The superhero TV genre has come a long way in the past few years. There once was a time when talking seriously about these shows might seem strange. The success of the Netflix Marvel series (and ABC’s Agent Carter) has opened the door to more than by-the-numbers action. Daredevil went to surprisingly grim places, and Jessica Jones was really a survivor’s tale of abuse and rape. The bar was set ultra-high for Luke Cage, and its start didn’t let us down. However, the second-act challenges of its predecessors are hard to dodge completely. I’m intrigued by the tonal shifts during these episodes, but it feels like the show is still finding its way.
The often-disjointed middle episodes of the 13-episode Marvel seasons build a bridge to the ultimate conflict. This trend continues with episodes five through eight of Luke Cage. Following Pop’s death and the initial battle with Cottonmouth’s gang, our hero must regroup and decide where he stands. On the other side of the aisle, Cottonmouth reckons with his fading status in Harlem. His fall is the key arc of act two. Cage’s efforts weaken his enemy and set him up to fall. Of course, that defeat could signal the rise of a tougher adversary in his stead.
A notable change that we see is the rising darkness in Harlem; both Cottonmouth and Cage face their inner demons. It was fun to hang out at the barbershop and club in the opening episodes, but that charm slips to the background. The plot kicks into gear, which leads to more action. On the other hand, the conflicts follow a more predictable route. It’s a comic-book series, so this switch is expected. Still, the greater intensity doesn’t always lead to gripping drama.
It’s sad to lose Mahershala Ali from this show, but Cottonmouth’s demise is inevitable. Cage proves to Harlem that its crime boss is fallible. The arrest doesn’t finish the job but creates the tense environment that leads to Cottonmouth’s death. The flashbacks to his childhood in episode seven (“Manifest”) predict that the end is near. Events from decades earlier lead directly to the raw emotions that cause the murder. It’s a tragic end for a talented guy that never had a choice.
The Tragic (Sort Of) Fall of Cottonmouth
It’s interesting to see the evolution of Mariah Dillard, who initially appears to be the opposite of Cottonmouth. Alfred Woodard brings range to a character who’s frustrated with it all. Her cousin’s defense of Dillard’s childhood abuser is the final straw. This bloody scene approaches melodrama and is quite jarring for the once-airy show. We’ve moved away from the laid-back early vibes. That killing will haunt Dillard forever, and the darkness inside her will just grow. Her associate Shades is basically the devil on her shoulder that appears to help but really pushes her to greater depths.
Luke Cage has an interesting undercurrent about how social class plays a role in where people land. Crime made Cottonmouth’s family powerful, but it also locked him into a certain life. The club is his way to connect with his dreams of a different path. Dillard is desperate to prove she isn’t a cold and brutal person like Mama Mabel (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). Unfortunately, the pressure to be someone different makes Dillard just as bad (if not worse). Her political ambitions rest on the back of Cottonmouth’s crime world. Both are stuck in the life created by Mabel, and neither wants it. Dillard is still alive yet is dead inside after killing her cousin.
Another important subject is race, which is pivotal in understanding how Cottonmouth and Dillard act. They constantly push to prove they’re better than what others think. Her attempts to be reputable draw scoffs from journalists and even her own cousin. Society has trained Cottonmouth that crime is the only way. His giant painting of the Notorious B.I.G. isn’t just because of the music. That larger-than-life artist used his talents to rise up from the streets. Cottonmouth built the club into something grand, and Cage could tear it all down. Selling the club would be like chopping off an arm. Cottonmouth created it against the odds, but that achievement isn’t enough to escape past demons.
Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple also appears in episode five (“Just to Get a Rep”) and plays a larger role than usual. The constant messes in Hell’s Kitchen would be enough to push anyone to leave. The bridge across each Netflix series, Temple has a refreshing outsider’s perspective. Dawson is excellent, though her conversations with Cage about being a hero are too obvious. Their words are right on the nose and loudly proclaim the main themes. Dawson and Colter do their best to express genuine emotions, but there’s only so much they can do.
Claire Temple in Harlem
Thankfully, the writers know that Temple functions best as an active character. Her efforts to save a wounded Scarfe and them Cage himself reveal her mettle. There’s also a possible romance between Temple and Cage, which pushes Misty Knight into the background. She’s busy investigating Cottonmouth’s death and facing internal affairs questions. There’s no time to re-connect with the vigilante. I hope that Temple and Knight have plenty to do in the final episodes.
We finally meet the fabled Willis “Diamondback” Stryker at the end of “Manifest”, though it’s a brief scene. He takes center stage in episode eight (“Blowin’ Up the Spot”) with a loud “Can you dig it?” reference to The Warriors. It’s an over-the-top entrance for the season’s Big Bad. Shades has set our expectations high with his reverence of Diamondback, and it’s up to Erik La Ray Harvey (Boardwalk Empire) to sell it. He’s far more imposing than Cottonmouth, but the jury is out on whether the character succeeds. Diamondback pokes holes (literally) in the idea that Cage is invulnerable, and that fact should keep action scenes from getting repetitive. Our hero needs a weakness.
Can You Dig It?
The episode’s final act devolves into a surprisingly ridiculous one-on-one fight inside a lavish theater. Diamondback springs from a campier world and utters awkward lines about his brother receiving more love. A few made me laugh and lessened the dramatic tension. The epic shot of Diamondback looming above Cage in the balcony sells the conflict, though. This guy has arrived to teach Cage a lesson in the grandest way possible. It’s hard to take the threat too seriously, though. Even when Diamondback shoots Cage again in the chest, it’s not that suspenseful. Cage falling into a trash truck is a new low for the character and oddly funny. He’s dying and has a body filled with shrapnel, and now he’s riding around with garbage. The shame!
This battle does energize a show that needed a jolt from its more dour progression. The style is much different from the extended hallway fights on Daredevil. The melodramatic scenes as Cage unites with a long-lost friend who’s actually his brother are also interesting. The tone is shifting more towards camp, but that may be okay. It’s challenging to strike the right balance of weight and fun, however. Dillard has turned into a cold boss, and Knight struggles with the loss of her partner and department pressures. The emotions are heightened while still falling into a “good vs. evil” comics zone. Diamondback’s call-out to The Warriors feels more apt by the end of “Blowin’ Up the Spot”. He’s a villain straight out of Walter Hill’s film.
Cage finishes this run of episodes in awful shape. The two Judas bullets are destroying him from the inside, and he’s wanted for Cottonmouth’s murder. Even so, I suspect he’ll rebound for a final clash with Diamondback. What’s less certain is how Dillard and Shades will fit into the mix. Her story needs a hook beyond avoiding her family’s shadow. Shades is now running the low-level henchmen; is he going to connect with Diamondback? Theo Rossi is getting more chances to shine as his character’s crime role increases. I’m curious to see where he’s heading.
Ready for War
We have lost some interesting story lines, particularly involving the barbershop. Is Bobby Fish still trying to re-open it? I’d like to see a return to that character because it connects our hero to the community. I also wonder if Knight attacked Temple purposefully to get placed on administrative leave. Her rage seemed real, but the show made sure we knew she was being watched. Knight will likely team up with Cage and take down everyone. Will they rekindle a romance? I’m still excited about this season but have more questions now.
Luke Cage keeps adjusting its tone and has made drastic changes from its opening episodes. On the other hand, it’s effectively used a slow burn to pull Cage back into the fray and remind him that he’s not invincible. Cage is one of many powerful beings out there, and his actions to stop Cottonmouth have caused unfortunate consequences. It’s been up-and-down, but I’m still on board to see how we finish. Diamondback is a gigantic character, so we’re heading for a grand conclusion.
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