Photo: Luke Cage/Netflix

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.

When it comes to Luke Cage’s first season, there’s before Cottonmouth and there’s after Cottonmouth. Though it moved at a slower pace, the first half of the season felt purposeful and alive, thanks largely to the ways in which Luke and Cottonmouth kept dancing around one another and around Harlem. The second half, however, struggled to recapture that same magic with Diamondback.

“Guys let’s take a real quick picture for our album cover.”

I actually think there’s a version of this season that works with Diamondback as the central villain, but the show would’ve needed to introduce him (or at least the idea that Luke has a complicated relationship with his family) a whole lot earlier. And maybe it shouldn’t have saved all of the contextualizing flashbacks to the Luke/Willis relationship until the season finale.

As such, the big Luke/Diamondback street brawl felt largely perfunctory although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get choked up when the neighborhood started chanting Luke’s name (I know, I’m corny). Luke’s relationship to Harlem has always been at the heart of this series, and the biggest problem with Diamondback is that he distracted from, rather than adding to that. Pretty much all of Marvel’s Netflix series have petered out a bit in their second halves and while I’m a little disappointed Luke Cage didn’t buck the trend, its missteps are thankfully nowhere near as egregious as the ninja stuff in the second half of Daredevil season two.

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In fact, there’s a lot to genuinely love in this finale, particularly for two of the show’s best characters: Misty Knight and Mariah Dillard. If I’m disappointed that Mariah didn’t quite become the central antagonist I wanted her to be after Cottonmouth’s death, Alfre Woodard more than makes up for it by making a meal out of every moment she has in this finale. And Simone Missick is there to match her beat for beat.

How many pictures of Alfre Woodard is too many pictures of Alfre Woodard?

It’s both devastating and kind of exhilarating to watch how deftly Mariah worms her way out of a murder charge (with a little help from Shades). Though neither Misty nor Priscilla particularly believe her naïve act, Mariah keeps up appearances until she’s certain Candace is dead. And then she’s practically gleeful as she skips out of the police station scot-free. The Misty/Mariah scenes were easily my favorite part of this finale and in a show that killed off characters at an alarming rate, I’m glad they both survived the season.

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“Hey Alfre, can you turn in an Oscar worthy performance real quick?” “Sure, no problem.”

I suppose it’s just a matter of personal taste, but while I enjoyed Method Man’s on-the-nose rap in the previous episode, Luke’s on-the-nose monologue (slash season clip show) made me cringe a little. But it’s nice to see him finally and fully embrace his role as Harlem’s vigilante. Even by reluctant hero standards, Luke started this season as a very passive protagonist. But while his powers will likely always remind him of the loss of autonomy he experienced in prison, over the course of the past 13 episodes he’s made peace with the fact that his abilities are as much a blessing as they are a burden. While there’s still plenty of room for Luke to grow from here, this season completes a solid arc for its central hero.

I’m a little less sold on the Claire/Luke romance, partially because I’m a bit of a Luke/Jessica shipper and partially because I’m not thrilled with the idea of Claire constantly serving as superhero love interests. I’ll allow it here (and she and Luke are very cute together), but if she winds up kissing Danny Rand in Iron Fist, we may have to revisit the issue.

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Sadly, however, Luke and Claire’s coffee session is cut short when two Georgia detectives show up to take Luke back to Seagate. It leaves the season on a bit of a dour note, but given that Bobby finds the file that proves Luke’s innocence, it shouldn’t be too hard to bust him out of prison in time for The Defenders. And as Luke says, sometimes you have to go backwards to move forwards.

Whatever its missteps, Luke Cage’s first season managed to craft a voice that’s unlike any live action superhero property I’ve ever seen before. And its lived-in world building, stellar central performances, and gorgeous cinematography consistently elevated the series. I’m very much looking forward to reading what less sleep deprived people than me have to say about the season as a whole.

Thanks as always for following along on this binge-review adventure. If you want to chat more about all things Luke you can find me over on Twitter. I leave you now in the very capable hands of Ali Barthwell, whose first review drops tomorrow. Until then, keep moving forward. Always

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Episode Grade: B

Season Grade: B+

Standout moment: As lukewarm as I was about the Luke/Claire pairing, I screamed with joy when Mariah kissed Shades. I am all about that twisted, twisted relationship.

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Marvel Cinematic Universe connections: Claire insists that she can have Matt Murdock represent Luke Cage, which is something I really need to see. Also the episode ends with Claire taking the number for a self-defense class led by Colleen Wing, who will be appearing in the upcoming Iron Fist.

“Ahhh, another diverse TV show for me to be a part of! Oh wait…”

Recommendation Corner: Here’s a fascinating piece by Justin Charity of The Ringer about the fact that Luke Cage is a surprisingly conservative black hero.

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Burning question: Listen, I’m Team Luke all the way, and I think it’s the sort of thing we generally accept from our superheroes, but there really wasn’t that much context to the fact that he beat up two police officers and threw one of them into a windshield, right?

Also, couldn’t the police department at least arrest Mariah based on Candace’s taped confession even if they think her case is unwinnable? There’s being pragmatic and then there’s being fatalistic.

Finally, here’s something I’ve been pondering for a while: Does it actually seem like Luke is both a form Marine and a former cop? I’m surprised the show didn’t do more with the idea that Luke’s far more rigidly trained than most street-level superheroes.

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Anyway, I’m just gonna leave this here:

“And I’ve got my black belt in barstools!”