Welcome back to our reviews of each episode of Netflix and Marvel’s Luke Cage. Check out my earlier reviews below:
And, now, as Pops would say, Always forward.
Episode 2: “Code of the Streets“
Things are starting to pick up speed in this episode after the slower start that was episode one, albeit not in a huge way. Part of the issue the series faces is the reluctance of the series’ central character to take an active role. There’s a lot of roadblocks to Luke becoming involved in the events, starting with his fugitive status. But there’s also a more central part of the character that prevents him from becoming a hero. Luke’s fiercely individual, a man who has arrived at his own way of viewing the world. He doesn’t do what’s expected of him just because the people tell him to, he prides himself on not fitting into the role in which greater society wants to place him. As such, he minds his own business, and simply won’t do something just because somebody asks or tells him to. As a result, he needs significant motivation to become involved, and he’s not dumb enough to jeopardize himself for an arbitrary reason. That makes him a more passive protagonist in the early going here, and means that we’re going to have to wait for a motivating action for him to step up. He’s not Daredevil or your other typical super-hero type with a larger world view that drives him to save the streets. Not yet, anyway.
We also see Misty working the robbery that kicked off the series. We see her reconstructing the crime in her head, working the angles. The technique used by the script and direction is nice in that it’s a purely visual way to show her puzzling over the case, but it’s not exactly the most original element to show a cop staring at a cork board and thinking. The patter between her and Detective Scarfe that follows is well played with wry humor by both involved, but it’s not anything more revealing than your standard cop patter either.
The next scene in the barber shop between Pops and Luke is great, though. Another scene that shows them revealing character in oblique ways. Any conversation that brings up the immortal Chester Himes and Donald Goines is tops in my book, but it’s Luke’s positions on the writers and their stories versus Pop’s that are revealing. Goines’ Kenyatta series, which Luke dismisses slightly, is interesting in that Kenyatta was a militant, proactive black leader getting involved in adventures. Goines wrote in the Iceberg Slim mold, delving deep into black criminal society and patois. When Luke refers to how Goines died being a problem for him, it’s because Goines and his wife were murdered, presumably over some kind of drug deal or by a crook angered over appearing in a novel. It’s interesting that Luke prefers Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, a far more reluctant and less nakedly idealistic noir hero. Pop clearly likes the heroes that take a stand and get involved, while Luke’s view is more complicated, more reticent.
After these scenes the plot kicks in in earnest, with Cottonmouth and Luke beginning to cross paths as both of them try to find Chico, the final surviving member of the trio that ripped off Cottonmouth’s weapons deal. Pops manages to convince Luke to look for Chico, mainly in repayment to Pops’ kindness to Luke. And detectives Knight and Scarfe visit the barber shop, and re-encountering Luke raises Misty’s suspicions. The episode climaxes in a tragic action scene that finds Luke in the middle of a fire fight, not able to save every one.
Though the episode contains an action scene that defines the climax, there’s still a restrained pace to the story thus far that makes the proceedings feel subdued. I’m beginning to think that’s simply a new fact of television that isn’t broadcast on a network weekly but rather dropped all at once, a la Netflix. Netflix’s model allows the viewer to immediately click on to the next episode, and therefore maybe the pressure to create an hour of television with a definitive three or four act structure is lessened. Maybe that means the rising action and climatic structure of a piece doesn’t happen in each episode but rather over multiple ones. If that’s the case, than these initial two episodes could be seen as the rising action. And while I like the introspection of Luke’s character and the deliberate and evocative world-building going on with him and the other characters , I still think it’s important to have some part of the focus be on making sure each episode remains an episode of television rather than simply a chapter in a novel. Otherwise, you risk losing an audience that wants to have the feeling that things are heading somewhere with energy. I don’t think this problem is a large one for Marvel’s Luke Cage, and this episode clearly provides Luke with a motivation for being a more proactive protagonist moving forward, so it’s probably the last time I’ll have this criticism.
The episode is bookended by a brilliant scene between a young hood and Luke. The kid is threatening Cage with a gun, and calls him a “nigga” in doing so. Luke’s response to that is some of the best writing so far, summing up Luke perfectly:
Young man, I’ve had a long day. I’m tired. But I’m not tired enough to ever let nobody call me that word.