Brow Beat

Empire Finally Threw a Wrench Into Its Very Binary Ideas About Sexual Identity

Alicia Keys and Jussie Smollett in Empire.

Photo courtesy of Matt Dinnerstein/FOX.

For its midseason finale, Empire laid it on thick in every possible way: Twist after twist after twist (Mimi’s married! … Mimi’s married to Camilla, Hakeem’s former older woman flame! … They’ve both conspired to steal Empire from Lucious!), sensational theatrical lighting, the most unambiguous product placement on a television show since Community’s Season 6 Honda-themed episode. But the most notable aspects of “Et tu, Brute?” involved the ham-fisted sociopolitical themes.

Last week’s episode ended on the baffling, out-of-nowhere cliffhanger of Jamal and fellow pop star Skye Summers (guest star Alicia Keys) sharing a kiss following the rehearsal of a sweeping pop duet meant to evoke the Black Lives Matter movement. (I guess “fighting” for human rights gets some people hot and bothered.) Cut to some time later in the early part of this episode, and an awkward Jamal seems ready to tell a very affectionate Skye that he’s just not that into her—except the sleazy Lucious slinks into the room at just the wrong moment. Of course, he senses that something’s up between the two of them, and after Skye leaves the room prods Jamal to admit that the two of them hooked up. Lucious seems pretty pleased with himself. “She fixed you,” he smirks, to Jamal’s dismay.

Now this being Empire, this whole plotline could’ve gone uncomfortably awry—kind of like it did with Hakeem’s temporary PTSD and Andre’s conversion to God. And for a little bit, it seems like it will, particularly when Skye is blindsided by New York City radio host Charlamagne Tha God (playing himself) onstage following a performance. “What up, though? You black now?” he asks her, before suggesting that she’s only identifying as a black person now to help sell their duet. Jamal rushes to her defense, wondering why anyone has to “pick a side”: “Everybody wants to put labels on people, put us in boxes. It doesn’t have to be like that.” In case you weren’t sure where this was going, Charlamagne spells it out for us, pointing out that if Jamal started dating a woman, people would be upset and think he was being fake.

Empire doesn’t even entertain the idea that a person could be bisexual, or identify as any other number of sexual orientations, which seems a little weird, considering Tiana is already an example of such a person on the show. And the weird parallel between race and sexual identity—with a shout out to Rachel Dolezal—is dismissed as quickly as it pops up. But thankfully, things turn around when Jamal and Skye finally have a heart to heart. Skye is completely understanding of what went down when they hooked up, calling it “beautiful,” but admitting that she “doesn’t want to change” him. “I know that you wouldn’t feel about a woman the way that you felt about” Michael, she says. “No, I wouldn’t,” he agrees.

It’s a nice moment, and it feels like a thoughtful one. Jamal’s one-night-stand shows a fact about sexuality that remains taboo in many circles: People of every orientation do things that don’t fit neatly “into a box,” as Jamal would say. The way the show treats Jamal and Skye’s brief time together as a positive thing that just “happened,” even with that awkward racial identity analogy thrown in, is ultimately refreshing.