Empire Season 2, Episode 2: “Without a Country” Review: Taking Cues from The Past
The second season episode of FOX’s Empire “Without a Country”, fared better this week (see here for last week’s review) in terms of stronger storytelling, ending with the long waited release of the crafty ‘King’ of the record label Luscious Lyons (Terrence Howard). Continuing from last episode, we see the prosecutor Roxanne Ford (Tyra Ferrell) still fumbling her way through her case against Luscious. When conventional means wear thin, Roxanne tries to strong-arm Luscious by withholding his medication to make him break, courtesy of Hip Hop guest star Ludacris (playing an unconvincing, mean-spirited prison guard named Officer McKnight).
The constant barrage of harassment by Roxanne and Officer McKnight only serves to embolden Luscious’ energy to record more music while being incarcerated . Terrance Howard’s foray into the indignant prison track ‘Snitch Bitch’, provided Luscious the freedom he so craved, even while he’s behind bars. He’s just sending a friendly reminder to those in his family who betrayed him, that the King has still got it. Sometimes the seams within the fabric of Howard’s performance frayed a little, giving way to not so much as performance confidence as it did to clumsy desperation. In other words Terrance, less rapping at this point and age of your life, and more acting like a seasoned leader of the pack, as demonstrated with his prison co-horts and business associates in the past.
Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) of course is still like a tidal wave, moving with gale force throughout this episode, galvanizing the support of sons Andre and Hakeem to build a new label. Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is still resisting his family’s prodding to release Hakeem’s (Bryshere Y. Gray) record, even after being scolded by his mother into doing so. The rise to CEO of Empire records has not dampened Jamal’s creativity however, and with help from producers Timbaland and Ne-Yo, that fact is exemplified in this season’s musical scores.
Hakeem is determined to bolster his stunted career by trying to create his own ‘Destiny’s Child’ type of girl group, holding a sometimes awkward casting call with only a few promising delights. Jamal’s pleading to Hakeem on their father’s behest to come back to the label backfires, after Hakeem leaks his own embargoed debut online. The constant battle for the top spot gets a little disjointed as the story moves along. Cookie’s alliances are even more blurred this season as opposed to last, showing more favoritism to Hakeem, who despised his mother’s handling last year. As to give Luscious the proverbial poke in the eye, the mother and son duo dubiously name their new label ‘Lyons Dynasty”, much to the chagrin of Jamal, who tells Hakeem the name sounds ‘corny’.
Some glaring character issues still comes to the surface, especially Anika’s (Grace Gealey) role, which has been reduced from the titular sex- kitten antagonist, to a mere errand/call girl this season. The most interesting plot development this episode is the exceptional scene between Luscious and Andre (Trai Byers) in the visiting room at prison. In the poignant part of their encounter, Andre espouses to his father, ‘Of all of your children, after throwing Jamal in a trash can as a child, and Jamal sleeping with your fiancé, you have despised me, the one who never betrayed you!’ Viewers were then swept back into a flashback scene with Luscious as a child being held by his mother (played by Destiny’s Child singer Kelly Rowland) being serenated by a by a mellow lullaby. As the scene progresses along with her melody, you then witness Luscious’ mother eyes drift off into almost a catatonic state, revealing to the audience a glimpse into Luscious fears regarding Andre’s Bi-polar condition.
The second episode showed more growth than the sporadic first of this season by showing us glimpses into the Lyon’s past, which may provide promise in future shows to come. What the show is desperately lacking at this point is a linear focus on where the characters should stand from one episode to the next. Where is Mimi? (Marisa Tomei) For such a major role within the company, was she just a one shot guest? How can an artist quit one record label to go to another without being sued for breaking contractual conditions and not having their career hampered for months? As affluent and well-connected as the Lyons family are, why doesn’t Luscious have legal counsel on standby, as opposed to resorting to using the spastic, ill-dressed lawyer Thirsty Rawlings (Andre Royo of “The Wire”) that appears from out of thin air in the prison’s visiting room? With such a stellar cast in FOX’s hands, it would be a waste to have Empire become a Hip Hop second cousin to the network’s other ratings giant ‘Glee’.