Almost as interesting was the moment when MTV's Sway (still relevant in 2015!) asked Jamal about any girlfriends, and Jamal both slighted Michael and glass-closeted himself. It's a natural direction for the storyline to take, and I would love it if the show addresses these kind of "not out but not-not out" situations. More fascinating to me were Cookie's nonverbals on the other side of the camera. How inscrutable was that encouraging look on her face? Was she giving him the nod to go ahead and come out? Or telling him to make the smart play for business? Again, Cookie refuses to be flattened.
I wish we'd gotten more of that complexity from Courtney Love's Elle Dallas. I'm loathe to blame Love herself, one of the most fascinating and compelling real-life characters of my lifetime, but I don't think she brought much to this thin reimagining of Amy Winehouse. It's too bad, because I liked the idea of having a character who might have been able to intimidate a star-struck Cookie, at least for a moment.
Kevin, what did you think of our esteemed guest star ... and that other guest star at episode's end?
O'Keeffe: I thought it was kind of a waste of Courtney Love. It felt like her entire story was shoehorned in to remind us what an ace Cookie is ... but I don't really need to be convinced of that anymore. I know Cookie's got skills. It was fun to see her starstruck at the sight of Elle at first, but that was basically all this plotline had to offer. I much preferred Cookie in Jamal's story, and like you, I was glad to see the glass closet idea take some interesting turns. Michael is one of my favorite side characters on the show, and I thought his conversation with Cookie was refreshingly blunt. No, "He won't change," from Miss Cookie, oh no. She knew what was going to happen, and she wasn't afraid to tell him.
Unfortunately, Michael may soon be shunted in favor of Olivia, and I must say I'm thrilled to see Raven acting on my television screen once again. She's gotten into a mess of trouble talking about her sexuality and aversion to labels recently, but it's hard to forget what a charismatic presence she can be on screen. Does she overact? Sure. She chews every bit of scenery she can find. But that makes her the perfect entrant into Lee Daniels' cast of characters.
But, of course, Jamal also has a rivalry plot with Hakeem to keep stoked. It's clear that Daniels favors Jamal by how many plotlines he keeps him involved in compared to the other two brothers. Andre feels tertiary even in his own plots (often involving the far more appealing Lucious or his far more ridiculous wife Rhonda), while I just cannot be bothered to care about Hakeem outside of his connection to Tiana—who was sorely missed this week, may I say. It seems like what I guessed last week is going to be correct: We're headed for Jamal taking over the company, an idea just weeks ago I would have thought ridiculous. Do you think Daniels can divorce himself from the character most based on his own experiences to show him failing a bit? Or is Jamal the Kurt to Daniels' Ryan Murphy?
Reid: Well, I think we're already seeing Jamal fail a little bit. Declining to come out was absolutely played as a moral failing on Jamal's part, even if it's something we can be a bit sympathetic towards. Same with his shunning of Hakeem in this episode, since we all know he's just being a sucker for Andre's manipulations. I'm satisfied enough that we're not seeing Jamal sainted through these developments, and I'm sure that whoever does end up in control of Empire won't stay that way for very long. Besides, after getting wheeled and dealed by Anika this week, my money is on Cookie's assistant Porsha to come out on top in the end.