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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Luke Cage tries to right itself, return to theme

Photo: Netflix
Photo: Netflix
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The first thing any of us knew about Luke Cage was that he was a bulletproof black man. His impenetrable skin was supposed to be a fierce rebuttal to police brutality, or, at the very least, a hope that a black person could walk down the street in a hoodie and not be afraid. To Luke, his abilities were a burden, an annoyance that drew unwanted attention to a man who would prefer a quiet uninterrupted life surrounded by a few loved ones. A black community was a refuge where Luke could be invisible and authentic. Several denizens of Harlem tried to convince him to be a hero for hire. Besides being a reference to the comic where Luke first appeared, the public was asking Luke to step up and be a symbol that they wanted and needed. He balked at acting as a vigilante to save the community and when he did, he did so reluctantly. His heroism was hoisted upon him. I’ve noted instances in the show where Luke would prefer to cut and ran but black and Afro-Latina women motivated him to stay.

As this season wore on, the show seemed to shy away from the central questions and themes introduced in the early going. The main conflict shifted from a rumination on the responsibility of black people to their community to, rather, the interpersonal conflict between Luke and Diamondback. Diamondback’s myopic obsession with Luke had nothing to do with Harlem and the community. He single-mindedly pursued Luke while Luke was trying to understand the origin of his powers or was evading the police. In “Soliloquy of Chaos,” comments about Luke being a bulletproof black man are raised again but they feel more like a last ditch effort for relevance rather than preparing to tie together the loose ends.

The stumbling block for Luke Cage in revisiting these themes is that they happen within a detour from the main plot that feels tonally wrong at this point in the series. After Luke escapes from police custody and is let go by an older police officer, he goes missing from the episode for about ten minutes. When he reappears, Luke interrupts a bodega robbery in progress. One of the men he saves during this stick-up is none other than Method Man. The two robbers are played as humorous and ineffective; one pulls up his mask to talk to Mef about growing up listening to Wu-Tang Clan. Luke easily swats their guns away, sends them packing, and rhapsodizes himself about his idolization of the Wu. He trades hoodies with Method Man (his own is riddled with bullet holes) and Luke says, damn it, “Sweet Christmas.” The whole scene is played like a charming reprieve. “Sweet Christmas” itself feels like a quick way to get a laugh on Luke Cage. Method Man goes on Sway’s morning show (?!) to talk about his run-in with Luke.

These scenes don’t reveal anything new about Luke, Harlem, his abilities, or even his tastes in rap music. He’s running from his homicidal half-brother as well as the police. We don’t need another scene where bullets fly off his chest and his attackers are stunned—we get it. We didn’t need Luke to disappear for ten minutes in the first twenty minutes of the second to last episode of the season. He’s in the fight of his life. We’re supposed to believe that our characters are in the middle of a battle for the soul of Harlem. Guns, drugs, gangs are poised to flood the streets. There was nothing for Luke to do? Nothing new we could have seen or learned about him or his relationship to any of the other characters in the series? It felt like a mismanagement of time and resources for two of Luke’s first three scenes to be with one-off characters. He interacts with Misty briefly in the cold open but he has a more productive and sincere conversation with M.E.T.H.O.D. MAN. Mef astutely remarks that “Bulletproof always goin’ come second to being black.” How much more powerful would these words be delivered by Misty or even Diamondback? Hell, the words would be more powerful uttered directly to Luke. When Method Man says it, he’s schooling HB, Sway’s co-host. Misty does say these words later in the episode but it doesn’t feel important or significant because they were already said by Method. Man.

Illustration for article titled Luke Cage tries to right itself, return to theme

It doesn’t help either that these scenes are just so corny. This scene was written like someone’s dad - say for instance, Tim Kaine - had to write a scene about “rappers talking about superheroes.” Method Man spits a verse about Luke Cage over a montage of the corner store owner selling hoodies strewn with bullet holes to show solidarity with Cage. The image of black men walking the streets with bullet hole hoodies would be impactful and Method Man invokes Trayvon Martin’s name, but at this point in the series and in the middle of these corny scenes, it feels like a superficial acknowledgement of one of the greatest injustices to persist in our time. And, annoyingly , Mef goes on to give a shout-out to Pop and Iron Man in the song. Levity has never been Luke Cage’s strong suit, so to rely on it to reintroduce some heavy themes feels cheap. The series feels like it’s trying to walk a fine line in the montage during Method Man’s verse about Luke. The police try to stop a black man they think is Luke but he turns out to just be a fan in a copycat hoodie who fits the type. This reveal feels reverential and comedic at the same time. That’s an incredibly difficult balance to strike and Luke Cage doesn’t find that balance. Especially when the quality of jokes is on the “Hey, man! There’s baby diapers in here!” level.


The scenes with Shades, Mariah, and Misty strike a more compelling tone and attempt, in their way, to push the story forward. The alliance between Shades and Mariah is one of the more successful components of this episode. Shades and Mariah’s focus on a goal bigger than themselves picks up some of the legacy themes set up earlier in the season. Mariah’s desire to continue her New Harlem Renaissance and secure her legacy makes her choice to accept Diamondback’s cash donation more believable. Diamondback has prided himself on his loyalty and assured his followers that their loyalty would pay dividends for them. As such, when he tries to have Shades killed, it feels like an insult rather than just another task that has to be accomplished to move the story forward. Misty remains the only police officer that is attempting to put the pieces together about Luke rather than bring him down without thinking. She also manages to get some information out of Candace and knows to bring her to Claire for protection. Inspector Ridley seems to be back to making all the wrong moves and her interview with Shades yields nothing (“Law. Yer.”). Meanwhile, Diamondback is assembling a bulletproof suit with power fist gloves. Is this what we’ve been building to all along? Diamondback hated his brother with an all-consuming passion but created a suit with his abilities? Is he emulating Luke or trying to be better than him? Diamondback wipes out Domingo and his gang, the last remaining competition in town, but the show does not treat his victory with the importance it deserves. If the question of who will lead the Harlem underground is a central theme of the show, every criminal game in town besides Diamondback and Mariah being wiped out should be a monumental happening, but the show seems to breeze past it.

Going into the last episode, I’m not sure exactly what questions the show intends to answer by the time the credits roll, but there certainly are a lot of them floating around.


Stray observations

  • There was plenty more to chew on this episode for the Mariah/Shades ’shippers. *Frantically points to self *
  • The bullethole hoodies look like something out of Yeezy Season. I’m unsure if that’s a compliment or an insult.
  • Diamondback’s armor at the end of the episode was reminiscent of his outfit from the comics. Like my mom said when Captain America put on his old suit in Winter Solider: “Throwback Thursday!”
  • Luke listens to Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring The Ruckus” and said he loves “P.L.O. Style.” Ghostface Killah released an album called Ironman, famously refers to himself as Ironman and Tony Starks, and appeared in a deleted scene from the first Iron Man. Now I’m wondering about Wu-Tang Clan’s place in the MCU. Can we expect a cameo from RZA or Raekwon in The Defenders?
  • THE RETURN OF BOBBY FISH! Come thru, Bobby Fish!
  • What other trends inspired by Marvel heroes would you like to see pop up? Little round red glasses? Oversized infinity scarves?
  • “…Until shorty pulled the biscuit.”
  • How, Sway?