Previously on Luke Cage
Step in the Arena
I suppose it was only a matter of time until we were presented with Luke’s origin story, but I appreciate the show’s forethought into giving it such a well-timed placement within the overall narrative. By waiting until now, Luke Cage avoided feeling too similar to many other superhero stories that can’t resist showing us a character’s history right away. Had it waited any longer, it could have run the risk of putting too much distance between the audience and the action happening in present day. Since nothing too epic has happened yet – ok, the explosion, but we all knew Luke would survive – this completely avoids that concern. In fact, the excitement of seeing Luke Cage become Luke Cage, actually manages to amp up the anticipation for what’s still to come. Furthermore, using the episode in which Luke is breaking free from the wreckage at Genghis Connie’s to parallel the way he broke free from the prison that changed him forever, was a nice touch; even if it was a little on the nose.
Luke’s time in prison was deeply unsettling. Witnessing a prison guard wield his authority and power in such a malicious way was repulsive, to say the least. It was heartbreaking to watch Luke do what was necessary to survive, only to wind up losing his only real friend in the process. There were a few rays of hope scattered through, mainly in the form of Reva. It was nice to have her character transform into something more than just an abstract loss we could only really view through Luke’s eyes. Unfortunately, as enjoyable as Squabbles and Reva were as characters, a strong enough connection between them and Luke was never fully formed – leaving the emotional moments lacking a good deal of weight. Perhaps the episode didn’t illustrate the passage of time as well as it could have. It felt as though Squabbles and Luke were friends for all of five minutes before Rackham was able to manipulate Luke into joining the fight ring. Similarly, I’m unconvinced that the few times we saw Reva and Luke interact were enough to, as she tells him, change her life.
Still, this episode further clarifies why Luke tends to cage his emotions, and why he chooses to be withdrawn except around those he cares for. And it reinforced many of the character traits that will come into play in the following episodes – protectiveness, loyalty, and perseverance, to name a few.
Just to Get a Rep
The opening sequence of this episode was the best of the series thus far. Jidenna’s “Long Live the Chief” was the perfect accompaniment for Claire Temple’s (re) introduction – first shown taking zero shit from an assailant– and Luke’s very public display of his super strength. It served as a nice, quick reminder of what kind of woman Claire is, and set the stage for Luke being more open about his abilities, as he starts to become a kind of “Harlem Hero.”
In retaliation for what Luke did at Crispus Attucks, Cornell instructs his men to collect a “Luke Cage stupidity tax” from the people of Harlem. He needs the money, but he’s also trying to provoke Luke. It’s similar to the type of manipulation Rackham used on him in prison, but it serves the plot well here, too. When you have an indestructible character like Luke, it’s nearly impossible to set up any real physical danger. So, the focus needs to shift into creating mental or emotional stakes in order for the viewer to feel an investment in the story and character. Using Luke as the reason for Cornell’s tyranny over Harlem, works well to ground Luke’s motivations. He may not be close to the folks who need his help in retrieving their belongings from Cornell’s men, but Pop was, and Luke is hell bent on doing right by Pop.
Of course, once Luke reveals to Cornell he’s bulletproof and will have no problem getting in the way of his illegal doings in the future, the crime boss knows he can only use this emotional manipulation for so long. Shades, who finally remembers Luke, introduces a solution: super-bullet Judas. Mahershala Ali has been killing it as Cornell, but the pure joy he displays after seeing the destruction this bullet can cause was a peak moment for him; it was simultaneously amusing and horrifying. With a plan set in motion to acquire the necessary funding for Judas, Cornell declares war with Luke. The declaration comes after Pop’s memorial service, which felt less like a goodbye to Pop and more of an opportunity for Cornell and Luke to present why their respective visions for Harlem is the better one.
Suckas Need Bodyguards
Despite a few fantastic, long-overdue action sequences and some truly stellar acting from the female cast, episode six was guilty of relying on one too many coincidences and falling victim to the plight of predictability. For example, Luke decides he’s ready to take out Cornell for good and, voila, a dirty cop with tons of evidence on the crime boss decides to seek his help! But wait, the dirty cop is badly wounded and must be kept alive so he can testify? No problem! Luke just so happened to be hanging out with an over-qualified nurse who can keep a secret. I will admit, I wouldn’t have predicted that Scarfe would be shot or that Cornell would end up arrested this early in the season, but the majority of what happened in between these incidents was handled a little too clumsily for me.
Another example of this was in keeping Misty and Scarfe apart for the entire episode, just to utilize the worn out trope of having two characters finally reunite as one of them speaks their final words. Had their relationship been a little more fleshed out, it would almost be forgivable. Aside from their cute office banter and Misty’s rationalization of why she owes Scarfe the opportunity to explain himself, their friendship remained too underdeveloped for his death to pack the proper emotional punch. Thankfully, the episode did offer at least one good moment for Misty. I was happy to see her character being given more to do than just stare into the distance, or obsess over the reason for Luke’s involvement in everything. The way she duped Perez into exposing his true allegiance proved just how clever and quick on her feet she can be. While I hope her power is further explored in the future, I’m content for now with her display of resourcefulness.
Alfre Woodard’s Mariah is another character who could benefit from further development. Her ability to flip back and forth between her role as the polished politician and her truer no-nonsense self is a lot of fun to watch, but it’s not enough to really define the character. In the same vein, her conversations with Cornell are becoming irksomely repetitious – we only need to hear “I don’t want details, just results” so many times – and are doing nothing to express her genuine motivations. On the surface, her commitment to helping Harlem seems pure, but she’s also willing to use dirty money for its advancement. Sometimes, she seems to easily accept that fact, but then she’ll turn around and tell Cornell to walk away from it all, which would remove her greatest financial source. These conflicting feelings could work if they were better examined, but at this point they remain too superficial. Hopefully, as a result of the interview exposing her connection to Cornell, Mariah will decide “which Harlem” she stands for and her character can come into greater focus.
Luke Cage S1E4 - S1E6 = 7.9/10