In 1994, Marvel Comics released a four-issue comic book miniseries by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross called Marvels, and it was built on an interesting concept: It told the stories of four classic superhero encounters from the point of view of an average-joe bystander named Phil Sheldon. Phil witnesses the Submariner battle the Human Torch (an encounter originally appearing in a 1940 issue of Marvel Mystery Comics); then, in the early Sixties, he sees the X-Men take on the giant robotic Sentinels; and after that, he witnesses the arrival of the godlike antagonist Galactus and his defeat at the hands of the Fantastic Four.
Something that came out of this excellent series was the mixed feelings of civilians in this world of crime-fighting androids and mutant super-teams. It’s a combination of awe and dread. There are times when it’s clear that Phil would love to have a life without the constant destructive presence of costumed adventures whirling about him in their endless battles.
The actress Rosario Dawson, playing a nurse named Claire Temple, provides a similar viewpoint in the Marvel television series airing on Netflix. After encountering Daredevil and almost getting killed by Russian gangsters, she ran into a frantic Jessica Jones who needed Claire’s help to treat Luke Cage, who was in a coma following a shotgun blast to the head. Claire then met Daredevil a second time when a swarm of undead Ninja warriors attacked her hospital. Emergency room nurses tend to have some amazing stories, but Claire’s got every other nurse in New York City beat, hands down. Like Phil Sheldon, the constant stream of superheroes around her has forced her to reassess her life, but she’s come to unique conclusions.
Episode 5: “Just to Get a Rep”
When Claire Temple arrives in Harlem early in Episode 5 of Luke Cage, she fits in perfectly; she’s a native New Yorker, a tough woman who promptly beats up a purse snatcher, and someone who’s not the least bit fazed by the presence of a guy with indestructible skin who can punch through metal walls. But she has to meet him first.
Luke is done with keeping his abilities to himself; he lets all of Harlem watch as he sifts through the rubble of his apartment, lifting chunks of concrete as big as he is, looking for a photo of his late wife. Misty Knight (Simone Missick) finds it and asks Luke about it, but he doesn’t give her much.
Meanwhile, Cottonmouth’s problems haven’t gone away; he’s still got gangs sniffing at him for signs of weakness, plus the neighborhood people are starting to feel like they don’t have to endure his thuggery. And all the money he had moved to the Crispus Attucks Complex—the sum-total of his ill-gotten gains—is now in a police lock-up. His solution is to send his goons around for a fresh shakedown of the local merchants and vendors, and if anyone complains, to tell them Luke Cage made it necessary.
While Luke gets dressed for Pop’s funeral, a stream of angry people start coming to him, letting him know what Cottonmouth has just taken from them and why. Luke has to pound the pavement of Harlem again, getting it all back, piece by piece, one goon’s broken wrist at a time.
Claire, sitting down with her mother (Sonia Braga—how perfect is the “Spider Woman” herself is in a Marvel show), lets her in on everything that’s happened lately. Her mother doesn’t seem to think that oblique references to Daredevil, the Hand, Jessica Jones, and all the rest sound too crazy in a city that was once attacked by aliens. Claire isn’t intimidated by the chaos—she wants to make it her life’s work. She wants to be a sidekick, more or less, one who provides premium health care.
Dawson is one of the best things about all of the Netflix Marvel shows, and her performance as Claire goes a long way in grounding all of these series in a real, recognizable world where cosmic baddies aren’t as compelling as human aspirations and frustrations. But seeing Claire embrace this world made me a tad morose; she lost one tiny degree of believability. She’s no longer the woman that can’t believe all this shit that’s going on.
Cottonmouth asks Shades for a little help in getting rid of Luke, and Shades reveals a weapon from his boss Diamondback’s arsenal—a bullet made from alien technology that would have no trouble piercing Luke’s unbreakable skin. The name of the bullet is Judas, since it’s what you’d use if you wanted to kill Christ. This isn’t the first time Luke has been compared to Christ in this series, and it won’t be the last (in a later episode, Cottonmouth asks Luke if his powers include the ability to walk on water).
The set piece of this episode is the funeral for Pop in a roomy Baptist church. Luke disrupts the plans of an angry young woman, one of the victims of Cottonmouth’s shakedown, to put a bullet through Cottonmouth right there at the funeral.
Cottonmouth delivers some words about Pop, but really what he’s saying to the congregation is to stick with the old order and shun any interlopers who come to Harlem with false promises. Luke speaks next, and his words are very different: He urges the people of Harlem to watch out for bullies who call themselves friends, and to stand up to them. The crowd applauds. After the funeral, Misty reminds Luke that he better take Cottonmouth down by the book or not at all and that there’s the potential for a lot of people getting hurt. Luke lets her know—he’s not going anywhere.
Episode 6: “Suckas Need Bodyguards”
One of the little people who have now decided they can push back at Cottonmouth is a cop on his payroll, Misty’s partner Raphael Scarfe (Frank Whaley). Scarfe comes into focus in a way he hasn’t up until now, when a scheme he tries on an increasingly desperate Cottonmouth backfires. Scarfe gets the weapons from the arms deal in Episode 1 out of police lockup, but decides he wants a lot of money from Cottonmouth before he hands them back. Cottonmouth, a shaker-downer and not one of the shook-down, responds in his usual fashion, blasting a couple of holes in Scarfe with Scarfe’s own gun. Bleeding heavily, Scarfe figures out his next move while Cottonmouth flees.
Mariah (Alfre Woodard) prepares for an interview at her brownstone, and as she preps and does her makeup, she has a moment where she curses at a picture of her grandmother, a criminal named Mama Mabel Stokes. This is the first sign of some cracks that will be opening wide before the end of the next episode.
Claire comes across Luke having breakfast with his barber shop compatriot Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones) in the diner where her mother works, and she introduces herself—for the second time. Luke has trouble remembering her—the last time he saw her, he had been recovering from the impact of a shotgun blast to the head—but doesn’t object to her sitting down across from him. She later walks with him back to the barbershop, where they find the gravely wounded Scarfe in the back, having crawled there for protection from Cottonmouth and the cops still on his payroll. Claire operates, but there’s not much she can do for the bullet in his gut, and he won’t go to a hospital.
Misty and another cop, Perez (Manny Perez), get the word that Scarfe’s car was found at the scene of a shootout, and they stakeout his apartment on the chance that he’ll come back. But it’s Luke who comes, looking for a notebook that Scarfe’s been keeping on Cottonmouth’s criminal operations. Misty and Perez race to trap Luke in the apartment after they see him go in, but he simply jumps out of a back window, landing without a scratch five stories below.
Mariah’s interview goes horribly, with the interviewer cutting her off as she talks about her plans to fund affordable housing in Harlem, instead delving into Mariah’s past and her connections to a crime boss Mabel Stokes and her cousin Cottonmouth.
Luke, Claire, and Scarfe come up with a plan to drive down to One Police Plaza, where Scarfe can metaphorically and literally spill his guts in the safety of legit cops who don’t report to crimelords (which, if we remember Daredevil, would be one or perhaps two uniformed officers in the entire city). The drive from Harlem to the Plaza, which would normally go the length of Manhattan, lasts about three stoplights. Goons that Cottonmouth has sent out to find Luke and Scarfe spot their van, and soon Luke and his compatriots are fleeing through the underground maze of the city. Luke once again takes several rounds to the torso, Swiss-cheesing yet another stylish hoodie/jeans combo. Luke dispatches them off camera.
Misty and Perez hear about the van getting shot up, but Perez suggests they let it go. When Misty insists on heading downtown, Perez pulls his gun on her, and Misty is able to kick him out of the car just in time.
As Misty heads to the scene where Scarfe is dying, Luke has to stop a large SUV from running Claire and the broken cop down. Misty arrives as Scarfe breathes his last, and, in a coda, Cottonmouth is picked up by the cops and taken to the station, Mariah comes to the realization that her political career is in the toilet, and Luke asks Claire if she’d like to go get a cup of coffee, which she refuses. (She knows what that means, having figured out that he doesn’t drink coffee.)
One of the notable things about this episode is that Luke is never really shown fighting anyone; he takes on the armed goons out to kill Scarfe, but we don’t actually see him lay a finger on them, and we only see the aftermath of him stopping the car. Again, to draw a comparison to Daredevil, this show could use more thrilling, kinetic battles.
Episode 7: “Manifest”
In addition to the action taking a backseat to story and character, the music, which is still excellent, has been downplayed in the last two episodes, being used in a more conventional, background way. But Episode 7 opens with a gorgeous Nina Simone song, “Plain Gold Ring”—a slow hymn of dreams deferred, as the promise at the end of the previous episode doesn’t play out as hoped. The track also sets the tone for Mariah’s arc in this episode, a story of old wounds torn wide open and repressed rage and pain brought howling back to the fore.
As quickly as he was taken to jail, Cottonmouth comes waltzing out, the names and dates in Scarfe’s notebook not enough for a conviction. So the crooked nightclub owner returns to the task of ridding Harlem of Luke Cage.
Mariah gets a visit from one of her political rivals in the City Council, asking her to hand over her seat to someone else. Even though she seems to know she’s beaten, she refuses. Woodard is amazing in these scenes, revealing the tumult behind a brittle exterior.
We soon learn why Cottonmouth and Mariah are the way they are, as Cottonmouth’s piano playing in his office takes us back to an earlier practice session, where as a fatherless teenager (played by Elijah Boothe) he kept his music skills sharp in his grandmother Mama Mabel’s den of vice. Mabel (an excellent LaTanya Richardson Jackson), as we learn, had plans for everybody; she intends for her studious granddaughter Mariah (Megan Miller) to be a lawyer and set the family business on the track to legitimization; and as for Cottonmouth, she’d like it if he spent less time on the piano and more time learning about pimping, gun-running, and the numbers racket from his uncle Pete (Curtiss Cook).
But not drugs—apparently even criminal matriarchs have to draw the line somewhere, and Mabel wants to keep her operation and her turf drug free. To prove her point, she picks up some gardening shears and removes the finger of a friend of Cottonmouth’s who was seen dealing. Then, she orders her grandson and Pete to finish what she started on the guy.
Yet, Mabel is more than just a horrifying brute. When Cottonmouth returns to his piano in a state of shock after beating his friend to death, or something close to it, Mabel gives him a maternal embrace. She knows she’s hurting him, but clearly, in her eyes, it would be crueler of her to let him grow up soft.
Perhaps the greatest thing about the first season of Daredevil was Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance as the villain Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin. Far from being a mustache-twirling sadist, Fisk was an ambitious man from a harsh background who was using force, and alliances with criminals, to reshape what he saw as a chaotic city. He desperately wanted to be worthy of his lover, and he stuck to routines as a way to keep the seething volcano of hurt and rage within him from erupting. In this episode of Luke Cage, we glimpse villains every bit as damaged and complex, and I was left hoping that we’d see more flashbacks of Mabel and her rotten dynasty.
Cottonmouth summons Luke to Harlem’s Paradise, where he reveals everything that Shades told him about his background; Cottonmouth knows that Luke is a criminal fugitive born Carl Lucas, and he threatens to reveal his whereabouts to the cops. (Luke: “I was set up. I’m innocent.” Cottonmouth [smiling]: “Aren’t we all!”) Luke has two options: He can stay in town and do Cottonmouth’s bidding, or he can get lost. Luke heads back to the barbershop and starts packing.
Mariah gets another visit, this one from Shades, who urges her to defend the reputation her name used to have. I’m not clear on this, but it seems like in this scene and some earlier ones, when Shades takes off his Ray-Bans, he’s got a kind of mesmerizing power. Maybe he’s just the kind of scary dude who commands attention.
Claire interrupts Luke’s packing and convinces him to stay in Harlem and keep fighting. After all, she argues, he represents the community in more ways than just ethnicity. He’s an ex-con in a place where many families have a member who’s been in jail. His prison record is a feature, not a defect.
Another flashback reveals how things came to a head in Mabel’s house. Having learned that Pete was cutting the deals with gangs that she forbade and setting up to take their organization into the drug trade, Mabel has Cottonmouth take his uncle into the backyard at gunpoint, where she urges the teenager to pull the trigger on a man who was funding his piano lessons. However, Pete was also molesting young Mariah, who joins Mabel in calling for Cottonmouth to shoot the man. Cottonmouth pulls the trigger, putting himself on an irreversible path.
Luke decides the place to resume his defense of Harlem is to seek out Domingo Colon (Jacob Vargas), the gang leader who was buying guns from Cottonmouth in Episode 1. Domingo ended up getting the guns Scarfe had tried to keep from Cottonmouth, and now Luke collects the hardware, Luke Cage-style, which involves taking some shots, ruining yet another workout outfit, and driving crooks through whatever timber happens to be nearby.
Luke’s destruction of Domingo’s gym is by the numbers. He flips one guy, slams another into the floor, and pummels a few more, with a look on his face that resembles that of a man waiting for a bus. Again, after Daredevil’s spectacular fight choreography, the blunt fisticuffs of Luke Cage are becoming a letdown, and the show is starting to suffer from a deficit of action.
But then, holy crap, the floodgates burst open. At Harlem’s Paradise, Mariah and Cottonmouth get into it, and some ugly family history comes up. Mariah needs money and street muscle, but Cottonmouth just wants to get her off his back. Mariah reminds him who practically raised him, and he reminds her how she used to flirt with Pete—to entice him.
Mariah takes a page from Cottonmouth’s playbook and beats him to death, first with a wine bottle and then with a mike stand, screaming “I! DID! NOT! WANT! IT!” throughout the grisly encounter. Shades helpfully shows up as she’s decompressing to give her clean-up tips. In an episode that has shown us a toxic matriarch ruining young lives and leaving psychic scars that fester well into adulthood, it’s one hell of a catharsis, and Woodard serves it up primal and raw in a way that few other actors could match.
Luke delivers the guns to Misty, then takes a walk in the park with Claire, where he reveals that he hasn’t spoken to his father since he was incarcerated; it’s an interesting admission, because absent or neglectful fathers have been a theme of several past episodes—from Episode 2 where Luke said of his younger peers, “All of them have guns and none of them have fathers,” to Episode 5 where a daughter tries to retrieve a World Series ring for a father who had tried to sell if for booze to Cottonmouth’s own lack of a dad. I would have liked to see the series discuss this more, but before Luke and Claire can get further into it, an unnamed hood fires a Judas bullet into Luke, sending him to the pavement.
We come to a grim toll at the end of Episode 7; the show has killed off several of its most interesting and watchable characters, first Pop (Frankie Faison), then Scarfe, then Cottonmouth himself. That last one is a real blow, because Mahershala Ali was amazing in the role, nimbly jumping from scary menace to devilish grin in a heartbeat, and wearing the most enviable wardrobe on television. And just as we were coming around to see his side of the story and hear the music that only he heard, he gets pulped. The next character to get an origin story, or to be shown as having unexpected depths, will certainly be dead within fifty minutes.
And while I still think the soundtrack of the show is amazing, I could have watched several more performances at the club intercut with moments of tension and violence. But I suppose we’re done with Harlem’s Paradise now. I’m nervous about the Cottonmouth-free world that awaits.
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.