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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 9: “DWYCK“
After a somewhat shaky introduction in the previous episode, Erik LaRay Harvey nearly steals the show as Willis “Diamondback” Stryker in the ninth episode. Whereas in Episode 8 he came off as so theatrical as to be a jarring misfit in the world of Marvel’s Luke Cage, here Diamondback’s written much more in line with the series as established. The script by Christian Taylor does a way better job of retaining Diamondbacks’s panache, madness and flair while still making him feel as if he’s a part of the world we’ve been living in.
The episode has a huge scene early on in the episode, as an injured Luke is confronted by two police officers who try to take him in and draw their weapons. Show runner Cheo Hodari Coker has made sure Marvel’s Luke Cage reflects real world issues of race and law enforcement from the very start, and this is another powerful and resonant scene that confronts a modern idea of race and crime. An unarmed black man, stopped legally or not, finds himself under deadly threat from police. And in full view of the patrol car camera, we see the result of that. The show does take steps to present Luke as the righteous one in this confrontation, going so far as to show him trying to protect a cop, but it doesn’t shy away from forcing the audience to think about how many times we’ve seen this exact scene, from this exact angle, play out very differently.
As Luke continues to struggle with his life-threatening injuries, the episode allows the supporting characters to take centre stage, particularly Misty. Her interrogation with a police psychiatrist following her gigantic screw-up forms the framing device of Episode 9. The method of using a therapy session to anchor an hour of drama goes back a long way, but it works for a reason. It’s a way of directly and unsubtly revealing character without worrying about being too obvious. It helps if you cast as warm and interesting an actor as John Scurti in the shrink role. But Simone Missick does a good job making overt that Misty is not handling well the lack of control she has over the events of the series. Being wrong about Luke, not being able to add up all the clues correctly, has been bothering and unsettling her since Episode 1, and everything she’s been through since then has been about exposing how little control she has over what’s happening. The scenes with Scurti do a great job of revealing what drives Misty and explaining why she did as stupid and seemingly out-of-character a thing as get physical with a witness. I felt like, by this episode’s end, I really understood her much better, and liked her more too. And that was obviously a big goal of the episode, so kudos all around on that.
While Luke and Claire go on a little road trip to hopefully both save Luke’s life and get some answers, we also follow Mariah and Stryker on a journey about manipulation and power. Mariah begins the episode in the morgue next to Cornell’s body, reflecting on their lives and how they came to this point. She’s decided to cash out Cornell’s criminal enterprise and go fully legitimate, even going so far as to call a meeting of all the rival crime lords and try to make her pitch. But her plan is foiled by Diamondback, who aggressively and bloodily plants his flag in Harlem, and has no intention of letting Mariah get out of the game. He still has weapons to deal, and Mariah proves once again that for all her protestations, she’s the most able criminal of them all. Her suggestion to Diamondback is to keep the high-tech weapons off the street, and rather see them to law enforcement looking for safeguards against vigilante and independent super-humans like Luke Cage.
I’m not sure what it is about Marvel’s Netflix series that allow them to craft more compelling antagonists than we have seen in their films, but from Wilson Fisk to Killgrave to Mariah Dillard, the Netflix shows have all been more successful in giving us interesting foes. It’s probably a function of both the length of time we get to spend with them and the depth of familiarity TV audiences have with fascinating morally complex villains following examples like Tony Soprano and Walter White.
Looming large in this regard is Harvey as Diamondback. He completely dominates everyone in this episode, putting Shades in his place, effectively boxing in Mariah and totally wiping out his completion, culminating in him standing in Harlem’s Paradise and holding court with ease. Harvey doesn’t have to just spout cryptic nuttiness this episode, and therefore the Old Testament wrath that overwhelmed his debut in the previous episode is more successfully integrated into a character we absolutely buy as being a ruthless and organized crime lord. Unlike Cornell, Diamondback is a man who can and will make utterly ruthless decisions to enlarge his reach. Also like Cornell, however, he’s got a huge personal stake in beating Luke Cage that may overwhelm his survival instinct. It’s the reason I think Mariah’s going to be the antagonist to come out on top by season’s end. For now, however, that takes nothing away from how scarily good Harvey is as Stryker.
A weak spot comes in the form of Shades, who still isn’t defined very well. He entered the series as a subordinate of Diamondback, but friend of Cottonmouth, seemingly there to ensure that Harlem is running smoothly. But his motivations appear to be all over the place since then. Did he really want Cornell to succeed, or was he angling for Diamondback’s agenda, or his own? What’s his deal with Mariah? What’s the nature of his ambition. I feel like there’s more to Shades and what is driving him, but the series doesn’t seem to want to give him the spotlight for a long enough time to even hint at a direction. Theo Rossi is good in the role, particularly in how he tends to eschew bravado for a cool and occasionally kind of sad world-weariness. He’s also creepy in some perverse way. I think there’s some good stuff there, but it’d be nice to see it actually examined for more than twenty seconds per episode.
In the end, this episode reaches pretty high, and succeeds. The rivalry and gamesmanship between the villains is rewarding and engaging, the characters all end the episode in different places from where they started. The production team even manages to comment on our modern ambivalence to law enforcement, both in Luke’s confrontation with police and in Mistty’s storyline. This episode manages to combine all the character and commentary elements that makes Marvel’s Luke Cage feel unique and merge them with effective narrative and plotting to create an excellent episode. 9.5/10