The latest startling news about actor Jussie Smollett seemed to catch Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson by surprise, as footage from their press conference yesterday during which they expressed their disgust and outrage was all over television and the internet. I’m going to guess that it stopped the fine folks at Fox in their tracks, as well. I say this because on Monday night I happened to watch the Fox dramas The Resident and 9-1-1 in real time, commercials and all, and scattered throughout were several ads for Empire, the serial drama that made Smollett a household name. Interestingly, the thrust of this tune-in teaser was the apparent upcoming death of a key character, as promised by a menacing voice over that asked who would end up “six feet under” while shots of each member of the Lyon family flashed on screen. The final image was one of Smollett -- in character as the much-loved Jamal -- said to have been cut from the remainder of the season, if not the series altogether, in the wake of his ongoing scandal. And that was followed by a chilling shot of a white casket.
“So that’s how they’re going to get rid of Jamal,” I thought to myself, until I was reminded that this season of Empire began with Terrence Howard’s character, Lucious Lyon, standing over a white casket, obviously in mourning. The show then went back in time six months, and that’s when this season’s stories started. So, a plan was already in place to kill off a significant character long before the scandal surrounding Smollett began.
The questions kept coming. Who was destined to die before his or her time? Would we have to wait until the end of the season to find out? Had the producers (possibly in tandem with Fox) decided to change course and put Jamal in the casket instead? And then the big one: If they had changed course and decided to kill off Jamal, would they swiftly shift gears once again and put someone else in the grave?
Those commercials the night before this startling development in the Smollett scandal broke certainly suggested as much. But now, as with everything surrounding Smollett’s story, Empire’s drama is suddenly as clear as mud ... but tantalizing nevertheless.
Frankly, a mystery of this kind is exactly what Empire needs right now, as the show is clearly out of gas. The cascading twists and turns this year to date in the ongoing drama of Smollett’s so-called assault and the sh*tstorm that followed have made for a better story than just about any of the plotlines on his Fox series since it’s memorably ferocious first season. It went directly downhill in its sophomore year, as so many promising broadcast dramas seem to do, and it has never fully bounced back.
There’s no need to repeat every detail of this tantalizing real-life tale, which has taken us all on an emotional roller coaster of unprecedented confusion. But I do need to point out that this saga changes focus and direction so quickly that everything could have changed once again by the time you read this. Note that I am writing it on the evening of March 26, only a few hours after Smollett was shockingly cleared by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office of the 16 charges that had been brought against him for staging and reporting what had seemingly turned out to be a fake hate crime. The details of this decision have not been made public, adding to the overall mystery surrounding this incident.
News of Smollett’s sudden good fortune was followed by a press conference in which Emanuel and Johnson, both visibly furious, expressed their outrage over this apparent miscarriage of justice. How odd (and, all things considered, disrespectful) nobody had thought to clue them in. That seems very strange to me, but strangeness has been the operative term since this ordeal started.
For what it’s worth, when I first heard the news January 29 of the attack on Smollett I was saddened and angered, as I have met Smollett on several occasions and found him to be a lovely man. I was solidly in his corner, as millions of people were, but once my mind cleared I found myself wondering time and again why there had been no talk of bruises or cuts (except for a small one on his face) in the aftermath of the beating he was said to have suffered at the hands of two racist and homophobic Trump supporters, and what the nature of the mysterious chemical was that had been tossed onto him during the altercation. My first thought had been his eyes. Had any of the mystery chemical been splashed into his face? (Where else on the body would an assailant pour a chemical?) Did his eyes suffer any damage? Did the chemical burn his skin or cause a rash? Did it soak into his clothing, leaving stains or discolored areas? Wouldn’t any of these details confirm his story about what he had endured?
Now there is a new set of unanswered questions surrounding this incident. But two urgent inquiries remain: What’s to become of Jussie, and what will happen to Jamal? Regardless, if this turns out to be yet another legal matter in which the individual who should be punished gets off with a slap on the wrist because he or she is rich and famous, Smollett will forever be associated with such injustice and scorned by those who enjoy no such advantage.
And just like that, Empire is must-see TV again.
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