Wed
Oct 19 2016 1:00pm

Marvel’s Luke Cage Season 1 Review: Episodes 8-10

Like a lot of story types—Westerns, soap operas, romantic comedies—there are limits to what superhero tales can deliver. You don’t have to read too many Marvel or DC comics before you start seeing familiar patterns and structures, and when you translate those comics to the big and small screens, you don’t break free of those patterns. There are still ways to make the stories interesting while respecting the limitations, you just need to get creative.

For Luke Cage, the show’s producers brought in a very original use of the show’s terrific soundtrack. Plus, they showed a neighborhood hardly ever depicted before in any kind of adventure fiction. But if you’re going to go thirteen episodes into a superhero TV show, the patterns will assert themselves at some point and the limitations will call for more creativity.

So with Episodes 8-10 of Luke Cage, we enter the trough, and the show’s creators have to take some time to set up the series climax. And with some of the strongest parts of the cast now in the ground, it feels like they’re working with lesser clay. I don’t know if the show can ever recover from the loss of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, played with perfect menacing charisma by Mahershala Ali. But Alfre Woodard is hardly chopped liver—and neither is Rosario Dawson—and Mike Colter and Simone Missick have proven themselves as very watchable actors. So let’s see how everyone performs when they have to step up.


Episode 8: “Blowin’ Up the Spot”

Here’s where our players stand at the outset of the 8th episode, roughly the middle of the series: Mariah (Alfre Woodard) has lost her political clout, killed her cousin, and fallen under the sinister thrall of Shades (Theo Rossi). Misty (Simone Missick) has lost her partner, repeatedly confronted Luke, and found herself under suspicion in her own police department. Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) has shown up and put herself and her medical skills in the service of Luke Cage (Mike Colter)—and just in time, because Luke has just been shot with something called a Judas bullet, the only thing that can pierce his skin. And, we’re about to meet the shooter.

Claire calls for an ambulance, which gets ambushed by their earlier assailant. The shooter steps out into the open, and Luke knows him—it’s Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), aka Willis Stryker, a figure from Luke’s past. If you find it something of a coincidence that the same criminal big shot who was supplying Cottonmouth with his wholesale firearms now turns out to be a childhood friend of Luke’s, then join the club. Stryker, we learn, has been itching to put the hurt on Luke for years. But at this reunion, Stryker doesn’t reveal what it was exactly that has made him so determined to blast Harlem to pieces just to get at one man.

I could walk you through all the this-happens-then-that-happens, but mainly there are three developments that occur before the end of the episode:

  • Diamondback ambushes Luke, Claire, and Misty at a clinic and holds Misty’s own gun up to her head for a long time.
  • Luke and Diamondback face off against each other in a gilded theater, with Diamondback quoting Bible verses and reiterating that something from their shared past has made him obsessed with Luke’s downfall, without specifying what it is. 
  • Misty confronts Claire back at the police station but gets overly rough with her when she refuses to talk about Luke and what might be going on with this new villain and gets reprimanded by her boss.

The episode ends with Luke confronting Diamondback one last time as dawn rises over Harlem and getting shot once again, flipping back into a garbage truck. 

While the donnybrook in the theater between Luke and Diamondback is exciting and property is destroyed in generous amounts, this counts as one of the less satisfying episodes. Everyone is knocked around by an uncharismatic and not too realistic bad guy. Plus, there’s hardly any music of note in this one, aside from some incidental music that sounds like standard cop show stuff. 
 

Episode 9: “DWYCK”

Luke continues to stumble around Harlem as he did in the last episode, only now he’s got two Judas bullets inside him instead of one. Diamondback has forgotten the second rule of supervillainy—right after Never Reveal Your Plan in a Monologue to a Seemingly Trapped Hero—which is: Never Assume a Hero is Dead Until You’ve Put Them In The Ground Yourself. Did Diamondback honestly not realize that when Luke collapsed into the rear of a garbage truck that he’d be taking a breather before coming back? Get this guy to Evil University.

Misty, meanwhile, is giving a lengthy interview—or interrogation, depending on how you look at it—to a police psychologist (John Scurti), necessitated by her attacking Claire in the previous episode. It’s basically a one-woman, one-act play, with Misty even speaking directly to the camera in some shots, talking about her confrontation with Diamondback, and before that how she met Luke, and long before that how she became a cop. Missick is up for the dramatic heavy lifting, but this part of the episode feels overly long for a superhero show. Nevertheless, Missick’s Oscar reel is shaping up nicely.

Luke beats up two cops who try to stop him, providing basically the only action in the episode. Of note: In one shot, we see the view from the cops’ dashboard cam as they shoot Luke, wearing a hoodie, in the back. Make of that what you will.

His wandering doesn’t really get him anywhere, and he eventually reunites with Claire, who practically shouts “Road trip!” when she discovers information about the doctor whose crazy science gave Luke his indestructible skin on a thumb drive of Reva’s that Luke had given her. With those Judas bullet fragments digging through Luke’s less-than-bulletproof internal organs, Claire packs Luke in her mom’s car and heads down South.

Diamondback, meanwhile, is behaving just horribly. He’s less of a criminal mastermind and more of a berserker, shooting one of his own henchmen in the shoulder for no particular reason. Harlem’s Paradise is reopening (Yay!) and the Delphonics are rehearsing (More yay!), but by this point, so much blood has landed on the carpets that even God couldn’t shampoo them clean.

Cottonmouth was a psycho too, but he had a sense of humor, a way with the piano, and an amazing wardrobe. (Truly, I hope the wardrobe department let Ali keep those suits, because they were gorgeous.) Plus, he cared about how he was regarded in Harlem. Diamondback has absolutely none of those qualities.

Mariah, at the suggestion of Shades, calls a powwow with the usual gun-purchasing suspects in the hopes that she can get out of this racket, but Diamondback crashes the meeting and, not surprisingly, kills everyone except Mariah and Domingo. To her credit, Mariah doesn’t flinch. 

I appreciate Diamondback’s lethal abilities, but the guy has so few reservations about murder that it’s hard to believe he would ever have found success as a lawbreaking mastermind—and even Shades knows it. Surely, everyone would have unified to ice him. It’s not like, after his latest round of murders (which can’t be his first), everyone would assume that he walked into the room hoping to talk people into buying Amway products.

But the actor who gives the most praiseworthy performance in this episode, and who even manages to take some of the confusing twists and turns of the story and fashion them into something fairly comprehensible, is Alfre Woodard. Under the control of Shades, and determined as ever to establish herself as Harlem’s leading citizen, she has to do business with terrifying criminals and even see some of the late Cottonmouth’s plans through to completion. It’s all distasteful to her, but she’s not going to back away from it all, not with her ambition. 
 

Episode 10: “Take it Personal”

Previously, Claire got Luke to the home of Dr. Noah Burstein (Michael Kostroff), the morally dubious scientist who gave Luke his powers. Having persuaded Burstein to help Luke, Claire and the doctor prepare for an experiment to temporarily weaken Luke’s skin. Burstein was able to replicate his bizzaro-science setup from Seagate Prison in a barn on his property, and he and Claire dump Luke into a vat of boiling acid. And the crazy part is, it works! Please, don’t let your kids watch this show.

The politics of Luke Cage take a complicated turn when Diamondback, dressed in a hoodie, kills a white cop, announcing to bystanders that he is Luke. The idea is that Mariah can use this incident to sell Judas bullets to law enforcement (as Diamondback tells Mariah, think of how law enforcement will react when they learn that a bulletproof black man is killing cops—there’ll be a run on Judas bullets). The result is an enraged Mariah and a vengeful police force that is cracking down hard on Harlem’s residents as they seek to catch a cop killer. Scenes between angry cops and uncowed suspects seem a little closer to The Wire than to your average superhero show.

But Misty learns that the cop’s assailant was actually Willis Stryker, the same guy who almost killed her. Diamondback may have his beef with Luke, but now Misty’s got a similar beef with Diamondback, and given that she has more friends, one of whom is bulletproof, I’m going to side with her.

Mariah doesn’t like how Harlem’s police and its residents are now at each other’s throats, but she decides to go along with Diamondback’s plan and use the chaos to further besmirch Luke Cage—and all other superheroes for that matter. This has been a theme in the Marvel movies as well—after battling destructive aliens in New York, unleashing the Hulk on an African city, and all but destroying the nation of Sokovia, the general populace must be sick to death of these mega-powered bruisers. Mariah holds a rally at Harlem’s Paradise where she pledges her support for the victims of the recent police violence, one of whom is the teenage boy Luke saved in Episode 2, but also directs anger toward Luke for causing the unrest. It seems to work.

Misty figures out that Diamondback is in attendance at the rally, so she moves through the crowd looking for him, as does a restored Luke. They both find him at the same time, and Misty is shot, leading Luke to abandon his plans to nab Diamondback and instead flee to safety with Misty in his arms, shielding her with his back. Having had a falling out earlier in the show, they’re back together in the place where it all started—the bar at Harlem’s Paradise.

One aside in this episode has Luke visiting the church where his father was a pastor and recalling the battles his mother fought with her husband’s attractive secretary—whose last name was Stryker. Luke realizes that he and Diamondback are half-brothers, with Luke being the favored son (at least in some ways—Luke admits that he and his dad didn’t really get along that well). While this isn’t sufficient motivation for Diamondback’s psychosis, it is somehow appropriate to see the show returning to a church, and to even glimpse a hint of Esau and Jacob’s conflict in the show’s main tension.

We’ll see where all of this is going in the final three episodes. Will Luke reemerge as a force for positivity in Harlem? Will Diamondback apologize? Will Misty get a robot arm? Will Mariah end her civic career in disgrace? Will Shades lose the Ray-Bans? And what will we be listening to when all of these questions are answered? Stay tuned.

See also: Marvel's Luke Cage Season 1 Review: Episodes 5-7

 

Hector DeJean can frequently be found in comic stores, bookshops, and the Eighties. His serialized story of a private detective who only solves food-related crimes is no longer online.
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