Is Empire a soap opera or a soapbox? Jamal shouldn't be kissing [spoiler]
As Empire closes in on the winter finale of its second season, middle son Jamal Lyon remains arguably the show's most beloved character outside of Cookie.
And, for the record, what happened tonight doesn't change that. So, before we go any further, here's your spoiler alert — if you haven't watched the Nov. 25 episode of Empire yet, avert your eyes now.
Let's get into it then.
In a season so full of cameos that I've completely lost track, it should come as no surprise there was a string of 'em tonight. Rosie O'Donnell played an old prison pal of Cookie's. Vivica A. Fox returned as Cookie's "bougie" older sister. Even Lee Daniels couldn't resist popping up, playing himself as the director of a Pepsi commercial.
But the standout cameo of the night belonged to none other than Alicia Keys. Starring as pop star Skye Summers, Keys' character comes to Empire to work with Jamal (Jussie Smollett).
While there, Jamal helps her find her true voice — to channel the inner truth she really wants to sing. It became clear early in their collaboration that there was an insinuation of chemistry between the two recording artists.
While some fans were digging those vibes, though, they were largely just frustrating to me.
I am all in favor of everyone living the lifestyle they choose. Everyone has their own path to walk, and that's a beautiful thing. However, Jamal spent virtually the entire first season struggling to be accepted by his father and by the industry as a gay man. Not a bi-curious man or a bisexual man or a pansexual man.
His journey — the one we painfully relived with him through flashbacks — was in learning to love and accept himself, embracing his own heart and then coming out very publicly at the end of last season. So when I started to suspect Jamal and Skye were going to hook up, I felt disappointed. When they did, I was kind of upset, to be honest. I wasn't alone, either.
Showrunner Ilene Chaiken was quick to address the surprising story line, telling Variety, "The writers were already breaking a story which — shock of shocks — Jamal hooks up with a girl, after all he's been through. It's a conversation that happens among gay people about sexual fluidity — about being devoutly gay, if you will, but there's a spectrum. There are some folks who aren't attracted to people of the opposite sex at all, but there are some gay folks who sometimes do find themselves unexpectedly and momentarily attracted. Especially when you're involved in a creative endeavor, those sparks can flare up because when you do something creative with someone and it really catches fire, there's just nothing sexier."
I understand sexual fluidity. I am all for sexual fluidity. But in the context of Jamal's story line, it just seems contrived. This is a man who fought so hard to be accepted in the precise capacity of a gay man. That is not a box viewers put him in.
To me, Jamal kissing a woman trivializes what he has gone through, as well as the struggle of gay men and women everywhere who are constantly faced with the inane question, "But are you sure you're, like, really gay?" or informed they can be "turned straight."
On that point, Chaiken claims, "We're very clear that Jamal is gay and Jamal is clear that he's gay, but it just happened. Isn't personal agency all about being able to act on something in the moment and owning yourself and not having to explain or justify it?"
Only, that sort of sounds like someone trying to capitalize on a social movement. If we're all so clear that Jamal is gay, why is Jamal kissing a woman? That makes things decidedly less clear, no? It's the principle of the matter — Empire was all in on a very empowering message, and now they seem wishy-washy.
For that matter, it also bothered me that the kiss between Jamal and Skye came mere seconds after they finished singing a poignant song about racism, violence against the black community and hope. There is so much hope in those lyrics.
It was beautiful and stirring. It deserved a real moment, as opposed to being undercut by that kiss.
Therein lies my problem with Empire this season. It's as though Lee Daniels can't decide if he wants the show to be a soap opera or a soapbox. I applaud the many times he has brought up important social messages through the show, but it feels like those messages are quickly followed up this season with campy, soap-opera-style story arcs that marginalize whatever point was being made.
Am I still a fan of the show? Obviously. And since Chaiken promises Keys will be back and "the story that we're telling, you'll see in episode 10," I'm hopeful Empire will undo all my doubting.