The ongoing debate as Empire continues its slide into critical irrelevance is whether the first season of the show was actually good or simply novel, a concept and backdrop fresh enough that the exhilaration masked the show’s legion of weaknesses. Is season two a legitimate decline in quality or has the audience simply discovered the hip hop mogul has no clothes? At this point, it probably doesn’t matter anymore. If Empire is suffering an identity crisis, as television shows often do in their sophomore seasons, said crisis is probably here to stay. The luckiest members of the audience have graduated to the acceptance stage of the grieving process, so at least Empire is at a point where there’s only so much it can disappoint you anymore. It is what it is.
If that sounds like utter indifference, that’s because indifference is as high as my level of investment in this show goes anymore. And I was really, really rooting for Empire to pull its act together after season one, which showed great promise, but started fraying at the seams far too early for my comfort. After that exhausting two-hour season finale, lots of television critics who had spent all year ignoring Empire returned to write about the finale, not because they were into the show, but because it had become enough of a phenomenon to make it a professional obligation. For all the problems I’ve had with this show from the beginning, I was also deeply uncomfortable with the vague, condescending praise Empire got from the critical community just for being commercially successful, as well as the symbol of a new era of diversity in television storytelling. My hope was that the second season would upshift so dramatically that the conversation would be about how good the show is, not how its mere existence is symbolically important irrespective of actual quality.
Well that hasn’t happened, and with only three more episodes left in this season, which is the television equivalent of a commercial airliner crashing into a massive trash barge, it isn’t likely to happen. The only thing to do is sit back and watch as the chasm between what Empire is and what it might have been gets wide enough to be visible from outer space. The show isn’t winning the expectations game, but it has at least lowered them to a consistent level and kept them there. “More Than Kin” is terrible, but not especially terrible or differently terrible compared to anything else Empire has done this season. The good news is that if you like what Empire is doing—and plenty of people do, based on the show’s shockingly consistent viewership—then I suppose it’s as good as it’s ever been. But it’s definitely to the point that detailed, thoughtful criticism of Empire will always miss the forest for the trees. All there is to say is, if you liked Empire before, you’ll probably continue to like it, and “More Than Kin” will do nothing to change that.
I am left genuinely wondering, however, what people value about this show and whether those elements are still present in it. Because from a skeptic’s perspective, “More Than Kin” is the type of episode that suggests the writers have lost their grip on what people liked about Empire to begin with. From the outset, Cookie Lyon was Empire’s greatest asset, but she’s completely lost her mojo this season. Cookie’s resentment of Lucious was initially driving the show and making the character worthwhile. It was impossible not to love Cookie’s brash style and empathize with her dueling desires to repair her family bonds following her release from prison while reclaiming her stake in the company her sacrifice helped to build.
But now, if not for the occasional mention of her time behind bars, Cookie isn’t that person anymore. She’s not a Lyon, she’s a kitten. She’s not a Cookie, she’s a light, delicate madeleine. Instead of trying to take Lucious down, she’s fighting the urge to get back into a relationship with him. And when “More Than Kin” ends, she’s agreeing to share the CEO position with Lucious after he insists she do so. And he has to insist over her modest objections. She’s not wresting control of the company away from the man who treated her like a broken appliance when she was sent away. She’s meekly accepting his offer to share the company with her after first rejecting the overture out of principle. I can’t even remember the last time she barged into a meeting. Where did this person come from?
As the early part of the season ably demonstrated, Empire is at its worst when it tries to emphasize the harmony of the Lyon family while still trying to toss in histrionic twists and jaw-dropping cliffhangers. Doing both of those things at the same time jeopardizes the show’s ability to do either thing with any level of consistency or competence. Nothing bears this out better than the discovery of Leah Walker and the subsequent revelation of her existence to Andre, which in all honesty might be the clunkiest bit of plotting I’ve ever seen on television.
Let’s not even get into how quickly the show went from revealing Leah to tipping Andre off to the truth about his bipolar grandmother. The detrimentally breakneck speed of the storytelling is no longer a conversation worth having. But of all the ways for Andre to find out about Leah, why on Earth would that news come from Harper Scott, a character who appeared out of nowhere and seems to be disappearing just as quickly? I can’t be made to believe there wasn’t a more elegant, more organic way of having Andre stumble onto that information, or at least a path that doesn’t rely on such a transient character. It feels pointless to play what if, but let’s just say Harper revealed the information to any other character than Andre, leaving that person struggling to figure out if and how to reveal it. Even that small tweak could have rescued a story that, in its current form, doesn’t work on any level. At least Andre’s reaction to the news was saved for a future episode, which is what passes for restraint in the world of Empire.
Other than those two major plot points, “More Than Kin” is another episode in which there’s no plot, merely events happening in chronological order. Laura breaks up with Hakeem after finding out about Anika’s pregnancy, then reconciles with him. Anika goes to the hospital. Jamal performs at a small club, reigniting his passion for music or something. Lucious reveals his interest in erotic asphyxiation. Michael, a.k.a. Boring Boyfriend, pops back up for reasons of which I am completely unclear. Freda Gatz was in a scene. Becky was in a couple more. Am I missing anything? Seriously, please tell me what I’m missing about this show.