The good news: Empire is clearly working hard to retool. Last week's expedient snuffing out of Camilla (Naomi Campbell) and Mimi (Marisa Tomei), clumsy as it was, showed that it's doubling-down on its family tug-of-war story, which makes sense. The bad news: As we saw on Wednesday's episode, watching these bricks get stacked one-by-one right now feels as painful — about as fun as growing out bangs.
Not much happened in the third episode of this season's second half — or, more accurately, not much happened to place the narrative on a clear path to redemption. In some cases, things didn't even make sense.
The episode opens with a memorial service for Camilla, making Mimi, what, a phantom that never existed? The whole Lyon family gathers in what's now Hakeem's (Bryshere Gray) office. Lucious (Terrence Howard), who just weeks ago vowed to kill Hakeem if he took the job he now has, sits in Hakeem's chair, congratulating him for killing Mimi. Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) has suddenly been turned into peacemaker, imploring everyone, "No more fighting, OK?" What is happening here y'all?
Lucious goes digging deep into his childhood traumas vis-à-vis his video for the gratingly titled "Boom Boom Boom Boom," which has him and Cookie back at the spot he slept after running away from home. Later on set, Lucious has a moment, recalling how his mother dunked him under water and then shot herself in the head in front of him. This is the first Cookie has heard of this — setting up yet another irksome question: You seriously never knew that your ex-husband, the father of your three kids, witnessed his mother's suicide? Sure, this isn't something you reveal on a first date, but you never knew it until you guys were on the set of a music video? OK, Empire, sure.
Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem also return to their roots, searching through the hood for their father's protégé Freda Gatz (Bre-Z). Before they do, they cruise through an ominous crowd of anonymous poors practically dressed in rags as they dance, rap and bang on buckets in a Les Miz-like expression of their unquenchable spirit. The brothers join in, presumably to remind themselves they're still "down." They find Freda, who's wise enough to know they only want to use her to take down their father. "Try not to get jacked on the way home," she sniffs.
Tiana (Serayah) and Laura (Jamila Velazquez) of Mirage a Trois have a rivalry that looks like it's going to intensify as Tiana gives her crap for trying to steal her shine on their tour. Of course, Tiana is jealous of Laura's relationship with Hakeem, with whom Tiana used to knock boots before becoming singularly focused on her music career. (A career, by the way, that's working; her Diana Ross-meets-Beyonce-meets-J.Lo performances remain one of the few things to look forward to.) Tiana's implied jealousy doesn't go very far though. When the three are onstage, you feel like you're being prepped for a campy catfight, but it never comes — just more rapping, booty-shaking and gyrating that does absolutely nothing for the story. Even Hakeem's proposal to Laura only makes Tiana give a faint "I'm happy for you" smirk. We can presume there's some hair-pulling, screeching brawl to come, but why Empire is practicing restraint now, in an episode so inconsequential, is another looming question.
Anyway, Cookie is celebrating a birthday later. (Incidentally, this makes her an Aires, and totally explains her penchant for the finer things and taking charge.) Everyone bails, leaving her alone with Lucious, except, nope! Former vowed enemy Lucious planned a surprise party, in which all her boys gather to serenade her. All is lovely until they watch a rough cut of Lucious' video, which reminds us why soon-to-be AARP-age rappers like Ice Cube, Ice T and Queen Latifah have diversified. It's a young folks' game, and at a certain point, you sound ridiculous. Andre (Trai Byers) learns here his grandmother was bipolar and is furious Lucious withheld that secret. "I was embarrassed by her the same way I'm embarrassed by you," Lucious says, showing he's content to alienate all his kids and unwilling to break a family cycle of abuse. At least we have another good family feud in the works.
Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), fed up with them all, walks off into the night, only to be picked up by Anika (Grace Gealey), the current main suspect in Rhonda's baby-killing push down the stairs. "It'll be nice to be around someone sane," Rhonda says. OK, Rhonda, sure.
Freda, after learning she's been cut from Lucious' song, co-creates one with Jamal and then records with Cookie. In the studio, she says the name of her dad, Frank Gathers (played by Chris Rock earlier this season) — whom Cookie realizes turned Lucious into a hustler, and was later killed by Lucious. While we were denied any good OMG moments, it seems like they're on the way? Let's hope so.