The pop, the pulp and the politics of “Empire” are often so explosive they might be expected to send the show flying in a million different directions. Episodes like this week’s, however, go a long way toward explaining why that’s never happened: Quiet scenes involving the three Lyon sons, like the scotch-fueled exchange that appears near the end of the hour, frequently serve as the invisible thread that holds the whole thing together.
In the exchange, equal parts rueful and playful, Hakeem, Jamal and Andre all face serious burdens. Jamal has finally accepted that he has PTSD, and that it’s preventing him from performing. Andre is mourning the death of his wife, Rhonda, and battling the bipolar disorder he fears he can’t successfully treat without her help. Hakeem has a newborn daughter, but the family’s byzantine interpersonal politics and his own reluctance to settle down have stopped him from stepping up as her father.
With Andre’s smiling but steely encouragement behind them — a far cry from his wild-eyed, hallucinatory antics earlier in the episode, and a better fit for actor Trai Byers’s natural Gary Cooper demeanor — the three young men agree to face their demons head-on. Together, they toast to Hakeem’s daughter, but not before cracking wise about their seemingly never-ending bad-luck streak.
“Man, everybody messed up,” Hakeem says, attempting to offer big-picture perspective.
“Ain’t nobody messed up as the Lyon brothers, I’m sorry,” Jamal jokes in response.
Scenes like this one showcase the easy fraternal interplay between Mr. Byers and his fellow actors Jussie Smollett (Jamal) and Bryshere Y. Gray (Hakeem). These guys sound and act like brothers do, and the warmth that radiates from them when they’re getting along earns this soapy show substantial good will every time.
I got to write about one of my favorite aspects of Empire in my review of this week’s episode for the New York Times. It speaks to the show’s approach that this ep could include one of the happiest moments in the whole series — a half-dressed Taraji P. Henson opening her bedroom door to find Biz Markie performing “Just a Friend” live in her living room — and one of its grimmest — an utterly bleak and realistic portrayal of racial profiling by the NYPD.