Luke Cage: Season 1 Episodes 1-4 Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
When Daredevil hit Netflix early last year to critical acclaim and a warm fan response, it took everyone by surprise with its surprisingly compelling narrative and meaningfully gritty tone and feel. When Jessica Jones hit a few months later, racking up even stronger reviews, that too felt like a surprise – an untested formula and obscure lead character combined to create something impactful and thematically fascinating. However, with Marvel’s Netflix plan now in full swing, that element of surprise and the cautious expectations that met Daredevil and Jessica Jones has vanished. Luke Cage, therefore is perhaps the first of the Marvel-Netflix shows, that has been roundly expected to be great – it’s following a clear winning streak rather than coming from nowhere, so the third of the Marvel-Netflix shows finds itself saddled with the weight of untempered anticipation. Does the Power Man’s solo series manage the burden of those expectations?
1. Moment of Truth
Through the three seasons that Marvel and Netflix have produced, a clear pattern has emerged: the premiere is always a table-setting episode, with plenty of exposition required to sketch out a believable world, cast of characters and hook for the season’s ongoing narrative within 50 minutes. That’s no different for Luke Cage, as Moment of Truth mostly sets about laying the groundwork for what’s to come, so it’s relatively low on major plot twists and somewhat slower in pace than one might expect.
However, Moment of Truth finds something compelling in all that set-up. There’s a clear through-line to the episode, which comes in the form of Luke’s path from passively watching as a bystander to Harlem’s wave of crime to actively stepping into the ring as a protector of the city, and when that throughline becomes clear, the episode really clicks and all the disparate moments gain a real purpose in pushing events to that end-point. Furthermore, the episode instantly benefits from the efficient and compelling world-building to create the warm yet deeply damaged atmosphere of Harlem – a place of contradictions, where the shining lights of the clubs and restaurants bely the violence and rampant crime that’s almost become a rite of passage for the disaffected residents.
One of the most surprising things about Moment of Truth is how up-front it is about the season’s main villain. There’s no hiding for Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes whose presence provides the villainy necessary to keep some urgency to events, and the ample time we spend with Stokes is put to really effective use. Mahershala Ali instantly makes a memorable impression, nailing the slimy complacency of Cottonmouth as well as his rawer, unchecked brutality as shown in the scene where he beats a betraying underling to death.
Moment of Truth is a solid premiere rather than a knockout. It’s not always compelling in how methodically it lays out the relationships and characters that populate the series, and the narrative proceeds about as you would expect, but it’s very effective at what it does: to sketch out the series’ massive sandbox and to allow future episodes to race out of the blocks. In that respect, job done.
2. Code of the Streets
On first glance, Code of the Streets begins as a retrograde step for Luke Cage. It appears to walk back Luke’s step into the arena at the end of episode one, putting him in the same place of reluctance as he started the series, and despite the action-packed end to the previous instalment, the pace is similarly slow-going.
Yet that’s a churlish assessment of what turns out to be a deceptively great follow-up. Code of the Streets does take its time getting to its explosive final act, but the pacing ends up feeling methodical and careful rather than slow, with the episode delicately laying the groundwork to give the big moments extra impact. Take the multiple scenes with Pops, a side character who appears to fill a traditional mentor role, complete with a death that motivates the hero. However, Code of the Streets manages to make us truly care about Pops beforehand in a way that’s pertinent to the series’ main themes – he’s a beacon of hope in the community, someone who clawed his way out of violence to become a father figure to everyone struggling in the muck, even Cottonmouth. His death, therefore, is more than just a traditional emotional turning point – it’s the passing of the baton to Luke, an acknowledgement of Luke Cage’s place as an iconic black hero.
The rich characterisation of Code of the Streets is carried on elsewhere. Cottonmouth continues to be an engrossing villain, even if this episode repeats the tired cable-drama cliché of an exaggerated moment of violence from episode one, and there’s already a sympathetic layer to the character thanks to his genuine connection with Pops. When we cut to Cottonmouth, morosely pondering the ways in which his criminal lifestyle has caused one of his idols to be caught in the crossfire, we get a sense of a man who truly, honestly cares about his community.
Code of the Streets may seem sluggish early on, and a tendency for repetition is clearly emerging within the show, but it’s, on the whole, a step up for the show – one that truly delivers on the prospect of the community of Harlem as a character of its own, while the scintillating final fifteen minutes satisfyingly increase the momentum going into episode three.
3. Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?
In its first two episodes, Luke Cage is clearly a character-based drama first and foremost. The pacing is careful, the dialogue scenes lengthy, and violence is confined to short, sharp bursts.
That all changes with Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?, which firmly guns the accelerator pedal and rockets the story forward. The centrepiece of the episode is Luke Cage’s first real extended set-piece at Cottonmouth’s bank, and it’s an absolute doozy of an action sequence that takes in everything that makes Luke Cage unique. There’s the hip-hop soundtrack that gives the scene an almost performative feel as Luke expertly manipulates the oncoming mass of goons to where they need to go, and the excellent fight choreography that communicates Luke’s casual, yet brutally efficient fighting technique as he takes down goons who become little more than ragdolls to knock aside.
The pacing is drastically faster than the first two episodes, and while Luke Cage’s relaxed feel was really growing on me, the amount of narrative progress here felt appropriate to avoid the show running in place with the same basic story. The drastic change in dynamics between Luke and Cottonmouth really allows their conflict to snap into focus – now that Mike Colter and Mahershala Ali can spar on an equal footing, there’s real tension to their escalating feud which culminates explosively at the end.
Funnily enough, it’s the dialogue that’s the problem here, which keeps Who’s Gonna Take The Weight? from being truly excellent. The episode’s focus on dichotomies, from the polarised approaches of Cottonmouth and Mariah to their work to Misty and her partner’s debate about vigilantism, lends it a thematic focus that ensures Luke Cage doesn’t lose sight of its place as a drama first and an action flick second, but the dialogue can be very clunky and obvious. Luke Cage has shown real sophistication in its exploration of legacy and heroism, so it’s a shame to see the show resort to characters just telling the audience their views, with very little in the way of subtlety. It’s not a huge complaint as the core of the scenes is still intriguing, but it’s a bit of a step back in terms of character interplay.
Nonetheless, this is another confident instalment that clearly shows Luke Cage has found its feet and has worked up some real momentum. With the cliffhanger of Cottonmouth blowing up Luke’s Chinese restaurant seeing their conflict take one big step up, it’s the first real time that I’ve been genuinely on tenterhooks to see what’s next.
4. Step in the Arena
One aspect about Netflix’s Marvel shows that have distinguished them from other superhero shows out there is their tendency to drop into a hero’s story in the middle, rather than the beginning, with the origin story merely seen in brief snippets. That appeared to be the same with Luke Cage – he even had his powers in Jessica Jones – so it’s something of a surprise to see a fully-fledged origin story here.
Step in the Arena is a flashback episode, chronicling Luke’s time in Seagate Prison leading up to the fateful failed experiment that gave him his powers, with very sparing screen-time given to the present day story. In that respect, it’s a sideways step from the community feel of the previous episodes, and the episode initially suffers from the lack of the Harlem atmosphere that gives this show its identity – it juggles a lot of ideas and story threads such as Luke’s burgeoning romance with prison therapist Reva and his time in the fight club, without any core to really bring things together.
Similarly to episode one, though, it’s an episode that requires your patience, because Step in the Arena’s final act brings all the disparate threads, including the modern day excerpts, into a coherent whole. It’s a story about confinement of all kinds, which is expertly underlined by the powerful image of Luke punching his way through into freedom in both the present and the past, but it’s also about how kindness and compassion can bring about freedom – Reva saves Luke in the past, which in turn allows Luke to rescue his landlady in the present. Luke Cage is a clever show, but its cleverness takes its time to unfurl – it creeps up like a surprise, and makes you wonder how you didn’t notice it at the time.
Step in the Arena may appear like a jumble bag of ideas with no overarching theme, but every plot movement and relationship within it serves a purpose – nothing is wasted, even if it certainly appears so at the time. It might not be quite as expansive and sprawling as previous episodes, and it can certainly feel claustrophobic when it’s removed from so much of the superlative ensemble cast, but Step in the Arena acts as an impressive indicator of this show’s versatility – of how it can transplant its particular sensibilities and storytelling to a very different framework and still remain satisfying drama.
And with Luke revealing himself publicly in a cliffhanger that’ll certainly remind many of Tony Stark, it looks like the main story arc is about to kick in properly again…