Luke Cage: Season 1 Finale Review & Final Thoughts
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
- See the reviews for episodes 1-4 here.
- See the reviews for episodes 5-8 here.
- See the reviews for episodes 9-12 here.
13. You Know My Steez
Sweet Christmas, we made it.
Luke Cage’s first season wrapped here, and it’s a surprising, often confounding season finale with which to end it. It’s much more akin to the uncertain, solemn ending of Daredevil season 2 where very little was achieved than the respective first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones that ended with the villains vanquished and the heroes still in action. Fortunately, it’s stronger than the crash landing of Daredevil season 2, though I can imagine this being a particularly divisive ending.
You Know My Steez gets its victories out of the way early. The Diamondback conflict ends surprisingly early in the episode’s first act with an extended knock-down, drag-out fight and it’s one that does a decent job of satisfyingly wrapping up this season’s most problematic story. It’s unashamedly cheesy with the backdrop of cheering Harlemites and the eventual chanting that spurs Luke to the knockout blow, but it’s the right kind of cheesy – an unabashed embracing of the community hero concept that has fuelled this season. On the nose as it may be, Luke becoming Harlem’s hero in a public arena is a fitting way to bring his crime fighting crusade to an end for the season, and it’s genuinely cathartic after a string of episodes where he’s been branded a fugitive and accused of a half-dozen crimes he didn’t commit. The only aspect of the fight that’s a bit clunky is the flashbacks. The point being made is very simplistic (Carl and Willis reversed roles! It’s like their childhood!) and the cutting back to the past fails to really register in the light of the lack of groundwork Luke Cage has laid in describing Luke’s childhood – and is a season finale really the only place to finally flesh out important details about the past?
The Diamondback fight confers nicely to the Marvel template of a hero vs villain demolition derby, but the rest of You Know My Steez goes down a very different path, much more reminiscent of the morally murky crime dramas like The Wire that Luke Cage has clearly been heavily influenced by. It’s an approach that denies the satisfaction of the heroes and villains get what they deserve, and my initial reaction to Mariah’s freedom was to feel cheated. Yet it’s also an approach that ultimately feels more fitting to the spirit of Luke Cage than a straightforward, sunshine-and-rainbows ending would be. Mariah’s path to freedom is meticulously plotted, with Alfre Woodard continuing her fine work as a Mariah who first adopts crocodile tears that are more convincing than ever before, before shifting to her true form of a slippery, vindictive criminal who is fully confident in her corruption and ability to twist the justice system. It’s an approach that pays off the through-lines of the NYPD’s bureaucratic inability to really find true justice (see: Cottonmouth’s arrest and release, Shades’ release, the kid-in-custody incident), and puts Misty in a really intriguing place going forward as she loses faith in the system and strikes out alone to watch Mariah and Shades from the shadows.
Mariah’s escape from justice is a logical end-point, and to some extent, the same is true of You Know My Steez’s other downer twist, which is Luke’s arrest for escaping from Seagate Prison. It’s an ending that was established as an option early on, and Luke’s closing remark that it’s ‘backwards to go forward’ goes some way to justifying this as a growth rather than regression for Luke’s story. Yet it feels a little like a shocking swerve in the way it comes from nowhere right after Mariah’s release (the off-the-cuff comment that identifies Luke occurs about 35 minutes of screen-time before it’s brought up again), and in that respect it feels a little emotionally manipulative – a bummer, just so that Luke Cage can show it can do that kind of thing. That said, there are plenty of outs given for Luke’s escape, from Bobby’s discovery of the exonerating file of evidence to Claire’s promise that she will call her lawyer friend (I can’t think who that would be – any theories? I’m stumped), so I doubt The Defenders will have too much red tape to clear to get Luke back on the streets. It’s a decent twist, but its execution gives it the feeling of one sour note too many.
And so Luke’s journey has reached its end. Luke Cage, for all its flaws, has been a worthy entry to the Marvel/Netflix pantheon, reaching that same blend of social commentary and a complex cast of engaging characters that elevated both Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Like Daredevil’s first season, this was definitely a case of the opening half surpassing the back half – Cottonmouth was simply a far better villain, afforded a much more interesting and sympathetic set of motivations and a set of proper flashbacks that fleshed out the tragedy of his villainy. With him at its spine, Luke Cage felt propulsive and laser-focused on its unique and important themes of legacy and community, specifically through the experience of African-Americans. Diamondback, however, was a less specific villain – the kind of standard scenery-chewing psycho who could show up on, say, Arrow with very few changes necessary, so the show began to lose its focus and meander a little with Diamondback at its centre.
The back half remained engaging, and sparked to life with the season endgame, but there was a definite lull after Diamondback’s intro that spoke to this show’s difficulty in sustaining its narrative for 13 episodes – like Daredevil and Jessica Jones before it, the season length felt unnecessarily indulgent for a story that would realistically fill 10 episodes at most on a show going out on weekly TV. Nonetheless, this was a truly individual show that really developed its own perspective and ran with it, offering something genuinely new and invigorating in its diversity and unique vibe. Even if Luke Cage didn’t quite get to be the best version of itself in its first season, it cemented itself as a valuable, arguably necessary addition in an ever-crowded genre.
In some respects, season finales of Marvel-Netflix shows have never put their best foot forward, so it’s no surprise that You Know My Steez is solid, but not spectacular. It’s enough to feel just about satisfying, while leaving half a dozen doors open for season two, from Shades and Mariah’s criminal club to Diamondback getting the same experiment as Luke (deep sigh).
In that respect, job done. Now where is that renewal?
Finale Rating: 7.5/10
Season Rating: 8/10