Five Comments on Luke Cage, Season 2
I don't have that much to say about the second season of Luke Cage. Which is actually a shame, because despite some problems, I'd say that it's the strongest and most consistently entertaining season of television the Netflix MCU has produced since the first season of Jessica Jones. It's just that the things I'd have to say about it are basically a combination of my review of the first season, and my review of the second season of Jessica Jones. The stuff that worked in season one is back here, but better--the strong visuals, the amazing music, the thrilling fight scenes, the palpable sense of place. And like Jessica Jones, coming back for a second season seems to have freed Luke Cage from the burden of having to justify its own existence as a superhero show about X (a woman, a black man), and allowed it to simply tell a story in which most of the characters are people of color (and some of them have superpowers). At the same time, a lot of the problems that plagued the first season, and suggested that the Luke Cage concept might not be as durable as we could hope, are back in force here, with little indication that the show is interested in addressing them. Here are a few thoughts I had at the end of the season, though the bottom line is that it is definitely worth watching.
- Luke Cage's second season feels like a second crack at the story the show failed to tell in season one. Strictly speaking, the story that dominates the second season is a continuation of the one from its first, but realistically, they are both the same story, the second time around with the kinks worked out. In both seasons, Luke finds himself caught in between the established Harlem crime mafia, ruled over in the second season by the semi-legitimate Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) and her mobster henchman--and now lover--Shades (Theo Rossi), and a newly-arrived crime boss with powers that rival Luke's. In the first season, this was the profoundly unimpressive Diamondback, whose appearance derailed the entire season. The biggest course-correction made by season two is to substitute that character with John "Bushmaster" McIver (Mustafa Shakir), who represents the Brooklyn-based Jamaican mafia, and whose powers come from Obeah medicine.
It's almost impossible to express what a huge shot in the arm Bushmaster represents for the show. It's not just that he's a better-written character than Diamondback, with more nuance to his personality and more intelligence in his schemes against both Mariah and Luke. And its not just that the season avoids the disastrous bifurcated structure of season one, introducing Bushmaster in its first episode and slowly ramping up his challenge to Harlem's existing power structures. The show also makes some very smart choices in how it builds Bushmaster's connection to the Harlem characters. Where Diamondback had a parachuted-in family connection to Luke that never felt particularly persuasive or interesting, Bushmaster turns out to have a connection to Mariah, or rather her criminal forebears, the Stokes, whose memory both haunts and galvanizes her. Bushmaster and Mariah's fathers, it turns out, were business partners, but Buggy Stokes cheated Quentin McIver of his share of the business, setting off a violent family feud that has claimed lives for generations, and which Bushmaster now intends to end.
The stage is thus set for a twisty multigenerational crime drama with many fascinating elements. Mariah's relationship to her family, and particularly her harsh but effective crime-boss grandmother, Mama Mabel (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), was a highlight of season one, and introducing an additional wrinkle in the form of a criminal feud with another family allows us to delve even further into the Stokes' storied history. The conflict between Harlem-based African-Americans and Brooklyn-based Jamaican immigrants is the kind of story one hardly ever gets to see on TV, and it allows the show to explore the nuances of the prejudices and mutual incomprehension that lie between the two communities--as well as their tendency to be lumped together by outsiders, as when Harlem residents complain that they are experiencing increased police harassment after the Jamaican mafia carries off some public acts of brutality.
Other stories include Mariah's attempts to reconcile with her daughter Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis), who grows suspicious of Shades's presence in her mother's life; Shades's own desire to cross over to the legitimate side of business even as Mariah begins to enthusiastically embrace the criminal life; and new character Comanche (Thomas Q. Jones), Shades's long-time compatriot, whose suspicion of Mariah initially seems like garden-variety misogyny and ageism, but is eventually revealed to be romantic jealousy over Shades. The show ties them all together beautifully, into a storied tragedy about the past catching even with people who are trying to escape it. It's the story that season one hinted at--particularly in its standout scene, in which Mariah's cousin Cottonmouth goads her about her abuse at the hands of their uncle, finally causing her to snap and kill him--but wasn't able to pull off. Season two does so in spades.
- Luke himself continues to be the least interesting character in his own show, and feels almost incidental to the season's most interesting storyline. This was already a problem in season one, but as Luke Cage gets its crime storytelling under control, it becomes increasingly clear that it doesn't have a correspondingly strong story to tell about its putative hero, or even a particularly important role for him to play in its more successful storylines. It's not just that Luke isn't particularly instrumental in settling the Stokes/McIver dispute--he protects a witness here, defuses a conflict there, but the ultimate showdown occurs because of choices made by Mariah, Bushmaster, Tilda, and Shades, not him. But about halfway into the season you realize that almost every standout scene that will stay with you--moments like Comanche admitting to Shades that the relationship they embarked on in prison meant more to him than just a way of venting his frustrations, or Mariah telling Tilda that she was conceived from rape--doesn't even include Luke in it, and would in fact have been significantly worse if he had been there. (I'm obviously not including the fight scenes here, and there are some genuinely great ones over the course of the season; but as much as I enjoy good action scenes, they're not why I watch this show.)
This ends up feeling like part of a greater problem revealed by Luke Cage's second season--that after appearing in three shows and four seasons of television, Luke Cage remains the Netflix MCU's most poorly-defined main character. He seems to have a different personality in every show he appears in. In Jessica Jones, he's a romance novel hero, brooding yet sensitive, willing to take direction in bed, and disarmingly vulnerable outside of it. In the first season of Luke Cage, he was something very different, an earnest small-c conservative with a profound sense of his own dignity. In The Defenders, he was the team dad, defusing Matt and Jessica's intensity and corralling Danny's puppyish tendencies while also smacking down his thoughtless arrogance and quick recourse to violence. And now in Luke Cage's second season, he's something else yet again, a local hero who is both burdened and seduced by fame, and who struggles with his desire to set things right by strength of arms, no matter who gets in his way.
It's not that any of these character arcs are unconvincing or poorly executed, but taken together they create the sense that Luke is the Netflix MCU's utility player, and make each one feel less convincing and less urgent in its own right. Season two of Luke Cage tries to delve into its hero's psyche by confronting him with his disapproving father (Reg E. Cathey in his final role), whose harshness towards Luke is matched only by his inability to admit his own failings. Through him, the show tries to spin the argument that Luke struggles with internalized rage, which emerges both in his conflicts with his father, and in his increasingly-rocky relationship with Claire Temple, who ultimately leaves after he has a violent outburst during an argument. It's not that Luke has never been angry on screen, but the idea that this is his besetting flaw feels like an informed trait (not to mention, very similar to Matt, Jessica, and even Danny's core flaws). For this reason, and because the writing for it is less successful, the scenes addressing this inner struggle are rarely as engaging as, for example, Mariah trying to win over Tilda, or Bushmaster conversing with his friends and relatives in the Jamaican community.
There's the hint of a more interesting idea that crops up later in the season, when the show suggests that Luke's sense of responsibility for his community is as much a negative trait as a positive one. That he not only feels an obligation to protect Harlem, but sees himself as having the right to assert his authority over it. This leads to the season's final twist, in which Luke establishes himself as "the king of Harlem", making deals with competing mob bosses to keep their business out of the neighborhood, while a dying Mariah wills him her club, Harlem's Paradise, making his rule visible as well as tangible. This sets up a very interesting situation for the third season, in which Luke will apparently try to be a crime boss, minus the crime. But given how poorly the Netflix MCU, and even his own show, have served this character so far, it's hard to hope for great things.
- This is still an incredibly frustrating show for anyone who hoped that it would address police brutality and the broken relationship between African-Americans and the police. It's true, season two avoids some of season one's most egregious choices, such as a subplot in which Mariah, a prominent black politician, cynically uses Black Lives Matter rhetoric to conceal her crimes and inflame public opinion against Luke. But the season remains caught in a seemingly irreconcilable bind between its superhero premise and its cultural moment. Most superhero shows these days are essentially cop shows with less accountability, and the Netflix MCU in particular is disturbingly wedded to the notion that the police have had their hands tied by due process and the rules of evidence, which allow criminals to evade justice "on a technicality", thus requiring extra-legal interference from people like Matt Murdoch, Frank Castle, or Luke Cage. But in a setting like Luke Cage's Harlem--and on a show where the hero periodically reminds us that his skin color can easily cancel out his heroism as far as the authorities are concerned--that's a troubling choice, whose implications are only sporadically acknowledged.
The season thus veers oddly back and forth between addressing the persecution that black people experience from the police and other authorities, and endorsing the abuse of police power (even though it stops short of justifying outright violence). In one scene, Misty Knight complains that the NYPD leadership's reaction to Bushmaster's initial, theatrical forays against Mariah is to increase uniformed officer presence in Brooklyn, which is sure to result only in the harassment of law-abiding Jamaicans. One of Misty's main storylines over the course of the season involves seriously considering--and very nearly carrying out--a plan to plant contraband weapons on a recently-released criminal who has been beating his wife. When she's forestalled by the man's death, she admits that she's been at risk of going down a dark path and that she's afraid of ending up like her partner, Scarfe, who worked for Cottonmouth and regularly fabricated evidence.
At the same time, however, this is still the same Misty who gets visibly angry when the law prevents her from roughing up suspects or interrogating them without their lawyer present. Near the end of the season, she suggests that Tilda demanding a warrant before allowing Misty to search her store makes her similar to Mariah. Especially given that Misty is such a heroic and stalwart figure, the way that the show repeatedly expects us to sympathize with her impatience with people exercising their constitutional rights feels like something we're meant to sympathize with. And in a show about a community whose rights have historically been curtailed and ignored, that feels like an unjustifiable choice.
- Alfre Woodard gives the performance of a lifetime. Woodard has been doing terrific work in film and TV for decades, including of course in the first season of Luke Cage. But season two deepens and complicates Mariah's character, and gives Woodard a meaty role which she sinks her teeth into with gusto. In her hands, Mariah becomes a mass of contradictions, and both the performance and the writing make it clear that these inner conflicts are rooted not just in Mariah's moral bankruptcy or her difficult family history, but in her race, and in the difficulties inherent in being an intelligent, powerful black woman. Woodard excels at switching between Mariah's respectable, matronly demeanor and the "street" persona she associates with her past and her family. She is at once desperate to cement her legacy as Harlem's savior, and completely ruthless and self-absorbed as a burgeoning crime boss. As her involvement in criminal activities deepens, she veers wildly between ebullience at her newfound power, and dark despair when things don't go her way. She also gets to address Mariah's sexuality, something that few older actresses get to play with, and is at turns rapacious, jealous, and insecure.
It's a performance, and a character, that reminded me a great deal of what Viola Davis is doing on How to Get Away With Murder. Both actresses are playing women who live on a knife's edge, who have supposedly overcome their troubled pasts, but who are constantly aware of the fact that as black women, they are always being judged and observed, and always on the verge of being pulled back down--until they finally decide to jump. Like Davis, Woodard is fearless in portraying the psychological cost of a life lived with this uncertainty, and with the need to play a part in order to get ahead. She lets us see beneath Mariah's mask, and what's there is dark and often unpleasant to look at. But Woodard and the writing for Mariah make it clear that as much as that darkness is rooted in Mariah's own shriveled soul, it's also the result of a lifetime of being taught to hate herself--by her family, who refused to allow her the space to recover from rape and abuse, and by a society that insists that she is lesser because of the color of her skin. One very good thing to have come out of the Netflix MCU is the glee with which it has allowed older actresses to play thorny, unsympathetic, but completely magnetic characters--Sigourney Weaver in The Defenders, Janet McTeer and Carrie-Ann Moss in Jessica Jones. But Woodard is in a league of her own. If you watch the show for no other reason, watch it for her.
- Yes, Danny Rand shows up. It's only for one episode, and there are some good action scenes in it as Luke and Danny figure out how to combine their powers in a fight. Plus, the work done in The Defenders to tone down Danny's smug arrogance continues here, and one can almost believe that he and Luke genuinely like each other. All that said, Danny is still an annoying, pointless character, and his Luke Cage cameo does nothing to dissuade me from my decision not to watch Iron Fist's second season whenever it arrives. (Colleen Wing also guest-stars earlier in the season, and is so much fun that it's depressing to remember that she's still stuck on Iron Fist. Daughters of the Dragon, Netflix! You made a dumb Punisher show, now do this!)