Misty Knight's eyes brimming with determination as she makes her way through a bustling, revamped Harlem's Paradise. Mariah Dillard's nervous hands as she waits in an interrogation room, unsure of her fate. Claire Temple's warm smile. These are the details that stuck with me from this season finale. These women prove the power that can be found in superhero adaptations. Even when Simone Missick, Alfre Woodard, and Rosario Dawson were pushed to margins, their deft performances and the arc of their characters made Luke Cage worth watching. I was challenged and entertained by "You Know My Steez," but not because of the hero whose name is in the show's title.
The showdown between Luke Cage and Diamondback should be epic. Anything less would fail to justify all the time spent developing Diamondback, a villain whose style isn't enough to distract from his hollowness. Instead, the fight that begins the finale encapsulates many of the show's major problems. The editing is slapdash. It pivots between the actual fight, in which Harlem residents line the street cheering Luke, and a flashback of a young Luke in a boxing ring with Diamondback acting as his coach on the sidelines. But there is no emotional power in this fight or the arc of these two half-brothers. When Luke stops holding back and knocks Diamondback clear across the street while remarking, "Am I my brother's keeper? No, I'm not," all I could do was shrug in response. That this fight lasts all of 15 minutes in the beginning of "You Know My Steez" underlines the poor construction of the season's main narrative. When Misty looks down at the badly beaten Diamondback and says, "Take his tired, broken, false preachin' ass on out of here," all I could do was wish that it ended sooner. Dr. Burstein's appearance at the hospital to treat Diamondback wasn't enough to get me to care, even if it means he'll actually have powers the next time we see him. If nothing else, this finale reminds us that Luke has failed to be a compelling hero. And ultimately, it's the threat Luke hasn't been focusing on that proves to be his undoing.
Before Misty publicly arrests Mariah for Cottonmouth's murder, the true villain of the series makes her most sly move yet. During a live interview, Mariah mentions Luke's real name. Mariah is a woman who thinks two steps ahead of anyone else, deftly moving people around as if they were pieces on a chessboard. Mentioning Carl Lucas leads state marshals to arrive at the end of the episode to take Luke back to Seagate. He may be innocent, but he still owes prison time. Of course, Mariah doesn't give him the file she promised that would exonerate him either.
This is such a sour ending. It left a bitter taste in my mouth, but not because I felt bad for Luke. It's just so unearned and anticlimactic. After 13 episodes, Luke winds up heading back to prison? After all that, the story ends with Claire promising to hook him up with a good lawyer she knows? Seriously?
Luke Cage has simply failed to humanize its lead hero. Despite the charisma Mike Colter has shown elsewhere, he seems held back by the "importance" of the character. Until the bitter end, he's rarely felt like a person with dreams, desires, and flaws. Instead, he became a symbol inspired by the myths that gathered around civil-rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr. It's evident in a scene before the marshals arrive, when Luke has his own watered down "I Have a Dream" moment. During Misty's debriefing, as other cops look on, Luke explains why he chose to be a hero. "I couldn't just lay in the cut anymore. So I put [my powers] to good use," he says. He argues that Harlem is the pinnacle of black art and ingenuity. He even ends by quoting Pop: "Never backwards. Always forward." But Luke never really valiantly took on the duties of Harlem's protector. He fell into it, then resisted the role. He came back to stop Diamondback, but only after Claire motivated him to do so.
Claire, unfortunately, doesn't have much to do beyond acting as Luke's support. Yes, she is definitely a love interest now. But that isn't what makes Claire such an interesting character. Also, there is something odd about their flirtation at the police station, particularly when juxtaposed against the decision to have Luke hookup with Misty earlier in the season.
Claire: "You want to get coffee when we get out of here?"
Luke: "You accused me of not liking coffee. That's not true. Just depends on the blend. I hear that Cuban coffee is particularly robust."
Claire: "That might be the corniest thing you've said yet. It also happens to be true."
Oh, Lord. Look, Mike Colter and Rosario Dawson are gorgeous people. But even they're not attractive and charismatic enough to distract me from how bad this dialogue is. They never do get coffee, but at least they kiss, I guess. What's more interesting is Claire taking a flyer that markets the martial-arts classes of Colleen Wing, a character who will appear in Iron Fist and partners up with Misty Knight in the comics. Claire is the unifying force behind Netflix's Marvel shows, so the more they focus on her, the better.
Meanwhile, Mariah manages to avoid prison or even a trial for all her wrongdoing. Even though Misty properly assesses how Cottonmouth died and has Candace's recorded confession, the evidence proves to be a moot point. After getting ahold of Misty's phone during the confusion at the barbershop in the previous episode, Shades is able to lure Candace out and kill her unceremoniously in front of a corner store. Without a witness, Mariah goes free. As Misty puts it, "This shield ain't worth the tin it's printed on if Mariah Dillard can just walk out of here after what she's done. This system is broken."
Ultimately, this season finale proves that the hero worth watching in Luke Cage is Misty. The most potent narrative in the series is her origin story: A intelligent, sexy, strong black woman realizes the faults in the system of law and order she once believed in. When Misty walks into Harlem's Paradise, her hair in a glorious Afro, wearing a striking red top with cut-out shoulders, she not only more closely resembles her comic counterpart — she seems like a new woman with a new sense of purpose. As she looks up at Mariah and Shades, there's something electrifying about her gaze.
Misty is compelling because Luke Cage didn't force her to be a symbol. That's the difference between her and Luke: Her character is human and complex and complicated. With that foundation in place, she naturally begins to symbolize the struggles of black women in America. We have to learn that the people meant to protect us rarely have our back. We have to protect ourselves. Perhaps that's why Misty recognized Mariah as the real threat, even when Luke never did.
Alfre Woodard gives a towering performance as Mariah. She is one of the most fascinating anti-heroines on television. Even as I grew angry about Candace's death, I remained fascinated by Mariah. Her win is frustrating, yet there is something admirable about her ability to outsmarting everyone else. It wasn't Cottonmouth with his brio or Diamondback with his unhinged brand of villainy that took down Luke. Mariah did that. She took down a bulletproof hero in a mere interview. That's power and cunning. By the end of the episode, she's fully accepted her role as a queenpin. She makes Cottonmouth's old office her own. When she kisses Shades and saunters away, I shared his shock and curiosity. "Where will Mariah and Misty go next?" I wondered.
Unfortunately, I'm far from curious about the future of its main hero. In its first season, the show failed to achieve its lofty aims. It didn't turn Luke into a modern-day folk hero. But even with all its faults, the women of the series still enchant. If Luke Cage proves one thing, it's that pop culture needs more heroes of color. You'll just have to look beyond Luke Cage himself to find them.