First things first: Mariah Carey. Queen Mother of the Sparkly Unicorn Hello Kitty Dahling Tribe showed up and showed out on Empire in her long-awaited appearance on the Fox soap. Mariah, who in the past has been dinged for her acting ability (or absence of it), succeeded by obeying the old Don't Fix It theory: playing an over-the-top seductress hybrid of Jessica Rabbit and Betty Boop who, we imagine, has men carry her to bed at night and brushes her teeth with Champagne when she wakes up.
Yes, Mariah's appearance was borderline superfluous; she freshened up the glitter on the marquee and grounded the show's music narrative in some reality. But it was cute. Only in Mariah's world does someone wear a combination bustier/one piece bathing suit over tights to a recording session. Her makeup was on point and she convincingly pulled off her initial annoyance with Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and then turned in a banging track. Which is all we can ask...or perhaps, Fox could afford. You better believe her hourly rate hovers somewhere near the GDP of Belgium and she no doubt had to get on the plane before her caviar bath got too cold. Buh bye Mariah dahling!
"What Remains is Bestial," the title of this episode, is a line from Othello, in which the character Cassio is all in his feelings about damaging his reputation — something most of us deem necessary to navigate life. Iago, on the other hand, is a villain who resents social constructs and sees reputation as a useful tool in manipulating and deceiving people to get what he wants. Of course, they're both right and that's the delicious structural tension Empire set up in its third episode.
Lucious (Terrence Howard) is becoming a better villain - what with the allusions to him being a vampire, to his continued monstrous treatment of his children at their lowest points. That scene in the limo — in which he mocks Andre's (Trai Byers) mental health issues, Jamal for being gay and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) for being spoiled — was cruel, sure, but also sets him up as the best kind of Devil: principled. He says, for the umpteenth time this season, that his children (and Cookie Taraji P. Henson) deride him for being a bloodthirsty beast while benefiting from all his evil enables. And he's not wrong. All their problems are in some way connected to how others perceive them yet none of them, for all the disgust they claim to have of Lucious, are willing to walk away from the luxury and privilege his deeds affords. Their hypocrisy makes their moral grandstanding moot.
Empire promised that it would double down on the family story this season; it has, and it's working. Just when Jamal feels like he can trust Lucious — making a deal to sing with Kitty in exchange for control over his album — Lucious betrays him yet again by releasing his work. It's a dirty move, sure, but ultimately in the best interest of Empire and Jamal who'll end up getting a check. Andre, seething with anger over his father's insinuation that he's forgotten that he's black, comes to realize his entire experience with the police last week was a set up by Lucious' half-brother/FBI agent Tariq (Morocco Omari) and that his freedom could rely on giving up his father - the guy who keeps him shackled in golden handcuffs. Of course, implicit here is sons' primal desire for their fathers' acceptance and approval, a subconscious yearning Lucious exploits at every opportunity.
Only Cookie seems to have figured out how to break the Lucious spell, firmly separating her heart from her pocketbook and stepping up to go to war with him over the business. To be honest, that story line sounded slightly trite and well-worn at the outset of the season but, it's still compelling. If anyone has a right to half it's her - having helped build it all and having served time in the clink for it too. Up until now, she's been just as much Iago as Lucious, having dismissed the stupid social norms most people abide by a long time ago. Now though, with Angelo Dubois (Taye Diggs) tempting her with good-natured deeds and his sexual chocolate, she may be making a 180. Her steering one of Angelo's kids away from hip-hop to go college says she's awake to the destruction Lucious causes at every turn. The codes of the street are starting to look less appealing.
What we have now is a program we all knew and once loved showing signs of a return to glory. And not a moment too soon either, with Peak TV entering Peak Blackness as a slate of very good majority Afro-American shows break viewing records (Luke Cage, Power) and wow critics (Atlanta.) Of course, there's a seat at the table for all of them but in this climate, the quiet ask has been for Empire to step its game up. So far, so good.
Empire airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on Fox.