Marvel's Luke Cage
What makes a television show great? A strong vision, cast chemistry, and narrative dexterity can all make it good. But I’m not just talking about good. I’m talking about the kind of greatness that gets under your skin.
Luke Cage has improved from one episode to the next, but the show isn’t sticking with me. At all. In many ways, it embodies a problem seen in all of Netflix’s Marvel shows: Even when they’re good, they don’t seem to make much of a mark. To be fair, Luke Cage is already shaping up to be better than Daredevil and Jessica Jones. I just wonder about its cultural longevity, especially in regards to the way it handles themes of black resistance and power.
I wasn’t able to fully put these concerns into words until “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?” The first couple of episodes cover so much ground, the show simply didn’t have room to do much of anything else. I finally understood what Luke Cage is missing when I watched this episode — specifically, the scene between Cottonmouth and Luke at the mortuary.
Luke doesn’t have the money to cover Pop’s casket, but he finds the ostentatious one suggested by the mortician to be distasteful. In walks Cottonmouth, noting that he’ll cover everything. “Too bad you’re not in a position to the man the grand homecoming he deserves,” he tells Luke. “The service should match the man’s integrity,” Luke replies.
The brief exchange illustrates the major factors that divide these two men. They don’t just exist on opposite sides of the law; they’re separated by class, too. It isn’t lost on me how Stokes looked down on Luke, flinging insults like “dishwasher” at him with a nonchalant swagger that suggests an extreme condescension.
It’s a good scene, but I found myself bothered by its cinematography. The icy light that barely bleeds into the room is distracting. Why is this room so dark? The cinematographer is Manuel Billeter, who has also shot Daredevil and Jessica Jones. All three of these shows have a similar color palette and an unfortunate tendency for underlit scenes, but it feels worse here. Black actors are so often terribly lit in film and television, and Luke Cage is no exception. When it digs into themes of black identity, it has the potential to be a very good show. But as long as its harsh, sickly color palette undercuts interesting framing, I’m not sure it can be a great one.
Thankfully, uneven cinematography doesn’t ruin the episode’s most electric scene. While previous installments were light on action, “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?” leans into the violence of Luke’s world. After learning the inner workings of Cottonmouth’s operation, Luke decides to take his fight to him — but not in the way I expected. When he finally starts to unleash absolute hell, his intelligence makes a bigger difference than his indestructible body. He carefully hits up each of Cottonmouth’s stash houses, forcing him to consolidate everything at Crispus Attucks. This will also spark a war with Domingo (a generic Latino mob boss played by Jacob Vargas), further causing Cottonmouth to lose grip on his power.
Each scene of Luke decimating low-level guards is fun to watch. During the first one, he flicks them off with casual annoyance, bending guns until they’re unusable. The next finds Luke fighting in the hallway while a young, doped-up black woman lies just out of his sight; a smart transition leads us to the same woman being questioned by Misty and Scarfe. And Luke’s final raid on Crispus Attucks boasts a rough-hewn visual poetry that’s been rarely used in the series.
You’ve probably seen part of this sequence, but it gains newfound emotional resonance within the context of Pop’s death. Set to “Bring Da Ruckus” by the Wu-Tang Clan, the sequence works on multiple levels: it’s viscerally enjoyable, it features heightened brutality, and it demonstrates that Luke won’t kill a man without provocation. Despite all the bone crunching, bullet-strewn chaos in this expertly crafted scene, no one is killed.
Luke only takes one bag of money, leaving the rest to be catalogued by the cops. He gives a majority of the cash to Connie and Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones), who has becomes something of a confidante for Luke. (Although he isn’t opening up about his abilities.) He also gives a stack to Connie, but his victory is short-lived. On a nearby rooftop, Cottonmouth takes aim with a rocket launcher, cutting short Luke’s conversation with Connie. We know Luke will survive the explosion — it’s way too early in the season for him to suffer any serious damage. But will his secret identity?
Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth has moments of brilliance, but he’s imbued with an aggressive brio that’s seen in so many crime films, it feels rote. Ali is at its best in Cottonmouth’s vulnerable moments, when he’s aching and contradicts his violent ways. So watching Domingo threaten him whilst eating Milky Ways and dropping the trash in Harlem’s Paradise isn’t all that interesting or fun or memorable. If anything, Domingo borders on parody. He’s a necessary part of the broader plot, as the war between the Latino and black gangs becomes inevitable, but that doesn’t mean he needs to be so dull.
“Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?” also makes clear that Luke’s most potent enemy isn’t Cottonmouth, but his cousin Mariah. They both want to make the neighborhood a safe haven, even though her means of doing so are criminal. She likes to think she doesn’t have blood on her hands, but when she describes how she’ll make Harlem great, her cold ambition suggests depths even darker than Cottonmouth’s.
After learning that he’s lost nearly all of his money because of Luke’s Crispus Attucks raid, Cottonmouth does exactly what you’d expect of a man who loses his grasp on power: He throws a tantrum, breaking everything he can with a baseball bat. And that’s when the scene gets interesting:
Cottonmouth: “Shut up, black Mariah.”
Mariah: “You better shut up or I’ll cut your color-struck ass. Call me that again.”
Cottonmouth is a man who depends greatly on violence. Compare him to Mariah, who understands that your legacy is what ultimately counts. Her response touches on the fraught issue of colorism in the black community. It’s not the kind of remark Cottonmouth would forget, so I’m curious to see how it will manifest later.
Meanwhile, the tense relationship between Misty and Luke has unfolded in a fascinating, if underdeveloped way. Actress Simone Missick feels a part of this world more than any other actor on the show. She’s tough, smart, and vulnerable in ways that make her feel human, rather than just another Strong Black Woman™. Even Mike Colter hasn’t found enough depth to leave much of a lasting impact on me, though I’ve enjoyed his performance. The animosity Misty and Luke have toward each other is understandable, given the void Pop has left in their life. But it doesn’t feel earned.
Of course, Misty has much bigger problems to worry about than Luke. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t paying as much attention to Scarfe as I probably should have. There was a false note to the character that I blamed on Frank Whaley’s performance, but now it points to something more deliberate. Misty and Scarfe have a very comfortable rapport with each other, as seen when she describes how watching basketball games in Pop’s shop shaped her childhood, and how sleeping with Luke was probably not the best idea. They also argue about vigilantes— he appreciates then, she desires order — which ultimately gets cast in a new light when we learn Scarfe is a dirty cop in Cottonmouth’s pocket.
We see Scarfe’s true colors after Chico tells him that he’s ready to tell the cops about everything — “I’ll name names, dates, the whole nine,” he promises. Even as Scarfe strangled Chico with his tie, I still couldn’t believe he was a dirty cop. Not because this twist was that striking; I expected Cottonmouth to have a cop on his payroll. But it left me wondering, how hasn’t Misty picked up on this? If she’s skilled enough to realize Luke is responsible for what happened at Crispus Attucks, why can’t she figure out Scarfe? Perhaps violence and camaraderie warped her view, just as it has everyone else’s.
“Nothing humbles a man like gravity,” Cottonmouth says, when he’s asked about Tone at one point. In episode three, Luke Cage demonstrates that violence often has a gravity all its own.