Rosario Dawson and Mike Colter (Photo: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix)

The actors on Luke Cage whose performances lean into the genre and style of the series for their introductions are all the more engaging and unique. The first line spoken by Willis “Diamondback” Stryker is a shouted “Can you dig it!?”, after he fires The Judas Bullet at an ambulance carrying Luke and Claire. You don’t get more stylized than that. He lived up to the hype. He’s a competent, calculating, and charismatic kingpin; we’re equally drawn to him and terrified by him. His stylized performance, quoting ’70s classic The Warriors and The Bible in near equal measure, full of rage and control skillfully parallels Mariah’s recovery from shocked accidental murderer to conniving collaborator. Diamondback uses otherworldly violence to maintain dominance in Harlem while Mariah uses cold hard cash. Simone Cook’s performance has been a little one note the last few episodes, but Misty’s desperation after being identified as Luke’s woman by Diamondback gives her performance a renewed energy and sadness.

My viewing companion for this episode (my dear boyfriend) said that Diamondback reminded him of Tony Todd in Candyman. He noticed a passing physical resemblance, but I felt like there was something more to the comparison. Candyman is about the subject of an urban legend coming to life, the son of a slave who haunts the residents of the Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago. Candyman draws stylistic choices from blaxploitation; horror films that draw from blaxploitation use fantastical elements to bring to life the fears and anxieties of the black community. Diamondback as the eventual villain for Luke Cage operates at first like a horror villain looming over the community and then terrorizing Luke on a more individual level. Diamondback is only referred to by name before this episode. He’s almost an urban legend. We hear from Shades and Cottonmouth what Diamondback does or doesn’t like, what he will or won’t accept from those who are in his hierarchy of crime. Even when he appears briefly at the end of episode seven, he isn’t identified. He’s just a name or a figure moving in the night. The red dot of his sniper rifle becomes a harbinger of doom. He smashes through the window in the women’s clinic like any self-respecting horror monster. We even get the ol’ “monster seems to die but when you go look for the body, it’s gone” trick when Luke throws Diamondback’s body into the lobby of United Palace. The overall effect creates a heightened terror around Diamondback; he doesn’t have to do much to ratchet up the suspense in the episode. I felt myself getting tense when a red dot appeared on the back of Luke’s head and clutched my pearls when Luke and Diamondback had a moment of recognition during their first hand to hand fight.

Mariah’s villain status is reaffirmed with the help of Shades. Shades arrived on the scene to act as a hand of Diamondback but appears to be enjoying his increased influence on the dealings in Harlem. He’s grooming Mariah to embrace her nefarious side to protect her from a murder charge and ends up with Harlem’s Paradise under his control. His scenes crackle with tension. It might be sexual, but it’s definitely Shades recognizing her potential. He says “I want you to win.” Mariah seems very comfortable paying off a hostess at Harlem’s Paradise to pin Cottonmouth’s murder on Luke. She artfully plays Cottonmouth’s murder and her questioning by police to the press to sully Luke Cage’s name. She calls out the media for demonizing her cousin after his death when she knows full well that Cottonmouth is guilty of many of the things he’s accused of. Mariah describing how to get rid of Candace the hostess echoes Mariah’s readiness to see Uncle Pete die in Mama Mabel’s backyard when she was a teen. Mariah’s ruthlessness then and now are both acts of self-preservation but because Candace is an innocent woman, Mariah’s ability to orchestrate a murder comes off much more terrifying. Mariah refers to the cash she drops in Candace’s lap as “the power.” Mariah always referred to political influence as power, but that being stripped from her, she must get her power from baser sources. Mariah’s final words about Candace are hoping she doesn’t have to orchestrate the hit on Candace because it would lower the value of the building.

The other horror in this episode is Luke’s body horror. Diamondback carries The Judas gun throughout the episode and while it looks like any other sniper rifle, it carries otherworldly power. Diamondback checks his bullets and uses them a few times during the episode. The bullets bored their way into Luke’s stomach through his titanium skin and exploded beneath the surface. Claire can’t seem to figure out how to remove the shrapnel from Luke’s body. When she investigates his cells, she realizes that they’re super elastic and energy absorbent. The very thing that gives Luke his powers makes him completely susceptible to the Judas gun. Luke has never had control over his abilities. His body was invaded and it granted him powers that are now killing him slowly. He’s forced to attempt to shove a scalpel into his stomach and even that fails. There doesn’t seem to be any treatment for Power Man, and his body betrays him.

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For both Luke and Mariah, their pasts are coming back to haunt them. (I’m sorry.) Diamondback only refers to Luke as Carl and taunts him with memories of Luke’s father. Luke remembers his father as a man who held him to high standards and would be crushed that Luke wound up in jail. Diamondback remembers him as a preacher who took his anger out on the football team he coached and dampened Diamondback’s shine to lift up Luke. Diamondback is resentful of those small slights. Mariah, meanwhile, sits at her desk and sees her face reflected in Mama Mabel’s and tells herself that she’s not like her aunt. But we can all see Mariah inherited more from Mama Mabel than she’d like to admit.

I gasped when Diamondback was revealed to be Luke’s brother. I’m trying to avoid spoilers and it’s been rewarding to be surprised by a series that plays into tropes pretty strongly. Even if the “I’m really your brother” twist is a cliché, the slow reveal of Diamondback helped the series avoid tipping its hat too early.

The episode ends with the ultimate horror: Luke Cage lost his battle with Diamondback. With no solution to his body horror and being driven away in a garbage truck, things are looking pretty bleak for our hero.

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Stray observations

  • Between “Your edges are a little damp” and “You let your little soror skee-wee on out of here,” we may have reached peak black-woman dialogue.
  • Are the people of Harlem a little suspicious or concerned that giant explosions seem to be happening every few days?
  • While researching Candyman, I found that the NAACP founded The Coalition Against Blaxploitation Films.
  • Misty remembers Candace being terrified of Cottonmouth during episode one. Is an impeccable memory and being outstanding at police work considered special enough abilities to qualify Misty as super?

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