‘Empire’: Chris Rock Was Secretly Playing a Cannibal

24 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The Devils Are Here’.

“Empire” was the TV phenomenon of the spring of 2015, growing audience every episode in its initial 12-episode run, an unprecedented growth spurt in recent TV history.

You’re reading because you just watched the latest over-the-top episode and you thought, “What the hell was that?!?” as a billion GIFs of face slaps and decapitated heads exploded in your brain. Frank was the man Cookie incriminated in Episode 5 (“Dangerous Bonds”), when she testified that he murdered an undercover FBI agent—and then, mistakenly believing that he had found out about her testimony and was out to retaliate, took out a hit on him. Entering season two tonight, the creators weren’t going to mess with the formula of soapy plot twists, sassy line readings and a Trump-ian like presentation of the hip-hop world. So every week, instead of a traditional recap, we’ll give you the latest edition of Empire: How Crazy-Awesome Was It?, in which we rate the characters in terms of relative genius/insanity.

Hold a “Free Lucious” rally/concert where Cookie, Jamal, and Hakeem can address the public about Lucious’s wrongful incarceration – he has yet to have so much as a bail hearing. Frank is finally being brought to justice for murdering the FBI agent, and he shows up in the same penitentiary as the one Lucious is now serving time in for murdering Bunkie. One of the invited guests is Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei), a potential investor for Cookie and kids to get the needed financing for the Empire hostile takeover, where Jamal and Lucious would be removed from power.

Cookie set the protest up although she knows he’s guilt and comes down from a cage in a gorilla suit to illustrate in a ridiculously over-the-top way how blacks often feel they are treated in the prison system. And in that vein, Wednesday’s episode, “The Devils Are Here,” bailed on the first season’s slow build to crescendo, and instead jumped right to murder, star-studded concerts, famous guest cameos (if you needed any proof that Empire is a phenomenon, just look to Chris Rock and Marisa Tomei’s considerable roles), double-crossing, more murder, triple-crossing, brothers fighting brothers (literally), Cookie’s increasingly eclectic wardrobe, sex parties, and partner swapping. Protesters hold up signs and chant the “Free Lucious” (hashtag #FreeLucious, of course) and “Empire” plants cameos galore, indicative of the power the show now wields in pop culture. So many members of the Lyon family say the words “hostile takeover” in the season premiere that if you could took a swig of your Drip Drop Champagne™ every time someone utters the phrase, you would be drunk enough to want to be a shareholder in this company.

Now, as in Season 1, Frank is conjured up as a dangerous, ruthless drug lord. “They bringin’ in Frank Gathers,” an inmate says to Lucious on the basketball court, right before we cut to the big reveal of a shackled Frank descending from a dingy old school bus, complete with ominous orchestral soundtrack. “NO ONE touches Frank Gathers,” says another inmate in the following cut, as Lucious tries to approach. (This particular inmate sports a rose tattoo like that of Frank’s drug ring.) Even big bad Lucious is deferential to Frank when they are first reunited: “No, you the inspiration. Of course a big brand like Empire would want to secure television rights, but Lucious is always watching… even in prison, as he caught a glimpse of Mimi and Cookie buddying up at the rally. First, she stages a #FreeLucious concert, featuring performances by Sean Cross and Swizz Beatz (and, of course, Jamal and Hakeem) in order to raise awareness about Lucious’ plight behind bars and the mass incarceration of black men. Cookie and her sons threw Mimi what can only be described as a lesbian-themed party, and Cookie even made Boo Boo Kitty (Grace Gealey) sleep with their guest of honor to loosen her purse strings.

Don Lemon of CNN, after failing to nail an interview with a polite Cookie, receives some back-handed shade from her outside of his earshot regarding his use of the N-word on CNN earlier this year. She even dresses up as an ape and rattles her cage to make a point about the justice system “treat[ing] us like animals.” Or maybe, y’know, to prove that she looks good in rubberized faux-fur. Tragically, this plan failed miserably, causing Cookie to quip, “You can’t even dike right.” Mimi ended up investing her millions in Empire (score!), but Cookie, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. When he proudly announces to his fellow inmates that Lucious used to deal drugs for him back in the day, his put upon “serious” voice sounds stiff. Not justice for some, but justice for all!” — to support the family company Empire Records in public, while privately convinced (and hoping) her ex-husband will spend his life behind bars.

What’s fascinating in this fictional world of “Empire” is how much freedom Lucious has in prison given that he is accused of first-degree murder. And he’s supposed to be menacing when casually eating a steak and forcing a confession out of the inmate who killed his associate for Cookie, but the moment falls flat. No amount of dramatic music or characters talking about how terrified they are of Frank could make you believe that this guy is a kingpin of the “Omar’s comin’” variety. While he’s a legend in the standup world, an incredibly smart writer and thinker, and an ideal voice-over actor (Everybody Hates Chris is an incredibly underrated mid-’00s sitcom), his work in onscreen scripted roles, most of which have been comedic, leaves much to be desired. Or maybe we should ask Don Lemon and André Leon Talley, both of whom are gracious enough to make guest appearances in the episode, only to have Empire take digs at them. (“He did mess up the n-word,” Cookie tsk-tsks about Lemon.) Ask Cookie, though, and she’ll only insist that she’s doing this for the good of the children.

In case you need a reminder, Frank is the drug dealer Cookie snitched on, and it only took about five seconds before he convinced Cookie’s cousin to sell her out. Oh, you know, just sending her a casual head in the mail. (Also, the head might have belonged to Cookie’s cousin –– we only saw part of its face.) Naturally, Cookie was terrified –– but then she put her best patchwork denim jacket on (um, why) and proceeded to visit her husband in jail. I am not sure who that head is of, though, but it sure wasn’t Gwyneth Paltrow. (So Brad Pitt, rest easy…) Cookie is so freaked out, she tells her family to stay in the Lucious Lyon mansion while she tries to “fix” the situation. Melodrama of the sort that Empire traffics in is really, really difficult to pull off well, and as such, it must be cast perfectly—which, up to this point, it generally has been. If we’re supposed to get behind Jamal as a true successor to the Empire throne, this first scene didn’t bode well – but it did yield the best Hakeem / Jamal moment of the night.

She goes over to see Lucious (who is conveniently in a nearby prison, not placed upstate) and Lucious admits he loves her and hates her at the same time. And it’s for the children that Cookie forces Anika to grind with Mimi on the dance floor — and maybe also in Mimi’s bedroom, on her kitchen floor, and in the shower later that night, too. Terrence Howard isn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he is convincing as an egotistical, maniacal mogul because he so unabashedly inhabits the character.

Cookie scores the money from Mimi, hoping to remove Lucious from power, but Mimi double-crosses her with help from Jamal, convincing Lucious to let Mimi help run Empire. Because he’s only kinda cool with being a burgeoning serial killer, Lucious tried to cut his enemy a deal: If Frank left his family alone, Lucious would give his daughter a record deal. Last season, Lucious went from wanting to put Jamal, who is gay, in both a literal and blatantly metaphorical trashcan to naming him the heir to Empire Records. In Wednesday’s premiere, all it takes is one glance at Cookie and Whiteman chatting at the concert — on a TV screen in jail, no less! — for Lucious to figure out Cookie’s plan with “that lesbian bitch in the red suit” and completely subvert it, keeping the company in Jamal’s hands. Hakeem’s taken to riding around on a hover board and hates Jamal due to #AlbumArtDrama (typical), Andre is still distraught over the fact that he’s basically a murderer, and Jamal is busy being angsty, making out with his ex-boyfriend and hating his family.

She brings in Marisa Tomei‘s lesbian venture capitalist Mimi Whitman and tries to ply her with lady delights – including frenemy Anika, who sleeps with her – for work reasons, of course. And with her inside knowledge about Lil Wayne — does she have street contacts that might connect her with Lucious and Cookie’s past? — she’s also the perfect addition to Empire. So he does the only thing that makes sense — and sends Cookie a severed head in a box, which appears to belong to Cookie’s confidant (the head only receives about a second of screen-time). After they make their bold declarations, Jamal has Mimi turn around in a chair (like “The Voice”!) and declare that she has thrown her loyalties to Lucious.

Was it the menswear-inspired suit, which looked like she’d folded origami trousers and a matching jacket out of Christmas wrapping paper, topping it off with a black ribbon tie? I’m more than willing to believe Gathers can send roses from prison, and that he can kill in prison, and that he can even behead in prison without much fanfare. Gathers wants her dead for snitching, and it’s clear to Cookie she needs to take action. “I need you to fix it,” Cookie tells Lucious in prison. But to kill and behead someone in jail, get his severed head out of prison, into a box, and onto someone’s doorstep, where it sits without the smell alerting anyone to what’s inside the box?

Mimi might spend the episode flirting and dancing with Anika, but I suspect that, eventually, Cookie will use that black ribbon to tie Mimi to her bed. Lucious sees it a different way. “I love Cookie,” he says. “You got war with her, you got war with me.” With that, Gathers’s fate is sealed – as some inmates who are being taken care of financially by Lucious take him to task. (Where are the prison guards? While Lucious watches Cookie and Mimi get cozy on screen, Jermel tells Lucious that Frank (Chris Rock), a drug lord from Lucious’ old drug-running days, is back behind bars. When Frank tries to make nice with Lucious afterward, Lucious proves his loyalty to Cookie by threatening to sign Frank’s daughter and sleep with her mom. But really, when faced with the prospect of your beloved daughter getting a major-label contract and a shot at massive success, who wouldn’t choose death?

Having taken over Empire, Jamal — suddenly a multi-tasking workaholic — is so busy with business affairs that his album has dropped to #22 on the charts. He’s not performing live often enough to boost sales, as this record was evidently placed in a time machine and released in 1997. (Do album sales even matter anymore?) But when Jamal’s boyfriend puts together an LGBT party and headliner Miss Lawrence asks Jamal to perform a duet, Jamal declines, hoping that a donation to GLAAD will make up for his absence. Remember that this family is so close, they once sang “You’re So Beautiful” together. (“You’re so beautiful / Give the world a show / Go up-down up-down up-down!”) When you’re bonded by a song that appears to actively promote public incest, the love’s gotta be forever, right? Rhonda asks if Andre told his pastor about Vernon, and Andre… pauses for way too long, then denies that he told anyone. (Dude, could you be more unconvincing?) “This deal is going to go through and this company is going to be yours,” Rhonda tells him. “There’s no way anyone would leave a half-million dollar investment to Cookie and Hakeem.” Famous last words.

Most tweetable quote: Nothing too quotable here, but did anyone else catch that Rhonda was wearing a black-ribbon tie in this episode, just like Mimi?

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