Marvel’s Luke Cage Season 2 Review: Episodes 1-4
One difference between a comic book story and a crime story is the amount of face time given to the villain. In the early days of comics, only the heroes had to make tough choices; villains rarely stayed around beyond a couple of issues. In contrast, a crime story gives its dangerous characters a chance to justify themselves, to put together some kind of code.
Luke Cage started off as a comic character, and changes were made when he made the leap to the small screen in 2016. There were no real supervillains in the first season of the Netflix series, though when Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) came along in Episode 7, he brought some impressive hardware. The emphasis was more on Harlem and the good and bad characters seeking to control it. And indeed, who controls Harlem is an issue in our world as well as Luke Cage’s, something acknowledged by the show.
Episode 1: “Soul Brother #1”
At the start of Season 2, Luke is sharing an apartment with Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), the medic who links all of the Netflix Marvel shows; Misty Knight (Simone Missick) is brooding over the right arm she lost in the last episode of The Defenders; Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) has taken over the Harlem Paradise nightclub and runs a shadowy criminal enterprise with the help of her lover, Shades (Theo Rossi); and Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones) maintains the barber shop where he helps Luke manage his newfound fame.
Harlem gets a new arrival: Rev. James Lucas (Reg E. Cathey), who effectively narrates the opening as he practices a sermon in the mirror, reminding his congregation (us) that Luke is another man, flaws and all. Brooklyn also gets a new arrival: Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), from Jamaica, shows up with a conviction that Harlem is his and a determination to destroy Mariah. Luke, in the meantime, is trying to get a new heroin product called “Luke Cage” off the streets in an attempt to control his brand.
Mariah gets a tip from financial whiz “Piranha” Jones (Chaz Lamar Shepherd) that a black-owned plastics company is about to become a stock-market sensation. All she’s got to do to get in on the action is pony up 20 million for controlling shares and blackmail the company’s owner, a Harlemite, to get him to approve the purchase. Setting the owner up is child’s play for the devious Mariah (she starts grooming a beautiful woman to be the bait), but 20 million is beyond even her resources unless she can work out a deal with some of her less-than-savory acquaintances.
Misty returns to the police force, but she can’t stand either pity or mockery—both of which she gets in generous amounts—and her boss wishes she would just disappear.
Shades meets up with Comanche (Thomas Q. Jones), and for those of you who never thumbed through the comics, Shades and Comanche were a supervillain duo comprised of a guy with laser-beam goggles and another with a bow and trick arrows. They’re decidedly less ostentatious in this universe—and more intimidating.
After getting a tip from a street informant named Sugar (Sean Ringold) about a possible gun deal Mariah’s putting together (and using Sugar’s name to launch several “sweet” puns), Luke runs into the Rev. Lucas—his father. And Diamondback’s from Season 1. Luke and his father need to reconcile somehow, but neither one can budge; Luke can’t forgive his dad for creating the family shitshow that led to the last few episodes of Season 1, and the Reverend can’t stand his son acting like Harlem’s savior.
Mariah calls for a meeting at Harlem’s Paradise, during a performance by actual singer Joi. Drug smuggler Arturo Rey, gangster Nigel Garrison, and hustler and killer Cockroach Garrison (played by Simone Missick’s real-life husband, Dorian Missick) come for Mariah’s pitch, but Cockroach speaks over the others, telling Mariah that she shouldn’t do business with Dominicans and West Indians when Harlem should stay Southern Black. This division between African-Americans from the South and Caribbeans of African descent will come up a lot more, along with the issue of who will control Harlem.
Luke comes to the club to let Mariah know that he’s onto her plots, but he leaves when Mariah makes a veiled threat about Claire, who followed Luke to the club. Luke and Claire argue on the way home, but he makes it right by telling her that he doesn’t want her getting involved in his crime-fighting because he couldn’t handle it if something happened to her.
The next morning, Luke’s informant lets him know about a shipment of some kind that Arturo Rey is bringing into Washington Heights. Luke goes that night to check it out and finds that he was lured into a trap. The shipment container explodes as he steps into it, and when he calmly walks out of the inferno, Arturo fires a Judas bullet straight at Luke. Only the bullet doesn’t work—the same ordinance that nearly killed Luke before now can’t pierce him. Luke’s social media assistant D. W. (Jeremiah Richard Craft) shows up to record the scene, and Luke issues a reminder to everyone following him on social: he’s not going away quietly. He ends with “I am Harlem—and Harlem is me.”
Nigel, contemplating the deal with Mariah, returns home with his gang to Brooklyn where Bushmaster is waiting for him. Bushmaster proves what he’s capable of by a) beheading poor Nigel and b) surviving a hail of gunfire from Nigel’s bodyguards. Is a second bulletproof man heading to Harlem?
As with last season, I have to say something about the music. Luke Cage continues to be a show that doesn’t sound like any other superhero outing. This first episode alone has generous servings of rap, jazz, reggae, and soul-inflected R&B, and the musical performances often occur within the drama, tying together montages and heightening the atmosphere.
Another note is Luke’s reading list. In this episode alone, the world’s most impervious bibliophile is seen reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates and Charcoal Joe by Walter Mosley.
Episode 2: “Straighten it Out”
Mariah is an interesting mix of felonious and fragile, and it helps that a top-tier actress is playing her. Alfre Woodard makes Mariah desperate to achieve legitimacy through her crooked plastic company takeover, hopeful that she can reconnect with her grown daughter, sexy when she’s dishing out PDAs with Shades, and sinister when doing everything else. If you look at this show as purely a crime story, then it’s Mariah, not Luke, who’s at the center. Her difficult evolution and hard choices as she stabs her way to her goal are pure crime saga.
Her scheme hits a few snags when Shades loses his cool and kills potential investor Arturo Rey while the other investor, Nigel, disappears (killed by Bushmaster). If she can’t get the 20 million, her world is going to collapse, hard.
Things are going great for Luke, however. In another slick move to please his internet fans, he invites NY Jets coach Todd Bowles to put him through the NFL’s draft-style combine, sprinting, doing the long jump, and at one point tossing a 400-pound construction vehicle tire. No sweat.
Bushmaster drops by Gwen’s, a Jamaican restaurant in Brooklyn named, apparently, for his mother. He meets with a friend of the family to once more announce that he’s gonna put some serious hurt on Mariah. And he adds, tellingly, “ ‘Arlem me birthright.” Like nearly everyone else on the show, taking control of Harlem, for reasons selfish or not, is the prize.
When Claire finds out that Luke’s dad is in town, she urges him to make amends while he can, but Luke’s just not having it. Later, Claire ends up attending a church service and hears the reverend preach.
In a parallel story, an image consultant of Maria’s advises her to patch things up with her estranged daughter Tillie, who now works as an herbal medicine specialist. Mariah is, after all, still a local congresswoman, and if she could show off some family unity, she could be seen as “Momma Harlem” (her phrase).
Luke closes in on Cockroach, having run out of other leads in his mission to find out what Mariah’s up to and put an end to it. When he finally catches up with the elusive crook, he finds Cockroach beating his girlfriend and their son. Pushed past the edge, Luke tries to get the info he needs from Cockroach through force and beats the living hell out of him in the process.
Another amazing music sequence in this episode comes from blues guitarist and singer Gary Clark Jr., who takes listeners to a dark and powerful place with his rendition of “If Trouble Was Money.”
Episode 3: “Wig Out”
The third episode opens with the aftermath of one beating and ends right after another. It’s an episode filled with motion and emotion, and it ranks as one of the best in the series.
Having beaten Cockroach near to death, Luke calls Claire, who comes to the apartment where Cockroach’s girlfriend and son are huddled and crying; Luke clearly knows he went too far, but he also wishes that Claire—and Misty, when she shows up—could see his side of it. Harlem’s problems aren’t going to be solved without some violence, and he’s only doing this because the police are useless. Misty lets him go and soon gets in trouble for it.
Shades heads down to Brooklyn for a business deal with Nigel’s replacement, Bushmaster. Bushmaster gives Shades the cash that he and Mariah have been panting for in a bag that includes Nigel’s head.
Luke takes a trip to Brooklyn to see who is doing business with Mariah, and at Gwen’s Jamaican restaurant (where he knows Nigel used to hang out), he spots a guy clearly unnerved by his questions. Luke follows the pigeon to a warehouse where Bushmaster and his gang try out their chain/sword/baseball bat skills on Luke with absolutely zero results. Even when they lob a grenade at Luke, he calmly wraps his hands around it until it explodes, then lets the shrapnel slide through his fingers. He leaves Bushmaster with a warning to stay out of Harlem.
Misty takes a break from her increasingly horrible work environment for some boxing therapy with Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), Iron Fist’s pal. After a workout in the ring, the women head to a bar where an angry crook goes from hitting on Misty to actually hitting her for putting his brother away. A full-on bar brawl ensues, with Misty taking care of herself with only a left hook and Colleen not getting involved until the very end. As the two women walk from the bar, shoulder to shoulder, you can practically see the logo “Daughters of the Dragon—Coming Soon on Netflix” flash at the bottom of the screen.
Back at Claire’s place, Luke spells it out for his increasingly concerned girlfriend. A black man, as he puts it, has two options: to be the violent badass everyone labels him as being or to smile and be hopelessly inoffensive. But Claire, despite coming from a violent childhood (and several violent TV series—Season 1 of Daredevil alone should have traumatized her for life), doesn’t accept violence as normal and doesn’t like how Luke is justifying all the beatings he’s been dishing out. As far as Claire’s concerned, a violent person is someone who despises themselves. The argument ends with Luke angrily smashing a wall of Claire’s apartment, basically proving her right, and Claire telling him to leave as she packs up because she’s not going to spend time around all this ugliness anymore.
Walking down the Harlem street to Pop’s barber shop, Luke gets knocked to the ground by Bushmaster in their first one-on-one physical confrontation, and it doesn’t go well at all for Luke. He takes so many kicks and punches that he can hardly see straight, and Bushmaster ends the punishment by letting Luke know that Harlem belongs to Bushmaster now.
There’s a lot of fun in this episode—a barroom brawl!—but it’s also Colter and Dawson’s best dramatic moment. If Luke seemed a little one-dimensional in his moral certainty before, he’s now revealed a hostility that wasn’t so apparent before, and Claire has shown the limits of what she will tolerate from the conflicted people in her life.
Yet again, the music adds a solid texture to this episode, especially the reggae playing when Luke is in Brooklyn’s West Indian neighborhood of Crown Heights.
Episode 4: “I Get Physical”
As with so many other confrontations in this series, Bushmaster’s beatdown of Luke Cage was captured on video, and soon everyone has seen it—even ESPN airs it. Luke is no longer Harlem’s unstoppable defender. People are getting excited about Bushmaster now, which means the moment has come for him to enter Harlem and do what it is that he came to do—something nasty to Mariah and her gang.
Mariah and Shades are feeling better about the future of their scheme to turn $20 mil into a whole lot more, but Shades shows how perceptive he is when he tells Mariah about the video of Luke and Bushmaster’s fight. Bushmaster, he tells Mariah, was the guy that gave them the cash for their weapons, and his takedown of Luke was a warning that Harlem’s defenders mean nothing to him. Bushmaster didn’t come from Jamaica for Cage, Shades reasons, he came to Harlem for Mariah. And he can’t get Mariah to tell him why, though he’s certain she knows.
Luke and Misty head to Brooklyn to where Luke first met Bushmaster, but the place has been cleared out except for the rest of Nigel’s body. Misty calls it in, and the Brooklyn cop turns out to be a friend of Misty’s. Through him, Misty gets some background on the Jamaican gangs and their feud with the Stokes clan, the multigenerational crime family of which Mariah is one of the only remaining members.
Luke, having seen a bag from Tillie’s shop when he was poking through Bushmaster’s old HQ, goes there in person to ask if a large Jamaican man was there recently purchasing any rare ingredients. Tillie doesn’t help him with any information, and she doesn’t reveal that she’s Mariah’s daughter to Luke, but she does give him an herbal cure to help him speed his recovery from the concussion he received from Bushmaster.
When Bushmaster comes to Harlem’s Paradise to meet Mariah, he asks if the name McIver means anything to her; it was the last name of a man who helped Mariah’s mother and other family members build their criminal empire—and it also happens to be Bushmaster’s real last name. Their talk leaves Mariah addled and Bushmaster assured. He’s going to take Harlem’s Paradise and the rest of the neighborhood.
Comanche, we soon learn, is working for the police. Misty gets a note from Danny Rand—the Immortal Iron Fist—with a blueprint for a mechanical arm. And Bobby plans to leave Harlem for a little while, he tells Luke, to go take care of his daughter.
A bravura blues performance in this episode comes courtesy of Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. And man do those blues sound like a warning. Dark times are coming, and people are going to get hurt.
The series is off to a fantastic start, with an atmosphere of menace equal to what Mahershala Ali brought to Season 1, as well as the same amazing use of music plus richer characters and bigger stakes. Looking forward to Mariah trying to hold on to her empire while Bushmaster hits the warpath and Luke tries to keep the resulting body count down.