Spoilers below for the entirety of Luke Cage season two.
When watching the second season of Marvel’s Luke Cage, my mind occasionally turned to thoughts about the spirited black actress Theresa Harris. While promoting the film Bargain With Bullets in 1937, Harris noted somberly, “I never had the chance to rise about the role of maid in Hollywood movies. My color was against me anyway you looked at it. The fact that I was not ‘hot’ stamped me either as uppity or relegated me to the eternal role of stooge or servant. […] My ambition is to be an actress. Hollywood had no parts for me.”
I wonder what Theresa Harris would make of Hollywood today? With so many corners of black identity still to be explored onscreen, Hollywood is in the midst of a gradual but profound shift spearheaded by a variety of distinctive creative forces: Issa Rae with the flirty, summer confection Insecure; Donald Glover’s surreal and biting Atlanta; Ryan Coogler’s growing canon, including the massive hit Black Panther; and of course, Cheo Hodari Coker’s Luke Cage.
When Luke Cage premiered on Netflix in 2016, it was a precursor to the success of films like Black Panther and other TV series like the CW’s Black Lightning. Although I understood its cultural importance at the time, I found the first season an intermittently entertaining affair, at best. I was notably frustrated by the show’s grating respectability politics, the scant characterization of its leading characters, and the loss of Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth Stokes, a far more impactful antagonist than the season’s main villain. In its second season, Luke Cage is still belabored by aesthetic issues, namely its editing and lack of structural rhythm, but it proves to be a far more fascinating portrait of its bulletproof lead and the people in his orbit. It doesn’t always succeed at its lofty aims, but it’s far more audacious and distinctive because it explores the knotted reality of the characters’ humanity rather than treat them as mere symbols.
Unfortunately, the season takes some time to get there. The first few episodes feel particularly clumsy — even unfocused — thanks to jagged editing and the lack of any structural rhythm. (Which feels particularly odd on a show so obsessed with hip-hop and reggae as a means of creating atmosphere.) The dialogue remains blunt, on the nose, and a bit too earnest to feel natural. What’s surprising, then, is that some of the best moments of the season involve characters talking about themselves: what ails them, what they desire, and how they define their own identities as black people. In these moments — including an intimate discussion between Shades (Theo Rossi) and Comanche (Thomas Q. Jones) of their romantic past in prison — the characters feel human rather than a vehicle to communicate heady political ideas.
Another such scene happens at the end of episode three, “Wig Out,” during an argument between Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Claire (Rosario Dawson). Their fight covers a lot of ground: Luke’s desire to protect Claire by annexing her from his life as a superhero, his contradictory feelings over being a brand as much as a hero for Harlem, their unique experiences with racism, her experience witnessing domestic violence as a child, and his refusal to make amends with his reverend father, James Lucas (played with fierce brio by the late Reg E. Cathey). It ends abruptly when Luke, in anger, punches a hole in the wall, frightening Claire and effectively ending her interest in the relationship.
Luke Cage is best in moments like this. When conversations take sudden emotional turns, characters act messily and screw up in ways that tilt the story in a new direction. In other words, they come across as human beings, and Luke Cage is stronger in its second season by making the emotional lives of these characters so clear. If the first season constructed Luke Cage as a symbol, the second charts the contradictions of who he is as a man.
But the writers struggle to maintain their focus on humanity while also interweaving dense political ideas about immigration, intra-community strife, and racism. Although Luke is more complex, especially when he wrestles with his animosity toward his father and toys with profiting off of his superpowers, Mike Colter’s performance seems constricted by what I’ll call the Sidney Poitier Effect: when black actors and characters come across as stilted, flawless specimens, as a by-product of needing to refute any and every racist argument against the community as a whole. They’re perfect, but not exactly interesting. (T’Challa in Black Panther falls into this category as well.) After the introduction of the season’s main villain, Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), a Jamaican criminal who sees ruling Harlem as his birthright and gains enhanced agility and strength thanks to an Obeah ritual, Luke and his new rival are used as a lens to touch on intra-community issues between African-Americans and black immigrants. It’s a subject that the show struggles to give much humanity, especially when Bushmaster’s Obeah rituals vilify the spiritual practice. Bushmaster works best when he drops the bravado and reveals the hurt underneath, and Luke feels similarly tinged whenever he’s guided by his contradictory emotions. Both are most intriguing when they speak to the way men are raised to absorb trauma, then re-inflict it onto the world rather than heal.
Meanwhile, the women of Luke Cage remain its most fascinating constructions. Simone Missick’s performance as Misty Knight is a particular highlight. Tough, vulnerable, and endlessly charismatic, Misty is one of the few successful examples of the show adding a truly human dimension to knotted political and social issues — in her case, coming to terms with a disability with the loss of her arm while combating police-force corruption in her job as a detective. Most importantly, Missick is something Luke Cage isn’t often enough: She’s fun. In episode three, she begins to strike up a friendship with Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), a regular on Marvel’s Iron Fist, and when they soon get into a bar fight, the show leans into its comic origins with a zippy sequence that bristles with personality and feels unburdened by the show’s constant quest to make a political argument. It’s a good argument as to why Misty would make a more compelling lead than Luke.
Ultimately, it’s Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) that remains the best argument for the show’s existence. Woodard excels in the role by embracing the delicious villainy of her character — Mariah is the inheritor of the Stokes family’s criminal prowess and a queenpin hiding under the guise of a stately former politician — but never loses sight of her vulnerability. Mariah has the most complex arc of the season as she reckons with her family history, navigates a tangled romantic relationship with Shades, and refuses to play things on the level even as she makes moves to get out of the gun-running business. The surprise reemergence of her daughter, Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis), is especially potent, allowing Woodard to chart how the source of her character’s toxicity is her woundedness. The season ends in a far more intriguing place than where it began, with Mariah killed by Tilda in a rather cunning and arch way, and with Luke assuming the role of the king of Harlem, but it’s hard to imagine Luke Cage without Woodard or Mariah.
From her first minute onscreen in season one, Woodard has been a propelling force. No matter how leaden a scene is written or directed, she can make it soar with a spiky blend of elegance and fury. She injects the show with humor and sexual heat. Better yet, Mariah is a consistently surprising character anchored by a bold performance. It’s through Mariah that the show’s writers take the most intriguing risks, and killing Mariah off may be their greatest risk of all. The most successful scenes of a hero squaring off against an archvillain in the series are undoubtedly between her and Luke, and their rivalry ends in a bloody flourish this season. “We ain’t done yet, Luke,” Mariah spits out as her dying words. A part of me hopes that she really is gone. I am not sure this show can survive without its most transfixing performance, so it may be a potentially worrisome mistake, but the loss of Mariah shows a willingness to dip into new, challenging territory.
A few days ago, Netflix released a calculated, moving ad about its Strong Black Lead initiative. “This is a new day,” says Caleb McLaughlin, one of the young stars of Stranger Things, while the ad cuts between beautifully lit moments of black luminaries, including Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee, and the various figures involved in Luke Cage, among others from the network’s group of black talent. This sort of ad would be strange, even when discounting the recent scandal of a Netflix exec getting fired for repeatedly using the N-word in a meeting. It is meant to be a soaring meditation on how far Hollywood has come since actors like Theresa Harris were making meals out of scraps of roles in the ’30s and ’40s, but instead, it is a discomfiting reminder that Hollywood may be growing a bit more interested in the idea of blackness, not its messy lived reality. Despite its improvements in season two, that reality is something that Luke Cage still struggles with. In many ways, Luke Cage reads as a would-be groundbreaking superhero show from the ’90s displaced into 2018: earnest, a bit hollow, and more primed toward political resonance than artistic grace.