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.
A pattern is emerging with these Marvel Netflix shows: They start out fairly grounded and realistic before eventually pushing things too far in a comic book direction. It happened with Daredevil (in both seasons), it happened with Jessica Jones, and now, unfortunately, it’s happening with Luke Cage too. This episode opens with a truly embarrassing technobabble scene in which Claire and Dr. Burstein frantically use trial and error to save Luke’s life. (Salt! Heat! A toaster in the bathtub!) And that opener is a harbinger of more cartoonishness to come.
“Take It Personal” amps up the elements Luke Cage has struggled with this season—including clunky dialogue and odd tonal shifts—and it downplays the show’s strengths, like its lived-in depiction of Harlem and its low-key character interactions. Those missteps, along with some questionable real-world metaphors, mean this is easily the weakest episode of the season for me.
Here’s a pro-tip: If the solution to your problem involves thinking about it a bit, you can actually do that anywhere. Yet Luke decides he and Claire must visit his (suspiciously snowy) Savannah hometown so he can reflect back on his childhood. “Willis hates me and I just need to figure out why,” Luke explains. Hmmm, maybe you should’ve listened to the longwinded monologue where he laid out all of his resentments about you?
The scene in Luke’s father’s church creates a lovely visual language for its flashbacks as present-day Luke watches figments from his past move around him. But that interesting visual flourish isn’t enough to save what feels like a pointless side plot. After about 30 seconds of reflection, Luke confirms that Willis was telling the truth; they are indeed related. But it’s just hard to care about the *big reveal* that Luke’s childhood best friend is actually his half-brother, when we didn’t even know he had a childhood best friend until two episodes ago. Luke might find it revelatory, but to us it’s just new information
Even weirder, this episode does feature a genuinely shocking twist that works equally well for Luke and for the audience: Reva knew about both Dr. Burstein’s experiments and Rackham’s fight ring, and she was apparently manipulating Luke for large portions of their relationship. Given how much his love for Reva motivated Luke in both Jessica Jones and on this show, that seems like it should be devastating. But instead it’s glossed over fairly quickly (“I love the idea of Reva, but not her specifically. Not anymore.”) in favor of more Willis drama.
Perhaps there’s a way this odd plotting could work if the execution were flawless, but the dialogue in “Take It Personal” is the clunkiest it’s been all season. There’s no subtly or nuance and everyone just says exactly what they feel. “I trusted Reva and I was wrong. How can I trust you?” Luke asks Claire. She might as well respond, “Because my name is in the main credits.”
The other half of this episode digs into some tricky territory that I’m not sure fully works either. Diamondback (who I’m liking less and less as a villain) kills a cop in order to pin the murder on Luke. The police department ramps up their stop-and-frisk tactics to help them track down the bulletproof hero they think is responsible, although Misty remains unconvinced that Luke was actually involved at all. Then after a detective roughs up a teen in the interrogation room (the same teen Luke saved from the shootout at Pop’s), Mariah manages to spin the whole thing into a political boon for herself as she holds a rally that’s half police brutality protest, half anti-superhero campaign.
Up until this point, I’ve felt that Luke Cage has done a fairly good job of using imagery of contemporary issues of police brutality (like Luke wearing a Trayvon Martin-esque hoodie) without crossing over into exploitative territory. But this episode is the first to give me pause about those real-world connections.
Now, there’s nothing wrong about exploring the ways in which Mariah manipulates a cause she truly believes in (protecting black and brown people) to her own political advantage (getting Diamondback an arms contract with the police). That’s basically what Wilson Fisk does with issues of gentrification on Daredevil. But given how much controversy surrounds the noble goals of the Black Lives Matter movement in real life, this storyline has to walk a very fine line when it comes to painting Mariah as the corrupt figure and not the entire BLM movement. And I’m not sure the show finds the right balance.
A main component of the real-life Black Lives Matter movement is a push to demilitarize the police. Yet Mariah uses a BLM-esque event to argue for arming the police with massively destructive alien weaponry. The idea that protestors in Harlem would go along with that just doesn’t track for me. The show is incorporating iconography from real-world events while changing the context significantly. And unlike, say, changing details about World War II in Captain America, the Black Lives Matter movement is a contemporary one currently facing an uphill battle with public relations. And though it’s almost certainly unintentional, there’s an implication here that social justice activists are easily misled by corrupt leaders with selfish goals.
Perhaps the show will grapple with these issues head on in the next few episodes or perhaps others will respond to this storyline more positively than I did. But as a standalone story, “Take It Personal” failed to cohere for me as either a piece of entertainment or a piece of social commentary.
Standout moment: Okay, but I have to give Luke Cage major props for the scene featuring four black women in positions of authority standing around discussing politics and justice. That’s certainly not something you see every day in a Marvel property.
Also check out this amazing sign at Mariah’s rally:
Also the shot of Willis lurching down the street yelling, “I’m Luke Cage!!” made me laugh really hard and I don’t think that’s a good thing.
Marvel Cinematic Universe connections: During her speech at the rally Mariah makes a reference that also doubles as a major spoiler for the first season of Jessica Jones!
Burning question: Am I crazy or did Claire only take out the shrapnel from one of Luke’s wounds? Also why the hell did Luke think it was a good idea to go to Mariah’s anti-Luke Cage rally?