So this week’s episode of “Empire” was pretty major, but not for the reasons one might initially think.
Yes, “Empire” Season 3 episode 5, “Chimes At Midnight,” took thug life cyber with the welcome return of French Montana playing music mogul Vaughn and helping Andre (Trai Byers) to fool Lucious (Terence Howard) into giving Andre the title of president of Empire Records.
With this clever “hack a mole” A-story line, the writers of “Empire” earn big originality points as this is probably the first time that cyber terrorism has been used as a primary method of gangland style execution in a soap opera – let also one firmly rooted in the world of Hip Hop.
Looking at the music on offer, the pickings were rather slim. Most of the episode only gave up rough bits and pieces of tracks from Jamal (Jussie Smollett), only to destroy most of them as a casualty of cyber hacking carnage.
The one fully realized number, “Don’t Want Nobody Else But You,” a duet performed by Nessa (Sierra A. McClain) and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), was seamlessly produced and executed but conceptually a bit basic.
While it was a good blend of Hip Hop and R&B, it wasn’t particularly memorable or groundbreaking. If anything, “Don’t Want Nobody Else But You,” worked best as yet another well-timed device to show that Hakeem cannot ever seem to keep a girl when up against another guy – be it Graham (Romeo Miller) or his own brother.
Harsh, but true… not to mention a very exploitable character flaw ripe to be taken advantage of yet again by Lucious or Andre in future episodes.
So if it wasn’t the cyber angle or the music, what was the secret sauce of “Chimes At Midnight” setting it apart as a lynchpin of an episode in what has already been a pretty satisfying season? It lies in the frequently referenced themes of race, class and the ability to obtain ultimate success in America – concepts that have been integral to “Empire” Season 3 from the start.
For all of this season there has been a pointed question in the air, which is the following: as a black man, black woman and/or a person of color, is it possible in today’s America to succeed by following the rules of a system that is supposed to be blind but seems to be anything but?
Taking that question further, if you are black/of color, talented, highly educated and privileged, can you rise to the highest rungs of the American system in the same manner as similarly situated whites without resorting to criminal means?
Last week, if it wasn’t clear enough from Lucious reading “The Criminal” to his granddaughter Bella, he is the symbol of black success made available only through the full acceptance of criminality as a necessary tool. Andre, as Lucious’ son and opposite, has always been the example of privilege, education, and following the rules as a means to win.
From the first season of “Empire,” Andre has fervently believed that education and intellect was enough for him or anyone else to “honestly” conquer the world of business via Empire.
But now, after a season 3 that has seen Andre 1. arrested outside of his own house in the upscale and mostly white neighborhood that he used to live in with his wife, and 2. wrongly found guilty of assaulting an officer and now permanently in the legal system – it would seem that Andre has come full circle on the subject of race what he as a person of color must do in order to obtain success in America.
In any event, the social commentary behind Andre’s turn to the dark side in framing Graham this week was more than just your ordinary slaughter of a young and dumb innocent for power, money and fame.
“Empire” airs Wednesdays at 9:00/8:00 central on FOX.