“Did you know there are 1.68 million black men being held under mass incarceration in America’s prison system today, right now?”
That’s the first line of dialogue spoken in Empire season two, from the hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz to a crowd of thousands in Central Park. Is this a signal of new intentions for Empire, whose wildly popular first season was driven by murders and affairs, psychological breakdowns and chart hits, double crossings and one-liners? Having a gay character come out and a few references to Barack Obama are one thing, but is Empire about to go full-on political, making like an Atlantic cover story?
Not quite. The next scene opens backstage with the playboy rapper Hakeem complaining to his mom, Cookie, that they’re “fronting” by holding a concert to free their patriarch, the rap mogul Lucious Lyon. Everyone knows that Lucious committed the murder he’s accused of. “We should be performing for the brothers and sisters that are innocent,” Hakeem says.
“You think I don’t know that, stupid?” Cookie snaps back. “This is about us taking the empire. Stay focused.”
Ah, right: Empire’s Empire, the record company Lucious and Cookie founded and whose ownership appears to be up for grabs. Anyone who watched the first season knows how this is going to go: At various points one or another member of the family will, often somewhat inexplicably, be announced as having the dominant position in the business, and the others will, somewhat inexplicably, line up either for or against the newly powerful person. In the two new episodes I’ve seen, the music—Timbaland homages to top 40 hip-hop and R&B—sounds slightly less corny than it did last season, but it’s still a mere metaphor for the larger battle of control. The same can be said of familial ties, of sex, of the media, all of which can serve up delicious twists and moving moments but mostly are just there to provide weight to add to one side or another of the power seesaw.
And now, the same goes for protests against mass incarceration. The #FreeLucious concert produces a searing onstage jeremiad against the jailing of black men from Cookie, the kind of speech that would go viral for its passion and precision were a famous record executive to give it in public in the real world. And this is, make no mistake, meant to be the real world—there are references to Hillary’s campaign, and in-character appearances from the likes of Al Sharpton. But the activism is really a pretext, not even to free Lucious from jail but rather to impress a potential investor (played by Marisa Tomei, in one of many splashy but ultimately forgettable cameos of the new season). Cookie’s assistant Porsha even gets the name of Ferguson, Missouri, wrong, though Cookie quickly corrects her.
This could all be read as a fairly biting satire of the social-justice movement, fuel for those who say it’s been co-opted, that its energy is used too often to sell products or shore up celebrity credibility. But Empire is so obsessed with its main conflict and family psychodrama that it’s probably safer to see the subplot as just a depiction of some savvy, self-involved operators. It might even be an endorsement of realpolitik in activism. The looks on the faces of those in the crowd at the #FreeLucious concert, and the conscious rapping on stage by Sean Cross, appear to be plenty sincere. If political change aligns with business concerns, well, that’s often good for political change.
Incarceration itself is portrayed with a similar mixture of social awareness and Machiavellian expedience. In prison, Lucious is both bedeviled and benefitted by the fact that so many men from the streets he grew up in are behind bars with him. He faces a longstanding nemesis in a quietly vicious gangster played by Chris Rock (and later an abusive guard played by Ludacris), but it’s also his friends from back home that help him fight back. The larger point is more about asserting Lucious’s prowess, but if you want to read an allegory into what happens, you can. For a show so frequently derided for ridiculous plotting and simplistic writing, there’s a significant helping of ambiguity and moral complexity here, a fact that might represent the truest insight about the real world that Empire has yet offered.