Image Credit to The Hollywood Reporter
In Rolling Stone, Sean T. Collins offers a compelling critique about how the final two episodes of Empire’s second season were structured. He points out that the program chose to end its penultimate episode with Jamal Lyon, one of its main characters, taking a bullet for another major character-his father-Lucious at an awards show. Meanwhile, its finale ended with a fistfight between two relatively minor characters, Anika and Rhonda (in-laws of Lucious and his oldest son, Andre, respectively) right as one character pushed the other off a balcony edge.
Collins is perplexed at Empire’s decision to focus on the catastrophe involving the major characters before focusing on the duel involving the minor ones, a decision that undercuts drama by taking audiences from characters whose fates cause massive narrative consequences to characters that the narrative can dispose of easily. His confusion leads Collins to ask:
In retrospect it’s tough to understand why co-creator Lee Daniels and showrunner Ilene Chaiken, who co-wrote the finale, decided to end the season here instead of on that blood-soaked red carpet
It’s a good question, but it rests on a bad assumption: that Empire cares about making its viewers tense or worried about its major characters-the five blood-related members of the Lyon family-Lucious, Jamal, Cookie, Andre, and Hakeem-all of whom have ties to the music industry. Over its first two seasons, Empire’s done the exact opposite: often putting these characters in dangerous situations, only to resolve conflicts quickly, thus returning them to a rather consistent state of safety.
Image Credit to Bella Shayy
Unlike other shows that have the guts (sometimes to a fault) to rip characters from fans or submerge characters in conflict and darkness, Empire is only interested in teasing audiences about its main characters’ fates, before assuring them that everything is fine and will always be fine. Simply put, the show is comfort viewing that occasionally convinces you that it might make you feel uncomfortable before doubling down on that comfort.
This explains why Empire ends with a scuffle between minor figures as opposed to the possible fatal shooting of one of its main characters: the latter ending would actually cause worry in viewers, a worry that the program’s entire nature could change with a character death or the Lyon family’s world unraveling.
Empire’s need to maintain that feeling of comfort also makes sense of many of the plotlines it’s dropped, disappeared, or resolved haphazardly in its two year run (some of which Collins details). It explains why Lucious’ life threatening illness from Season 1 just vanishes or how Cookie’s (Lucious’ wife’s) first season finale bid to take over Lucious’ music company is squashed by the second season premiere or how her decision to start her own company fizzles out or how the FBI drops and restarts its investigation into Lucious at different narrative moments, or how, well you get the point. These stunted plotlines do a fine job of hinting at change, but never actually delivering it, thus keeping with the show’s modus operandi.
Image Credit to Deadline
The big question, though, is why does Empire always tease audiences with tension, before scrubbing that tension out? Some would answer that it’s because Empire’s a nighttime soap, but many nighttime soaps-like the Shondaland ones-are intrepid enough to introduce massive narrative changes, either with character deaths or secret revelations. No, Empire’s lack of narrative stakes comes from a different source, one that Sonia Saraiya inadvertently touches on in her SALON first season defense of the program.
Saraiya argues that Empire’s chief pleasure isn’t plot-which even in its first season was receiving criticism for poor structure-but rather its spectacle of wealth and style. Saraiya’s piece is a solid defense on those grounds-especially because she connects the program’s spectacle to important political statements on race and class-but it also gets at why the show’s afraid to ever raise its narrative stakes.
It’s difficult to take pleasure in or embrace wealth and style when that wealth and style is in danger of becoming meaningless (which would happen if a major figure died, forcing the characters to stop their petty power quests for wealth and style) or in danger of vanishing (which would happen if the Feds ever got to Lucious). In order for Empire to treat its viewers to spectacle, then, it must undercut any threat to it, that threat being represented by its narrative stakes, its drama.
Image Credit to Wall Street Journal
But Empire’s constant sacrifice of dramatic tension for spectacle is costly. After two seasons, the show still receives decent reviews and good ratings, but the control it had over all other TV programming (save Game of Thrones ) with regards to cultural cache has disappeared. Tracking down essays and reactions was much more difficult after the second season finale than after the first.
It was tough to consistently overcome the show’s decision to forgo dramatic stakes for spectacle last season. But Empire made it possible by delivering complex characters, like the morally ambiguous Cookie who knows what’s right, but does wrong to protect her family or the musically gifted Jamal who struggles to please his homophobic father, while embracing his own gay identity or the half repulsive, half charismatic Lucious who seems to be the cause of all his family’s troubles, but often bails them out of disastrous situations. However, in the program’s second season, those complex characters feel stagnant; the lack of dramatic stakes makes it seem like they’re all stuck, doomed to repeat the same choices, mistakes, and struggles forever. It’s no surprise, then, that Empire no longer dominates conversations: the program’s lack of dramatic momentum has stripped the show of all excitement and replaced it with a void, one that forces us to wonder “is this it?”