Empire Season 3, Episode 16 Recap: "Absent Child"

Photo: Chuck Hodes/FOX.
The obvious victims in “Absent Child” are Hakeem and Anika. As the title of the episode suggests, they have lost their baby at the hands of child services. But within the first 10 minutes of the episode, we learn that child services have no idea where baby Bella is, and on top of that, the DuBois are denying that they have played any role in Bella’s disappearance. Naturally, this feels like a conspiracy. Hakeem is distraught, and Anika can barely make it through a scene without crying. Understandably so.
But let’s do something different: let’s look at this situation through Andre’s perspective. Andre, the oldest and most overlooked Lyon son, goes off the rails in this episode: he talks back to Cookie, antagonizes Shine, breaks up with Nessa and threatens Anika. Naturally, the characters write off Andre’s antics as “slips”: maybe his bipolar disorder is flaring up again, a simple trip to the doctor or a pill and glass of water will clear it up. None of the characters confront his illness head on, or even care to.
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Andre is overlooked in more ways than this. As the oldest son, he’s expected to be the smartest, most responsible and level headed, and whenever he faces a problem, he usually handles it alone. When his wife Rhonda died, he was barely given ample time to grieve. The Lyons gave him space and offered some comfort, but no one truly nursed him back to happiness. Before that, when Rhonda lost the baby, the similar response happened: the Lyons felt for him, they supported him, but it only went so far. Wide shots of him sitting in his home, alone, in darkness, illustrate his loneliness and distance from the family. He suffers by himself, in silence, all the time.
Keep in mind that both instances involving Rhonda - the loss of her baby and her death - are connected to Anika, the character who is grieving in “Absent Child”. Anika pushed Rhonda down the stairs while she was pregnant with the next Lyon heir. Anika (accidentally?) pushed Rhonda off a building while they fought over the loss of her child. And, Anika is the focus of this episode, as every character is devising ways to get the baby back. How frustrating this must be for Andre, to watch his family morph into an army for the woman who is a villain in his personal narrative.
No doubt, having a child taken from you is a devastating moment. I don’t want to take away from Anika’s narrative. However, I must point out that there is a certain acknowledgement and care that Andre hasn't received from the Lyons in similar moments of distress, at least not to the extent Anika has. Moreover, there is a stigma about mental illness in the black community, that prevents us from speaking up about our struggles, seeking help or even believing that our issues our real. Tie in the fact that society teaches men, black men in particular, not to express their emotions and pain, Andre’s storyline is both heartbreaking and eerily reflective of real situations.
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After the Lyons confront the DuBois, unsuccessfully, they head to child services to locate Bella. Anika says, “I’m paying for all the horrible things I’ve done,” which, if you believe in karma, makes sense. Someone has been meddling with Bella in the system, and they have no idea where she is right now. That sounds extremely sketchy and unprofessional to me, but for plot purposes she has to remain missing, I guess.
With tensions high and Bella missing, the Lyons agree that they need to stay strong and united. It isn't the first time they've had this conversation, and won't be the last: they always revert back to their competitive, problematic ways. Nonetheless, Lucious and Jamal work on another song together for both of their projects, but they're experiencing creative differences. Lucious wants a rapper on the track - a bleeding, recently shot MC played by Fetty Wap - and Jamal says the track doesn't need it, he just wants Lucious to use his rearranged instrumentals.
As stated before, Andre threatens Anika. He confronts her about the death of his child and wife, after dragging her across the room and pinning her down. He doesn't hit her - thankfully! But dragging her was bad enough - instead, after realizing how much she’s suffering, he decides to let her go. He wants her to feel the same pain that's been haunting him.
Hakeem does a livestream expressing his grief over losing Bella, and blames the DuBois for taking her. The. Very. Next. Day, tons of protesters confront the DuBois, demanding they free Bella. Also - shout out to the power of celebritism, for inspiring fans to fight for them without explicitly asking them to.
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Grandma Lea shows Lucious pictures of his late father, and reminds Lucious of how dope Jamal is. “That boy has a little bit of God in him,” she remarks. Lucious blows up the pictures and arranges them in the studio on life-size glass plaques, like a personal art museum/memorial. It’s meant to inspire Jamal as he records their song, and admittedly it is one of Lucious’ sweeter gestures.
Shine and his crew beat up Angelo in the back room of the laundromat, while Cookie presses him for info about Bella. He genuinely doesn’t know what happened to her, but maybe his mother did something that he doesn't know about?
Cookie visits Lucious afterwards, and she is once again confronted with the reality of where she and Lucious stands. Juicy walks out in a delicious wine colored robe, reminding Cookie that she is now the leading lady in Lucious’ life. He explains that Inferno will open the show for the Vegas deal launch, not When Cookie Met Lucious, which is what Cookie hoped. “I made my choice,” Lucious says, which is an obvious double meaning: he chooses Juicy and Vegas over Cookie and the album.
Let’s go back to Andre. Nessa blasts Andre for using her career to boost his own: she lost her song to Tory and Andre almost slept with Juicy to seal the Vegas business deal. Nessa is fed up, and Andre wants her to know this is who he really is. Considering all he's endured this episode and throughout this show, he isn't going to crumble at Nessa’s feet, even if he does care about her. Nessa is different from Rhonda: he and Rhonda were an evil power couple that would do anything to get on top, and Nessa isn't willing to let go of certain values to be with Andre and take over Empire. I always got the sense that she couldn't handle all of him: his complexities, his illness, his light, his dark, his vulnerability. But she shouldn't be expected to, either - he wasn't a great boyfriend to her. They aren't made for each other, and she definitely can't handle the truth about his family.
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“You're crazy,” Nessa says, looking at him as if he’s a twisted stranger. “Am I?” He responds. His tone is difficult to read. Is he challenging the common misuse of the word crazy, the idea that a mentally ill person is unhinged and abnormal, or is he asking if he has really lost himself in the madness that is his family, in the loss of his child and wife?
By the way: Bella is fine. The DuBois have her.
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