Marvel’s Luke Cage Season 2 Review: Episodes 11-13
As several philosophers will tell you, all things eventually transform into their opposites. To see the proof of that, we need look no further than the final three episodes of Luke Cage Season 2. Luke (Mike Colter), who has sought to avoid shifting from Harlem’s hero to just another destructive force hurting his neighbors, finds himself backsliding into violence. Mariah (Alfre Woodard), who has sought to shake the criminal stain of her background, now fully embraces their bloodthirsty ways. Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir) shows signs of decency and mercy that wouldn’t have helped him when he was butchering his way to the top spot of Brooklyn’s Jamaican mafia. Career criminal Shades (Theo Rossi) starts cooperating with the police. And Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis)—well, that may be the biggest turnaround of all.
Episode 11: “The Creator”
Luke and Misty examine the carnage that Mariah left behind at Gwen’s restaurant when she massacred its owners and clientele just to send a message to Bushmaster. Though they can’t prove it was Mariah, Luke and Misty both know it was her, and Luke berates himself for having saved her life at least twice (I counted three times).
The police make two discoveries as they examine the crime scene. One is that poor Anansi (Sahr Ngaujah)—Bushmaster’s uncle—wasn’t just set on fire, he was also shot (damn, Mariah!) with a bullet that came from a very distinctive revolver, one that ballistics links to other murders from Season 1 of the show, including an informant named Candace, who was working for Mariah, and Mariah’s own uncle, Pete. The second discovery is that someone survived the massacre, and it appears to be Ingrid (Heather Alicia Simms), Anansi’s wife and Bushmaster’s aunt by marriage.
While all of this is going on, Bushmaster and his lieutenant, Sheldon (Kevin Mambo), are holed up with Tilda, who they are forcing to administer treatment; Bushmaster’s been near death since he almost blew himself up to escape the police in Episode 9, and only the nightshade brew can bring him back from the brink of oblivion. While hovering on the edge of the next life, Bushmaster remembers his origins, starting with a visit from Mama Mabel Stokes (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) and her entourage, who came to Kingston when Bushmaster’s mom threatened to sue to get half of the Stokes empire—an empire she insists Bushmaster’s dad helped to build. Needless to say, Mabel and the Stokes clan don’t give up a nickel. As the flashbacks continue, we see that the Stokes gang set Bushmaster’s house on fire, killing his mother in front of his eyes. And later, on a separate visit to Jamaica, Pete Stokes fired two slugs into young Bushmaster’s gut to make sure everyone knew what happened when you came at the Stokes clan. Anansi was able to save Bushmaster by taking him to a “bush-woman,” who saved him with a strange semi-magic concoction, thus beginning his dependence on nightshade.
In the present day, Tilda’s nightshade mixture starts kicking in, and Bushmaster returns to this side of the veil. He thanks Tilda and tells her she can go back to Mariah. Unlike the Stokes, he won’t get revenge on someone by killing their child.
Mariah starts growing her criminal empire, making deals with Chinese and Italian gangs to bring drugs and other forms of mayhem into Harlem. Their heroin deal becomes a major plot point in the next episode. She also sends her increasingly reluctant boyfriend, Shades, to hunt down and silence Ingrid.
Luke finds Ingrid at a clinic in Brooklyn as the West Indian Day Parade goes into full swing. Shades briefly abducts her from Luke’s care, but he can’t bring himself to kill her—he’s still wracked with guilt from having killed Comanche. When Shades returns to Mariah, she mocks him, even heaping homophobic scorn on him for his relationship with Comanche in prison, which she brags that she was able to figure out. Their argument goes shock-and-awe pretty quick, and Shades almost strangles her before storming out. He ends up turning himself into Misty, offering to give evidence that could lock Mariah away in return for immunity.
Luke takes Ingrid to see Anansi’s corpse, as she requests, and at the morgue, he runs into a restored Bushmaster. The two men put their conflict aside while in Ingrid’s presence and try to talk things out. Bushmaster acknowledges how things could have been different and that he and Luke might have been “bredren,” but he’s never seen life in terms of right or wrong, unlike Luke. In the end, the men part with warnings to each other.
This episode was a defining one for Bushmaster, who spells out to Luke that you can talk all you want about morality, but the word you’re looking for is survival. Bushmaster has outlived his entire murdered family, and the only thing he can do—the only logical use of his ferocious ability to keep going—is get payback. Don’t judge him.
Episode 12 – “Can’t Front on Me”
The 12th episode heads in a different direction from the others, utilizing a more dynamic direction style that sees a camera follows its cast members like a ghost. I was surprised that the director, Evarado Gout, doesn’t have more music videos under his belt.
So remember that batch of heroin called “Luke Cage” back in Episode 1? Well, now there’s a new product making its way through Harlem called “Bushmaster,” only it’s even less safe than the standard version; at a party that opens the episode, two people sampling the product have psychotic meltdowns.
Luke, keeping counsel at Pop’s Barber Shop with Sugar (Sean Ringgold) and DW (Jeremiah Richard Craft), pieces together Mariah’s latest scheme; the heroin’s coming from her new alliance with the Chinese mafia, and by labeling the deadly drug “Bushmaster,” she’s both dragging her opponent’s name through the mud and drawing him out. And the plan works—Luke tracks down the plant where the drugs are coming from at the same time as an enraged Bushmaster, and the two men find themselves surrounded on a killing floor. Some extraordinary ass-whooping follows as the twosome (in true kung-fu-film fashion) take on an army of gun-packing and hatchet-wielding goons intent on attacking them one at a time. Wu-Tang Clan supplies the soundtrack as they had in similar rounds of fisticuffs throughout Season 1. A grenade that sends Luke through a wall gives Bushmaster a chance to slip away.
At the gravesite of Mariah’s deadly cousin Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, Tilda lets her fallen kinsman know that she has come to a dark understanding of who she is and what she wants, and it involves using Stokes methods to punish her mother. Goodbye Tilda, and hello Doc Nightshade.
Luke pays a visit to Harlem’s Paradise to let Mariah know that her heroin scheme is now over and that he won’t be there to save her when Bushmaster comes. Mariah tries to work her seductive powers on Luke, but she’s not trying to turn him on so much as break him down, pick through his defenses, and get to the part that he can’t protect. It doesn’t work—Luke seems dead serious about letting Bushmaster and Mariah kill each other—and after he’s gone, Mariah decides to surround herself with people by throwing a free concert at the club.
Back at the precinct, Shades is telling his story to Misty and a federal attorney (his own lawyer gets out of the room quick, repulsed by her client). Shades is still intent on giving the police enough info to bring Mariah down, but he’s been a criminal for so long that he wants to see the cops eat some shit first. He taunts Misty and generally behaves like an asshole, bragging about some of the killings in which he had a hand.
Tilda goes back to Bushmaster, offering to help him kill her mother. She not only tells Bushmaster about a back entrance to Harlem’s Paradise but also gives him a new nightshade mix, this time in a syringe. It’ll give him a bigger jolt of power than normal, but it won’t last for long.
Luke knows that, as usual, a lot of innocent people could get hurt at the nightclub when Bushmaster shows up, and he’s not happy about being forced to once again protect Mariah.
For her free concert, Mariah has picked a true draw: KRS-One takes the stage, doing what he does to a packed house. Luke comes in through the front, while Bushmaster comes in through the back, and Misty and Shades are there too. Acting like he’s trying to make up with Mariah, Shades ends up with her in a panic room in the club’s basement where she was planning on killing him with that sought-after revolver of hers. Luke and Bushmaster collide like locomotives, and after almost flattening each other, the two men plus Misty end up in the luxury panic room with Bushmaster’s quarry. Property damage soon equals the damage done to Bushmaster’s skull, but Luke doesn’t kill Bushmaster when he has the chance, letting him get away as his nightshade high starts to crash. Shades, however, gets ahold of Mariah’s revolver and turns it over to the police. Now, the police have what they need to send Mariah to the big house.
As they watch Mariah leave the club in handcuffs, Misty says, “Finally, a win.” But Luke answers with, “We ain’t win shit.”
Episode 13: “They Reminisce Over You”
Mariah is, at last, in court, and the prosecutors are having a field day. They’ve got her on murder, illegal arms dealing, financial crimes, and more. As before, Mariah justifies the crooked things she did by claiming that if she was a gangster, at least she was Harlem’s own gangster, keeping New York’s other gangs out. But the old rules are out the window now.
Sure enough, crime in Harlem skyrockets as shootings rattle the streets. One of the factors is a deal Mariah made with the Italian mafia as well as the Chinese gangs. Shades comes to see Luke to let him know who the new crime lords are who are causing all the trouble in Harlem. In particular, he tells him that Rosalie Carbone (Annabella Sciorra) wants to take over. Luke lets Shades know that he won’t take someone apart just because he was told to, but Shades notes that Luke’s not the nice guy he once was.
Bushmaster’s days of nightshade-fueled superpowers are over; he’s in terrible shape, barely able to stand. Revenge is disappearing in the rearview mirror. Tilda watches the Jamaicans (except for Sheldon, Bushmaster’s loyal lieutenant) head back to the Island, done with their plans for retribution. Farewell, Bushmaster—you were an EXCELLENT antagonist, and you will be much missed.
Luke pays a visit to Rosalie Carbone, shattering the bones of several of her henchmen in the process. She lets Luke know that the Italian, Chinese, and Russian gangs are all backing each other up on the mafia’s takeover of Harlem, but Luke persuades her to rethink that, laying down his own wall around Harlem. Rosalie tries seducing him (damn, Luke!) and bribing him. When Luke says he can’t be bought, she tells him, “You don’t know your price yet,” which turns out to be prophetic.
Mariah, through her lawyer, orders some hits—she wants everyone in her organization dead unless they’re family. You never know who’s going to turn on you. Shades proves to be a very difficult man to kill, and after defending himself handily, he visits Mariah in prison where he tells her that he can’t figure out why she decided to be a Stokes when she could have given up the life of a criminal and gone legit, ruling Harlem as the kind of crook approved of by bankers. Why, he asks, would she let herself get caught up in a family legacy that she hated? But maybe that question is also the answer—maybe a family legacy that painful isn’t something you can walk away from.
As an aside, Mariah’s transformation across this season—from a hesitant, vulnerable crook looking to go straight to a cold-blooded manipulative underworld terror—is the most fascinating arc of all because Mariah’s not at all horrified by it. We never see her looking in a mirror, devastated by what she’s become; no, at the end of this season, Mariah Dillard is very comfortable with her scary evolution and entirely unapologetic about who she now is. She has, at last, become her true self, and she’s almost exalted in the glow of such a profound self-discovery.
Mariah gets three more visits while she’s in jail. Tilda comes with a new, striking shade of lipstick. Mariah, as usual, continues to justify what she’s done as a Harlem crime kingpin and as a mother. She’s not a monster; she’s necessary. All the damage she did to Tilda was for her benefit. You’ll never get hurt, Mariah tells Tilda, because you’ll never let them close enough to touch you. Tilda ends their meeting with a kiss on her mother’s mouth, and the shade of lipstick suddenly becomes clear. Mariah then meets with her lawyer to help her with her will.
Tilda goes to Harlem’s Paradise and walks through the place as if a new queen just turned up. Then, she sits down at a keyboard, and this show—which has always done interesting things with music—finally flirts with being an outright musical; Tilda sings a song addressed to her mother about things coming to an end.
Mariah’s last visitor is Luke, who gets a sitdown with his enemy after getting his lawyer, Foggy Nelson, to do him a favor. Mariah is glad to see him, saying that each of them made the other who they are. And now, she’s glad that Luke is the last man left standing, making him Harlem’s rightful king. Their talk ends in a splatterific fashion as Mariah begins spitting up blood—she realizes as she collapses that Tilda had a poison on her lips. Her final words, as Luke holds her head up, are: “We ain’t done yet, Luke.”
Shades gets picked up by the cops—his immunity deal was only good if he testified against Mariah, but the deal died with her. Over at Pop’s Barber Shop, Luke tells his new sidekicks, Sugar and DW, about the deal he made with Rosalie Carbone, a deal that means Luke is now in regular contact with crime bigwigs in his ongoing negotiations to keep trouble away from Harlem. DW doesn’t like this—it makes Luke a crime boss, just a slightly more benevolent one. DW also reminds him that Pop’s has always been neutral ground, not a place where bad guys hang out, so it’s time for Luke to leave—which he does, with Sugar. Luke admits to DW that taking on this role isn’t what he wanted, but if not him…
Mariah’s will leaves Harlem’s Paradise to Luke (and leaves Tilda almost nothing). No one seems to like this arrangement. Luke knows how he’ll be seen if he becomes a nightclub owner, and in a flashback, Mariah reveals that she knows Luke will take it and will be transformed by it—turned into a king. Luke initially turns the offer down, but when we see him next, he’s standing at Mariah’s old spot, watching Rakim perform an original number on the stage. In appearance, Luke resembles Cottonmouth, the wearer of insanely nice suits, but Luke plans on doing things his own way. In his office, he tells Misty that he’s now got a great spot from which he can watch Harlem. But he’s become a man intent on using his power in visible ways to promote an order, and perhaps he’s not so focused on Harlem’s denizens. In a shot copied from The Godfather, Misty watches from a doorway as Luke consults with a whispering Sugar while another helper closes the door, blocking Misty’s view.
The earlier episodes had Luke torn between ineffectual good intentions and counter-productive rage, and it’s surprising to see Luke choose a third option. He leaves behind youthful idealism and equally youthful anger and arrives at a place of adult compromise, a place perhaps a little closer to Mariah’s world (to quote her, “I am necessary”) than he’d care to admit. Luke’s getting cozier with the idea that the public good maybe isn’t something that’s nurtured—maybe it’s imposed.
Thus, we have come to the end of an exceptional season; while the first 13 episodes ended with a morally certain Luke unfairly heading off to prison, this season closed with a morally complex hero taking on a role that can leave viewers uncomfortable. Is a position of power the best spot from which one can help the powerless? Can Luke simultaneously love Harlem and want to exert control over it? Will his natural goodness keep him from becoming another killer, even as he gets his hands dirty? There’s more to be told in this ongoing crime saga, and I look forward to this cast and crew’s third outing.