Luke Cage was building toward something, right? The wise words of Pop, Cottonmouth’s musical ability, Diamondback’s pursuit of revenge—all of those things meant something, right? Even though Luke was a reluctant hero, there still was a final boss to defeat before returning to normalcy, awaiting his next challenge, right? There was an ultimate lesson hidden among all the superfluous pop culture references and battles. Please, reassure me, because the season finale of Luke Cage felt more like a recap of all the events of the season wrapped in a giant corny bow rather than a satisfying conclusion. Diamondback was an over-the-top villain who would be perfectly at home in a more stylized version of Luke Cage but he never quite clicked as the Final Boss that Luke had to defeat to conclude the narrative action of the season.
Mariah invokes “The Battle for the Soul of Harlem” watching Luke and Diamondback clash but Diamondback seems unconcerned about the soul of Harlem. Mariah’s description of the fight between Luke and Diamondback is political spin, but casting the two men as opposites. To Mariah, Luke represents the forces that will tear Harlem apart, and…Diamondback does not? Harlem is a major character in Luke Cage, and its history and community is something to be honored, protected, and exploited by the other players. Diamondback doesn’t care about Harlem. He doesn’t care about anything. He doesn’t capitalize on the vacuum of power in the criminal underworld. He doesn’t celebrate the victory of selling the Judas bullets to the NYPD. He just wants to kill Luke because reasons.
As Diamondback is defeated fairly early in the episode, the antagonists of Luke Cage still eft standing don’t feel quite right as the Final Boss either. None of them seem to answer or call back to the themes set up earlier in the season. Cottonmouth is dead and his death was just a tool to further entangle Luke in Mariah’s web. Luke is a thorn in Mariah’s side but her cousin was a bigger liability for her success, and Luke didn’t seem to have much of a problem with Mariah’s activities before he realized her connection to Cottonmouth. Shades and Luke don’t have much of a beef, either. Shades views Luke as as merely a distraction from the bigger goals. Even Misty, who spent much of the series doubting Luke, came around to trust Luke (and approve of his new relationship) but was almost discredited again for her temper. So what was left? Who was left? A flashback that tells us nothing and characters recapping the events of the season.
The flashback to Luke and Diamondback, known back then as Carl and Willis, frames the final confrontation between the two. Willis used to coach boxing and Carl was facing off against a neighborhood bully. Carl refused to back down because “he was a Lucas” and Willis wouldn’t understand. Oh, the subtext. That Luke was a young man who was eager to turn to violence to gain respect doesn’t jibe with any version of Luke we know in the present. It felt like a strange characterization that didn’t justify any present behavior or relationships. Willis in the flashback was a supportive coach to Carl and tried to discourage him from resorting to violence. The contrast between the calm and mature Willis and the crazed and irate Diamondback throwing Luke around in his Hammer Tech super suit is probably supposed to show the effects of their divergent paths in life, but it feels like their backstories got switched, or perhaps we’re missing a chapter. The fight between Luke and Diamondback on the streets of Harlem is punctuated with Diamondback taunting Luke with cruel statements about their father: How he didn’t love Luke’s mother and how he was going to leave her for Diamondback’s mother. This feels miles away from the Diamondback we first met and even further away from the Diamondback we heard about from Shades or Cottonmouth before he arrived in the series.
The greatest information revealed in the flashback is that Willis taught Carl the rope-a-dope which Luke uses on Diamondback. The flashback gave more importance and weight to the confrontation between Luke and Diamondback, but after Luke knocked out his opponent, the fight was just over. The gun trafficking into Harlem wasn’t dealt with and Luke didn’t take out Mariah or Shades in the process. So what did he gain? What did the series gain from defeating Diamondback in a big public battle? It felt like Diamondback had to lose because he was the villain and that’s what happens to the Final Boss.
Once the battle is over, Luke, Claire, and Misty head to the police station to sort this whole thing out. By “sort this whole thing out,” the series means have every character restate their point of view and the events of the season that most affected them. Luke recaps his character arc with an allegedly stirring speech about Pop’s death. The speech plays over a montage of murals of black heroes and little black children with report cards. It is corny. It is so corny. It’s the series’ attempt to give Luke a big speech to drive home the themes of the show. And again, Mike Colter is being asked to carry a heavy emotional speech that is supposed to be so moving it causes the entire NYPD to gather around Misty’s desk to listen. Colter just isn’t up for that task.
The speech comes off both flat and grandiose. Luke claims his actions were for the next generation but we never see this next generation he’s fighting for or know his connections to the community beyond being close with Pop. Luke didn’t interact with the community in a meaningful way before Pop’s death. Luke is also treated by Misty as the man carrying on Pop’s legacy. Luke didn’t rally the community to fight back or anything like that. Sure, a crowd gathered around him to watch him fight Diamondback but how many of them were directly affected by Diamondback? And if so many in the community wanted to see Diamondback taken down by Luke, why didn’t the police try to take down Diamondback at any point before the big fight?
Mariah’s interrogation was just her recapping the activities in the criminal underworld to Inspector Ridley with her spin on the events. Mariah would arrive to debunk her story but ultimately Mariah walks free. The longer Mariah is in interrogation, the uglier her speech becomes. She tries to play as the innocent victim caught up in Cottonmouth’s web but when she says “I got no use for chickenheads,” she belies her innocence. It’s a deft piece of writing that, still, could have used a little bit more. She has Shades kill Candace and they take their place in Harlem’s Paradise to rule over the club together. I am looking forward to Mariah sending out Shades as her enforcer.
In the end, Luke is taken back into custody by federal agents to be returned to Seagate for his escape years ago. When Mariah went on TV during the “Battle for Harlem’s Soul,” she referred to Luke as Carl Lucas and they got an anonymous tip. Luke decides to stop running and defend himself without a lawyer. Luke became a vigilante because he believed that the system didn’t work. The greatest example of that the show has presented to us is having the season end with Luke in police custody while Mariah walks free. This is a rare example of the themes of the show intersecting nicely with the narrative action. I wish the episode had more of this than crowds in Harlem chanting “Luke! Luke! Luke!” More skillful plotting, less corny speeches and stunts.
- Anyone else completely annoyed and grossed out by Luke’s “Cuban coffee” flirtation line? Luke, we’re not comparing women to coffee anymore. Claire is too good to fall for that, I don’t care how fine Luke is.
- I loved Claire’s final moment taking a tab for a self-defense class, a little allusion to the upcoming Iron Fist.
- Known Deltas: Inspector Ridley, Mariah Dillard, my real-life Grandma.
- My other main problem with Luke’s speech in the police station is how it presents Pop as the catalyst for so much of the action when it erases the contributions of Misty and Claire in Luke’s life. They did much of the emotional labor to motivate him, come out in public, or put together his plans of attack.
- I’m going to amuse myself between seasons by writing Mariah and Shades erotic fan fiction.