October 28, 2016

Luke Cage Review, Part 3 (Episodes 9-13)

Simone Missick holds back the crowds as Misty Knight in Luke Cage.

We’ve reached the end of another Marvel season, so it’s time for me to dive into the final five episodes of Luke Cage. Cheo Hodari Coker creates an interesting structure, though the drastic shift in the middle is tricky. When Diamondback arrives and becomes the new big bad, the show also changes into a one-on-one battle. It’s no surprise that the climax involves Cage and Diamondback fighting hand-to-hand in the streets of Harlem. They’re two nearly unstoppable forces that can’t help but come into conflict. Cage is ready to stand up for his neighborhood, even if he’s destroyed in the process.

The back half’s main conflict isn’t as engaging, but its themes effectively connect to our modern world. The militarization of police in particular is key to the villain’s plans. Alfred Woodard’s Mariah Dillard represents lawmakers that enhance the danger on the streets to gain more power. Her rhetoric is similar to the incendiary statements regularly spouted by Donald Trump. Playing on the public’s fears is a simple (and immoral) route to draw attention. It’s easier to rally the mob against an individual or cultural group than to discuss complex issues.

Another ongoing theme is the way the police force rises to act without considering what they’re doing. One cop beats a teenage boy due to rage at not getting the exact answer he wants. Even Misty Knight loses her temper and goes after Dillard in the box. The tense environment and threat of powerful enemies make the police behave rashly. It’s hardly a one-sided portrayal meant to demonize them either. We see cops of all races acting in a variety of ways. There are a few one-note idiots, particularly Sergeant Jake Smith (Lee Sellars), who refuse to see the obvious truths. They’re necessary for the plot but lack the complexities of better characters like Priscilla Ridley (Karen Pittman).

Burnt Back to Health

This final run begins with “DWYCK”, a one-hour episode that sets up the end. Cage spends the episode trying to recover from the Judas bullet wounds. It’s tough to build tension when we all know he won’t die. The episode’s conclusion marks the third time in the first nine episodes where Cage looks finished. It begins to feel repetitive by this point. This extra minutes do allow for more time with Dillard and Knight. Both are struggling but come out in different places. While Cage heals his body, they decide where their loyalties are and prepare for the next steps.

These episodes also continue the potential romance between Cage and Claire Temple. The show invests a lot of time in bringing them together with little mention of Jessica Jones. It will be interesting to see how these characters interact in The Defenders. Temple repeatedly helps Cage survive and urges him forward. Her no-BS attitude also keeps him focused. Unlike Jones, Temple doesn’t bring her own baggage. Cage and Temple share cute moments, though her character works better as a badass ally than as a love interest.

Mike Colter stars as Luke Cage in the Now You're Mine episode.

Trapped in the Club

The action centerpiece occurs in episode 11 (“Now You’re Mine”) with the typical hostage stand-off. It’s a little surprising to bring Cage, Diamondback, Knight, and Temple into one place with several episodes remaining. This timing guarantees the bad guy will escape to fight another day. The crisis showcases Temple’s ability to take advantage of how others underestimate her. She is the difference in saving her friends. Despite the tension, it's fairly generic. Even the trigger-happy SWAT team comes from a lesser show. This episode is key to the main arc's forward movement but falls short.

The most interesting part of “Now You’re Mine” is the way it reveals Diamondback’s lack of a real strategy. He’s just winging it and counting on bold moves to stay on top. Diamondback is essentially a quick-draw specialist from the Old West. He kills before his opponents can even move against him. Diamondback is actually similar to Cottonmouth in that regard. Both underestimate Cage and are rarely stopped. They also struggle with hatred from their own pasts. The look of exasperation on Shades’ face in the club is similar to how he looked with Cottonmouth. Neither plays the long game. It’s all about attacking what’s right in front of them.

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Harlem’s Importance

A prevailing theme across the season is the focus on Harlem's soul. A character like Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones) is on the periphery, but his efforts to rebuild Pop’s barbershop feel important. On the other side, Dillard is dangerous because she can influence Harlem’s institutions. That’s much worse than the normal bloodshed. This setting feels lived in and more than just places where the action happens. The club's concert performances remind us that life and art keep going despite the turmoil.

Having so many talented African-American actors in this cast is so important. In particular, the presence of multiple female characters that are unique individuals is refreshing. Even when the story gets more generic, the performers sell it. The cameos from musicians and other cultural figures add depth. A wonderful scene in episode 12 (“Soliloquy of Chaos”) with Cage saving Method Man from a robbery is great fun. The follow-up scene at the radio station with Heather B., Sway, and Method Man is even better. We take a moment to breathe and have a few laughs, and that’s rarely a bad idea.

Diamondback and Luke Cage have their final fight in You Know My Steez.

Your Family is Jacked Up!

Misty Knight is my favorite Luke Cage character. She’s able to summarize a complex situation with one great line. It’s a relief to see how much her role expands in the final act. No bionic arm yet for her, though! Knight's comments about Cage’s past show what’s really driving the villain. It all goes back to family. Diamondback hasn’t been loved by many viewers, especially after the love for Cottonmouth. However, I enjoy Erik LaRay Harvey’s performance; he’s gleefully over the top and keeps taking it further. It's challenging for the writers to make that character fit inside the same environment. The Lucas family story never clicks, so there isn’t the emotional context we need.

When you boil it all down, Diamondback’s plan is to punch his brother to death. That seems like a dumb idea, even with his powerful tools. The Judas bullets were a good strategy and nearly worked. This plan has some holes. Their final battle has quite a few connections to the ending of Rocky V. Two former allies (from years ago in this case) have a street fight to settle their scores. Sylvester Stallone and Tommy Morrison could be in the above picture, right? Cage even follows the Ali rope-a-dope strategy to win the day. Stallone also used this same approach for Rocky to beat Clubber Lang in Rocky III. Given the epic build-up to this fight, the end result is a strange one.

The finale (“You Know My Steez”) actually sends Diamondback to the hospital with 30 minutes left in the season. It’s similar to how The Wire resolved its main conflicts. The final half hour closes other plot threads and opens new ones. Cage’s rousing speech at the precinct reinforces how this show wears its heart on its sleeve. Daredevil often veered into nihilism, and Jessica Jones focused on her inner demons. Luke Cage depicts a guy who becomes a hero to stand up for his community. He doesn’t always win; Dillard and Shades are still out there. But Cage isn't hiding in the dark anymore.

Looking Ahead

Luke Cage’s ending also lines up the pieces for a showdown in The Defenders. The quick shot of Dr. Bernstein (Michael Kostroff) tending to Diamondback in the hospital sets up a more formidable enemy in the future. Diamondback will likely team up with Wilson Fisk and others to create an even greater menace. We’ll also probably see the other surviving villains (particularly Shades) again. Cage saved the day, but there are more enemies to come.

Fish discovering the folder should help Matt Murdoch or Foggy Nelson get Cage out of prison. That ending feels strangely positive because of the hero’s approach to his past. Cage is no longer running away from Carl Lucas. We’ve rarely seen that look of serenity on his face this season. He’s normally stoic but angry and unsure of his path. The rage and fear have left his soul.

Despite an inconsistent second half, Luke Cage still works on the whole. As an introduction to Harlem, it really clicks. The references to classic ‘70s films are reverential but not just an imitation. This is a new story that calls on the soul of past greats. The opening episodes set the scene so well, and the rest couldn’t match the high expectations. Still, I suspect that a future season will build on this one’s successes. The pieces are in place for an even better tale to come.

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6 comments:

  1. I almost didn't make it all the way through. The biggest problem for me is that Diamondback was far less compelling than Cottonmouth as a villain.

    I think the series ends well--the last episode is a lot more interesting than the ones that come before it, so I'm glad I got there, but there were some very rough patches going through.

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    1. Diamondback had a good entrance, and I had hoped they would build him up more. I think he could have worked if they'd given him more to do. The hostage situation just felt lazy. I still did like the series on the whole and agree that it ended well. I'm wondering if the more lukewarm reaction by the end from some is also the fact that it's the fourth season of Marvel on Netflix. I'm sure The Defenders will be good, but Iron Fist? That will be interesting.

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  2. I've said it before, but I'm in the same boat as SJ. Diamondback is just as good a villain as Cottonmouth, to this point, at least. He's just so typically comic book, there are no surprises with him. Another thing you said is accurate, but doesn't help Diamondback, in the least: The Lucas family story never clicks. It gives us the information, but not the emotion we need to internalize it. I'm curious about Iron Fist because he and Luke had a long-running partnership in the 80s. It will be interesting to see if they incorporate this aspect.

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    1. I was listening to the Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast today, and Ryan McGee said similar things about Luke Cage. I'm probably giving it a little too much leeway because of what it does so right. I also think Mike Colter is very good as Cage. But I have to concede that you and Steve do have good points. I'm still excited to see what they do with Cage down the road.

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    2. Colter is excellent, but unfortunately saddled with being the third, fourth, or even fifth most interesting thing about his own show. That said, I'm still excited to see what's next for him and the series as I really did enjoy Season 1. It just wasn't without issues.

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    3. Right. I actually don't mind Cage being overshadowed by a few characters, but I'm hoping there will be more for him to do going forward. There's still a lot of potential.

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