After watching its first episode, I worried Luke Cage would fall prey to respectability politics. The signs were there, especially in the contrast drawn between Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and Luke Cage.
“Code of the Streets” initially seems to continue chasing this idea. In its opening scene, Luke looks out at the Crispus Attucks building where Cottonmouth’s crew hangs out. A young thug draws a gun behind him, setting off a tense confrontation that begins with one question: “What are you doing here, nigga?” Luke is a coil of nerves and anger, though we won’t learn why until later. With no fear in his eyes, he replies, “Young man, I’ve had a long day. I’m tired. I’m not tired enough to ever let nobody call me that word. You see a nigga in front of you? Across the street of a building named after one of our greatest heroes?”
The word “nigga” can be a term of endearment, a slip of poetry, a curse. Just depends on how you say it and who says it in the first place. Every black person has their own particular opinion about it. The episode’s first scene appeared to double down on Luke’s conservative instincts, but it subverted my expectations by critiquing respectability politics within the black community. “Code of the Streets” teaches Luke to embrace his anger not only as a powerful force, but one that’s necessary for survival.
In this episode, Luke Cage truly find its voice. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker isn’t making a show about a superhero who just happens to be black — his show is about blackness, full stop. The titular character just happens to have superpowers. Through this lens, Luke’s abilities become an interesting commentary about the hyper-visibility and nature of the black body within American culture. Nearly every aspect of the second episode improves on the first. Even the camera work has a bold fluidity, though scenes often use a color palette that does no favors for the skin tones of these black actors.
In many ways, Luke doesn’t quite exist in the tradition of superheroes like Daredevil, Batman, and Iron Man. Yes, they share a comic-book origin. But if anything, Luke exists in the tradition of characters like Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, the 1940s-era black private eye created by Walter Mosley. This is an important distinction. The swagger, rhythm, and voice of Luke Cage owes a lot to black crime writers like Mosley and Chester Himes, both of whom are name-dropped in an early conversation between Pop and Luke.
Coker really gets the patter of barbershop talk down as Luke and Pop discuss crime fiction. Luke is even reading a copy of Little Green, one of the many novels in Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series. The most interesting aspect of the conversation is an offhand comment: When Luke chides writer Donald Goines for dying like the criminals he created, Pop tells him, “You don’t have to get all Fox News about it.” It’s a brief but subtle message that shows how Luke Cage angles to critique Luke’s belief that keeping his head down and living an upstanding life will protect him.
This conversation is cut short when Cottonmouth, Shades, and his right-hand man Tone (Warner Miller) walk in. Speak of the devil and the devil will appear. The show continues to frame Cottonmouth (and Luke) as near-mythic figures through musical cues, camera placement, and lighting. It’s as if gravity itself shifts when he’s around. But what’s most notable is how Stokes seems much more compelling when the show makes his vulnerability more apparent, illuminating the man behind the legend.
The moment Cottonmouth sits down in Pop’s chair, an ominous tension unfurls. He asks for a shave with a straight razor, and every small movement bubbles with the possibility of violence. It’s a stellar scene in an episode full of them.
An actor’s face and physicality is the most instrumental terrain on television. Director Paul McGuigan understands this, and he lets Mahershala Ali add interesting flavor to his portrayal of Cottonmouth. The character may be a slick criminal fronting as a businessman, but Ali proves to be at his best when this posturing unravels. As Cottonmouth’s face fills the screen, the complicated man underneath comes into focus.
Of course, Stokes is really there to learn about Chico. Shades takes a more heavy-handed approach by asking point-blank about his whereabouts. They don’t get their answers. And just when you think you can breathe, Luke calls out Stokes for not paying for the shave. Tone turns around, casts a condescending look at Luke, and tosses a wad of bills at Pop. Their presence sparks Pop’s desire to protect Chico, hoping to set up a parlay with Stokes. Pop’s altruism seals his fate despite his history with Stokes.
The episode’s clumsiest scene is a flashback to Pop’s younger days — before prison, before he lost contact with his girlfriend and son due to his life of crime. He was the neighborhood heavy back in the day, and we learn that he worked alongside Chico’s father … and Cottonmouth. Wait, what? How are Cottonmouth and Pop even that close in age? Actor Frankie Faison is a good 25 years older than Ali.
Clumsiness aside, issues of fatherhood snake throughout the episode. Pop is a father figure to many men, including Luke and Chico. His barbershop operates as a safe haven, a beacon of hope in the community. That’s why it isn’t surprising when a teary-eyed Chico shows up at the barbershop after Luke finds him. His timing couldn’t be worse. Turk (Rob Morgan), the living embodiment of the word “untrustworthy,” sees Chico hiding in the back. Luke and Pop are right to be worried, since Turk immediately sells that intel. It’s only a matter of time until the fallout hits.
Even worse, Misty and her partner, Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley), walk into the barbershop. I’m still not sure about the decision to have Misty and Luke hook up in the first episode. I am loving her character, especially during a nice scene on the basketball court when she schools a kid who thinks he knows everything about her. It remains to be seen how the hookup will shape Luke’s relationship with Misty, though. He certainly doesn’t hide his animosity toward her in the barbershop.
After Luke sets up a parlay with Stokes on the behalf of Pop, I hoped for a moment that he found a way to avert looming violence. But Luke Cage isn’t that kind of show. Tone learns about Chico’s whereabouts from Turk, setting off a bloody chain of events that ends with Pop’s death.
In the episode’s most tragic scene, Tone stands in front of the barbershop with two machine guns in hand, laying waste to almost everyone inside. Chico may have been the target, but Tone doesn’t give a damn. In careful slow motion (which this show seems to love), we watch a hail of bullets rip through the barbershop. Shattered glass showers their heads. Pop gets shot through his neck. Luke shields Lonnie (Darius Kaleb), the young kid whose mother hit on him in the previous episode. “Play dead,” he whispers as Tone and Shades survey the scene before swiping the money Chico stole.
Pop’s death scene is unflinching, unglamorous. As blood spurts from his neck, Luke cries above him. “Always forward,” Pop whispers to him. When he dies, something breaks inside Luke. He can’t play it safe anymore.
In the aftermath of the shooting, the detectives pick through Pop’s barbershop in a scene that’s more technically inventive. The camera dips between characters and swerves around the wreckage, emphasizing the small details of trauma above the gruesomeness: the bullet holes in Luke’s shirt, the pictures lining the walls now ripped apart, the grief spashed across Misty’s face. Luke isn’t the only one undone by Pop’s death.
On the roof of Harlem’s Paradise, Tone gives Stokes the money he got back from Chico. Tone, to put it mildly, is a callous fool. He’s high on the adrenaline of pulling off the shooting, even though he went behind Stokes’s back. He even describes what happened as “some Django Candyland shit! Call Quentin!” He’s mimicking the toxic bravado we’ve seen from countless gangster films, but he has no courage.
Though Cottonmouth is angry, he calms down when he muses aloud about donating to Pop anonymously so he can rebuild the shop. You can see him calculating his options, a small glimmer of hope apparent. Shades and Tone tense up. The moment Tone tells him about Pop’s death, something unravels in him too. His face crumbles. With little foreshadowing, he throws Tone off the roof. “Y’all Harlem niggas off the hook,” Turk concludes. “I’m going back to Hell’s Kitchen where it’s safe.”
Overlooking her cousin’s threatened kingdom, Mariah remarks that this isn’t what their ancestors died for. Stokes disagrees. Where she looks for respect, he looks for money. She wants a legacy; he wants the kind of legacy that can only be enjoyed by the living. “Self-determination, control, power,” he explains. But power comes at a price.
“Code of the Streets” ends where it began, letting us watch the opening scene play out in full. Luke’s veneer of respectability politics disappears this time. With a display of his sheer power, the young thug runs away in fear. Luke finally understands an important truth: Anger is a powerful fuel. Black resistance can’t exist without it.