Okay. One more before the awards and rankings begin. One last-second entry in the race. Let’s do this.
Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.
This instalment: Luke Cage is back with a more coherent season.
Short version: The first Marvel Netflix show to improve in its second outing fixes a lot of its old problems, but chooses not to learn about pacing.
Luke Cage, everybody.
Following the events of The Defenders, Luke Cage (Mike Colter), Hero of Harlem, is back to trying to bring down his old enemies, Councilwoman-turned-gang lord Mariah Dillard née Stokes (Alfre Woodard) and her chief henchman/lover Shades (Theo Rossi). But before long, Luke’s stuck in the middle of a war between Mariah and a Jamaican gang lord calling himself Bushmaster. He’s as strong and bulletproof as Luke, only faster and with some actual fighting skill. The Stokes family has been wronging Bushmaster’s family for generations, and now he’s out to finish off the Stokes clan once and for all. Which, at the moment, is just Mariah. Also, something about Luke just bugs the guy.
When heads start rolling (literally) and blood starts spilling, how will Luke protect Harlem?
The answer is “gradually.”
Misty Knight: After one season of Luke Cage and one of Defenders, it looks like they’re finally figuring out how to write Misty Knight, freshly returned to the NYPD after some time away. As she chafes against a department that doesn’t seem to want her, the aftermath of her partner turning out to be corrupt, an old rival determined to keep her sidelined, and being short an arm in the wake of Defenders, Misty’s having some trouble finding her purpose, and even more trouble finding a way to sort out this gang war within the law. Some of which is aided mid-season by a shiny new robot arm from Danny Rand. Simone Missick does a good job with the role, and between her and Punsiher’s Dinah Madani, it looks like Marvel Netflix might be figuring out the Badass Female Co-Leads they like so much. Maybe even Iron Fist will manage to hahahaha sorry, sorry, I thought I could get through it.
Stokes vs Bushmaster: The real heart of the season’s story is Bushmaster’s blood feud with Mariah, And maybe it has one too many turns along the way, but overall it works. Alfre Woodard, Theo Rossi, and Mustafa Shakir surely act the Hell out of it, especially Woodard. Mariah’s fall began in season one, but in season two she is absolutely unhinged and it’s clear Woodard is having a blast with it. In lesser hands, Luke being forced to change allegiance between them over the course of the season wouldn’t have worked, but to me it honestly felt like Luke being backed into a corner, never knowing who’s the lesser of two evils, or how to keep the innocents of Harlem safe.
And Shades goes on a fun journey in the back third.
Racial politics: They don’t hammer us with “Life sucks for black people in America,” but they get their message across, particularly with Luke’s response to Misty questioning his disregard for the law… “When has the law ever helped us?”
The theme of “The name you chose vs the name you were born with” works well across multiple characters.
Mike Colter’s still pretty solid in the role.
The threat of Judas bullets, the one bullet that could kill Luke, is elegantly erased early on. Which is good, because it lets Bushmaster and Mariah prove that there are so many more interesting ways to hurt the bulletproof black man than “better guns.”
This season ends not on a cliffhanger, per se, but an unsettling note, and unlike last season it’s not going to be thrown out during the first episode of a different series. Improvement.
And in his one appearance, Danny Rand is the least annoying he’s ever been. Still slightly annoying, since he can’t get through a scene without bringing up chi and K’un-Lun, but a definite improvement. The Power Man and Iron Fist team-up still works better than Iron Fist’s first season implied it would.
Pacing, always pacing: In an interview with EW, showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker defended the season’s pacing, saying that trying to make each episode worth watching individually is “Brittany Spears shit,” trying to make a “pop album,” while his slow-burn approach is more Coltrane or Led Zeppelin. He’s not trying to make hit singles, he’s trying to make an album to experience in its entirety. And that critics who think he needed a shorter episode count would have “edited Bohemian Rhapsody.”
This isn’t a 75 minute double-album, this is a 13 hour TV show, so that does not excuse the pacing problems. Allow me to elaborate. Lightning round!
-In the beginning, Luke’s trying to track down heroin being sold under his name; Mariah and Shades are trying to go legit; to aid with this, Mariah reaches out to her estranged daughter Tilda; Misty’s trying to fit back in to her old precinct despite the missing arm and notoriously crooked late partner; Claire Temple is concerned that Luke’s anger is getting the best of him; and Bushmaster is preparing to take his revenge on Mariah. Does any of that seem like it needs three episodes to cover? Because they sure took three episodes to cover it all. Gotham could have done it in one. Do not let yourself be unfavourably compared to Gotham.
-Also that Luke Cage-brand heroin just vanished. I’m still not sure who was behind it or why.
-Given that every time Luke or Misty tries to go to Mariah for information, all they get is verbal abuse and mind games, the sixth or seventh time it happened it started to get old. That is wheel-spinning nonsense.
-Episode eleven features multiple flashbacks to Bushmaster’s backstory. Episode eleven. That is too late in the game, way too late. Even if any of this was new information (it was not), we would have been well past caring exactly how his hatred for the Stokes clan began. In fact, I was now 100% on board with whatever he had to do to bring Mariah down. “Show don’t tell” does not mean “Tell, and then five episodes later get around to showing.”
-The one-episode team-up of Luke Cage and Iron Fist works well, but it also lifts right out. He doesn’t teach Luke how to fight better, or take on some actual dangerous minion of either side, he just drops by for a week to talk about chi and stillness and have one admittedly fun action scene against random goons before heading back downtown right before Luke really needed backup. Episodes 10 and 11 out of 13 are no place for filler.
If just one Marvel Netflix show properly used 13 episodes, maybe we could talk about jazz vs pop, but as it is, y’all need help. Moving along…
The further collapse of Claire Temple: Claire used to be Marvel Netflix’s MVP. But not lately. She was diminished by Iron Fist, started to recover in Defenders, but… if she’s going to be a thing in this franchise, she really needs something to do besides show up and tell the protagonists that they aren’t heroing right. That’s… basically all she does, regardless of the show. “Don’t kill people, Iron Fist. Be less aggressive, Luke Cage. I have no wants of my own, I serve the male hero’s* arc and then leave.” Her difficulties with Luke’s anger come from a real place, and there is a heartfelt and powerful scene explaining why she can’t be around him when he’s so driven by anger, but her constant pressure on him to reconcile with his father (that’s also a plotline, forgot about that one) seems less like her knowing Luke needs this, and more like Claire projecting her own issues onto Luke and not seeming to care about his feelings at all, and so even if she’s right she went about it the wrong way and never got taken to the mat on it.
*She’s been in all of one episode of Jessica Jones, that’s why I said “male hero.”
Other random notes…
-Hanging a lampshade on your refusal to say “Hulk” out loud does not excuse refusing to say “Hulk” out loud.
-In the finale, Luke says he needs to “make Harlem great again,” which, ew, Black Lightning knew to only have the bad guys say that, and then later they make a very blatant Godfather homage. Pick a metaphor. Trump or Corleone. They don’t mix.
-I don’t understand why Mariah thinks Harlem always supports her and always will when we saw how fast Harlem turned on Luke for losing one fight.
-Alfre Woodard’s performance is good for the most part, but it leaned a little close to Fish Mooney levels of camp. That’s too much camp for this show. She hits Maximum Mariah by episode ten and then had nowhere to take it for the next three hours.
-“There’s a bulletproof black man, Misty, protocol is out the window.” Please. If this was in the same universe as all the other Marvel properties, Luke isn’t even in the top five oddest things that have happened in New York.
Episode nine, “For Pete’s Sake,” in which compromises are made, deals are struck, parent/child relationships are either repaired or destroyed, Tilda learns a horrifying secret about her past, and Luke and Bushmaster square off for a rematch. Would have made a decent season finale. Their actual season finale is fine, this isn’t another Iron Fist situation where the actually decent finale was followed by an hour of nonsense, but episode nine worked well.
Episode eleven, “The Creator,” had me wishing Danny Rand had stuck around. That’s not a great sign. I repeat: the second-to-last (or antepenultimate, which is a fun word) episode is too goddamn late to be flashing back to the villain’s childhood.
Simone Missick as Misty Knight. They’ve set up some interesting conflicts between her and Luke for next season.
Tips For Next Season
Since they’ve made it clear shouts of “Episodic narrative, figure it out” are going nowhere… You’re going to consider bringing back Diamondback next season. Fight it. Fight that urge.
Overall Grade: Bish
I liked more of it than I didn’t, and they fixed a lot of season one’s problems, but I still dream of a Marvel Netflix show with no nonsense or wheel-spinning.