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Flawed characterization of the lead hurts Luke Cage

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We’re almost at the midpoint of the season and by the midpoint of any work of fiction, we should be turning some emotional corner. Things are changing and the stakes are being raised considerably. The issues that have been simmering under the surface should be starting to bubble up. This episode sets us up for Luke’s lowest point in a season full of low points. “The Basement” leads us to a confrontation between Luke and Bushmaster where Luke believes that he’s calling the shots and in control but he ends up sinking into the Harlem River.

Luke Cage hasn’t really figured out one key problem: Luke Cage is the least interesting character on the show. His growing ego and the tension in his relationship with Claire made him more dynamic, but when Luke is in crime-solving mode, the character and the acting flatten out in service of the narrative. When he’s talking about his father with Piranha, he seems annoyed that he has to talk about his relationship. Not because it’s a sensitive subject, but because it’s a distraction from the mission at hand. He comes off as petulant rather than conflicted.


Also, I have a question. Why does Luke still care about Mariah? In terms of brutality and the potential to tear the city apart, Bushmaster seems like the bigger threat. I’m still a little fuzzy on the details of Luke’s plan. Is he trying to stop Mariah? Why is he trying to take down Bushmaster? If Bushmaster wants to take down Mariah and Luke wants to see Mariah removed from power, why not let him do it and turn Bushmaster in afterward? Besides, Mariah is becoming more and more impotent and her grasp on the city and its underworld feels more theoretical at this point. His rigid moral code doesn’t help with his dull characterization.

The failings with Luke’s characterization become even more apparent in juxtaposition to an electric and emotional scene between Shades and Comanche this episode. Shades and Comanche believe Bushmaster is going to look for Luke and Piranha at Pop’s Barbershop and stake out the place. While they are there, Comanche implies that the two men shared a sexual or romantic relationship while in prison together. Shades says that the relationship was situational while Comanche felt strong feelings for him.

Okay. There are a number of clichés and tired tropes happening in this exchange. That these types of relationships are common in prison. That queer or gay relationships are a placeholder for straight pairings (One man fell in love while the other was just “lonely”). That gay relationships happen offscreen. I can acknowledge all of that and still demand that we get some happy, positive queer representation in comic book films and TV.


All of that problematic portrayal aside, the scene was thoughtfully directed and acted. The direction and acting don’t negate that we’re woefully overdue for more LGBTQ characters in comic book TV and film. I felt the conflict in Theo Rossi’s performance of Shades and the gentle longing in Thomas Q. Jones’ performance as Comanche. This information made clear Comanche’s dislike of Shades’ relationship with Mariah. I also noted that these were two very masculine men, sitting in the dark, in the quiet, holding giant guns in their laps trying to avoid saying the words “I love you” or “I loved you.” The scene felt like a break from the rest of Shades and Mariah’s scenes which feel like a repetition of the same plot point.


Misty’s storyline seems to be walking us right to a “Heroes for Hire” situation. By the end of the episode, she’s frustrated with the police department’s way of doing things and the lack of concern over her admission that she was willing to plant evidence in Cockroach’s apartment. She sits down with John Scurti’s Dr. Krasner to talk about how she has to reconnect with her own moral code and maybe there are no right answers. The scene and Misty’s outcome are fine but there don’t seem to be any obstacles in the way of what she wants. Luke Cage has the time in this sixty plus minute episode to make the journey more difficult for Misty.

The big moment of the episode is the fight between Luke and Bushmaster on top of The High Bridge for Piranha and more importantly, Harlem’s soul. Bushmaster’s end goal doesn’t have anything to do with Luke and ignoring him would be a better use of Bushmaster’s time. His crew are able to find Piranha and almost get away with him so why confront Luke at all? I know. I know. “He has Harlem’s soul.”


This fight is supposed to feel important for the narrative but the directing choices are strange. Almost half of the fight is shot from incredibly far away making the two imposing men look like action figures. It also doesn’t help that the dialogue is capital-C Corny. Luke does not need to groan “Can’t…move…” when we can see he’s paralyzed by a mysterious powder blown in his face by Bushmaster. Other episodes have slick and impressive action but when we’re seeing a determined Luke take on Bushmaster in a fight “for Harlem’s soul,” we’re half a block away watching the action. We know that this isn’t the end of Luke because there are seven episodes left. I hope Luke Cage isn’t succumbing to old pacing habits.

Stray Observations:

  • Luke reacts to “rassclaat” as if it’s a clue or even a code word, when it just seems like something Jamaican people say. It’s not repeated with much significance anywhere else in the series.
  • “Blurred Severed Heads” is the name of my prog-rock band.
  • Can someone of Jamaican heritage or who has spent significant amounts of time in Jamaica comment on the accents this season? What does it mean that a show with an almost all-Black cast couldn’t find enough Jamaican actors to play major parts this season? What should we call this? “Green, Gold, and Blackface?”
  • All of Mariah’s scenes are following the same pattern: Pour a big drink, throw the big drink at the wall, cry about her daughter and her grandmother, shout “FAMILY FIRST!”
  • I’ve also been watching with subtitles on and the written subtitles feature Standard American grammar rather than capturing the exact way the Jamaican characters speak.

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About the author

Ali Barthwell

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Ali Barthwell is a wearer of fine lipstick and fine hosiery.