Luke Cage: Season 1 Episodes 9-12 Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Ouch, that acid bath.
DWYCK is a clear piece-mover of an episode, moving the chess pieces around on the board for the final run of the season and allowing the characters to process the psychological toll of the last couple of episodes. It’s a pretty solid interim instalment, however, and there are a lot of valuable plot twists that push the show into interesting new areas.
The MVP of DWYCK (apologies for the acronym overdose) was Misty Knight, who was put through the ringer here as she was interrogated by an NYPD psychologist. Misty, like Luke, is someone who needs to put up psychological barriers to cover up her deep, needling damage, so it was really fascinating to see that façade and layers of deceptive confidence stripped away. The episode hammers at the idea that Misty hates losing control too often, but the focus on how the events of this series have pushed Misty serves to properly clarify her character journey and the mistakes she feels she’s made – with the revelatory breakthrough she makes as she links all her experiences together to explain her attack on Claire, there’s a similar feeling of breakthrough for the character; that she’s been pushed into a new, dynamic stage of her character development. That’s piece-moving for all intents and purposes, but it’s smart, character-based piece-moving that compellingly explains just why she’s changing.
Meanwhile, the dual plots here saw our villains in the ascendancy and Luke in direr straits than ever. Mariah’s clearly becoming an adept game-player as she coolly manipulates the chaotic situation with Luke and the gang leaders into a solution that uses all her chess pieces to her benefit while maintaining her self-righteous badge of legitimacy. Alfre Woodard is doing some great work as Mariah becomes colder and colder, and her more internalised, calculated performance serves as a fitting contrast to the flamboyant and capricious Diamondback, who makes his own play here. Diamondback is still a blessing and a curse for Luke Cage, giving us moments of violent shock and upping the stakes in a way no other character can, but still sticking far too closely to the clichéd psychopathic rogue criminal type – his violent culling of the crime bosses is viscerally impressive, but it’s also an idea that we’ve seen time and time again. There still remains very little depth to his character beyond the shocks, but that chilling shot of him standing on the club balcony, usurping Cottonmouth’s old position, is a very encouraging one for a more original role going forward.
And as for Luke – it’s really not his day. It’s with Luke that DWYCK is most obviously in piece-moving mode: a lot of things happen that tee up plot points for the final stretch of the season (his attack on the cops, which will have some big consequences once he’s back in Harlem), but not a whole lot happens to affect the here and now.
Well, besides the acid bath. It’s an intense, gripping cliffhanger with some truly evocative visuals (you could certainly see that final shot taking up an entire last page of a comic), but it suffers from a distinct lack of tension. Both previous episodes ended with Luke in dire straits, but they had other revelations to spice that up: Luke bleeding, Diamondback’s ‘No, Luke, I am your brother’ moment. This cliffhanger only trades on the prospect that Luke might die, and that’s seriously a hard one to take with no other accompanying revelations.
That, and Netflix just immediately flashed up an image from next episode with Luke in it, standing up and looking healthy. Thanks, Netflix!
10. Take It Personal
It may come as little surprise that Luke turned out okay, thanks to a wacky science experiment that made absolutely no sense but looked pretty intense when played out on screen. Take It Personal is not about continuing Luke’s injury arc, as the relatively speedy resolution to last episode’s cliffhanger says – instead, it’s about accomplishing the dual purpose of bringing the show’s different figures and their agendas into a collision course before they crash together right at the end.
The most compelling aspect of Take It Personal is its follow-through on the topical, resonant imagery last episode of the dash-cam video where Luke was seen attacking two cops and stealing their car. It’s a hot-button idea that’s inextricably linked to the current debate about the relationship between the police and minorities, and it was encouraging to see Luke Cage run with this topicality after a few episodes where the show’s focus on social issues slipped a little. Take It Personal certainly didn’t pull any punches with its depiction of an innocent black teenager arbitrarily picked up and then beaten in police custody, but the episode’s uncompromising frankness with the situation allowed Luke Cage to come through with some complex, important social commentary about unwarranted police brutality and its reverberating effect around society.
Elsewhere, Take It Personal went… ahem, personal for Luke as he discovered Reva’s deception and complicity in the trials that gave him his powers. It’s a revelation that Mike Colter’s raging, passionate performance does a lot to sell, but Luke Cage didn’t really lay sufficient enough groundwork for this twist. Reva’s importance in Luke’s life hasn’t really been maintained past the origin story episode, so it’s difficult to care much about the betrayal of a character we still barely know. Fortunately, Take It Personal does make up for the twist to some extent later with Luke – his statement that he loved the idea of Reva is an eloquent way of pushing Luke forward beyond his hang-ups and getting him to the core truth he’s been avoiding all along, and his revelations about Willis back this up by getting Luke to realise that his life has been entirely coloured by the deception of others.
And, as ever, we’re left with a huge cliffhanger – this time around, Harlem’s Paradise is filling up with bullets and Luke and Misty are right in the centre of it, with Diamondback and a bunch of protestors directly in the area. This is going to end well…
11. Now You’re Mine
With three episodes on the clock, Luke Cage has a hell of a lot of different plotlines unfolding rapidly – so it was fitting that the antepenultimate episode, Now You’re Mine, brought nearly all of the characters with their separate agendas together for one chaotic hour of television. It’s a bottle episode, set entirely within or at the entrance of the Harlem’s Paradise nightclub, which helps to maintain a propulsive and focused pace even as the story runs into some increasingly tired ideas.
As many shows do close to the end, Now You’re Mine begins to gratify viewers with moments Luke Cage has been holding off all season, making for an episode that’ll live less in the memory, but feels more immediately satisfying as an individual hour. We get Misty’s decision to finally flip over to Luke’s side, Claire Temple doing what Claire Temple does best (patch characters up, kick ass, return to patching up), the two women’s dual takedown of Shades and his ensuing arrest, and moments where the central conspiracy begins to reveal itself to important characters. It’s as purely entertaining and cathartic as Luke Cage has been all season, maintaining impressive levels of tension as the assorted players prepare to exact their contradicting agendas, but some of the mechanics of the plotting leaves a lot to be desired.
Again, we have to circle back to Diamondback, who has been a problematic Big Bad. Now You’re Mine gives a neat display of his improvisational smarts and impulsiveness, but it’s when he sits down to finally explain his motivations that it all goes a little pear-shaped. Marvel’s Netflix villains have been distinguished for their genuinely complex and multi-faceted motivations that usually feel just a little bit noble and/or sympathetic (Cottonmouth filled that bill nicely, and Mariah more or less does), so it’s odd to see Luke Cage opt for the oldest trick in the book: daddy issues. Yep, Diamondback’s violent, collateral damage-filled, insanely expansive scheme has all been due to an inability to resolve his dad’s indifference to him. It’s the creakiest of clichés, about as dramatically uninteresting as you could possibly get, and it heavily undermines our Big Bad when he should be most terrifying.
This back half has still been strong, running off momentum built up by the first half and its continuously great characters, but it’s becoming clear that Luke Cage doesn’t have as robust a core story as its predecessors, which could just blow up in its face as season 1 comes into land. For now, though, this was a very solid hour, and one that pushed us into a whole new scenario for the last two episodes to play with, as Luke is finally in cuffs…
12. Soliloquy of Chaos
It’s power play time! If Luke Cage’s first season has been a chessboard of intersecting players (as this episode makes abundantly clear), then Soliloquy of Chaos sees that chess board completely rewritten, and eventually flipped over. That might make the episode sound more meticulous and tightly-written than it really is, and there’s definitely a feeling of pile-up here, but it’s entertaining to see the show exploit the interconnected, scattered nature of its villains to really shake things up going into the finale.
So much of Soliloquy of Chaos goes into setting up the season finale, but there are things to enjoy in the here and now. A fun interlude is a cameo from rapper Method Man that provides first levity, and then the most overt social commentary the show has seen yet in the form of a specially-written rap montaging Harlem’s community showing solidarity with Luke by walking around in bulletproof hoodies. It’s a bit superfluous, and could easily be cut, but it’s actually a nice palate-cleanser in between the knotty machinations of the crime bosses, refocusing this show’s eye on the Harlem community and enshrining its importance in making a wish-fulfilment hero’s journey out of recent, topical tragedies.
Some of this episode works a lot better than others, and it’s Shades and Mariah who get the best cut here. Shades has been an entertaining character in a very low-key sense, but he’s never really sparked to life as anything other than a shadowy, opportunistic middleman offering a clear-eyed view on events, so it was fun to see him acting independently for once, first by blowing off the interrogation of the police and then, in a taut elevator sequence, killing the goons hired to take him out. Likewise, their pragmatic plan to get Luke’s help was an intriguing extension of the episode’s theme of chess players, providing an unusual mash of characters to complicate the dynamics we’re aware of – with Shades and Mariah aligning themselves with Luke, how far should we root for them?
In Diamondback watch, however, the guy just can’t catch a break. It’s less a fault of his character here and more of the fact that his plot involves a sluggish clearing of house with the leftover gangsters – it’s a plot thread that doesn’t add a lot, and the ‘mystery’ it sets up about Diamondback’s new tech is resolved about ten minutes later anyway. It’s also less clear than ever exactly what Diamondback was really doing all this time – his claim that he’ll vanish after taking care of Luke makes very little sense considering we first got to know him as a crime boss, independently operating and leaving Luke alone. There’s an interesting character there somewhere, but Diamondback’s characterisation is still as contradictory and cluttered as ever.
Oh, and this episode probably has the silliest cliffhanger yet – and for a show that ended an episode with a man casually firing a bazooka at a Chinese restaurant, that’s saying something. Diamondback has some new duds, and as the episode ends, he’s having it out with Luke on an equal footing. Many questions remain as we go into the finale. Will everyone really get justice? Will Misty’s witness come through? Can Mariah outrun the truth again? And is Diamondback’s power suit cheesy in a good way, or in a bad way?