Photo: Netflix

Luke Cage is not like your typical comic book tale. Luke, in all his blackness, would stand out anyway, but Luke Cage also presents us with a world where the hero needs to be constantly prodded into action. Willing to run at any moment, Luke has be to drawn back to heroism by Claire. His reluctance and need to be constantly motivated is a mark against Luke and makes him someone someone who relies on the emotional labor of others to spring to action.

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The complex machinations of the people in Luke Cage—the women in particular—can make for an engrossing urban crime drama. It moves slower than most other comic book fare but Luke Cage isn’t an average superhero tale. The episode “Manifest” is one of those engrossing stories. The women went ahead and ran off with the series and Luke was supremely underwhelming. Between Colter’s stilted performance and Luke’s aversion to being the hero we all know he can be, something big has to change to make Luke compelling again. In the meantime, the women are delivering passionate performances with pretty rote material: A dogged cop, a corrupt politician, a wise nurse. Misty gets a new adversary in the new captain with ties to her past, Mariah’s backstory is explored, and Claire has sparkling chemistry with Luke. Alfre Woodard’s performance is affecting and surprising as the mask slips from Mariah’s polished demeanor.

The thread that ties all the women’s stories together is an all-too-familiar one: How do women react as they’re let down by men? Mariah’s story explores this question the most overtly out of the three women that orbit Luke. Revealing Cottonmouth and Mariah’s history is used to make him more sympathetic, and to show she’s even more ruthless than her cousin. But it actually laid bare a storyline that humanized Mariah.

Sexual abuse and assault to make female character more interesting or “strong” is, tragically, a worn-out storyline in comics and science-fiction. Surviving sexual abuse or assault is at the center of or present in the female storylines in Jessica Jones, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and Game Of Thrones. In every series or film about strong, powerful women, do we need their strength to come from sexual assault? Thankfully, Mariah’s life and her character aren’t defined by Uncle Pete’s crimes against her, and the moments where his crimes are revisited show how woefully unprepared or callous the men around her are.

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Uncle Pete and Cottonmouth predictably blame Mariah for her assault or insist she enjoyed it. Cottonmouth seems to have carried these ideas throughout his adult life, bundled up in his resentment that Mama Mabel didn’t nurture his musical talents after Uncle Pete’s death. Mariah’s achievements are connected to the fact that Mama Mabel sent her to boarding school to keep her away from Uncle Pete. The moment that drives Mariah over the edge is Cottonmouth repeating “you wanted it and you know it.” In this political climate and being on Earth frankly, all those affected by sexual assault or abuse know these words too well. Mariah made sacrifices and put her entire career on the line for a man who ultimately didn’t believe her. He not only doesn’t believe her about her abuse; their confrontation begins when Cottonmouth refuses to listen to Mariah’s advice to clean up both of their images and to ignore Luke.

When she kills Cottonmouth, it’s not a triumphant moment or violent misandrist fantasy. It’s an outpouring of grief, frustration, and ire. Seeing a woman confront the effects of her abuse is moving, but seeing a black woman do so is even more affecting. Black women have often been left out of the conversation about abuse, and the conversations about their abuse need to acknowledge historical and cultural contexts. Luke Cage might have avoided picking a side when it comes many black political issues, but the writers seem to have walked backwards into giving a voice to black survivors of abuse.

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Misty is let down by two men this episode. The lack of concrete evidence left behind by Scarfe lets Cottonmouth walk free. Misty finds herself under scrutiny of a new captain, who is beginning to connect Luke to the events happening in Harlem and finds it suspicious that Misty hasn’t brought him in for questioning. Of course, Misty knows that her sexual history with Luke will delegitimize her. Damn patriarchy. Misty also finds herself clashing with Luke. Her efforts to convince him to bring her all the information he has aren’t successful and she finds herself arguing the merits of being a vigilante. She finds Luke’s attempts to connect with her patronizing and she sees the foolishness of Luke’s plan. All he wants is to be left alone, but he keeps marching right into Harlem’s Paradise, or an alley to square off with Cottonmouth and his men. Luke asks her to trust him but so far, he hasn’t given her a single reason and most of his interactions with her have been antagonistic. His unwillingness to cooperate with her puts her career in jeopardy.

Claire is initially let down by Luke and his unwillingness to continue to try to take down Cottonmouth but what’s striking is the amount of emotional labor she’s forced to do to keep Luke motivated and buoyant. Throughout the episode, Luke’s faith in the system he was so sure would put Cottonmouth away is completely shot. Instead of creating a new plan, Luke is disillusioned and Claire steps up over and over again to keep him in Harlem, protecting any number of the various things he’s claimed to want to protect. Claire has to remind him of his potential and his powers. Luke throws her advice back in her face. He asks her why she came running uptown with disdain. Later in the episode, Luke is preparing to run away from Harlem. The irony is lost on him.

Rosario Dawson brings a liveliness and heart to these scenes with Colter. She’s acting as both audience mouthpiece and the voice of the community. She adroitly handles the “You can’t run the rest of your life” speech. Claire reminds Luke that he’s not that special. That being a criminal in Harlem is not so uncommon and that the people will rally behind him if he makes a stand because someone has to. I’m exhausted watching her lift up Luke over and over again. Claire understands how special it is for Luke to open up to her and I hope that his backstory can be communicated only through conversations with Claire because Dawson and Colter’s chemistry is wonderful.

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Claire is the one with him when Luke is shot by the Judas bullet and it’s finally the thing that pierces him. After a great episode devoted to the emotions of the women around Harlem, Luke being wounded provides enough of an emotional shake-up for his character to maybe create something interesting and introduce the next Big Bad.

Stray observations

  • Between the reference to “Johnny Blaze” and finally seeing a gun that can kill a god like in Drive Angry, are we being set up for a cameo from The Nicholas Cage?
  • Mariah and Shades are my OTP.
  • I was struck by how the episode opens with a Nina Simone song and how her powerful and plaintive voice rang out. Is there any singer who sang more about the frustrations and disadvantages of black women than Nina Simone?
  • It’s revealed during a flashback that Domingo is the son of Salvador, one of the men who brought drugs into Harlem. All the relationships between everyone in Harlem makes the criminal world more interesting.
  • “I’m about sick of having to buy new clothes.”

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