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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 4: “Step in the Arena“
This episode finally answers big questions about Luke’s past, how he got his abilities, and much about his beginnings that we didn’t yet know, albeit with a few very big exceptions. This examination of his past is intercut with the aftermath of the explosive climax of last episode, which found Luke and Genghis Connie buried alive. The modern day segments also follow Misty and Scarfe as they try to piece together what exactly happened to lead to this catastrophe, though the partners are working to different ends.
This is a hugely effective and engrossing episode. It was really wise of show runner Cheo Hodari Coker to hold the origin back until this point. Too often it gets plunked down right at the beginning, when we really aren’t yet invested in the character all that much, so it winds up being revealing in a expository way, without revealing much about the character themself. With Luke having previously appeared in “Jessica Jones,” the temptation to open his own series with this story might have been huge. But Coker wisely held it back to this point, to allow Luke’s reflection on his beginnings inform a big decision he makes to finally totally and openly commit himself to the neighbourhood of Harlem in a very public way.
The story of Carl Lucas, as Luke was born, arriving in Georgia’s Seagate Penitentiary to serve out a life sentence for some unknown crime was not without the standard cliches of prison stories. But the episode overcomes the familiar sadistic guards, brutality and “innocent man connecting with prison shrink” tropes by letting Mike Colter take centre stage and show us how close Carl Lucas comes to spiralling into despair. Carl finds hope in a burgeoning relationship with prison therapist Reva Connors (Parisa Fitz-Henley) who we know will eventually marry Luke Cage before being murdered by a Jessica Jones under the control of Killgrave. But even Reva can’t save him from a situation that rapidly spins out of control, winning up with Carl at death’s door, his only hope a shadowy experimental process being tested on inmates at Seagate. It’s that process that results in Carl gaining his abilities, which allow him to bust out of the prison to embark on a new life with Reva.
This story is told while in the present Luke tries to free himself and Connie, an action that will result in Luke’s attempts to live under the radar finally reaching a turning point. Most origin stories are about a person constructing a new figurative role in their life, but Marvel’s Luke Cage stands apart in that this episode is the story of a man becoming literally a different person. The whole episode, no matter whether you’re talking about the past segments or the present day, are about defining who Luke Cage is. The episode ends with, in the past, Luke’s literal creation and building a life with Reva, while in the present, Luke finally acknowledges that he has to become a public presence for good in Harlem if he’s really going to be true to who Luke Cage actually should be.
Writer Charles Murray and director Vincenzo Natali do an excellent job with an episode that represents a turning point for the series, one that sees Luke own his series in a way he had yet to do to this point. Until now, Luke’s been a character things happen to, and this episode holds out the promise that now he’s going to be a character that makes things happen, and that promises a series that’s more fun.
Like the episode before it, this is one of the best so far, and for its engrossing origin tale (complete with plenty of great shout-outs to comic fans) and the skill at which the production makes that origin feel vital and impactful on the ongoing story, the episode deserves its 9/10 rating.