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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.
With these two episodes, the first season of Marvel’s Luke Cage comes to a close. Like much of the rest of the season, these episodes wind up delivering uneven results. While the series has never been bad or dull, and a lot of elements were exceptional and unique on the landscape of television, there were just as many that wound up feeling oddly structured and never fully coming to life. However on the whole, the show closes its first season with enough panache, complexity and thrills to make the experience just rewarding enough, albeit with room for improvement in its inevitable second season.
The main problem for me wound up being the bifurcated threats of Cottonmouth and Diamondback. When the series focused on Luke Cage’s inner journey to accept his role as a proactive leader in Harlem, or when it focused on each character’s relationship to Harlem itself (exemplified in Mariah’s complex journey), then Marvel’s Luke Cage soared. And when it used the idea of a non-costumed street level black man becoming a super-hero and what that means in today’s society, it felt downright revolutionary. And it’s those aspects that saw the series reach its greatest heights and be its most compelling and complex.
The show wound up being less successful at the typical super-hero aspects, and this is no better shown than in the frankly overly familiar rivalry between Luke and Diamondback. I’m not saying that the exact same story couldn’t have worked. There’s a reason why bad blood between “brothers” and quests for revenge resonate and always will. It was the structure that sank the concept. If, for instance, Diamondback had been in the series from the beginning, he would have had more time to develop as a character. He also would have been a more effective presence and threat in Cottonmouth’s journey. We could have been invested in the power struggle between them. Additionally, we could have been seeing Luke’s past more throughout the series, gotten a better sense of what his youthful relationship with Willis Stryker was like, seen it fall apart and then have it revealed that Diamondback was Stryker. Then your climax becomes about two people we know and are invested in, who were already in conflict, having a new and compelling dimension added to that conflict. The series tries to add depth using flashbacks in these final episodes, but they just made me wish this had been seeded more successfully throughout the series in order to make me care about Luke’s guilt or Stryker’s sense of betrayal or either of their feelings about their shared father.
Instead, I have to say that, as good as the performances of each actor have been, their feud never became more than a device for me. And that’s especially too bad, since most of the final episode is given to a long fight between them that feels more functional than thrilling. First of all, the high-tech suit Diamondback uses to make himself a match for Luke could have looked a lot better. It looks like something I would have seen on an episode of “Knight Rider,” but I’m not sure it isn’t supposed to look that way (this is show that likes things old school, after all). I like the way Luke uses his knowledge of Stryker and their history to rope-a-dope, but their battle doesn’t have anything close to the punch of Daredevil’s climatic battle with Wilson Fisk in that show’s first season, and it’s also eons and eons away from the brilliantly fraught and twisted climax of “Jessica Jones.” But the potential of having made this exact same story was there, it just suffered from not being given enough time to develop.
However, pretty much everything else in these two episodes is a home run. There’s a hugely satisfying and hilarious scene where Luke is forced to intervene in the robbery of a bodega that contains a ton of fun and humor that has been almost entirely absent from the series in its back half. The casual way Luke takes down the robbers, plus the mutual admiration society that develops between Luke and robbery bystander Method Man is genuinely hilarious, and leads to a great scene where Method Man single Luke’s praises on the radio and raps about the Hero for Hire. It brings the heart and power of the series back to the forefront, that it’s way past time African-Americans had a powerful and fiercely independent hero of their own, one with integrity, brains, and brawn. Yeah, these final episodes hit that nail on its particular head in pretty obvious and massive way, but the series has certainly earned the right to come right out and overtly say this is a story about a bulletproof black man in a hoodie that doesn’t give a f@*# about appearing non-threatening.
This is counterbalanced through Mariah’s rise and fall and rise. Her and Shades, with their icky but somehow engaging and kind of earnest relationship, are clearly going to be Luke Cage’s primary and ongoing antagonists, and that’s the way it should be. They are by far the most interesting, enigmatic and nuanced bad guys on the show, with their journey just beginning. While they’ve made some mistakes, I’ve never thought that either one were egregiously stupid or making nonsensical unmotivated calls. Alfre Woodard and Theo Rossi have a kind of chemistry that allows their wariness to come across, even as they are both fascinated by each other.
The series also give Simone Missick‘s Misty Knight a great journey, albeit a pretty dark one. The season sees her lose all faith in the system she is supposed to represent, and this distrust and disgust leads to serious, tragic errors on her part. It’s pretty bold of the show to allow one of your major protagonists to make such huge mistakes, ones that lead to major plot twists, and still allow the audience to feel sympathy and indeed understand why Misty made the calls she did. Kudos to both the production team and Missick for giving Misty such a solid journey. Also, it was rewarding to see Rosario Dawson‘s Claire Temple continue her character’s growth. I can’t think of another television character who has had an ongoing road of development mapped out across three different television series, but her journey works, and each series sees her becoming more and more interesting. She might become one of Marvel’s MVPs, joining Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg and Hayley Atwell.
Finally, we come the titular character himself. Luke Cage’s journey over the course of the show was intertwined with the neighbourhood in which the series was set. Mike Colter underplayed the role, never giving in to posturing or flashiness. As a result, there’s a quiet power to Luke that feels authentic. He doesn’t have to look or sound badass because he cannot be hurt, and therefore there’s no self-consciousness. That’s a hard thing to pull off.
There’s a great speech Luke gives about Harlem, its place in the history of African-American culture, and the aspirational quality, that shows how far Luke has come. The series started off with Luke using Harlem as a place to hide, but by the close of the series, Harlem is the place he lives. Not just in the sense of residence, but in the sense of truly living. Mariah loves Harlem because of what it was and what she can make it. Luke respects that history, but to him Harlem is great because of what the history allows it to be, what it tells its people it can be. To him, saving Harlem isn’t about putting up new buildings and preserving historical landmarks. Like any true hero, it’s about the community, and standing up for those people and their ideals in every way, including not letting those ideals be compromised. That’s why it’s important that he’s just an average guy. And it’s why, at the end of the series, he’s not running or hiding anymore. It’s why it matters that the climax unfolds not in a secret base or in a hideout, but on a crowded Harlem street, surrounded by his neighbours, fighting for them.
When Marvel’s Luke Cage returns, I hope it plays to its strengths and keeps it focus on them, because when it did that, it felt like no other super-hero adaptation we’ve seen. Credit has to be given to show runner Cheo Hodari Coker (and Episode 12 writers Akela Cooper & Charles Murray and Episode 12 co-writer Aida Mashaka Croal) for keeping that tone throughout. Though the final two episodes had their problems, and those were endemic of the series as a whole, the strengths of the series throughout were perfectly encapsulated as well, resulting in a mostly satisfying conclusion. It’s why I can give the final two episodes an overall score of 8/10.