Will Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) ever show brotherly love again?
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Warning: This episode, “Without a Country,” may cause mental confusion.

Did Cookie’s outfits border on tasteful? I initially chalked it up to Empire Stockholm syndrome. She’s no FLOTUS, but considering her usual getups, Cookie’s business attire was practically sedate. During Hakeem’s auditions for a new girl group, the wannabes showed up in acid-washed daisy dukes or dental floss. It’s a matter of perspective.

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During Jamal’s television interview with Sharon Carpenter for Spilling the Tea, I had the surreal moment of thinking that it looked like a genuine breathless celebrity sit-down. Thank goodness, Cookie barged in and dragged Jamal away, confirming that it’s still “my story.” 

It’s believable that Lucious is a prison celebrity. Why wouldn’t he be? Why wouldn’t Officer McKnight (Ludacris) be resentful? Empire approaching realism? It must be a fever dream. That said, during last week’s season premiere, Cookie delivered a stirring speech about race and the “justice” system while wearing a gorilla suit, so once again, “perspective” is the operative word.

The guest appearances were spot-on. Ludacris and Andre Royo (Bubs!) as low-rent defense attorney Thirsty Rawlings (brilliant name) nailed it thanks to the quality of the acting and relevance of their characters. Not naming names, but most of the nonsinging, "Hey, it’s [insert name here]” cameos are pointless. The flashback of Kelly Rowland as Lucious’ mom hints that an important backstory is to come. Is Andre’s bipolar disorder genetic?

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There was plenty of humor. Jamal’s little “Bye, Felicia” wave to dismiss Hakeem. Hakeem’s “groundbreaking musical phenomenon” with one black, one white and one Latina singer, to be called Rainbow Sensation. Andre hilariously called it Rainbow Abomination. Has Andre ever been able to display that level of humor before? 

All the Lyons were written with more dimension. Rhonda went behind Andre’s back to beg Jamal if they could return to Empire. It was in character but showed a realness and vulnerability we usually don’t get from the bib-wearing, candlestick-wielding Lady Macbeth.

Jamal’s evil twin is coming into his own after two episodes. He exhibited some of that sunny season 1 charm, which makes him seem more lethal. Is he playing everyone? Side note: Jamal blew off GLAAD last week, and the TV interview emphasized how much the ladies like him. Is Jamal playing down his “when a man loves a man” coming-out party? Why?

Cookie, arguably TV’s most entertaining character, struck another emotional chord when she picked up that broom—not to swat Hakeem, as she did in the pilot, but to sweep the floor of her humble new headquarters for her new label, Lyon Dynasty. We’ve never seen Cookie shut out to that extent before.

As for Lucious, take away his perms and tunics and he is fearsome. Covertly producing a song in the prison supply room is such a BAMF move. All that finger jabbing and fist pumping as he rapped about the “snitch bitch”? Oh, he mad! 

Empire is my favorite guilty pleasure—it elicits delighted cackles every week—but I was riveted for another reason. The series has never given me such a case of the feels. I may or may not have gotten misty during the heartbreaking scene when Andre pleaded with Lucious to be let back into the fold, only to be coldly turned away.

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This hour of Empire, written by Carlito Rodriguez, wasn’t a hallucination. It was the first episode directed by Dee Rees, who helmed HBO’s Emmy-winning biopic Bessie. The season premiere last week left much to be desired. Last week Chris Rock made an unconvincing prison menace. This week, when Lucious was led into a supply closet, it was alarming. For an OMG show ending, Thirsty proved to be no joke, using some last-minute evidence—8-by-10s of the judge trussed up with a ball gag—to get Lucious out on bail. Uh-oh. Run, Cookie!

Elaine G. Flores is a New York writer, editor and bon vivant. She’s a hard-core shipper and excommunicated soap opera reviewer. Her fictional dinner-party guests include Omar Little, Buffy Summers, Abigail Mills and Ichabod Crane. You can visit her site, TV Recappers Delight.