The first 10 minutes of tonight’s Empire could have filled a whole episode on nearly any other show. The first 20 minutes of tonight’s Empire could have filled a whole half-season. The show started to reach the kinds of things you thought might have been waiting until a season finale—Andre’s breakdown, Anika’s betrayal—and then continued to hurtle forward. By the end of the episode, the last commercial break seemed like the distant past.
As much fun as it is to watch Empire pull out all the stops (and then throw in a few songs for good measure), the show runs the risk of going too quickly. Let’s imagine that there’s some speed at which the plot moves so quickly that the show stops feeling like a roller coaster and turns into a bullet train. The scenery races by. There’s no use trying to get a handle on the environment or the characters in each moment, because, in minutes, something new will come up and it’ll all be behind you.
In “Unto the Breach,” Empire flirts with the kind of relativistic speed at which character is only plot squared. The episode was full of brilliant reversals and fights that felt like they were brewing all season, but it barely gave any the space to land. Andre, for once, became the episode highlight as Trai Byers pushed his performance to full-on mania, but we barely had the time to connect with him. Andre’s mental illness has come up in earlier episodes, but never in enough detail to get a real feeling for what’s at stake. Is Andre’s condition life-threatening? Is this the worst it’s been? How can he recover? As a result, the scene feels too neat, and Andre’s breakdown isn’t quite real. We know this isn’t the moment the show will go off the rails, because it always has to keep moving forward.
Anyway, back in the distant past, “Unto the Breach” opens with Cookie announcing to Lucious that Anika’s meeting with Billy Beretti, and that she’s planning to leave for Creedmoor, the rival label. This being Empire, Cookie makes the announcement while Lucious and Anika are in the middle of wedding planning. Lucious is furious, and he immediately kicks Anika out of the house. “Bye, Felicia!” Cookie shouts after her.
Anika insists to Lucious that she’s “not a treacherous person,” but as soon as she’s off the Lyon premises, she gets to work trying to steal artists for Empire. First, she books Veronika, the belt-heavy crooner who sang “What Is Love” in the pilot, and then, at Beretti’s creepy insistence she starts to work her designs on Tiana.
Back at the Empire offices, Lucious rallies the troops and announces that everyone has 24 hours to shore up Empire’s talent list and save the company in time for the IPO. The moment would have more urgency if Lucious didn’t make the same announcement about how the label is in danger in nearly every episode (or if anyone explained exactly how Empire makes money), but still, everyone seems to take things a little more seriously this time. The names of artists pop up on big screens in the boardroom like draft cards: Low Boy, Travie Wild, Royale-T, Coagulation. (Can there please be a spin-off about Coagulation?)
NEXT: Cookie drinks, Jamal duets, and Hakeem’s got nothing to do…
While Lucious mans the fort back at Empire, Cookie and Jamal head off to court new artists. Cookie returns to the Ghetto Ass Studios (seriously, that’s the name) from “Dangerous Bonds” to try to win over Royale-T, a hardcore rapper who’s been won over by a rep from Creedmoor. Nobody’s more hardened than Cookie, however, and she challenges the rest of the studio to a purple drink drinking contest, last man (or woman) standing (or falling on a piano) wins.
Of course, Cookie wins the drinking contest, which means that Taraji P. Henson gets to gift the world with Drunk Cookie, the meme of the hour, and the true Empire fans’ new favorite .gif. After claiming what is rightfully hers, Cookie wanders through the streets back toward the Empire studios. She’s jumped, but saved by Malcolm the hot security guard. “Cookie?” he asks. “That’s my name, take a bite,” Cookie responds. She’s ready to give away that nookie.
Jamal, meanwhile, is really enjoying the chance to bare all for his new director beau Ryan, emotionally and otherwise. After filming him in a sexy shirtless music video for a new single, Ryan introduces Jamal to Delphine, a multi-platinum singer played by the glorious Estelle, who fills Empire’s stunning, fabulous Brit quotient in the absence of Naomi Campbell. Delphine and Jamal then partner up for a duet on “Conqueror” before Delphine reveals that she might be willing to switch labels. Jamal’s thrilled by the news, and he calls his dad, who doesn’t have time for his embarrassment of a son right now.
Why is Lucious mad at Jamal? Because, after Jamal’s rousing coming out performance last week, Lucious has decided that his gay son might alienate some of the label’s clients. It’s a pretty dumb perspective, Jamal is clearly big business, and Lucious changes his mind by the end of the episode, but Lucious’ plot-convenient bigotry seems like another unnecessary hurdle in an episode that’s already chock-full.
The same goes for the Lucious-Hakeem plot, which has Lucious make a string of terrible business decisions, while Hakeem keeps offering the right solution and being ignored. Lucious is starting to feel more and more like a human plot-delivery vehicle, especially when he makes the wrong play with Travie Wild, a friend of Hakeem’s. Instead of trying to keep Travie on the label with talk of planes and parties, Lucious tries to lure him with money talk, which is never appealing, especially when Andre’s the one doing the talking.
Travie tells Lucious they might have a deal, but then jumps ship to Creedmoor, which leads to confrontation between Beretti and Lucious, as the two men climb out of their SUVs and point guns at each other in the middle of Manhattan (because you can totally do that). Beretti shames Lucious for losing Anika. Lucious tells Beretti that he used to pity his rival, especially after the death of his son (who died of leukemia years ago), but that now he’s beyond pity. The two return to their SUVs, as Judd Nelson probably mutters “eat my shorts” under his breath.
NEXT: Andre has had enough…
Back at the Empire offices, Jamal, Andre, and Hakeem all get trapped in the elevator. Malcolm briefly explains that some sort of hack has taken place, but I like to think that the Empire writers wanted to get everyone in a room together and thought, “why not?” Anyway, it hasn’t been the best day for Andre, as he’s still reeling from Lucious’ announcement last week that he could never become the head of the company as long as he’s married to a white woman.
Grantland has a great piece about how Empire’s starting to bring Andre into focus with this plotline, but it’s still going to take a lot to pull the character together, especially when he has a tendency to be either blander than oatmeal or loopier than, well, Fruit Loops. Early in the episode, Andre decides to go off his meds. By the time he’s in the elevator with Hakeem, he’s taken all of Empire’s cash into his own hands and bought a Lamborghini. He lashes out at his two brothers, who comfort him with a soothing rendition of “Lean On Me,” the song the three of them used to sing to each other when they hit hard times growing up. Hakeem, Jamal, and Andre could, and maybe should, have spent the whole episode together in the elevator digging up the past, but Empire only provides the briefest look at the Lyon brothers before moving on to other business.
In this case, business means bringing everyone (minus Andre) together for a last ditch attempt to save Tiana and book Delphine. Cookie and Hakeem head downtown to face off with Anika, who’s eyeing Tiana for her label. Hakeem makes himself useful and confronts his ex-stepmother-to-be, telling her that he and everyone else still care about her. Anika buys the act, which gives Cookie enough time to close in on Tiana, and Porscha time to surround Anika with her clique of intimidating friends. Tiana agrees to sign with Empire, and requests that Hakeem get back with her, fake relationship-wise. Hakeem refuses, announcing that he’s still in love with Camilla.
Back at Leviticus, Lucious and Jamal meet with Delphine and successfully get her to sign with Empire as well. Jamal, Lucious, and Delphine celebrate with a group rendition of “You’re So Beautiful.” The performance then reaches Kidney Now!-sized proportions when Cookie, Hakeem, and Tiana also arrive and start singing.
While everyone in the Lyon family enjoys their bonding moment, Andre is stuck in the office, literally kept at work by the security team, who are stalling him while they wait for professional help. By the time Lucious returns to the boardroom, Andre is having a full-on meltdown, as he throws all his inadequacies in his father’s face and announces that, if he’s going to chose the head of a company, he better “pick the one who knows you’re a murder.” Andre’s eventually sedated and pulled away on a stretcher, but the damage is done. The Lyon’s family’s most stable son has fully collapsed.
“Unto the Breach” takes its name from a speech in act 5 scene 1 of Henry V, in which the young British king rallies his troops against the French army. “Unto the Breach” is one of the all-time greatest war speeches (see Kenneth Branagh go crazy with it here), but it’s a little bit of a surprising choice for an episode that focused as much on the Lyon’s families interior conflicts as their battle with Creedmoor. Still, it might be useful to consider which Lyon son is the best fit for the title of the daring king Henry. My bet: Andre. He’s still a little bit of a plot-serving wildcard, but he’s definitely the one who’d do the best job imitating “the action of the tiger.”
Wait, how was the music?
On a night that features Estelle, you give first prize to Estelle, who predictably stole the show with her duet with Jamal on “Conqueror.” Veronika takes second place with her solid (white and) gold take on the brutal “Black & Blue,” while Jussie Smollet’s groovy “All of the Above” and the let’s-enlist-everyone-in-the-cast-who-can-sing-and-also-Estelle version of “You’re So Beautiful” round out tonight’s offerings.
Notes, quotes, and observations:
- Cookie only wore one outfit: a pair of leather pants, leather coat, white and black shirt and black scarab-like statement jewelry. It was amazing.
- Porscha is the one to reveal Anika’s plots, because when Anika tried to bribe her away from Cookie, she just turned to Cookie and asked for more money.
- Cookie, to Tiana: “Lucious cares more about business than Hakeem’s hurt feelings. It’s sad, but true.”
- Apparently Jennifer Hudson is going to play Andre’s “music therapist” next week, because if you want to help someone who feels talentless in a family full of musicians, you give him musical therapy.