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 8: “Blowin’ Up the Spot“
The eighth episode picks up moments after the previous episode’s double shock endings and doesn’t let up. Luke’s been shot by the Judas bullet McGuffin that was mentioned earlier in the run, while Mariah and Shades have their own mess to clean up and find their way out of. The episode divides its time between these two narratives, and while there’s a lot to love about “Blowin’ Up the Spot”, there’s plenty to have issues with.
The episode finally introduces the heretofore oft-mentioned Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) aka Willis Stryker. He’s the man who took his shot at Luke at the end of the last episode, and Luke spends much of this episode on the run from him before finally facing his foe head on. Harvey is a terrific actor, easily able to convey menace and communicate an imposing presence. He already physically feels a match for Luke, and the revelation that he and Luke share a personal history that motivates their conflict is a smart decision, allowing the battle to instantly get personal. But I have some issues in the execution of the relationship and character. The episode makes it clear that Luke and Stryker used to be close, that they grew up together, and that Luke feels guilty about some kind of betrayal for which Stryker has long sought revenge. But the dialogue in which Luke and he confront each other is maddeningly elliptical and vague, which I supposed is meant to give us a tone of mystery but just left me irritated. If you’re not going to explain something, don’t have pages of dialogue where the characters try to talk about the thing without coming right out and saying it. That’s not mysterious, it’s just frustratingly obscure, and completely unlike how real people talk. And so far, Marvel’s Luke Cage has featured dialogue that is refreshingly straight-up and real.
As for Stryker, it’s clear that the production team wants to give him some panache and spark, as well as ground him in his and Luke’s shared history. This explains his bible quotations, and Harvey gives the character a wonderfully over-the-top flavor that effectively communicates how dangerous he is. But the dialogue written for Stryker is so flowery and theatrical that it feels very out of place with the tone of the rest of the series, which has been deliberately grounded in realism. Its rhythms sound weird and jarring to me, and though Harvey tries to match the lines by giving Stryker a larger-than-life character, I’m not sure yet if he works. It kind of feels like Stryker beamed in from a more traditional comic book adaptation.
Leaving the Luke/Stryker conflict for a moment, the other characters have some good moments this episode. Misty is clearly unravelling, her assumptions and instincts about Luke being challenged while she is still dealing from the fallout of Rafe’s betrayal and the failure of the system to jail Cornell. When she finds out Cornell has been killed and Luke’s been identified as the perpetrator, she struggles even more to reconcile her growing belief in Luke’s innocence with the evidence she’s being presented. She’s clearly heading for a fall, and we might just see the first stumble in this episode. Her journey this episode was both engrossing, and frustrating, because it’s disappointing to see such a well-contracted and well-performed character make the mistake she does here. But Simone Missick and the writing by Aïda Mashaka Croal manage to make what could have appeared to be an unforgivable stupid decision by a character feel instead like an earned moment of lost control from a person on the edge.
As for Mariah, she continues to dive deeper and deeper into her role as crime lord. As she and Shades manipulate events to turn the city against Luke Cage and resolve Cornell’s criminal enterprises to their advantage, it’s becoming clear that she is going to become the overarching antagonist of Marvel’s Luke Cage, while Cornell and Diamondback represent more fleeting ones. I think that there’s a scene or snippet of dialogue here or there where Mariah’s ambivalence towards embracing her new morally dark role gets hit too cleanly on the head (such as a scene where she looks at a picture of Mama Mabel and says “I’m not you!” before slamming the picture down. We get it, we get it.), her journey is still an interesting one despite its familiarity. And it’s made more compelling by Theo Rossi‘s increasingly creepy turn as Shades, her advisor/icky paramour/criminal tutor.
As the episode closes, Luke and Stryker’s battle takes center stage, and the idea of compromising Luke’s invulnerability with the Judas bullet pays off, giving the fight more immediacy and higher stakes than any we’ve seen so far. The action is well directed by Magnus Martens, particularly an extended confrontation in the United Theatre in Washington Heights. Aside from some questionable decisions regarding the tone of Stryker’s character, he really does feel like a substantial threat, and the way their battle just keeps getting more and more personal and more and more brutal, works very well to heighten the stakes of the series. The episode ends with another fantastic final scene, even if the final line is bit of comic book cliche.
Despite some weaknesses in dialogue and the frustrating decision to keep too many elements deliberately vague, this episode of Marvel’s Luke Cage winds up being enjoyable due to the sense of gathering doom surrounding Luke and other characters combined with the thrills of the extended battle between Stryker and Luke. I’m not yet sold on Stryker in terms of the tone of the character, but I enjoy the personal nature of his threat, and the series definitely has gained an imposing foe. 7/10