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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Tragedy and twists trip up Luke Cage

Illustration for article titled Tragedy and twists trip up Luke Cage
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Episode 10, “Take it Personal,” wrestles with the theme “tragedy can be exploited for personal gain” and the most palpable exploration of this theme is Mariah becoming more entwined with Diamondback. She’s using the language of black pain and black mourning to create a frenzy within the police and the public to find Luke Cage, a man she framed for murder. Dr. Burstein tries to convince Luke and Claire to become his test subject and research assistant, respectively, claiming that they can cure cancer using Luke’s DNA. Dr. Burstein is hiding a secret about Reva to avoid destroying Luke’s world or to keep him reliant on Dr. Burstein as a source of information. Prisoners being experimented on in the first place is certainly a gross exploitation of an unfortunate situation. These storylines are worthwhile explorations within Luke Cage but something is just off. Some of it stems from Mike Colter’s performance.

Mike Colter has the perfect look for Luke Cage and he’s got a natural ease in the action scenes that comes off as cool confidence but oh man, when he was asked to do the heavy lifting during the reveal that Reva was feeding information to the organization that experimented on Luke? He fell flat. Colter’s acting ability hasn’t been too challenged as the emotional scenes were few and far between, and he seems to have been able to master a stoic monologue or a quip before kicking someone’s ass. It’s troubling to have a pivotal moment this late in the series played so wrong by the lead actor. The same goes for the moments when Luke’s memory floods back to him about Diamondback being his half-brother. Colter doesn’t play “surprised” well and the moment relies on Luke piecing the events of what seemed to be one weekend together. The conversation taking place in front of him was obvious and to not put the pieces together until now seemed to be a bit of narrative convenience. As the stakes get raised throughout this episode, I can only assume the final three episodes will be emotional and dramatic, and I don’t want to dread more important moments being ruined by a misplaced grimace by Colter.

The other aspect of this episode feeling off is the reveal that Reva was very involved with the experiments happening at Seagate and her therapy sessions as a way to identify potential test subjects. What does this achieve? What effect does this have? Other than throwing every twist the writers can at Luke? Luke was already a man betrayed who lost everything. We already knew that Reva was aware of the experiments in Seagate and was willing to offer Luke up to the experiments to save his life. Why make her an active participant? It feels like adding a tragedy for tragedy’s sake. Luke’s monologue looking at Seagate after destroying Dr. Burstein’s barn, about realizing that he was hanging on to the idea of Reva rather than being in love with the real her, did not sound like a monologue a real person would deliver but it wasn’t stylized to play to the show’s strengths and style. It was, quite frankly, a mess. The saving grace was Rosario Dawson again grounding the scenes in the barn with Dr. Burstein and on the shore looking at Seagate. It was also nice to see someone acknowledge Claire’s talent and intuition.

Even the storylines that work this episode still raise some eyebrows. Mariah and Diamondback want to exploit Harlem’s fear of Luke Cage and whip the police into a frenzy in order to move some guns. Diamondback has created a mass market version of the Judas bullet. Diamondback says that people are going to look at that dashcam footage and ask themselves “are they ready for bulletproof niggas who eat cops.” It’s about that “black fear.” He even says that the fear of the armed black man is the reason for gun laws after abolition. While selling Judas bullets to the community and the police to hunt Luke Cage makes sense logically, invoking the complicated and discriminatory history of gun laws in this country to do so feels sloppy. After abolition, many states forbid African Americans from owning guns to prevent an insurgency. In Florida, for example, patrol groups could enter the homes of African Americans and look for guns and other weapons.

Gun control and its history with African-Americans isn’t confined to the post-Civil War era. In 1967, Black Panthers marched to the California Legislature and stood on the steps carrying rifles and other guns and the governor at the time, Ronald Reagan signed an open carry ban into law two months after the demonstration. Guns were taken out of the hands of African-Americans who relied on them for self-defense during an era of racial terrorism and remained in the hands of police and white people. African-Americans now are less likely to own guns but more likely to die from gun violence. It seems like a hard sell to convince a Black and Latino community to heavily arm police with guns capable of killing a god in the hopes that they’ll use it only on the right person. Even the description of Luke used by the police “Black man in a hoodie” is painfully vague and brings up so many painful memories of extralegal executions committed by police. Mariah is certainly a skilled orator and charismatic figure who sees control of Harlem as her birthright, I don’t think she’s that skilled. Lonnie being beaten by the police motivating the community to bring in Luke Cage using heavy artillery seems like a bit of a stretch after the aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics used by the police.

The acting by the women of Luke Cage remains a highlight of the episode and Diamondback delivers some over-the-top charm but if the plots and Colter’s performance don’t improve; then we could be in for a slog through the final episodes of Luke Cage.


Stray observations

  • Diamondback promises “a few illmatic deaths” to really sell this “Frame Luke Cage” scheme. Is there some other definition of “illmatic”? Are the deaths going to be of or relating to Nas’ album?
  • Mariah references Jessica Jones in her speech at Harlem’s Paradise. Mariah is another person who doesn’t believe Kilgrave’s mind control abilities.
  • The people yelling out in the audience (“Not my friend!”) during the rally at Harlem’s Paradise was spot-on and hilarious.
  • I really hope Luke saving Misty won’t be interpreted by her or Claire as a romantic gesture. I’m not in the mood for a love triangle.