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The Post-Empire Literary Society, Season 2, Episode 4: Poor Yorick

Presenting the Disbelief Suspension Index

Chuck Hodes / Fox

The Post-Empire Literary Society is a group of Verge writers devoted to the excavation, appreciation, and analysis of the Fox television show Empire. Every week we will publish a new writing, study, or reflection on this, the best of all possible shows. This is not a recap series; we are merely drawing inspiration from each subsequent episode. We welcome your additional reflections in the comments.

Empire is more than just a pulpy music industry send-up or an oft-piercing family study. It’s also TV’s most popular fantasy series, albeit one that hides in plain sight next to rivals like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. It doesn’t have magic or dragons, sure, but it requires the same thing to reach full flight as a viewing experience: the suspension of disbelief. To get every bit of juice out of the show, you have to believe Anika would hop from a father’s bed to his son’s without batting an eye for the sake of power; you have to believe in the supposed musical genius of Terrence Howard’s Lucious, a man who lives somewhere between Jay Z and R. Kelly in terms of apparent musical skill; you have to believe in the sheer existence of Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie, destroyer of worlds and devourer of screen time. Who needs the Lannisters when you’ve got the Lyons?

It’s a tragedy that the world doesn’t widely recognize Empire as the fantasy it is, but it’s one that we can begin to correct in this space through the magic of impulsive pseudo-science. Allow me to introduce you to the Disbelief Suspension Index, or DSI: it’s a semi-quantitative, scene-by-scene (internal) calculation that’ll tell you just how hard you have to work to believe what’s happening right before your eyes on Empire. Cookie skewering Anika with a razor-sharp quip? That’s about a 1. Cookie hijacking the stage at Leviticus in the middle of Jamal’s performance with Pitbull so Hakeem can drop a snarling diss track? That’s more like a 9!

I’m not going to dissect every scene in detail, but I’ve picked out a few notable ones for in-depth discussion. Whether they’re featured or not, they’re all included in the chart below.

Scene 1

"Poor Yorick" opens with a massive FBI raid of Empire’s headquarters, one that happens to take place while interim CEO Jamal hits the studio with a journalist from Rolling Stone. A cover story might be a bit much, but it’s not completely implausible; he’s running the company and getting ready to release a feted second LP. (Real heads know his first didn’t get much traction "outside of Williamsburg or Berkeley.") It’s always strange when someone outside the Lyon family (or the Empire payroll) talks about the success of the label’s artists. For the most part, our only conception of their success comes from people like Cookie and Lucious: some songs are hot, others aren’t, albums will come eventually.

The least believable part of this scene is the fact that Jamal’s album is called The Artist, because that’s a terrible title and Lucious wouldn’t stand for it. [6]

Scene 6

empire cookie
(Chuck Hodes / Fox)

I love this one because it’s pretty simple: it’s a showcase for Howard and Henson’s sparkling, convincing chemistry. It’s hard to imagine a more complicated romantic history than the one Lucious and Cookie share — incarceration-based sacrifices! Pillow stranglings! The presence of Boo Boo Kitty! — and you can feel both that history and the fire that remains in their conversation. The relationship between Empire and the Lyon Dynasty is just an excuse to get these two in a room together fighting for themselves and for their children, and the intimacy feels real. [1].

Scene 7

This scene gets a high score if only for the fine work by the inexplicably horny photographer working with Jamal. He can barely keep himself from gnawing on him like an extra rib. He actually says, "I wanna be inside you!" Jamal’s hideous, vaguely medical tunic gets a point too. That doesn’t belong in anyone’s closet, much less on a magazine cover. [8]

Scene 11

It’s worth taking a moment to highlight the visual creativity on display in this scene. The "Ain’t About the Money" video shoot is right out of the "California Love" post-apocalyptic playbook, and Jamal looks like Janet Jackson c. Rhythm Nation 1814 dancing for liberation clad in all black.

Cookie’s arrest is surprising, but it’s not implausible. People get arrested all the time on Empire! [3]

Scene 16

empire hakeem jamal
(Chuck Hodes / Fox)

Hakeem and Jamal’s relationship is one of my favorite things about Empire, so it bums me out whenever they’re pitted against each other and made to clash like pawns on Lucious and Cookie’s giant chessboard. I know their relationship is volatile, but Hakeem’s reach for a baseball in the middle of their little tussle felt like a bridge too far for me. I don’t know whether to blame Lucious’ expert manipulation of his masculine anxiety or the destabilizing presence of the horny photographer. I don’t trust the horny photographer! [7]

Scene 20

empire lucious andre
(Chuck Hodes / Fox)

This was the first scene during which I found myself truly grateful for the existence of the DSI (which is a made-up, subjective tool that I invented for the purposes of this write-up, but still). A capsule summary: André and Rhonda are out in the forest digging up the body of Uncle Vernon (murdered in last season’s finale as though it were Clue — in the living room! by Rhonda! with the candlestick!) thanks to a combination of paternal anguish and divine inspiration. They’re about to give up when a car creeps up on them, and they hide in the hole they’ve dug only to be discovered by… Lucious and his trusty new lawyer, Thirsty Rawlings! Lucious placed a tracking device on André’s car after a conversation at Leviticus; Thirsty can help them find Vernon using a "basic corpse detection system" he happened to have lying around. Who among us doesn’t have a little corpse detection rig in their back pocket? This is why Empire is the greatest show on television. [10]

Scene 25

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any crazier: after ensuring that Lucious’ acquisition of Apex Radio has been temporarily foiled by Cookie’s prison machinations (I wish I had the space to cover those in depth), ambitious prosecutor Roxanne Ford hops into her car and finds Uncle Vernon’s decomposing body in her passenger seat. I told you — the greatest show on television! [10, 10, a thousand times 10]