Welcome to The A.V. Club’s Luke Cage binge-watch. From Friday, September 30 through Sunday, October 2, A.V. Club contributor Caroline Siede will be watching and reviewing every episode of the Marvel series’ first season.You can follow along and comment on the whole season on the binge-watching hub page or chime in on the individual episode reviews. For those watching at a more moderate pace, reviews by Ali Barthwell will run every other day beginning Monday, October 3.
The best thing Luke Cage has going for it so far is its insanely stacked cast. So much so that a character played by Alfre freakin’ Woodard currently has stiff competition for my top five favorite characters list. While Daredevil and Jessica Jones found stellar performers for their central heroes and villains, Luke Cage spreads the wealth to an even deeper bench of players.
So even though we’ve only spent two episodes with him, Pop’s death still hit me almost as hard as it hits Luke. In his limited screen time, Frankie Faison imbues Pop with such humanity that it’s impossible not to fall in love with him. The way he simultaneously admonishes, sympathizes with, and fiercely protects Chico when he shows up looking for help perfectly encapsulates the complicated man Pop is. He’s no saint, as he readily admits. But rather than hardening him, Pop’s time as a street criminal and convict only made him more empathetic to the struggles of others. You get the sense that he became a father to the Harlem community largely because he couldn’t be a father to his own son, who he hasn’t seen since the kid was 13.
And Faison isn’t the only scene-stealer. There are any number of Luke Cage cast members who could easily carry their own series. And “Code Of The Streets” does a much better job of balancing their somewhat disparate storylines than the premiere.
Right now there are three main stories unfolding on Luke Cage: The first centers on Luke and his struggle to find purpose in his life. The second involves Cottonmouth (sorry dude, that’s what I’m going to call you) and Mariah and their various political/criminal machinations. And the third centers on Detective Misty Knight solving Harlem murders. Loosely linked by Chico’s robbery in the premiere, these three threads are now more firmly united around the shootout at Pop’s place. And they’re also linked thematically as well. Befitting the episode’s title, all three storylines deal with personal and moral codes.
As a member of law enforcement, Misty’s moral code is the most straightforward: She wants justice. But it’s also clear that she wants it in a way that builds ties with the community rather than creating a divide with them. Luke, on the other hand, is a man without a code. He’s a good guy, sure, and he’s willing to help people when he can, but he’s motivated much more by a personal sense of loyalty to his friends than by any grand philosophical goal. He’s a fierce individualist who generally prefers not to get involved with other people’s conflicts. But when Pop asks him to help Chico, he doesn’t half-ass the job either. It’ll be interesting to see how Pop’s death shapes Luke’s personal philosophy going forward (always).
Cottonmouth and Mariah, meanwhile, have the most complicated relationship to morality. Mariah is incredibly self-righteous about Cottonmouth’s ties to crime, yet she gladly takes his money and enjoys the performers at his club too. She may think murder is wrong, but she doesn’t bat an eye when she watches her cousin throw a man off a roof either. Mariah is the most enigmatic character in the series so far, which only makes me more eager to spend time with her.
But this episode did give me a much better grasp on Cottonmouth. Though he fits the honorable/dignified gangster mold, he’s more flexible than I expected him to be. He’s pretty much willing to forgive the fact that his crony took matters into his own hands right until he learns that said crony got Pop killed. Then he has no qualms about throwing him off a roof (with a great tracking shot to boot). Mahershala Ali turns in a fantastic performance in this episode, particularly in the rooftop scene where he conveys a huge range of emotions. “Believe it or not there’s supposed to be rules to this shit,” Cottonmouth says with genuine remorse after his rooftop punishment has been doled out.
It’s also worth pointing out how much these characters’ moral codes exist in relation to their black identities. Luke and Pop, Mariah and Cottonmouth, and even Luke and the kid who threatens him have long conversations about what it means to be black in America. And it’s no accident that this episode contains a scene in which a bulletproof black man wearing a hoodie discusses ownership of the n-word. As in the premiere, writer Cheo Hodari Coker is very purposeful in his exploration of the black experience.
Across the board, “Code Of The Streets” has so many wonderful examples of the specificity I was hoping for in my last review. Pop doesn’t just carry guilt over losing touch with his son, he has a very specific fear he won’t recognize his grown child if he visits the barbershop. And Misty isn’t just familiar with the community she polices; she’s a St. Nick playground legend with a star of fame on the local basketball court. That specificity ensures that even when the show trades in familiar tropes—like a dramatic shootout led by a wayward henchmen or Pop’s Uncle Ben-esque death scene—it doesn’t feel repetitive or rote. If the dialogue is occasionally a little clunky (no more Benjamin Franklin jokes, please!), Luke Cage as a whole has a voice that’s wholly original.
Standout moment: I loved the scene in which Luke and Misty “meet” at Pop’s following their hook-up. It’s perfectly played by both Mike Colter and Simone Missick. Also Luke instinctively running to shield Pop’s teen customer from the shootout made my heart melt.
Marvel Cinematic Universe connections: Daredevil scene-stealer Turk gets an extended appearance in this episode. As anyone who read my Daredevil binge-reviews will know, I’m always in favor of more Turk. His reaction to Cottonmouth’s rooftop punishment was perfect.
Burning question: Is Tide sponsoring Luke Cage? Or does Pop just really like to keep his Tide products prominently displayed in his backroom? Related: Should Luke Cage be the next Mr. Clean?