Empire episode 6 recap: The definition of insanity
"A High Hope for a Low Heaven" may be the best episode of Empire yet, but that has little to do with the plot
One famous definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. If that's the case, most of the characters on Empire are certifiably insane. As I've noted throughout season 2, the same old rivalries, prejudices, and character flaws return again and again. Like an elevator, everyone's constantly moving, but no one really ends up somewhere new.
As with any rule, there are a few exceptions. Hakeem Lyon, for example, ends up in a strange new place. The moment he showed personal growth last week, he was kidnapped and thrown in the back of a van, only to be beaten by a group of men with outlines of longhorn cattle branded into their backs. Ex-spouses and rival record label moguls Cookie and Lucious Lyon joined forces — as they always do when something goes terribly wrong — to bring their son back, but the damage is done.
Hakeem does flirt with stepping back into his old patterns — after all, his first decision after being released is to have sex with his father's ex-fiancée, Anika Calhoun. (And, in a familiar vein, when she appears later in the episode to check on a now-well Hakeem, she finds him disinterested, yet again.)
But as he returns to his regular duties — namely, managing his girl group Ménage a Trois — Hakeem slides into the more clinical definition of insanity. And as his basic sanity begins to slip, it's an incredible sight to behold.
Wednesday night's episode of Empire, titled "A High Hope for a Low Heaven," might be its best yet, but its heights have nothing to do with the plot. Instead, a new star emerged: the show's editing and direction. As Hakeem slips into a true hearing-voices, no-grips-on-reality brand of insanity, the show's camerawork soars well beyond what you might expect from network television.
The speed of the film slows down and speeds up with Hakeem's perception of reality. We watch from behind a mirror as he shatters it with an angry fist.
Quick camera cuts splice together the past and present — his kidnapping and his slip from sanity — all but forcing empathy on the viewers. When he returns to the kidnappers with Cookie, sneaking a pistol in the waistband of his pants, the camera spins down dizzily from the ceiling amid explosions of sound, whirling around his sweaty, determined visage as his mom begs him not to pull the trigger.
"I'd rather die than lose you again," Cookie says.
And when she grabs the gun, angrily shoving it into the skull of her boy's kidnapper, the camera swoops in on the insanity behind her eyes, gained from 17 years in prison while her husband lived like a king off the crimes they committed to support their shared dream.
Because Hakeem is battling the most sincere form of insanity, that doesn't mean the other members of the Lyon family are exempt from the other kind.
Lucious remains as insane as everyone else. A narcissist who lies easily, he brings his recently kidnapped and beaten son a track that he claims he wrote for the boy (no strings attached, of course). When Hakeem is wary — "Hey Dad, with you, there's always strings. Or more like ropes that choke everybody around you." — Lucious immediately drives off to a different rapper, Freda Gatz, who just happens to be on his roster (and whose father he murdered!).
Jamal brings over gay-rights activist Jameson Hinthrope, still acting like his father has suddenly shed his homophobia. When Lucious loses his mind, Jamal shakes his head and begs him to deal with his prejudice to help support both the music and Empire Records. Then, later in the episode, he invites Lucious to a party at Jameson's house.
Andre, though, offers the worst signs of insanity. No, I don't mean that his recent religious conversation is itself crazy, but the fact that he takes over a label, Empire Records, based on raw street rap and wants to cut every artist who won't rap from the Good Book shows a certain lack of clear, critical thinking. Even though he already knows his father despises his newfound faith (also note, he was recently invited to rejoin the company after digging up a corpse), he still chooses it over his business acumen. A wise, royal lush once observed, "In the game of thrones, you win or you die." Empire Records evidently work much the same way, and Andre's not making much of a case for his seat.
While the rest of her family spins in their same old hamster wheels, though, Cookie tries something new. She's long been loyal to Lucious, and she has rejected most would-be suitors even as Lucious shows little interest.
By the end of Wednesday's episode, though, she's furious with everyone to whom she's shown loyalty. Ready to have a little fun of her own, she appears at the door of her concert promoter and head of security, Laz Delgado — whose advances she pushed off earlier in the episode — for a night of, um, romance. This could be a good thing, and it certainly seems like one, until Delgado slips off his shirt revealing the large, red, angry brand of a longhorn. Perhaps she should have paid more attention when he suggested she hire the group that kidnapped Hakeem as security.
Insanity is part and parcel of Empire. But if insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, then what's doing something different and still getting the same result?
That's just Empire.