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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 5: “Just to Get a Rep“
With Luke having announced his presence to the world at the close of last episode, this one features him no longer hiding his abilities or aims from the people of Harlem. As such, the title character is now positioned as the driving agent of the show’s narrative, and the result is an episode that is the among the most satisfying for Mike Colter‘s Luke Cage even as Mahershala Ali‘s Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes starts to look smaller, but no less compelling, as a result.
Cottonmouth is scrambling following the loss of his operating funds after Luke’s assault on Crispus Attucks. Cornell’s bankroll is almost gone, he’s lost the confidence of his still unseen backer Diamondback, and his strength on the street is shaken. In a desperate move, he orders his men to start collecting huge protection taxes from the businesses of Harlem, and let them know Luke Cage is the reason why.
But this move doesn’t cow Luke. When he hears of what Cottonmouth’s gang has taken from the citizens of Harlem, it strengthens his resolve to stand up for the people of the neighborhood. He immediately heads out and smacks the taxes right out of thugs’ pockets. The sequence of him confronting the members of Cottonmouth’s gang is exhilarating and provides the jolt of badass and up-tempo energy the series had kind of lacked to this point. Luke’s introspection and reticence were becoming a bit tiresome. I know it was important to show his journey, but by five episodes in, if we didn’t seem him starting to get more proactive as a character, we were going to have trouble.
This episode solves all that, as the balance of the confrontation built up between Luke and Cottonmouth has shifted to Luke’s favor. Now, Cornell’s having to react to Luke’s growing presence and power within the community, and struggling to find a way to battle against a seemingly indestructible enemy. Luke and Cottonmouth have a face-to-face encounter this episode that finally sees them facing off as equals, even though the meeting does result in Shades finally recognizing his fellow inmate Carl Lucas.
But even though Shades’ realization gives Cornell an advantage of sorts, especially when combined with possible access to a MacGuffin that could provide Cornell with a nuclear option against Luke, the episode reinforces Cornell’s spiral towards defeat. Cornell simply isn’t thinking as smart as he needs to in order to defeat Cage, and even with Ali’s spectacular performance anchoring the character, it’s becoming more and more clear that maybe he’s not a match for Luke. He isn’t willing to cede control in order to save the problem, isn’t able to make hard choices that might temporarily weaken him but win him the long game. Even when a subordinate offers up what seems to be a strategy at least worth exploring, Cornell kills the man rather than consider his suggestion. It’s clear that though he is certainly still dangerous, he may not have what it takes when dealing with an iron-willed, smart and tough enemy like Luke. But that doesn’t make him any less of a threat, in fact the desperation makes him more dangerous and unpredictable. And he still has Mariah’s influence and the cops in his pocket, albeit both are starting to waver.
The episode is centered around Pops’ funeral, which provides the emotional centre piece and clarifies both Luke’s and Cornell’s evolving statuses. It also helps to clarify Misty’s positions too, as she reiterates to Luke that while he may be invulnerable, the people of Harlem are not, and it’s they who will wind up getting hurt. And into this environment re-enters Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). It’s fitting that Claire appears not just because she seems to be the looking character between all three of the Marvel Netflix shows, but also because the comic version of her character debuted way back in 1972 as the major love interest in Luke Cage’s first series. She doesn’t tie in to the ongoing action in a big way this episode, but I suspect will play a larger role, and it’s nice to see her story continuing as she confides to her mother what role she feels she can play in this Universe.
All in all, this is one of the best episodes of Marvel’s Luke Cage to date, showing us how becoming the protector of Harlem is providing Luke Cage’s life with some much needed definition and the series with a much stronger protagonist; which of course results in a more satisfying and dangerous conflict at the center of the series. As Cornell starts to fall, he’s becoming as dangerous as cornered and wondered predators often are, and the revelation of his growing vulnerability is nicely juxtaposed against Luke’s growing confidence in assuming the role of hero. That’s what makes this episode a solid 9/10.