Luke Cage: Season 1 Episodes 5-8 Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
5. Just to Get a Rep
Having played around with pacing and linear storytelling over the past few episodes, having hopped between themes and introduced all the elements of its sprawling mosaic, Luke Cage is ready to be the best version of itself. Just to Get a Rep is the show’s strongest episode yet – an utterly confident and self-assured expression of its unique identity; one that skilfully weaves together a satisfying narrative with careful character work while putting this show’s unique identity at its core.
At the centre of Just to Get a Rep is a theme that’s been percolating through the earlier episodes, which is legacy. It’s a theme that drives both Luke and Cottonmouth as their clashes increase in hostility, placing the two men within a fascinating dichotomy; they both, essentially want to be the same thing, but come at their similar intent with drastically different approaches. That’s a concept that Daredevil played with, but Luke Cage elevates it by placing the feud within the context of the culture that’s so vital to this show – it’s a battle to define just what the black community of Harlem should mean, and what the role of proactive individuals should be within that.
That’s a conflict that comes to the fore in the episode’s centrepiece, the duelling speeches in the church that illustrate just how differently the two men interpret their own community. It’s a scene that’s just as gripping as any action set-piece, because it brings together the core elements of the show for the very first time, and in doing so, expresses Luke Cage’s considerable value as the first Marvel property that’s led by non-white characters. The basic framework of the scene is familiar, and even the central conflict of protectionism versus a more open collectivism isn’t new to the genre, but it’s filtered through a lens of black experience and legacy that we virtually never see portrayed within superhero stories. Luke and Cottonmouth are sparring in the context of a culture predicated on heroic figures whose names are ubiquitous (there are more namedrops here), and they’re fighting to define just what role those heroes played in shaping their community, and, therefore, how they themselves could fit into that line of succession – whether that’s to make a name for oneself as Cottonmouth sees it, or to provide an ideal for everyone to strive towards as Luke sees it. Luke Cage has already innovated for the superhero genre in its presentation of a predominantly black community, but for the first time, it feels truly groundbreaking in that respect – it’s a new kind of superhero fiction, and an ideal advertisement for the dramatic benefits of greater diversity within the genre.
Just to Get a Rep pushes its characters into daring new places as Luke’s rise mirrors Cottonmouth’s desperate, self-destructive spiral, but it’s the unique perspective on old ideological conflicts it provides that really elevates it. Oh, and the return of Claire Temple, who effortlessly defeats a mugger and drops a reference to events of Daredevil season two in just a handful of minutes of screen-time.
6. Suckas Need Bodyguards
As we reach the halfway point, there’s no longer any reason to worry about the direction of Luke Cage. It’s clearly settled into a comfortable yet innovative groove, as exemplified by Suckas Need Bodyguards (as ever, named for a Gang Starr song), an instalment that may not keep up the impressive standards of its predecessor, but continues the story confidently nonetheless.
With Cottonmouth retreating somewhat after the first explosive scene with Detective Scarfe, Suckas Need Bodyguards is free to focus a little more on the parts of the ensemble that don’t quite have the same level of development. The most obvious case is Detective Scarfe, who rests at the centre of the episode’s A-plot, who transforms here from a boilerplate snarky corrupt cop to a deeply flawed anti-hero – a guy who is painfully aware of his moral shortcomings and feels a whole lot more pain and regret for his decisions than his sardonic exterior lets on. Frank Whaley’s engaging, increasingly pathos-laden performance allows the death of Scarfe to feel impactful and somewhat saddening, an impressive feat considering how low Scarfe was in the pecking order before this episode.
There’s also a shining spotlight on the show’s women here, who get a particularly great showing. There’s Misty Knight, who has arguably become the show’s breakaway hit thanks to Simone Missick’s effortlessly cool and capable performance – with her defeat of fellow corrupt cop Perez, Suckas Need Bodyguards gives the most concise and cathartic summation yet of Misty’s impressive capabilities before allowing Missick her first truly emotional moment with the death of Scarfe. There’s Mariah Dillard, who returns from a couple of episodes in the sidelines to star in a sideplot interview that takes its time to get going, but eventually allows the eminently capable Alfre Woodard a chance to let loose as a prickly, vulnerable Mariah whose smiley political façade seems more fragile than ever. And there’s Claire Temple, the character who is fast becoming the entire Netflix universe’s MVP. There’s a reason why Rosario Dawson keeps coming back, and it’s her ability to work up a unique and believable rapport with virtually anyone she shares the screen with – in this case, she becomes almost a mentor of sorts, a seasoned figure who pushes for Luke’s best instincts to emerge. I particularly like how Luke Cage swerves from the idea of a Claire/Luke romance by slyly acknowledging that it would be a terrible idea – it’s an encapsulation of how this seemingly male-dominated show does right by its female characters in a way that Daredevil has really struggled with outside of Claire.
The only real bum note here is the decision to have Cottonmouth ostentatiously arrested then seemingly released with barely any time between. The intent is clear – to showcase the craven self-preservation of the police force – and Cottonmouth was never going away for good halfway through the season, but it’s a choice that lets the series’ biggest moment of catharsis deflate fast, moving too fast to even allow the juxtaposition of justice and injustice to really hit.
Still, despite the fact that Cottonmouth on the outs, it’s not looking good for the Stokes clan, who are finding themselves squeezed both from within and without. It’s particularly intriguing to see a looming foe beginning to really exert his presence – Diamondback, a shadowy figure who seems to hold all the cards of the crime business, is rapidly coming to the fore…
Cottonmouth was always saddled with a ticking clock. Despite his fearsome place at the start of the series, we’ve quickly learned that he’s impulsive to a self-destructive extent, always taking the easy way out even if, in the long run, that choice will come back to bite him. And once Manifest began layering in tragically-tinged flashbacks to Cottonmouth’s youth presenting him in the most sympathetic light yet, the possibility increased that the highest-billed villain of the series was in for the chop.
And yet, that doesn’t stop the brutal climatic moment of Mariah Dillard finally exacting the violent impulses she’s harboured towards her cousin. In of itself, that’s a huge, laudable twist – Luke Cage was mostly sticking to the Marvel-Netflix formula in terms of its basic hero vs villain structure beforehand, but this is a clear statement of intent that this show is about to head way off the beaten track. Everything is up in the air now, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how the other looming villainous presences like Shades and Diamondback rush in to fill the gap.
Of course, Cottonmouth might not be dead. Next episode could begin with him waking up, wounded to an inch of his life but alive, in hospital – that possibility wasn’t wiped out here. And while that would be a shame in many ways, it wouldn’t take the moment’s essential power, because it is, above all, a flashpoint for the character arcs of the Stokes cousins – the moment where the simmering animosity between the two violently exploded in their faces. And, as this episode shows, that tension comes from a long way before the start of this series.
Both Daredevil and Jessica Jones put in significant time into flashing back to their villains’ traumatic childhood. It’s good, storytelling sense, and the fleshing out of the origin of the antagonists’ psychological trauma paid dividends for their characterisation. Manifest doesn’t break a lot of new ground in terms of the basic flashback story it tells – there’s definitely shades of Wilson Fisk’s turn to violence within Cottonmouth’s blood-drenched origin story. However, unlike those other flashbacks, the past scenes here have a tangible and immediate pay off in the present – they’re purposefully building up to that fateful confrontation in Cottonmouth’s office in which every aspect introduced within that flashback becomes integral in Mariah’s Rubicon moment as she takes her first life/wounds someone a lot for the first time (please delete as applicable). So there’s a purposefulness to the flashbacks, but they also work because they tell a very simple yet powerful tragedy of Cottonmouth, a man who was unwillingly pushed into a world where violence was ritualised, robbed of the chance to make a choice in his life and melded according to his rigid family legacy. Cottonmouth was made to fulfil a predetermined role, and in an unfortunate twist of fate, it’s that ingrained compulsion to continue his legacy that gets him killed/mortally wounded. Once again, that’s Luke Cage twisting our sympathies to make a death of a destructive, brutish crime boss a tragedy of a man who couldn’t overcome his own programmed nature. That’s clever writing, and it goes a long way towards justifying as big a storytelling swing as this.
And, of course, that’s leaving aside the cliffhanger, which is a game-changer in of itself. The Judas bullets were a Chekhov’s Gun (for once, that’s an appropriate description) waiting to be fired since their introduction a couple of episodes back, but that doesn’t make our final image of Luke gasping in pain, bleeding for the first time in years any less agonising a cliffhanger. It’s a huge way to upend a factor that’s been vital to the very set-up of this show, and that sends Luke’s quest to rid Harlem of evil in a drastically new direction – one that’s going to be a hell of a lot harder. Let’s just hope they follow through…
8. Blowin’ Up the Spot
Manifest was a heavy, game-changing episode, so you would forgive Luke Cage for quietening down a little to reorient itself for the back half as it follows up the death of Cottonmouth (he’s definitely dead, I apologise for doubting this show). Not the case: Blowin’ Up the Spot begins the home stretch of season one with a literal bang as it threw the real Big Bad of the season into the mix.
Diamondback was a mostly shadowy presence in the season’s first half, looming over Cottonmouth as a reminder of bigger snakes in the grass. However, he’s front and centre here, and it’s intriguing to see just how the show changes once a more action-based villain with a personal link to the hero (the exact opposite of Cottonmouth) is centre stage. In one respect, the continuous presence of Diamondback as the lone assassin, doggedly tailing Luke with his Judas bullets and taunting him all the while, gives the episode a more propulsive feel. Blowin’ Up the Spot takes the time to work up to that final fistfight, but there’s always a constant sense of tension thanks to Diamondback’s threat that wasn’t always there when Luke was going up against Cottonmouth’s never-ending army of goons. Likewise, the personal dimension that we get here brings out an intriguingly vulnerable side of Luke. This is a less contemplative episode than most, but there’s definitely a through-line of vulnerability here: both physically as Diamondback wields a weapon that can penetrate Luke’s skin, but also emotionally, teasing out feelings of guilt, regret and fear that we never really had against Cottonmouth who only hated Luke because he got in the way. It’s about time that our bulletproof hero felt a little more human, and I’m really interested to see how the personal Luke vs Diamondback feud will develop, especially in the light of that final revelation.
And yet, the show loses a bit of the thematic depth that Cottonmouth’s fixation on legacy and parallels with Luke created. At times in the Diamondback plot, Blowin’ Up the Spot feels generic, cribbing ideas and clichés from much below this show’s station. Diamondback may be threatening on a personal level, but he makes so many classic villainous blunders such as inexplicably bad aim, waiting to kill Misty, and an unnecessary escape that Luke Cage begins to slip into the territory of a generic superhero show. This is a thrilling and snappily-paced episode, but it’s also one that trades some of Luke Cage’s unique idiosyncrasies in, and I hope that’s just something that was needed to introduce Diamondback rather than signs of a continuing gear change.
And it’s another cliffhanger! Not only does Luke get a Judas bullet in the chest, but it’s revealed that Diamondback… is his brother! Again, that’s straying into clichéd territory there, but there’s definitely a real impact to a twist that should open up a whole new side of Luke’s story. How is this going to develop, and how is Luke going to survive when he was doing pretty terribly to begin with? Onwards…