The first season of Netlfix’s Luke Cage was a bit of a dud firework, got off to a promising start but once the villain changed from Cottonmouth to the hitherto mysterious Diamondback, things went more than a little south. One bulletproof man against a criminal empire was interesting, Diamondback was weird and a bit dull, and despite the tech he brought with him he was simply not as scary as Cottonmouth and Black Mariah united.
Episode one of season two kicks off the season with renewed promise, but there’s a problem that I’m struggling to put my finger on.
Anyway, keeping up with my habit of reviewing each series, here’s what I thought of Luke Cage Season 2/Defenders Season 9. A Mild Spoiler Warning is in effect.
The Superman Problem
Luke Cage is indestructible, right? You can’t shoot him, you can’t blast him, you can’t break him. He can take the full force of the Iron Fist (which is still tough, despite being a lousy character) and it does more damage to the surrounding area than to him, and since taking a second dip in an acid bath then bullets and bombs are no threat any more. He’s still fairly vulnerable in the eyes, electricity slows him down, personally I’d try more gas-based or inhalant poisons but that’s me. But fights with Powerman are slow, bullets fly his way, he walks up to the idiots holding them and claps them once on the head.
Bushmaster and Mariah between them offer a challenge of sorts.
The Jamaican, John McIver/Bushmaster (more from the Serpent Society, seriously, why no poison?) is a lesser version of Cage, not immune to bullets, but certainly capable of shrugging off a few bullet wounds, far more agile than Cage, and capable of laying out punches that can rock the big man and give him an honest to gods concussion! Is that capoeira? Because Cage is used to straight up boxing matches with two men ducking and weaving instead of dancing and spiralling, delivering kicks with the force of a whole body’s worth of super-human muscle!
He enters with a physical threat, rapidly building a reputation to rival Luke and unseat him from the proverbial throne, as arbiter of what goes on in Harlem.
Mariah, pushed to the brink by confronting the scars of her past, and backed into a dark and terrible corner, she starts striking out on a personal level. She is made so much worse for the presence of Bushmaster, proving what a Stokes is capable of when pushed to the limit, and embracing the “Momma Mabel” who has lurked just beneath the surface since battering Cottonmouth to death. She shoots for Luke’s real vulnerabilities, his soft heart, his need to protect and to be a hero, and his loved ones, playing both “bulletproof black men” against one another until Harlem is in chaos.
Worst of all she invites new criminal elements into Harlem, giving Cage more fire to put out, challenging his own perception of what he’s capable of accomplishing.
But the two of them accomplish something rather fascinating by the end…
What’s My Name?
Biggest theme of the series: identity! Especially as explored through names…
Luke starts the series by dealing with a strain of heroine in the city stamped with his name, an effort to discredit him. Attention chases him everywhere, and he struggles with weighing doing the right thing against his own reputation. His father arrives, bringing the name Carl Lucas back into Luke’s life, a part of his life he wanted to leave behind him that he fights more and more. Claire Temple (bless the damn Night Nurse, they even brought in the Gregory Isaacs track for her) says it best:
“This wound with your father is another Judas Bullet, and if you remove it you heal yourself, but if you don’t it is slowly killing who you are from the inside and you’re too close to see it.”
Mariah Dillard is faced with her own past in the face of her daughter, who brings back bad memories that I shall not spoil for you here. Our villain, Bushmaster, belabours the point that her real name is Stokes, and it’s pretty blatant from the word “go” he has issues with the Stokes family but wow do I get sick of hearing him loudly and aggressively correcting people.
It’s fascinating to watch her try and manipulate people through their names. A waitress she hires, she renames “Billie” for reasons that are beyond me, her partner “Shades” Alvarez she calls Hernan, and is the only person who does, until he reclaims the name from her by force later in the series.
Bushmaster represents the value of a name. Unlike the other two above he does not cast his heritage aside, but is swallowed up by his past, in fact literally consumed by it. His old feud with the Stokes family – that has spilled onto Mariah – has driven him to poisoning himself to grow his power. As a crime lord he enters the field and rapidly makes a name for himself. In very short order he goes from fresh off the boat to seat of an empire.
He changes everyone around him, and this is very much a season of change because of him. Mariah embraces her cruelty, her daughter does the same, and slowly, so does… y’know what, I can’t bring myself to drop the biggest spoiler of the series.
Misty is dealing with some grand upheaval of her own. Missing her main arm, struggling to simply sign forms and catch a ball during physio, but not ready to abandon the force, especially as she is just starting to learn how much of her hard work is suddenly undone by her old partner’s corruption. You can see her having to fight suspicions of those around her, even as she’s being mocked for her new disability.
Her new arm – while painfully obviously a glove, because it’s simply never an issue for her to use this highly elaborate prosthetic – helps her recover some of her determination, and is perhaps the one thing that stabilises her enough to prevent her from falling off the straight and narrow.
This is very much a story about Black Mariah, less so about Luke Cage, but I can’t say that I found her all that compelling a character. Her actions were erratic, she seemed to dissolve into her own power, being corrupted by her dominance of Harlem, and the efforts of her story to humanise her – both in this season and the last – just make her more and more unlikeable, and not in the way of a good villain (Bushmaster is the best villain of Luke Cage’s roster so far) just in the sense that she’s an unpleasant person.
Danny Rand makes a cameo, and he is very briefly enjoyable on screen! For an entire episode I found him mildly likeable, but the episode is very isolated in the middle of the series, and I feel as though it could have been entirely cut and replaced with a scene or two. Maybe. He serves a function, in that he manages to pick Luke Cage up out of a hole of his own sadness.
I feel like this season started strong and ended stronger, but there’s a great lull in the centre, in which a great deal is happening, and if you’re not carefully monitoring who belongs to what gang, and watching every name then you’re going to lose the odd plot thread. On a second watch, a great deal more becomes immediately obvious, and those less obvious plot twists (there’s at least one I can guarantee you’ll see coming) suddenly become more obviously and cunningly seeded, in some cases from episode one.
In short, it’s worth a watch, easily as good as Cage’s first season, but with the quality distributed a little differently.