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…