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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 3: “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?“
If there’s an indelible image of these early episodes of Marvel’s Luke Cage, an aspect that breaks down what gives this series an impact beyond being a super-hero show, it’s an image that arises most forcefully in this episode; the hero of the series is an unarmed bulletproof black man in a hoodie. It’s a type of hero many people in America have been desperate to see, and it’s got a hell of an impact.
After two episodes that depicted Luke (Mike Colter) as a largely passive and conflicted protagonist, Episode 3 sees him commit to taking on the flight, and bringing it right to Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). Luke is struggling to find a way to keep Pop’s Barber Shop alive as a safe neighbourhood nexus, and the need for cash that brings also presents Luke with a way to gain some justice. Luke’s plan shows him as not just the brawn of the series but also possessing brains; his plan will both hurt Cottonmouth in his most sensitive spot, namely his wallet, while tying the crime lord’s activities with reputable city councillor and architect of the New Harlem Renaissance Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard). There’s a neat montage showing Luke raiding several of Stokes’ cash stashes around Harlem. Luke’s plan is to force Stokes to transfer all his cash to the heavily guarded Crispus Attucks building, which doubles as Dillard’s offices, then raid the Attucks on his own in a one-man assault.
The episode alls continues to build upon one of the most interesting and complex relationships in the series, the one between the gangster Stokes and his cousin, the political Dillard. Both of them are obsessed with power, but approach it in totally different ways. Stokes wants it for its own sake, and has no illusions about what he considers to be the best method of achieving it. To him, being black and powerful in America means having money. But Mariah genuinely believes in her mission to return Harlem to a golden age that will benefit African-Americans. She is passionate and committed to ensure Harlem is protected, legally, from gentrification and dispossession. She is taking pains to keep her goals separate from Stokes’ methods, but that gets harder and harder throughout the episode. By its end, it’s clear she knows exactly what’s being done to ensure her dream, and it’s made clear that despite her laudable aims, she believes the ends more than justify the means. Due to the fantastic performances by Ali and Woodard, we get a co-dependent relationship between two people who pretty clear love each other, definitely don’t trust each other, and each think the other’s world view is repugnant and hypocritical.
I had criticized Marvel’s Luke Cage so far for being light on incident and forward momentum, and that feeling is entirely absent here. Now that Luke’s actually doing something rather than bearing witness, the storytelling feels more energized than before. We are treated to some pretty solid action scenes as the impervious and super-strong Luke cuts a swath of broken bones and property damage through Stokes’ organization. Luke takes only what he needs, leaves the rest for the cops to seize, and his actions are having more than one unintended consequence. First, it’s making Misty more and more suspicious, on the cusp of figuring out Luke’s abilities, although misreading his motives as more sinister. It’s also fomenting a gang war between Stokes and a rival gang led by Domingo (Jacob Vargas) that may cause more chaos than Luke anticipated.
But Luke’s plan does work, as his little raids lead to the money being consolidated, and Luke arriving at Crispus Attucks. He turns on Wu-Tang’s “Bring Da Ruckus” in his headphones, and charges in to the building to lay a beat down on all comers. The action scenes in Luke Cage are much less polished and captivating than say, “Daredevil”. That other Marvel series features some of the best fight scenes I’ve ever seen on TV. Part of the issue is we’re watching a guy who can’t be hurt fight normal people, so there’s an effortless quality to the action that may rob it of impact. Is it fun watching Mike Colter beat people with car door or a water pipe ripped from the wall, or best of all, a sofa? Yup, it is. But Luke’s style is way more like a tank than a surgical strike, and it’ll be nice to see him eventually face off against more formidable foes that present a bigger challenge. Still, the action is welcome, it’s fun, and it’s constructed in an interesting way.
The episode concludes with a couple of moments designed to shock. There’s a twist that is well-done, if somewhat predictable, while the cliffhanger to the episode may serve to make the battle brewing between Luke and Stokes even more personal than it already was.
In the end, this might be the most well-balanced episode so far. Luke is given some momentum and starts participating more actively in the narrative, but the exploration of Stokes and Dillard doesn’t mean we sacrifice the good character stuff. The narrative moves forward, keeping the conflict vital and raising the stakes through new developments and twists and turns. And finally, the action quotient is upped, resulting in more visceral thrills and greater intrigue. 8.5/10