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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 6: “Suckas Need Bodyguards”
Things are picking up speed as the sixth episode opens. While Cornell (Mahershala Ali) deals with his failure to silence a former ally looking to betray him, Mariah finds her association with her cousin becoming more and more problematic for her ambitions. As Cornell finds himself stymied by the problem Luke’s abilities present, Mariah reminds him that Luke Cage (Mike Colter) still needs to breathe and he still seems to eat and drink, so maybe drowning or poison is an option. As the series goes on, and Cornell continues to become more bluster than bite, Mariah seems to be steadily revealing herself as the true big bad of the series. And given how good Alfre Woodard is, that’s no bad thing. Woodard is great as a person with an altruistic vision powered by ruthless instincts and no moral compass. She doesn’t want anything as petty as money and underworld power. She honestly does want to accomplish something that she sees as a good for the people of Harlem. We’ve seen her struggle so far to accept that in fact, she is willing to cross any line, that she can’t escape the influence of her ruthless family history as much as she fervently hopes she can. And now that she sees the reputation and esteem she’s worked so hard to foster and protect doesn’t buy her anything, she’s becoming more open to drawing upon her killer instincts.
Meanwhile, Claire (Rosario Dawson) finally catches up with Luke after saving his life during the events of “Jessica Jones.” Their shared history means Luke finds it easier to trust Claire than he does most people, and this is compounded when an uninvited and wounded visitor to the Barber Shop unites them in a purpose. They need to get their visitor out of Harlem to Police Plaza so he can bring down Stokes. The trouble is, everyone is looking for them. Some, like Misty, in order to bring the truth to light, others, like Stokes and his gang, to kill everyone and protect themselves.
Overall, the sixth episode winds up being pretty uneven. One of the odd things is that the weaknesses and strengths of the series so far seem to have switched places for this episode. While prior to this episode I’d say that the writing of characters, keeping them complex and nuanced, has been the strong point of Marvel’s Luke Cage, this episode had some pretty clunky moments. Cornell Stokes has become more ineffective and less complex, and here is pretty much a generic blustery bad guy. I’m pretty sure it’s entirely intentional for us to start off the series thinking Cottonmouth is a ruthless and effective come lord and then slowly come to see him as fundamentally ill-suited in the role. If I’m right, then bravo, because Cheo Hodari Coker and his team handled that transition well. But without finding out why he’s so ineffectual, he just comes across as weak and makes the character seem kind of uninteresting here when compared to how magnetic he was early on.
There’s also a development given to a particular character (I don’t want to spoil anything except to say he’s about to make his exit from the show) that is designed to create some kind of half-assed sympathy for a guy who’s actually kind of repugnant if you stop to think about it. I don’t object to giving any character added depth, but clunkily dropping it into the story from out of nowhere in the guy’s final episode means it just lands with a thud and stands out as nakedly obvious writing from Nathan Louis Jackson. Also, the whole episode’s eventual resolution is never really in doubt. There’s a bunch of episodes left to go, so I never thought Luke and Claire would succeed in their quest, and I can’t really believe that Cottonmouth and Mariah are going down as easily as the climax of the episode would suggest.
But whereas prior to this episode I had criticized Marvel’s Luke Cage from a structural point of view, suggesting that it needed more narrative momentum to make each episode feel like a complete story with a climax, this episode reverses that and actually feels a really effective and well-shaped little action story. Luke and Claire running the gauntlet, with every crook in Harlem hot on their heels, is done really well, as is the subplot of Misty smartly exposing NYPD corruption. Director Sam Miller knows how to craft suspense (case in point, he directed ten episodes of the brilliant “Luther”), and he keeps the action moving and the threat well-defined and palpable. Claire and Luke share good chemistry both as characters and actors, and it’s nice to see Rosario Dawson integrate into the action of one of these series in a more effective and integral way.
So, overall, I liked the visceral thrills and kinetic energy of the plotting of the episode. The narrative has much more energy and momentum than the initial episodes, but the episode was more uneven than most, with some characters and developments displaying the solid writing the series had always boasted, while others felt pretty clunky. While the things I liked were strong, in the final analysis it wasn’t quite enough to overcome a well-crafted but predictable main plot and awkward character writing. 6.5/10