On a scene-to-scene basis, a lot happens on Empire. That’s partially the influence its Dynasty-like soap opera heritage, which necessitates something between a cat fight and a shoe throw every few minutes, just as a matter of form; and partially the influence of our Shondaland-saturated reality, where every shocking quip and reveal comes with rising background music and the implication that this is your prepackaged OMG moment for the next four minutes. But if you look at Empire closely, not many of those shocking moments actually move the story that much farther forward. It’s eye-catching glitz hides a deceptively, frustratingly slow-moving long game. The core of the show—the way the characters fundamentally understand and relate to each other—creeps its way forward at a tectonically slow pace even as the surface action erupts above it. We’ve gotten through nearly half a season, and the show’s still dancing around the promised collision of continents: The final showdown, if there even will be one, between Hakeem and Jamal.
Empire, then, looks good when seen from a distance—we know where the season is heading, no matter how long it takes—and close up—we know we’re going to get few good lines in every scene—but it hasn’t found its middle distance. It doesn’t know what kind of stories to tell each episode. This week, the characters had their requisite dinner table fights, conversation about life-ending disease, and discussions about the importance of Being Your Real Self In Your Music. Rather than telling any discrete stories, the show tended to pick up and drop various pre-existing plotlines as necessary. A lot happened, and it was all fun to watch, but not much was accomplished.
“Out, Damned Spot” also started to shift Empire’s attention to some of its background characters—a necessary move if the show wants to survive off of more than Cookie’s one-liners and Jamals feelings—but never quite managed to crack them open. Vernon is in AA, and needs some emotional support from his sponsor after hearing about Lucious’ murder of Bunkie (who wouldn’t?). Cookie meets her washed-up hero Elle Dallas (Courtney Love, stretching neither her persona nor her vocal range). And it turns out that Michael’s feeling neglected by the now fame-obsessed Jamal. The thematic tie between the stories feels a little obvious: Fame and success seem like ends in themselves, but they’re actually things you always chase, often at the expense of the people around you. In character terms, by the end of the episode, Empire’s told us that Elle sounds better without makeup, that Vernon’s still going to do Vernon, and that Michael might benefit from some culinary school classes on making dinner for one. (Oh, and Jamal potentially has a baby momma in Raven-Symoné, but that’s a sudden, end of the episode discovery of the kind that could lead everywhere or nowhere.)
The benefit of Empire’s go-for-broke surface, however, is that it makes up for much of the show’s episode-to-episode inconsistencies. In the first scene of “Out, Damned Spot” Cookie preps for a dinner with Lucious, working through her ridiculous wardrobe until she finds the most jaw-dropping, ass-accentuating get-up she can muster. She strolls into dinner, expecting some of that Lucious love, only to hear that her ex is about to marry Ms. Boo Boo Kitty herself, Anika. Taraji P. Henson’s dissatisfied frown out-grumpys Grumpy Cat, and the sheer joy of watching her display her shapely backside to the rest of the table is undeniable, but Empire’s already forgotten a few of its more compelling plotlines. Has the threat posed by the drug war Cookie seemed to start already passed? Was last week’s mild flirt session enough to convince Cookie she should climb back on Lucious’ bones? Like Cookie, Empire can’t resist making a statement, especially if it can sacrifice its dignity in the process.
After her embarrassment at dinner, Cookie recovers with a visit to Jamal and Michael’s place in Brooklyn, where she announces her plans to get “Keep Your Money” on the charts. Jamal’s thrilled about the chance to get into the competition, but Michael reveals that he thinks that his boyfriend’s ambition is ruining their relationship. Cookie’s no help whatsoever—she tells Michael that Jamal is “becoming a top” and Michael’s going to have to deal—which triggers a fight between Michael and Jamal. The tension between the two characters makes sense, and Jussie Smollett sells Jamal’s anxiety about fame well, but the fight would be more believable if Michael weren’t all stock simpering gay TV-boyfriend tropes. Case in point: Michael suggests a trip to a bed and breakfast upstate to clear their minds. Jamal needs wifi for work. The two settle on a trip to Fire Island.
Jamal and Michael’s spat carries over into a trip to the club, where Cookie spends her time convincing a quarterback to tweet about Jamal’s song to his millions of followers. “Keep Your Money” starts to blow up on social media, which is great for Jamal, and worse for Michael, whose primary goals in life revolve around cooking school and vacation plans (Cookie says Jamal needs someone who “brings something to the table besides some damn food,” but maybe we need someone who brings something to the table besides some damn stereotypes?)
Still, you can’t be too hard on Michael, because he’s served up the short end of the emotional stick in the last few scenes of the episode. Jamal bails on the couple’s Fire Island plans in favor of an appearance on a radio show. Michael then has to sit at home, listen to Jamal perform his new single, “I Wanna Love You,” and then hear his boyfriend simultaneously avoid the chance to come out and deny his very existence. When asked by a radio host whether he has any ladies in his life, Jamal simply says that he doesn’t—even as Cookie pushes him to tell the truth. The moment works because it tells something real, and painful, about Jamal. At this point, there’s no reason for Jamal not to come out, but he doesn’t, perhaps because he doesn’t want to risk his career, but more pressingly, because he’s comfortable in lie he’s been telling. The tension between Michael and Jamal isn’t really about fame, it’s about Jamal’s inability to be fully honest and put it all on the line.
NEXT: Cookie meets her hero. Her hero’s not that excited about it.