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The Post-Empire Literary Society, Season 2, Episode 1: The Devils Are Here

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A running series of reflections on and responses to Fox's Empire

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.

There's some show called Blood and Oil premiering this weekend on some TV channel. It's about some rich American people, maybe a family, involved in the oil business. They do bad stuff. I mean, I don't know exactly what they do; I have not seen a single second of this show. There's a poster for it at my subway stop. But I'm guessing that the "blood" in the title doesn't refer to a side hustle of blood drives for war-torn disaster zones. What I gather is that it's a show about Devious Whites, a longstanding and important TV subgenre that's been flourishing since the Hummers n' Hiltons mid-aughts. I look forward to its cancellation in November.

You cannot make another show about devious human beings after Empire. If the point of this subgenre is to stare unflinchingly into the dark moral abyss of capitalism, while also indulging vicariously in its thrills and pleasures, nothing is going to beat the thrills and pleasures of the Lyon family, least of all another show in which a white man in a suit is pulling the strings. There's no more novelty in watching old money fecklessly burn cash and crush the lower classes — not that there ever was, but now it's worn out in fiction as well as reality.

Jamal has picked up the Lyon asshole gene

Empire's very existence is inescapably political, but mostly because of its how apolitical its week-to-week dealings are. On last night's season premiere, we opened on a Black Lives Matter rally in support of incarcerated Empire Records patriarch Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard). But there's nothing victorious or righteous about this scene, it's been staged by his family / staff who are in full knowledge that he is guilty as hell of the murder of Marcus "Bunkie" Williams. Yes, series creator Lee Daniels folded the most fundamental, still-fought movement of the 2015 black experience via an imposter plot point. The Lyons are literally appropriating #BlackLivesMatter. You could cluck at this as rampant social irresponsibility — huge swaths of America still believe that Mike Brown and Eric Garner had it coming, why give them ammunition, even fictional? Or you could find a deviant thrill in the show's overt refusal to give into the reverence and sobriety expected of black narratives.

It so energizing and encouraging to see this show's commitment to giving bad, weird fun to every single character, no matter their walk of life. Nobody is a saint on this show — even Lucious' redeemed gay middle son Jamal (Jussie Smollet, ever a joy) has picked up some of the hereditary Lyon asshole gene with his added responsibilities as Empire's new CEO. Gabourey Sidibe's Becky (Hakeem: "What type of black girl named Becky?") would have been a one-liner spouting footnote on any other show (Becky: "He's crude, you're rude, and you're both socially unacceptable."); I think she's still wasted here, but amid this particular cast of characters she's allowed to be a more rewarding kind of random. Her pointless, joyous repartee with Bravo star Miss Lawrence over the works of gospel singer Donnie McClurken (another in a long line of odd choices this week) was one of the best byways the premiere wandered down. I felt as many conflicted feelings — astonishment, horror, glee, awkwardness — at the sight of Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson, forever and ever amen) in a gorilla suit in a cage as I did the first time I listened to Kanye West's "Blood on the Leaves."

Will Marisa Tomei be in every episode this season?

And aside from any culture-critic handwringing — I'm worried about Jamal, you guys! Work life balance is real. Even if we were rooting for him last season to be Lucious' choice as the heir to the Empire, I don't think we were rooting for this particular fate, which is of course what makes for a great season two plot development for any TV show. I'm worried about Marisa Tomei, namely, will she be in every episode this season? Because Marisa Tomei better be in every episode in this season of Empire.

There were too many delightful plot twists to list, which means that all is as it should be with this show. Most notably, Lucious Lyon's telepresence capability seems to be inordinately robust behind bars, but I wouldn't trade an ounce of believability for his evil boss reveal during Anika, Hakeem, and Andre's would-be hostile takeover. Does that mean the most dramatic development of last season's finale has been waved away like so many superfluous extras on the set of the "Drip Drop" video? Yes ... no? Let's see! Of course, worrywart me wonders if Empire can sustain its relentless clips of twists throughout this season. The first 12 episodes of season one primed us for a show that resets its winking chess board every week, but without a sufficient dose of innovation, even the expectation of subverted expectations can grow tiring. The things that elicited the biggest surprised LOLs from me this week were the details; Anika's awkward sexy dance for Mimi Whiteman (Me Me White Man), Hakeem's hoverboard. The severed head from Frank Gathers (Chris Rock — Chris Rock is / was on this show!) I saw coming, the Don Lemon cameo I did not.

Do I know what's coming this season on Empire? Of course not. (I have three episode screeners, but I prefer to watch them with the people.) But guessing what's next is easy, thanks to our handy-dandy Empire plot twist generator. Give it a spin, with any luck you could be two steps ahead of that devious den of Lyons.