Brow Beat

Last Night, Empire Finally Recaptured What Makes the Show Great

This rap battle made zero sense. It was also riveting.

Chuck Hodes/FOX.

I’ve been significantly less enamored with Empire Season 2 than I was with last season, reaching my lowest point of interest with the disastrous Hakeem kidnapping plot episode a couple of weeks ago. But Wednesday night, the show finally returned to form in nearly every way, reminding me of what made it so irresistible in the first place—which is to say, “My Bad Parts” found its sweet spot between ridiculous musical fantasy and juicy melodrama.

On the musical fantasy front, Jamal is suddenly approached by Pepsi to submit a song for consideration for a new ad campaign, which means, of course, that he’ll spend the entire episode creating that perfect soda-shilling masterpiece. (It’s been feeling more and more like Jamal is part of a Making the Band reality show apart from the rest of the characters, what with his weekly major tasks—the Rolling Stone cover, the Huey Jarvis living room session, and so on—in his quest to become the “legend” he so desperately wants to be.)

For reasons that probably won’t make sense if you think about them too hard, Jamal insists that both Lucious and Cookie contribute their unique song-producing skills to the song, even though they currently hate each other. He pulls a Parent Trap and invites them to the recording session without each one knowing that the other is involved, and the two bicker for several minutes. Empire is at its most delicious anytime Cookie and Lyon are in a scene together, one-on-one—their dynamic is at the heart of the show, and in this episode, we get a bigger dose of it than we have in awhile. To top it off, Jamal finally gets a happier dance tune after weeks of drippy John Legend ballad after drippy John Legend ballad, and the finished product even sounds like it could be in a Pepsi commercial.

Meanwhile, Hakeem spends most of the episode preparing for his make-or-break rap battle against “Daddy’s Little Girl” Freda Gatz, in an attempt to take back his last name. Empire has demonstrated its indifference to music-business realism for as long as it has existed, and in this respect the episode felt no different—at the advice of Jamal, Hakeem decided to forgo the whole “battle” aspect (which implies free-styling) and put on a show, “give them real songs,” i.e. prep some verses and prime the audience. While Freda appeared to be coming up with her lyrics on the spot, Hakeem’s performance included audience members who knew the exact moment to chime in with his lyrics. And while those pre-planned lyrics came nowhere close to being as good as the deft Freda’s, Hakeem was the “obvious” winner, because, Empire. This should come as no surprise if you remember that in Season 1, Jamal won a rap battle by … belting an emotional tune. It was ludicrous, and it was entertaining—exactly what Empire should be.

Also in this episode were a few dramatic twists—Anika is pregnant, presumably from that delirious out-of-nowhere tryst with Hakeem during his brief bout with post-kidnapping PTSD; Vivica A. Fox showed up as Cookie’s other sister to reveal that other sibling Carol is in trouble, likely due to Cookie’s entanglement with Frank Gathers. Oh, and Anika, rebuffed by Hakeem—who announces he’s in love with the lead singer of his girl group—poses as the driver of said singer’s car while donning a blond wig and a crazy look in her eye, suggesting that she will soon join a long legacy of post-Glenn-Close-in-Fatal Attraction crazy ladies. All of these plotlines make sense within the Empire world, building upon strands from previous episodes in a way that falls within the realm of this show’s fantastical logic.

Earlier episodes have felt wayward and overstuffed, particularly with flashbacks and Andre’s irrational business tactics. But this time, those things were pulled back to bring the show back on track. Is the show still silly? For sure. But it’s silly in a way that is again interesting to watch, and surprising, too.