After a slump that had Luke Cage getting wheeled on a gurney for almost three whole episodes, Cage and his show come roaring back to life in Episode 11, shielding decent people with his indestructible frame and sending bad guys to the floor with flicks of his wrist.
As I said in my first wrap-up, Luke Cage has been able to move in several different directions simultaneously—the dramatic, the socially relevant, the artistic, the humorous, the noirish—and the final episodes bring the show back to its superhero roots, supplying a lot of action and destruction through which our hero strides with moral clarity and rage tempered by a forthright purpose.
But with the surge in superheroics comes strong reminders that this show always had bigger ambitions and urgent matters to address. Luke Cage’s final three episodes make plainer than ever what keeps Luke and the show’s creators and producers going: a need to expose the wrongs of the world and tell a story that isn’t often told. It was always hard to miss the social issues at play in the show, and by the end those headline issues are at the forefront of the show even more than the title character.
Episode 11: “Now You’re Mine”
The previous episode ended with things getting really ugly at a rally held in the Harlem’s Paradise nightclub, with Luke (Mike Colter) picking up a wounded Misty (Simone Missick) and running with her through a hail of bullets.
Picking back up, the nightclub becomes a siege zone as Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) and his goons point their guns at everyone who didn’t make it out in time. Among the captives are Claire (Rosario Dawson) and a woman who works at the club named Candace (Deborah Ayorinde). Candace, back in Episode 9, told the police that she saw Luke Cage kill Cottonmouth. She was forced to say this, of course; the sinister Shades (Theo Rossi) and Mariah (Alfre Woodard) made it clear that she didn’t have a choice.
Luke takes the wounded Misty into the club’s basement, where any normal person would be trapped—except Luke can, of course, punch through brick walls into adjoining basements. After meeting Candace, Claire escapes Diamondback’s goons and finds Luke, who needs her help in patching up Misty.
Diamondback makes one serious mistake; he shoots Damon Boone (Clark Jackson), a local politician who had an uneasy relationship with Mariah. It’s good for Mariah, but it’s another nail in the coffin for the homicidal maniac who just can’t help himself.
Once everyone he cares about is safe, Luke shuts down the siege by taking on all of the goons; Claire and Misty do their part and take out Shades. Diamondback and some of his gang, notably Zip (Jaiden Kane), slip away unnoticed, but Luke’s not so lucky and is arrested, even though police are starting to doubt the initial reports that he started the crisis.
This is one of the episodes without any within-the-show musical performances, but it does have some excellent incidental music.
Episode 12: “Soliloquy of Chaos”
So, in the aftermath of the siege, Luke is surrounded by the police, who all have Judas bullets now and still think Luke killed a police officer back in Episode 10.
But getting Luke back to the station proves tricky for New York’s Finest. For some reason, they put him alone in an armored car with conventional-looking restraints. All it takes is for traffic to slow down before Luke is once again free and on the run; he encounters one cop, but the guy is a Harlemite who knows that Luke is good people, and Luke disappears into the night.
Domingo (Jacob Vargas) and his gang decide that now is the time to go after Diamondback and end his criminal takeover of Harlem. They even track him and his crew to a warehouse where Diamondback stores his crates upon crates of weaponry.
Shades, at the police station, gets bailed out by Zip, acting on behalf of his boss Diamondback. Shades knows that something’s in the wind, and sure enough, Zip tries to kill him—but Shades is no punk and it’s Zip who takes a bullet to the head.
Luke gets a lead from multi-series lowlife Turk (Rob Morgan)—a thug who’s also appeared on Daredevil—regarding Diamondback’s whereabouts, and he shows up at the warehouse just in time to bring Domingo’s near-lifeless body out to the pavement. Misty also gets a lead of her own when Candace calls her and reveals that the story she told before, about witnessing Luke Cage kill Cottonmouth, was a lie she was forced to make.
Shades once again materializes in Mariah’s apartment proposing an alliance—unite to take down Diamondback, a psycho who clearly has turned everyone who’s ever met him at this point into an enemy or a corpse. (Frankly, I’m amazed it took this long.) Everyone meets at Pop’s barber shop—Luke, Shades, Mariah, and Misty—for a pow-wow where Mariah and Shades bring along a folder that Shades has been putting together since his own time at Seagate prison: a dossier that contains enough evidence to exonerate one Carl Lucas, aka Luke Cage.
The idea is that if Luke partners with them to stop their common enemy, they’ll hand him the file. These proceedings get a rude interruption from Diamondback himself, wearing a very 70s-looking supervillain costume, one that apparently gives him powers near equal to Luke’s.
Luke Cage has always made excellent use of live musical performances and musical artists playing themselves, but this episode goes beyond anything done previously. Interrupting a bodega holdup, Luke discovers that one of the bystanders is the Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man, playing himself. Luke lets the vocalist know that he’s a big fan, and the two men exchange hoodies, with Method Man getting the bullet-ridden one that Luke was wearing in the nightclub siege.
Putting a member of the Wu-Tang Clan in a show without having him pick up a mic wouldn’t make any sense, so the next scene has Method Man recounting the experience on a Harlem radio show and delivering a rhythmic ode in support of Cage. While he’s rhyming, the show cuts back to the streets of Harlem, where bullet-ridden hooded sweatshirts have become a defiant fashion statement and black men are getting mistakenly stopped by police looking for Cage. Support, clearly, is swinging back around to Luke (as Method Man points out, why would a cop killer interrupt a bodega holdup?), and the show again delivers powerful images of the people of Harlem living in simmering hostility with the police cruising the avenues.
Episode 13: “You Know My Steez”
For what feels like a solid ten or fifteen minutes, we’re treated to pure unadulterated comic-bookery; one guy representing decency slugging it out with another guy representing malevolence, as a city watches with bated breath. But man, Diamondback’s super-suit looks like something out of Jason of Star Command. Even Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones) asks him if he’s trying to look like a “pimp stormtrooper.”
Well, we know who’s going to win this fight. Numerous edits take us back to a younger Carl Lucas and Willis Stryker when they were still on good terms, working out in preparation for Carl going into the ring for some sweet science. Not sure why they showed this since it only serves to show how drastic Diamondback’s transformation was from the days when he was a human being.
Seriously, what the heck happened to that guy? When did he become Freddy-Kreuger-meets-Josef-Mengele-mixed-with-Snidely-Whiplash? If anything, it looks like Luke’ s clawed his way through more horrifying experiences than Willis.
A pulped Diamondback goes into custody, and Misty goes back to the task of bringing Mariah in for the murder of Cottonmouth. Unfortunately, while Misty is grilling Mariah like a ribeye in the interrogation room, Shades lures Candace, Misty’s witness, out onto the streets and shoots her. Before the police can even formally charge Mariah with anything, they have to let her go.
Luke and Claire enjoy some downtime at the station, some Chinese food, and some innuendo (Luke likes his coffee black … and Cuban). It struck me during this scene between the two extremely attractive actors that the entire show never lived up to that sexual charge from the first episode, when Luke bedded Misty. That roll in the hay was a complete outlier, and the rest of the show, including the Luke/Claire relationship, stays on the genteel side of hand-holding.
Before Luke and Claire can get to anything heavier, marshals show up and re-arrest Carl Lucas for escaping from Seagate prison. Luke willingly goes with them, knowing that he won’t be able to clear his name if he runs or fights, and on the way, he passes a radiant Mariah.
The show ends with Mariah and Shades at Harlem’s Paradise watching Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings perform the last musical number of the series, Mariah’s eyes now permanently hooded and sinister—Woodard has visually transformed her character from a seemingly sincere politician to a dangerous crime boss. (Another visual transformation is Misty, who comes to the club undercover to keep an eye on Mariah; Misty’s afro is combed up and out and she’s wearing hoop earrings, making her a near exact embodiment of Misty from the comics.)
The show also ends, frustratingly, with Luke on his way back to prison. His innocence will be proven—Bobby Fish has found Shades’s folder in the wreckage of the barber shop where the fight started—but for now, the system owns Luke and justice will have to wait.
When Luke was first brought into the police station, he delivered a speech explaining why he went outside the system and why the system is letting Harlem down, but it’s almost unnecessary. We know why Luke does what he does and what Harlem means to him, and Colter sounds a little wooden as he spells it out.
But, at no time in the show was I bothered with Luke’s moral clarity. Luke has a past that tortures him, but he’s steadfast in his goodness and never crosses that line of basic humanity, even when breaking the law. After a glut of ethically ambivalent superheroes in movies and television—some good (Deadpool, Daredevil) and some very good (Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Jon Berenthal’s Punisher)—Colter’s Luke Cage felt like a fresh start, even if we’ve already seen heroes sharing his values on the Super Friends.
One place where Luke Cage did break ground was in its blackness. It isn’t just that it has an African-American lead—Fox had a show called M.A.N.T.I.S. over two decades ago featuring a black superhero—it’s everything: the supporting actors, the setting, the themes, and especially the music.
Starting with Episode 8, several scenes featured actresses of color exclusively, which has to be a comic-book adaptation first (at Misty’s police station, she had two black female supervisors, subtly hinting at an alternate New York wherein all the police are African-American women—which would make for a very intriguing show). Comics have been bringing black characters into the mix at a slow but steady pace since the Civil Rights era, yet there is still a paucity of black female protagonists; Luke Cage, in a stunning contrast, had over ten black and hispanic actresses in fairly significant roles, making solid contributions to the story and the setting.
On occasion, the show approached a split where it had to decide if it wanted to stick to its comic book source material or shed some light on the lives of Harlemites, and it frequently took that second road.
Luke Cage’s story isn’t over—the last episode feels more like a setup for a second series than a conclusion—and we’ll see how he, Misty, and Claire hold up to a new round of challenges when we get to The Defenders. Or, maybe we’ll have to wait until Season 2 to get the full story, as I’m sure Luke Cage will have his indestructible hands full with his own super friends…
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.