In a season dealing with a lot of big societal issues such as classism, racism, and prescription drug dependency, “Empire” Season 3, Episode 6, “What We May Be,” is a pared down return to a simpler more universal kind of pain. With it’s focus being a dramatic elegy for parental figures lost too soon, starting with Nessa’s brother and then Cookie’s sad history with her father, the musical selections are as structurally on point as they are emotionally moving. In an inspired slow reveal, the two musical selections, Jamal’s “Oh Mama” and Nessa’s “Heart Of Stone,” are brought out gradually with continuous changes over the course of the episode. The result? Both pieces develop haunting lives of their own while gathering more steam and collaborative flourish with every sample. If anyone had any doubt about who would be the female flip side to Jamal’s more meditative music (as Tiana is a thematic female complement to Hakeem’s more demonstrative versus contemplative music), this week it becomes clear that Nessa, as played by Sierra McClain is Empire’s female artist with a deeper shade of soul.
While all of this loss is done beautifully in “What We May Be,” in fair fashion, “Empire” doesn’t forget that too much sadness makes “Empire” a dull watch. To remedy any overdose of too much seriousness Phylicia Rashad makes her literal grand “Empiric” entrance as Angelo DuBois’ imposing and politically connected mother Diana DuBois. Ms. Rashad is more magnificent than anyone could have hoped as the gold standard for cultured elegance, wit and grace with bite. Watching Cookie alternately jump through hoops and knock back barbs from her boyfriend’s mother “Meet The Parents” style makes for some genuinely funny high-low humor. However, to the “Empire” writers’ credit, things do not end acrimoniously between Diana and Cookie. When Diana shares with Cookie that the DuBois family wealth started from bootlegging, suddenly in a few lines Diana’s character elegantly sidesteps annoying stereotypes about the existence of insurmountable differences between old money and new money within America’s African American community.
To return to a more throughal examination of the music, Jamal’s “Oh Mama” which incorporates visuals from Cookie’s childhood as a sort of “musical museum” that Jamal is creating for his mother is a very clever thematic mash up of Tupac Shakur’s “Dear Mama” as reconceived with a Marvin Gaye/ Raphael Saadiq sensibility. Given these comparisons as laid out here, it’s a special event. As for Nessa’s “Heart Of Stone, “with the aid of some superlative lyrics coupled with a bang out collaboration with Freda Gatz, McClain once again puts on a clinic when it comes to what a real vocalists can do.
The one lone sour note of “What We May Be” is fixable but troubling if it is a harbinger of future episodes. The product placement of Alexa and Lincoln Continental was so heavy handed in episode 6 that it actually stopped the flow of the story when introduced. The number of times that Porsha said the word “Alexa” in her one scene with Cookie would have entered drinking game territory had that scene been any longer. In similar fashion, the overblown beauty shot treatment given to Andre’s Lincoln Continental when he shows up at Shine and Nessa’s party is just way over the top. However, barring these missteps “What We May Be,” may be one of the best episodes of Season 3.
“Empire” airs Wednesdays at 9:00/8:00 central on FOX.