Marvel’s Luke Cage
Here’s the thing about being a dirty cop: No matter how cunning you think you are, playing both sides will eventually catch up to you. Rafael Scarfe’s downfall has little to do with karma. He just got too bold and too greedy.
When Scarfe meets Cottonmouth, he decides that instead of returning the Hammer Industries guns needed to square up with Domingo, he’ll charge him for it — $100,000 to be exact. Of course, this is a major miscalculation. On a good day, Cottonmouth is ruthless and leads with his emotions. When men merely annoy him, they get a bullet in return, as we saw in the previous episode. But today, Cottonmouth is backed into a corner. He’s watching the life he’s built decay, thanks to Luke Cage.
Wounded animals tend to be the most dangerous. I wonder if that dawned on Scarfe the moment he and Cottonmouth started wrestling for his gun in broad daylight. When Cottonmouth gains the upper hand, he doesn’t hesitate to shoot. “When I catch you I’ll use my hands, bitch,” Cottonmouth promises as he flees the scene, leaving Scarfe to bleed out behind his car.
With multiple bullet wounds and few options, you’d think that Scarfe would turn to Misty. Instead, he runs to Luke. Well, “runs” isn’t totally accurate — more like “bleeds a trail through the barbershop” until Luke finds him waiting in the back room.
“Suckas Need Bodyguards” is much stronger than the previous episode, in no small part because of its focus. Everything is a direct result of Scarfe’s fight with Cottonmouth or is directly affected by it. Cottonmouth scrambles to take Scarfe out before he can spill his secrets to Luke, even putting a bounty of $100,000 on his head. (Just a thought: Maybe you should have just paid Scarfe for the guns?) Meanwhile, Misty is partnered up with Lieutenant Perez (Manny Perez) to find Scarfe as quickly as possible. Unbeknownst to Misty, Perez is also in Cottonmouth’s pocket, though the longer they search for Scarfe, the clearer that becomes to her. Mariah is busy preparing for a pivotal interview with reporter Thembi Wallace (Tijuana Ricks), which initially seems a bit disconnected from the proceedings, but given how deeply her career is tied to Cottonmouth’s shady dealings, she suffers blowback of her own.
That said, “Suckas Need Bodyguards” isn’t a perfect episode. It starts off with Luke running through the neighborhood as radio host Trish Walker (a character who appeared in Jessica Jones) take calls from various Harlem citizens. They weigh in about what Luke is doing, debating whether he’s good for the community or not. It’s a poorly constructed sequence, aimed at getting across a fact that Luke later describes at a diner with Bobby Fish: He’s hood famous.
While Luke talks to Bobby, that tired old issue about the burden of superpowers rears its head again. Damn, can we get more superheroes who actually like having their abilities? Heroes who don’t complain repeatedly about feeling like a “freak?” This sort of narrative arc is built into far too many superhero adaptations. And it’s an odd choice for this particular episode, considering how we just saw a suited-up Luke openly using his abilities to help Harlem residents. It seems like the show has taken a step backward with Luke’s characterization. Hilariously, Bobby responds to Luke’s doubts with a much-needed dose of sarcasm: “I ain’t no hero — pay me. You can market that shit!”
When Claire walks up to their booth at the diner, Luke doesn’t recognize her — an understandable lapse of memory, since they met after he took a shotgun blast to the head in Jessica Jones. Actors Mike Colter and Rosario Dawson have an easygoing charm when they’re onscreen together, which naturally bolsters this fascinating new friendship. After reintroducing herself, Claire proves to be an invaluable ally. When he’s reluctant about being a hero, she pushes him to reconsider how he views himself. When they come across Scarfe in the barbershop, her nursing skills help him stave off death. (In a somewhat gruesome scene, Claire takes out the bullet in his leg.) Claire’s mother even offers up a van, which they hope to use to transport Scarfe to police headquarters. But things quickly prove difficult, since Scarfe has that $100,000 bounty on his head.
Claire proves to be a good foil for Luke. While he hopes to move past the heroism he’s fallen into, she embraces her role as a nurse for people with superpowers. She’s leaning into this new trajectory her life has taken. I admire Claire’s honesty with herself and others — a trait that can be woefully lacking in superhero narratives. But she can’t save Scarfe. His wounds prove to be too egregious. Thankfully, Misty is able to track them down and get a final moment with her partner before he dies.
I loved Misty in this episode. Although she only gets one scene with Scarfe, much of the episode’s narrative serves to flesh out their relationship. The scene when she fools Perez into revealing he’s dirty is intense. She proves to be an astute observer, noting how Scarfe’s jokey disposition merely hides the pain and guilt he feels over his son’s death, who died after finding Scarfe’s gun at home. She proves to be loyal, too: Scarfe took her under his wing at the beginning of her career and showed her how to be a detective, so her faith in him hasn’t broken. Learning these little details about Scarfe’s life and his mentorship with Misty makes him an immediately more compelling and sympathetic character. I wish we had learned these details earlier in the season.
In the end, Scarfe doesn’t die in vain. Even though the detective meets a painful end, he’s able to land a seemingly fatal blow: He tells Luke about his notebook, which documents everything he knew about Cottonmouth’s operation. Misty gets to arrest Cottonmouth herself, leading him out of Harlem’s Paradise in handcuffs. It’s a pale consolation, of course; her partner is still dead.
Meanwhile, Luke is being naïvely hopeful about Cottonmouth’s downfall. As Mariah told her cousin in the first episode, nothing is ever that easy. Luke also neglects to realize that Cottonmouth’s arrest will create a power vacuum in Harlem. Other villains will surely want to shape Harlem’s history. Luke’s work isn’t close to being done. And of course, he’s got to consider the neighborhood’s major power player: Mariah herself. In the beginning of the episode, he met face-to-face with Mariah to tell her that he would take her and Cottonmouth down. He hasn’t forgotten already, right?
Either way, she isn’t going anywhere. I’m glad for that, too: My favorite scenes in “Suckas Need Bodyguards” feature Mariah at the center. After learning that Cottonmouth shot Scarfe, the two cousins get into another heated discussion at Harlem’s Paradise. I love the shot of Mariah pouring vodka, with Cottonmouth set far in the background. A range of emotions flash across the scene, thanks to Alfre Woodard’s intense physicality. The scene dials up the tension as they stalk the room, eventually getting up in each other’s faces. Director Sam Miller and cinematographer Manuel Billeter shoot this sequence in tight closeups, a fitting choice as Mariah and Cottonmouth discuss their Luke Cage problem:
Mariah: You need to take his ass out.
Cottonmouth: It ain’t that easy. Cage is bulletproof. I’ve seen it myself. It’s real.
Mariah: Does the nigga have gills?
Cottonmouth: Excuse me?
Mariah: Drown him. Can he burn? Can you poison him? What about a woman? You know he got one with his fine ass. You find his weakness and you squeeze.
Cottonmouth: You soundin’ a lot like Mama Mable.
Mahershala Ali’s face is one of the greatest landscapes on Luke Cage. Cottonmouth puts up a strong front at the beginning of the scene, but during the close-up shots, we see flashes of fear in his eyes as he studies Mariah. Between him and Woodard, the show is offering a masterclass on villainous performances.
As Mariah sits down for the live interview with Thembi, their casual exchange gives way to an unexpected hit piece. The journalist reveals the history of Mariah’s criminal family — including the aforementioned Mama Mable — and how her office was raided by cops, which was curiously left out of the news. Hearing about Cottonmouth’s arrest a little later only makes things worse. As Mariah begins to crack, a brief touch of manic energy comes to the surface. What is Mariah hiding under her polished surface? With Cottonmouth arrested and her political career pretty much demolished, she’s not going to play it safe anymore. She can’t afford to.
Nevertheless, “Suckas Need Bodyguards” ends on a hopeful note. Cottonmouth is arrested. Luke feels like he’s done right by Pop and can go back to his old life. He thinks he can be a man who keeps his head down. But Claire knows this is only the beginning, so she wants to test the limits of his powers. “Why don’t we start by getting some coffee first?” Luke asks with a cocky, come-hither smirk. “I’m not sleeping with you,” she says, returning his flirty joke with a hilariously disinterested, incredulous glare. Coffee is never just coffee on Luke Cage.